Commentary | Decolonizing Veganism

How veganism is constantly used to reproduce oppression

content warning: racism, ableism, eating disorders

Being vegan in Montreal is easy. Lola Rosa is right around the corner. Marché Eden has you covered for most groceries. The restaurant options are endless and are never more than a slight detour from your usual route. Your friends probably don’t even make that much fun of you. Besides the occasional hiccup, veganism is popular and prevalent.

Yet over time, I’ve noticed that veganism is actually a less feasible choice for many. The ways in which veganism isolates itself from marginalized individuals need to be addressed and rectified. When I say being vegan in Montreal is easy, I need to clarify: it’s easy, unless you’re lower-middle class, disabled, living in a marginalized community, or experiencing or recovering from an eating disorder.

I first decided to be vegan earlier this year for ethical reasons. I thought that fighting against systemic oppression must at some point include the fight against speciesism. I looked up vegan recipes, bought vegan groceries, ate vegan food, and eventually realized it wasn’t that hard. By spending time in “plant-based” restaurants and “health-oriented” grocery stories, I learned a lot about white vegan culture. I learned about the huge variety of reasons people choose to be vegan, and how passionate many vegans are about spreading their beliefs.

However, I also learned that veganism is constantly used to reproduce oppression. By constantly employing guilt tactics and propagandistic arguments to try and convince the public of the importance of veganism, many vegans homogenize humanity by ignoring the intersections between different forms of oppression.

Veganism and settler colonialism
Indigenous populations often have the most notable clashes with animal rights activists. Earlier this month, Indigenous communities gathered for an annual observance of the traditional Haudenosaunee deer hunt in Short Hills Provincial Park, and, as they have in the past, animal rights activists showed up in protest. Vegans are often insensitive to Indigenous traditions and history in their activism, and thus unknowingly reproduce settler colonialism by refusing to acknowledge their own participation in the oppression of Indigenous people. Many Indigenous nations are irreducible to supposedly normal “human society”, they view and treat animals differently. Animal rights activists ignore the fact that domesticated animals raised solely for their meat were rare in pre-colonization Indigenous communities, and that the human/animal binary didn’t exist as a concept for Indigenous people. But colonization twisted these facts, resulting in the perpetuation of misconceptions regarding Indigenous peoples’ treatment of animals. Without recognizing the role settler colonialism plays in the lives of both Indigenous communities as well as animals, veganism often fails to address the role colonization plays in animal mistreatment. A fight for decolonization is vital in the struggle to dismantle systems of oppression, and vegans must reconcile with that instead of choosing to target Indigenous communities for their supposed “cruelty.”

Cultural insensitivity
Veganism has also isolated itself as a white branch of the animal liberation movement, by refusing to acknowledge and cater to people of colour. The perception of the ‘classic vegan’ being white isn’t groundless. Vegan restaurants are more likely to exist in upper-class white communities, which already limits exposure and access for communities of people of colour. This limited access is a direct consequence of much of the oppression people of colour face, yet animal rights activists often shame people of colour for not being vegan.

Ignoring the lived realities of people of colour often leads to veganism being culturally insensitive. Many cultures use meat as a central ingredient in their dishes. White vegans are often unconcerned with this fact and try to reduce ethnic reliance on meat, leading to the appropriation and dilution of ethnic recipes. In a superficial effort to “increase awareness” of veganism, white vegans will cook vegan ethnic food to show how it can be done. In my short experience with ethnic vegan food, white-owned vegan South Asian restaurants have done more harm than good, as their insensitivity towards cultural and historical ties to food is alienating at best. “Veganizing” ethnic food must necessarily be the initiative of people of the ethnicity in question. It is also relevant to keep in mind that many ancient religious cultures have historically had large vegetarian populations, such as Jainism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, to name a few.

Ableist arguments
It isn’t just race and culture that vegans tend to be insensitive to. In many ways, vegan animal rights activists engage in ableist arguments and practices. The amount of times I’ve heard animal rights activists describe themselves “a voice for the voiceless” is uncountable, and is a prime example of the conflation of animality and disability. As Arundhati Roy writes: “There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” Animals constantly express themselves; they might cry out with pain or gasp for oxygen. Assuming that the ‘voiceless’ cannot speak “betrays an ableist assumption of what counts as having a voice.” One of the arguments that convinced me to be vegan is directly intertwined with disability: the moral assumption that humans are valued over animals for their intellectual capabilities and higher-order thinking is ableist. There is no intellectual capability that all humans have but all animals do not. Not all humans are capable of higher-order thinking or of speaking a language. Does this assign them a lower moral value?

Upon reflection, this argument lacks nuance and perpetuates ableism. While animal liberation tries to destroy the human/animal binary, it too often relies on the instrumentalization of disabled people. When you compare the situation of animals to disabled people, you put disabled people’s moral value up for consideration. They have nothing to gain from this argument. By pitting the intellectually disabled against animals, vegans and animal rights activists imply that if animals go down, so should intellectually disabled people.

Veganism and food policing
Many arguments in favour of veganism advocate for its health benefits. Facebook videos of people roaming the streets to aggressively convince people to go vegan have gone viral recently, and are often quite troubling. Policing food can be triggering for many people, including those recovering from eating disorders. Watching people convince others of the “health benefits” of veganism and having someone tell you what you can and cannot eat is not something everyone is or should be ready for. Again, vegans and animal liberation activists must acknowledge this and be aware that some people need to take care of themselves first. Food shaming and policing is unnecessary and unhelpful.

The price of veganism
Vegan restaurants are often advertised as “healthy,” “raw,” and “organic.” The environment they create is one of “clean eating” and self-care. However, it’s easy to be turned off almost immediately by prices. Vegan restaurants often double the price of a meal by using locally-grown produce and organic ingredients. A simple take-out meal can be financially taxing, especially for students on a budget. This is particularly true for people of lower socioeconomic status, as it often not feasible for some to spend extra on plant-based products when animal products and byproducts are often cheaper and more widely accessible. Yet many privileged vegans continue to assume that fighting against speciesism “transcends” this barrier, ignoring the reality of classism and economic oppression. It is not uncommon for vegans to decline to acknowledge that class differences are an obstacle in becoming vegan, which ends up reproducing classism in many ways.

Not everyone has a position privileged enough to be vegan. Government programs often strategically place Intensive Livestock Operations — otherwise known as factory farms — near Black or Indigenous communities, making animal products readily available in these areas, and often forcing people of colour to work jobs in these facilities. Even crop farms tend to have a large number of marginalized and migrant workers, and are often subjected to low-wages and abuse. It is essential to recognize that not all plant-based products are “cruelty-free” when you consider the treatment of food/farm workers. “Food deserts,” areas with decreased access to fresh fruits and vegetables, are also characteristically in areas with low-income and minority residents, making veganism much less viable for marginalized individuals. To be an effective movement, animal liberation activists need to recognize how capitalism and white supremacy operate to oppress people of colour. Marginalized individuals are often not able to even consider being vegan, due to the structural oppression they face every day. Ignoring these systems of oppression will not further the animal liberation cause, only hinder it. Consulting movements such as anti-racism and anti-ableism can provide a deeper understanding of concepts such as violence and objectification, and ensures that one movement doesn’t negate or impede another.

For people dealing with systemic oppression and discrimination, veganism can often be the last thing on people’s minds. Instead of the “go vegan or go home” approach, animal liberation activists must acknowledge and participate in the fight against oppressive structures such as capitalism, white supremacy, and settler colonialism.

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