(Identity)

The Whitewashing Of Veganism — And The Leaders Changing The Narrative

“For people to be free, we need to strengthen our bodies and our minds.”

By Janel Martinez
@wokefoods
whitewashing of veganism

Beyoncé, Erykah Badu, Lizzo, Megan Thee Stallion, and Serena Williams are among a number of celebrities who either are or at some point have adopted a vegan, or exclusively plant-based, diet.

With the rise of veganism, their decision comes as no surprise given the heightened consciousness surrounding what’s on our plates coupled with the rapid expansion of food brands like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods and corporations eager to get a cut of the global vegan foods market. However, what’s significant about the above-mentioned roster of stars is that they’re not only multi-talented celebs, but also Black women — anomalies in mainstream media’s perception of vegans.

Though you might not know it based on the dominant portrayal of the lifestyle choice, Black people are actually the fastest-growing vegan demographic in America. Findings from a 2016 Pew Research Center poll shows that 8% of Black Americans identify as strict vegans or vegetarians, compared with 3% of the general population in the U.S.

As a movement, veganism — which refers to abstaining from consuming or using any animal products or animal-derived ingredients — has grown significantly in popularity in recent years, garnering more than 10 million vegan-related Google searches in the past year. Search #vegan on Instagram and you’ll find roughly 123 million posts; meanwhile, YouTube, Pinterest, and TikTok are filled with chefs, influencers, and content creators dishing on ways to enjoy a plant-based diet. Take a closer look at the creatives that the algorithm serves you, as well as the who’s who on a majority of the “vegans to follow” lists, and they’re likely predominantly white, able-bodied, privileged, thin, straight, cis-gender; it’s a reality that Black vegan voices are pushing against to affirm their intersectional existence in a lifestyle that’s innately their own. Moreover, said existence in the space is often more fueled by a need to connect with a like-minded community and decolonize a ‘trendy’ plant-based way of life than any of the other buzzy vegan agendas at present (health- and animal-related).

“For me, it always has to be intersectional because I didn't come into a plant-based lifestyle out of a care for animals, or the narrative of ‘I love animals and they're like humans too,’ which is the narrative that I see a lot of white people use of veganism and [having a] plant-based lifestyle,” says Ysanet Batista, CEO and founder of Woke Foods, a food service cooperative focused on innovating Dominican and Afro-Caribbean plant-based foods. “Not that I don't care about animals, but my work is really about eradicating systems of oppression, so that my people can be free — and that for people to be free, we need to strengthen our bodies and our minds.”

In middle school, Batista was first introduced to a meatless, dairy-free diet in her own household as her mother adopted a more plant-based diet to combat kidney stones. Though her journey in plant-based eating has not been linear, her foodways are a constant. A queer, Black, Dominican-American residing in Cabarete, a town on the northern coast of the Dominican Republic and home to the Woke Foods restaurant, Batista is critical of terms like “veganism,” due to the harmful, exclusive culture it often represents. Coined in 1944 by British animal rights advocate Donald Watson, she notes it swaps the ancestral connections Black and Indigenous people have to land and waterways for a colonial-rooted repackaging of a plant-based lifestyle. It’s why the 31-year-old ensures that Woke Foods’ workshops and events are co-created with the community, as well as accessible to all Black and brown folks interested in reconnecting to plant-based cuisine.

History scholar and educator Lisa Betty unpacks the current state of veganism and its still-present links to white supremacy in her Medium article “Veganism* is in crisis,” which was published in February 2021. “Many white vegans enter this activism as a form of ‘spiritual bypassing’ allowing them to focus on individual choice and morality rather than colonialism and brutal white supremacist capitalism that have created and perpetuated animal agriculture industry, food apartheid, modern enslavement in the food system, land displacement, species eradication, and trans-generational harm,” says Betty, who is vegan and hails from a farming family in Jamaica, via email. “Many vegans and plant-based advocates and activists at the intersection of Black, brown, and Indigenous come into vegan activism as a form of decolonial practice and theory. These activists aim to contend with settler colonialism by connecting with ancestral and cultural traditions where the earth, variety of species, and foodways were rooted in respect and reciprocity.”

Social media sites have become an accessible way for vegans to educate people about the lifestyle and provide plant-rich recipes and cooking tutorials, as well as openly discuss any misconceptions people have about the diet. Well-known Black vegans like actor-turned-author Tabitha Brown and chef and cookbook author Jenné Claiborne have used their large platforms to educate their followers on veganism. Even Brown, who amassed 4.1 million followers on Instagram and 4.9 million followers on TikTok for her vegan content, revealed in an April 2020 VICE article that she initially didn’t think the lifestyle was inclusive of her. “In the past, when I thought ‘vegan,’ I thought of white women who did yoga, or hippy women — who also did yoga,” she said.

For Claiborne, her introduction to veganism was through members of her own family that identify as Hebrew Israelite. While a vegan for over a decade, her journey to more conscious eating began during her junior year of college. She’d go back and forth between vegetarianism and pescatarianism, but she became a full-fledged vegan while working at a vegan restaurant in New York City. Around the same time, in 2010, the longtime cook began documenting her food journey through her blog, Sweet Potato Soul.

Although Claiborne’s health and general happiness weren’t the driving forces behind giving up animal products, they both have certainly been impacted by her decision. On her site, the vegan chef explains that her lifestyle choice has resulted in everything from improved digestion and fatigue to a lucrative career path and newfound community of “kind” and “compassionate” people. “It all clicked,” she says. “It's like, this is what I'm supposed to be doing with my life. I'm supposed to be helping other people discover this way of living that has just rocked my whole world, and I feel like has given me so much purpose in life. That was the start of my whole life.”

Her purpose has garnered Claiborne an extensive social media following: 698,000 YouTube subscribers, 382,000 Instagram followers, and 16,200 followers on Pinterest. Not to mention, she authored a cookbook of the same name that walks readers through 100 vegan soul food recipes. Though she’s been very successful building a multicultural audience, the 35-year-old Atlanta native recognizes the challenges Black vegan influencers face, including engagement with content, the racial pay gap, and overall visibility.

“When I first started Sweet Potato Soul and started becoming popular, there were very few other Black bloggers and vegan cookbook authors who had a large following and platform,” shares Claiborne. “Now, many more have a big platform because of people saying, like, 'Listen, I don't care that it's hard for me, I'm going to do it anyway.’”

As veganism continues to trend, Black vegans — activists to celebrities and influencers — are here to affirm their existence.