WORDS BY ELIE GORDON
Veganism online perpetuates the idea that compassion towards animals goes hand in hand with health and wealth. And its current influencers are mostly white. But despite the word itself being coined just 77 years ago, its roots—that can’t be found on Instagram—go back much further to ancient Indian and west Asian cultures.
Search #vegan on Instagram and you’ll find a thread of 105 million images of mainly pretty great looking meals, along with endless selfies and portraits of people marketing cruelty- and animal-free food, drinks, skincare, makeup, and various fashion items.
Veganism—a term first coined in 1944 by British woodworker Donald Watson—has exploded over the last decade. With the rise of social media, the vegan lifestyle crashed into the mainstream and brands were quick to catch on to the trend to make a quick buck. Restaurant chains started adding vegan items to their menus, supermarkets started stocking the latest brand of tofu, and now, even fast-food chains—notorious for their unethical treatment of animals and humans—sell faux-meat burgers made from pea protein.
Despite the word ‘vegan’ first being used just 77 years ago, its roots go back much further to ancient Indian and west Asian cultures. One of the earliest followers of what we now consider a vegan diet was Arab philosopher and poet Al-Maʿarri who abstained from animal products for his health and beliefs on the transmigration of souls and animal welfare. When it comes to modern cultures that don’t eat meat, some of the oldest and most influential examples come from India. They gave the world Buddhism and Jainism, which went on to influence vegan diets in the rest of Asia, as well as Europe.
The modern wave of veganism started with The Vegan Society in 1951 as a dietary based movement that soon shifted to an animal rights group. Their manifesto states “The object of the Society shall be to end the exploitation of animals by man.” But surely they didn’t mean at the expense of humans.
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There are numerous reasons why people choose to go vegan. Whether it’s to reduce their individual carbon footprint, spiritual and/or religious beliefs, for their health, or for the liberation of animals—all are valid. For Isaias Hernandez, a vegan and climate activist from California, a broader reckoning with the how and why starts by learning from our past: “I think veganism first looks to honor Indigenous ancestral knowledge and wisdom, to center cultural-based experiences, and to reconnect with those roots. This has helped me understand what veganism means, rather than just centering a ‘cleaner’ or more ethical diet.”
Giving up meat and dairy products has long been interlinked with environmentalism— with authors, scientists, and vegan charities telling us it’s the ‘single biggest way’ to reduce our environmental impact; that being vegan somehow makes you a de facto environmentalist. And there is science to back up these claims. A 2018 study found that if everyone stopped eating these foods, an individual’s carbon footprint from food would be cut by up to 73 percent. And it’s not just carbon emissions that would be slashed—global farmland use could be reduced by 75 percent and an individual’s water footprint could be halved. But asking everyone to give up animal products to save the planet is easier said than done and the notion feeds into a surfacing social justice issue, too.
The growing trend of ‘white veganism’ perpetuates the idea that veganism goes hand-in-hand with health and wealth, while erasing Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) from the conversation. The poster children of the movement—the ones with the most followers who, in turn, work with the most brands—are often white, able-bodied people. As Demi Colleen, a veterinary nurse and vegan influencer from London explains, “White veganism is an extension of white supremacy, or at least a tool of it. White vegans’ priority is the top layer of veganism–animal exploitation, but they ignore the socio-economic impact that comes from the movement becoming more popularized. Some white vegans even go as far to compare historical genocides that have affected BIPOC to the workings of the meat and dairy industries.”
Hernandez believes that social media has a lot to answer for. “With the centering of whiteness and the marketing of certain food products, the idea of green capitalism is reinforced. There’s no deep conversation of what it really means to be vegan. So, how do we talk about environmental justice and racism and all of these other things that are connected?” He adds that social media does a good job to reinforce the idea that veganism is synonymous with purity because it’s centered around white animal rights activists who have large platforms, yet are less likely to address diversity or be actively involved in anti-racist conversations—while simultaneously telling people to be anti-speciest.
Veganism can only be about the liberation of animals when it also stops the oppression of people.
White veganism, which manifests largely online, overlooks the colonial legacies of meat and dairy production and instead shifts the same systems onto the industrialization of plants. Millions endeavor to lead a more ethically sound existence by cutting out animal products, whilst remaining in the dark about the colossal human rights breaches occurring in plant agriculture across the globe, the cultural sensitivities surrounding meat consumption, and the capitalist systems which led to unethical farming practices in the first place.
“Animal activists often don’t make those connections or look back into the history of why these industries exist and why they have so much power—it all stems from white supremacy,” Hernandez explains.
Indigenous farmers around the world are being exploited for foods that are now being appropriated by white vegans—foods they once produced and personally consumed in moderation. The sudden mass production of foods such as chickpeas and avocados has had a devastating impact on the local price of the plants, the welfare of the farmers, and the land itself. Of course, it is not just vegans who eat these foods, but this new brand of vegans run the risk of putting animal lives and the environment above human rights. “It’s damaging and harmful because it is racism,” Colleen says. “Whilst white vegans want to bring awareness to the movement and make everyone become vegan, questioning and promoting good working conditions and pay for the farmers growing the food is never a concern.”
One horrific tactic to provoke emotion in people is to draw comparisons between animal agriculture and race-based genocides that have affected BIPOC, such as the Holocaust or slavery—a tactic that white vegans with huge online followings have no fear of using, while ignoring backlash from the communities their actions impact.
Colleen has experienced her fair share of backlash in the industry. “I’ve come across barriers both online and in real life for being a Black woman in this space. The online vegan community has been leaving Black vegans and vegans of color out of campaigns and activism ever since social media was a thing. I’ve seen how being outspoken about white veganism and publicly holding influencers and companies accountable has left me off PR lists, ignored for campaigns, as well as receiving abuse on a weekly basis.”
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But, as with many other areas, social media also gives space to the conversation around intersectional veganism. Activists have taken to Instagram in particular to speak out on the connection between animal liberation and social justice and are working to turn to the page to encourage people towards veganism, increase the visibility of the millions of BIPOC who already exist in the movement, and to share more on the rich history associated with food and agriculture.
And Colleen wants more people to step up to the plate. “I really want to see communities of color at the forefront of the movement. I want white vegans to start expanding their activism beyond animal welfare and realize the impact their words and actions have on marginalized people. I want them to recognize their privilege and learn when to pass the mic and speak up for others. Veganism can only be about the liberation of animals when it also stops the oppression of people.”
None of this is to say you shouldn’t give up meat and dairy or go wholly vegan—in fact there are well-known benefits for our bodies and the planet and it encourages empathy and equality for all sentient beings. But as residents of the Global North, we have a collective responsibility to be truly intersectional in our actions. If we’re actively speaking out on the environmental and ethical impacts of eating meat, we should also be condemning the poor treatment of human lives in those systems, too.