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Friday, July 28, 2023

Critical veganism, what have we learnt?

By Eshe Kiama Zuri (They/them)


The history of modern veganism started in 1944 when Donald Watson founded The Vegan Society. Since then veganism has spread across the Western world, to an extent that in 2021 the word ‘vegan’ is a household word and can be found on packaging in supermarkets and TV shows – a big change from the health food shops and handwritten pamphlets of the past. But whose history is this? Where in this modern veganism do the Black, Indigenous and Non-Western cultures worldwide and our histories come in? Our history is often reduced to a single reductive page on a website, one line in an Instagram infographic or a ‘I can’t be racist, I mentioned Rastas in my speech at an all white vegan event’ excuse. When a white man coined the term veganism, are we included? Veganism is built on the backs of Black, Indigenous and Non-Western ancestral traditions. 

What is seen as ‘hippy vegan food’, we know as bastardised versions of traditional foods from across the globe. Foods such as dal – lentils dishes that can be traced back to the Indus Valley around 3000BC, tofu – first recorded in the Chinese Han Dynasty around 2000 years ago, wheat gluten – that we know has been in China since the 6th century, hummus – eaten in Egypt and Middle East since at least the 13th century and chickpeas being eaten long before that and cassava, which is a key ingredient in vegan and gluten free products – was a staple in Indigenous South America and the Caribbean and later became a staple of African and African Caribbean people.

I’ve been vegan for almost 15 years, during this time I’ve really seen what’s probably the biggest growth in modern veganisms history, in both awareness and uptake of the vegan diet. Veganism went from something I was bullied for being, to the thing my bullies now bully people for not being. My early teenage years were spent in the basement of my local vegan social centre, making burger and sausage mixes and cakes. I spent those evenings in animal rights meetings in the upstairs of the social centre and the weekends were spent travelling this country with a vegan catering campaign. I’ve also worked for a number of vegan businesses and throughout all of this, the racism, sexism and abuse I experienced was seen as part of the sacrifice for the animals.

I launched my own vegan catering business Yemoja Foods when I was 19. I co-founded Vegans Of Colour UK in 2016, became a trustee of The Vegan Society in 2019 and became the vice chair of The Vegan Society last year at age 24. Despite the genuine hatred I have experienced at the hands of white vegans as a result of my outspokenness, I created an approach to activism that encompasses ‘full spectrum community care’ and an intersectional approach to veganism. Now I’m in a role that is embedded in Western vegan history and, against the pushback I’m already experiencing, I’m trying to use my new position and activist outlook to force white veganism to take the much needed changes to be more inclusive and listen to Black voices going forward and to acknowledge non-Western veganism and history. 

Now that veganism has become more mainstream and more ‘inclusive’, who is it actually more inclusive of? Do we feel any more represented by the veganism we see on the shelves, the actions and online? Do the adverts, Instagram posts and job descriptions that show more smiling Black faces and lines like ‘looking for more diversity’ mean anything when behind that is all white faces? In a movement where many see intersectionality and calls for the inclusion of BPOC people as ‘too political’ or not relevant to veganism, inclusion really means of white people from all backgrounds – including the far right. Seeing veganism as a-political is reductionist, harmful and will always be exclusionary. The pushback on intersectional veganism and Black people calling for our inclusion or for our historic veganism to be acknowledged is labelled as ‘trouble making’ or seen as taking away from what vegan means, instead of being seen as the inclusive and relevant dynamic we need to be promoting.

Animal rights and veganism is a wet dream for white people, because they can play the saviour in any way they choose with animals who can’t speak back or give feedback – unlike us pesky Black people – and so they get to control the entire narrative and save animals from an industry that white people created and colonialism installed worldwide, without ever having to challenge the white culture that created it. When we come in and offer our ideas or traditional experiences, they shut it down.

Few of us are supported by mainstream veganism and unless we follow the rule of ‘Black people are seen and not heard’ then we will be abused, harassed and pushed out. Only a handful of Black vegans gain fame compared to the thousands of cardboard cut out white vegans. White veganism loves elitism, classism and power, ranking people by visibility, money and access.  For Black people to gain any success in this hierachy of fame, you must be thin, middle class, cisgender, straight, always accessible and always putting out content. This leaves most of us without a platform, especially those most marginalised, such as dark skinned, fat, LGBTQIA+, sex working, poor or disabled people, who unless they allow themselves to be tokenised, will be hidden or broken by abuse. Challenging this need for hierarchies within a movement that should be about equality is seen as disruptive.

Being Black in white spaces means we have to create our own spaces for safety and survival, we do this in veganism with groups like Vegans Of Colour UK and creating our own terms for representation like afro-veganism. But do we feel like it’s enough? Does veganism really represent us, support us or include our ancestral heritage of eating and living without the exploitation of animals? How will we be included in a future that doesn’t even try to decolonise its present or accept the complicity of colonialism and white supremacy in the eradication of traditional veganism and our past and present oppression?

Being a Black vegan to me means seeing veganism as a movement with so much potential and also so much concern. With international vegan and animal rights charities promoting racism, sexism, rape culture and more and a mainstream vegan future that sees BPOC people still in the role of serving white people, through capitalism, classism and racism, and with a non-human-animals-only approach that purposefully ignores interhuman oppression, theres a lot that needs to change. 

Nothing is beyond critique and we should always be open to trying to do better, to act as though veganism or animal rights movements should be beyond criticism and learning is dangerous. We know that veganism did not start in 1944, it was simply re-named and Westernised. Looking back to our ancestral histories and ways of living pre-’veganism’ to inform our future is an opportunity we shouldn’t ignore or let anyone erase. Creating more spaces and conversations, where we can discuss what our experiences and our lives are and what our veganism looks like publicly and within our communities are essential. 

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  1. As a very white, very comfortable, very middle class vegan musician, it has taken 8 years of being vegan to find people as powerful and truthful as you Esha and others like Christopher Sebastian. I can’t even begin to imagine the relentless load of what you have succinctly identified and how you shoulder it. This is a political speech of timely and epic proportion., because those who ignore the inextricable bonds between human politics and animal rights ignore at their peril, and only compound and prolong the agony of humanity’s animal victims. Shared.


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