Revisiting racialized consciousness and black female vegan experiences: an interview

I responded to 3 questions asked of me from a journal interested in my work. I wrote 6 single space pages but they only had room for 1 or 2 paragraphs. So, I decided to publish the responses to the questions on my blog.

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Sistah Vegan will be published in March 2010. It is a collection of essays that reflect on intersections of race, class, gender, animal rights, food justice, womanism, sexuality, and eco-sustainability; however, it is through the racialized-gendered experiences of black female vegans in the USA.

Breeze Harper in Berkeley, CA Summer 2008


Question 1: How do legacies of colonialism manifest in current U.S. dialogue about nutrition, food studies, and the environment?

This is a broad and huge question. Major legacies of European colonialism are racialization, racism, and whiteness. It’s not an anomaly; it’s the norm and it manifests in every fabric of society, not just nutrition, food studies, and the environment. I can give several examples. First, the USA’s mainstream perception of life is based on the bodily experiences of straight able-bodied white middle-class people of European descent. Hence, bestselling books such as Omnivore’s Dilemma and Skinny Bitch actually come from that perspective. I’m not bashing these books, as I know they’ve been very helpful for many people. However, there is an absence of critical reflection of what it means to be white and class privileged and to easily adjust one’s diet to local and sustainable (Pollan) or whole food veganism (Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin). Not that this is Pollan or Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin’s  task (to reflect on race and class privilege), but there is a general lack of dialogue around such privilege (or lack there of) and how this impacts one’s access to “healthful” foods- or even how the discourse of “healthful” foods has been constructed. A legacy of colonialism is structural racism which created  racialized uneven development and placed the collectivity of white class privileged people in socio-economic and physical locations that enabled them to have more of an opportunity to access “healthful” foods; non-white racialized people such as working class black people were collectively placed in socio-economic and physical locations/situations that made it nearly impossible to have the same types of opportunities for optimal health care services and culturally appropriate healthful food. As a matter of fact, I have found that “race doesn’t matter anymore” white rhetoric is very typical within the mainstream vegan USA movement.

What I mean by this is that when I mention that I am interested in how whiteness, racism, and racialization manifest within vegan praxis, a significant number of white identified people express that these legacies of colonialism have nothing to do with vegan praxis. However, whether people like it or not, we live in a society that is not “post-racial,” just because we have a non-white president. Many white people who practice veganism talk about how “race doesn’t matter,” in regards to vegan praxis. However, one’s perception of veganism, within the USA, will be deeply connected to each individual’s geopolitical  status , racialized consciousness,  and racialized socio-spatial epistemic grid. My scholarship focuses on (1) non-white racialized minorities who are conscious of how race/racialization shapes their praxis of veganism and; (2) white identified vegans/vegetarians and animal rights activists who believe that their particular praxis, epistemologies, and philosophies are: (a) not color conscious; (b) untouched by hundreds of years of racism and racialization; and (3) geopolitically universal. My focus on white identified vegans/vegetarians and animal rights activists manifested from noticing the overwhelming racially homogenous demographic of the USA based movement. Thus, I have become concerned about the diversity of epistemologies and praxes. In Satya magazine from a few years ago, I remember reading the following quote:

[L]ike the peace and environmental movements, the AR movement is predominantly white and middle class. Andrew Rowan, a VP at the Humane Society of the U.S., said surveys indicate the AR movement is “less than three percent” people of color. In April, 316 people from over 20 states attended the first Grassroots AR Conference in NYC, but the people of color caucus numbered only eight. If no one is racist, why is the movement largely segregated? (Hamanaka 2005).

Interestingly, it can be argued that white identified people in the USA are collectively unaware of racism and white domination as an ongoing covert, institutional, and systemic process. Most are simply not given the tools to even understand how racism can manifest; “racism” for most is defined as having a membership with the KKK. Few are literate in the covert manner of which racism and whiteness continue to function int the USA. Furthermore, this ignorance commonly manifests as a “raceless” approach to dealing with the world.  It can manifest into believing that an event about animal rights and animal-free consumption advocacy, with 308 white people and 8 people of color, has nothing to do with USA’s history (and current state) of institutionalized and environmental racism, as well as whiteness as the norm.

The consequences of an individual’s “lack of color consciousness” approach, in vegansim and animal rights, is the ignoring of the socio-historical context of skin color and the accouterments of white privilege that affect access to, and production of, local and global resources; this includes the resources for vegan products purchased by vegan and animal rights activist in the USA, such as cotton (forced child labor in Uzbekistan), sugar (indentured cane harvesters in Dominican Republic and Haiti), and chocolate (child slavery in Ivory Coast); all which are vegan but are actually harvested by a non-white racialized global workforce who are working in cruel and exploitative ‘slave-like’ conditions.

I know that one cannot assume that one will encounter this “race doesn’t matter” and white privileged perspective with every white-identified person involved in a progressive movement (such as veganism/animal rights). However, the vegan movement seeks to dismantle the exploitation and domination of non-human animals particularly through changing one’s consumption patterns. Unfortunately, write-offs such as “race doesn’t matter,” all while vegan products are being produced, often by exploiting non-white racialized human beings, is frustrating, challenging, and difficult for many non-white racialized vegan activists who must deal with battling both racism, white privilege, and animal exploitation in their lives.  I hope my own research, on the intersections of veganism and race/racism/racialized consciousness, will add a broader dimension to understanding how white epistemologies of ignorance function and is performed- particularly amongst cert