Veganism has a serious race problem. Type ‘vegan’ into Google and you won’t need to scroll through many pages to see what I mean. The routine comparisons of animal abuse to the enslavement of Black people shows exactly how little value white members of the vegan community, generally considered a liberal breed, place on Black life. This racism, so casually delivered, is designed to add shock value – to trigger a dietary epiphany. In reality, the only message these campaign materials send to Black people is this: veganism isn’t for you. A quick search of ‘vegan’ images reveals rows of white people gagged, chained, and shackled in order to make a statement. On Pinterest, perky white girl after perky white girl brandishes a poster conflating veganism with anti-racist politics. Vegan activists take to Twitter, questioning whether Black lives – Black, human lives – are as significant as the lives of cows and chickens. A white vegan activist took #AllLivesMatter to an entirely new level.
Material designed to provoke a white audience is also liable to alienate a Black audience. By using slavery as a tool to promote vegan values, vegan activists make clear that vegan spaces are frequently racist spaces. As is often the case in predominantly white spaces where racism goes unchecked, there is little room for people of colour. This marginalisation results in the perception that veganism is a movement by and for white people, which certainly isn’t the case.
Activist Aph Koh recently compiled a list of 100 Black Vegans ranging from Leona Lewis to Angela Davis, and has followed up with a new project designed to highlight the achievements of Black vegans. The site is called Black Vegans Rock and, as the name suggests, aims to generate positive representation for Black vegans by drawing attention to their success. This project provides valuable networking opportunities to Black members of the vegan community whilst showcasing their skills and accomplishments.
With Black Vegans Rock, Aph Koh has the objective of challenging the misconceptions surrounding Blackness and veganism alike:
“Collective organization is key to improving Black visibility. Coming together in a system that seeks to fragment us and make us de-value all things Black, makes our unity that much stronger. We are such a diverse group of people and highlighting that diversity sparks new imaginations. I think Black creativity, imagination, and collective activism has Afrofuturistic sensibilities in the sense that we’re constantly inventing and re-inventing ourselves and our social worlds.”
Black Vegans Rock puts vanilla veganism firmly to one side. Although the site doesn’t officially launch until next month, the Facebook page has already gained well over a thousand likes, indicating a strong demand for pro-Black vegan space. The potential of this site is refreshing when Black experience is regularly placed on a par with animals as a provocation. Establishing platforms built around the Black gaze has significantly altered representation within the digital sphere. Bringing Black vegans to the foreground offers the possibility of reform that goes deeper than PETA periodically including a brown face in their promotional images.
With its founder based in Florida, Black Vegans Rock has an undeniably American slant. However, the site is open to contributions from around the world, fully intended as a “global project”. Aph Koh is quick to acknowledge that “America isn’t the only space where ground-breaking Black consciousness work is taking place.” How Black Vegans Rock will develop in the UK remains to be seen.
Despite a consistent and ongoing history of community-based political action in Britain, the popular narrative of Black activism can often prove Americentric. Pioneering figures like Olive Morris are quietly forgotten whilst bell hooks, born in the same year, is a name on the tip of every activist’s tongue. And yet, when people of colour are constantly marginalised within the dominant culture, it is impossible to resent those receiving their due recognition. The only solution is for us to take up more space. No matter how the geographical dynamic unfolds within the project, Aph Koh has created that space. That she embraces the plurality of Black experience indicates a promising start for Black Vegans Rock. As Aph Koh observes, it is through the self-definition that “we become our own conceptual architects, which is necessary for liberation.”
Increasing Black visibility brings us one step closer to a fully inclusive vegan movement, one in which vegan ceases to be synonymous with white. Increasing Black visibility creates the possibility of a vegan movement in which there is more concern about how to address racist thought and behaviour than which Instagram filter works best with a kale smoothie. Until Black veganism is normalised, the humanity of Black vegans fully recognised, the movement cannot truly claim to care about quality of life. I hope that Black Vegans Rock will be a step towards that cultural shift.
Black Vegans Rock will launch in January 2016.
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Claire Heuchan is a Black radical feminist from Scotland. She graduated in Politics and Journalism from the University of Stirling, where she is presently working towards an MLitt in Gender Studies. Both professionally and personally, Claire is committed to mapping the intersection between race and sex. Claire is a volunteer with Glasgow Women’s Library and blogs as Sister Outrider. Tweet her @ClaireShrugged
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