Breaking down ‘white veganism’
I remember the day I became vegan. I felt as if I was transformed into an activist with a bleeding heart, charged with unequivocal conviction. As an environmental science undergrad studying in the United States, it was impossible for me to deny that eating a plant-based diet could be more sustainable than the alternative. And I could no longer ignore the animal cruelty inherent in confined feeding operations, despite the sanitized plastic wrap used to disguise the meat’s origins. According to the Vegan Society, "Veganism is a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose." This philosophy resonated well with me. So, I did what I thought was right and ditched the Kraft Singles.
But, two years into my life-changing diet, I began to see the term “white veganism” popping up across my social media feed. At first, I felt uneasy. I was following a movement with the intention of promoting animal liberation and environmental sustainability, so why did I feel so alienated? After endless hours scouring the internet and much soul-searching, I came to realize that I had naively embraced this lifestyle without critical reflection. Therefore, I write this blog with the intention of (1) defining white veganism; (2) providing some examples of white veganism; and (3) offering suggestions to assist veganism in being a more inclusive movement.
What is white veganism, and what’s it all about?
Since the term is relatively new, and there is no peer-reviewed literature on the topic, I think the best way to define white veganism is by including the voices of activists grappling with the topic today. For Isaias Hernandez, an environmental educator, influential activist, and founder of Queer Brown Vegan, “white veganism is a form of veganism that focuses solely on animal liberation while actively ignoring the effects of colonization and how it is interconnected to the oppression of humans and animals.”
Demi Colleen, another vegan influencer, activist, and veterinary nurse from the UK, goes a step further, defining white veganism as “…an extension of white supremacy or at least a tool of it.” Accordingly, white vegans prioritize “…the top layer of veganism, animal exploitation, but they ignore the socio-economic impact that comes from the movement becoming more popularized.”
In an educational Instagram post, Yvette Baker—writer, educator, social critic, animal liberation activist, and abolitionist—takes a similar stance to Colleen, arguing that white veganism is “rooted in white supremacy and refers to a culture that disregards marginalized voices from the mainstream vegan discourse while centering white voices and creating white saviors.” Furthermore, she gives a strong rebuke of the Vegan Society, asserting that “its white-dominated ‘leadership’ has allowed racism, misogyny, antisemitism, transphobia, weightism, and ableism to thrive within the animal liberation movement so long as it has been ‘for the animals.’”
While some might find these criticisms harsh or unfounded, it's important to note that each of these activists differentiates veganism from “white veganism,” which they define as a separate form of veganism emblematic in social media and consumer culture. In addition, it’s important to highlight that you do not have to be white to uphold white veganism. As Zipporah, vegan activist, educator, and founder of Zipporah the Vegan, emphasizes, “just like not all white people uphold white supremacy, not all white vegans adhere to white veganism.” Likewise, “ … perpetuating white veganism doesn’t necessarily mean that you are white.” However, as a responsible citizen and consumer, whether you went vegan for reasons of health, environmental sustainability, or animal liberation, I am of the view that it is important to consider the cultural, socioeconomic, and social justice implications of the vegan movement. Acknowledging potential harms is the first step toward change and the making of a more inclusive and just vegan movement.
What are some real-life examples of white veganism?
According to critics, vegans who maintain white veganism are not inclusive nor intersectional in their activism, and they lack cultural sensitivity. They promote veganism as the only way to support animal liberation without considering social, economic, and cultural barriers to participating in a vegan lifestyle. For example, vegans who perpetuate white veganism may prescribe a vegan diet universally while overlooking inequitable access to healthful foods and plant-based alternatives that many marginalized communities face. Further, vegans who enable white veganism may have a strict outlook on animal consumption that does not extend leniency to the cultural practices of hunting by Indigenous and traditional peoples, nor their traditional diets containing animal products. Lastly, it is unfortunately common to see vegan activists juxtaposing animal agriculture to historical injustices posed on marginalized communities. Comparing animal agriculture to others’ trauma and historical systems of oppression that still marginalize people today is not inclusive and, if anything, makes people feel unwelcome in the vegan community.
The popularity of veganism has exploded in recent years, and with that, we have seen a rise in “trendy” vegan products, including plant-based meat, cheeses, vegan supplements, cruelty-free makeup, and clothing to meet the growing market demands. The rise of vegan capitalism is taking a toll on local, Indigenous, and marginalized communities around the world, as their lands and labor are being exploited by transnational agribusinesses to produce vegan alternatives. Vegans who uphold white veganism fail to address these intersections of social justice and food production. Further, white veganism perpetuates vegan capitalism with predominantly Western social media influencers promoting the latest trending vegan products. This is problematic because it perpetuates consumerism, but it also leads to the false association of veganism with expensive and trendy products, making veganism appear less accessible to low-income communities.
Towards a more inclusive vegan movement
As intersectional vegans, it is critical to ensure that BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) voices are included in vegan activism. Time and time again, we see the erasure of BIPOC voices and cultures from environmentalism and now veganism. According to Pew Research, Black Americans are the fastest-growing population identifying as vegan, yet we see huge disparities in the representation of Black vegans in mainstream vegan media and vegan advocacy organizations. The colonial legacies of land dispossession, ecological degradation, and globalization still remain strong in animal agriculture, but we are beginning to see the same legacies within the capitalistic mode of production of plant-based alternatives. As intersectional vegans, we must challenge our globalized food system and address the intersections of social injustices and food production. Intersectional veganism aims to be a total liberation movement of nonhuman and human beings alike. As Demi Collen states, “veganism can only be about the liberation of animals when it also stops the oppression of people.”
So, how can you be an intersectional vegan?
- Understand that veganism is not accessible to everyone.
- Respect other cultures and traditions.
- Be inclusive in your activism, and do not juxtapose others’ marginalization with animal agriculture.
- Hold people and organizations accountable.
- Recognize that veganism is a total liberation movement for all beings on this planet.
- Follow and support BIPOC vegan content creators and activists (a few of my favorites on Instagram are @queerbrownvegan, @vegan_abolitionniste, @rebelvegana, @blackricanvegan,@queentrapsoulkitchen, @seb.alex, @veganezer, and @jensplantbase).