Veganism’s connection to anti-racist social justice work
- Published: 15 May 2010
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People of color’s health and consumption practices are frequently contradictory to our social justice beliefs in the Black community as well as other communities engaged in antiracist and antipoverty social justice work, writes Breeze Harper.
I grew up in the working class in a blue-collar town. Since my teenage years, I have been a fervent literary activist when it comes to antiracism, anticlassism, and antisexism.
However, I was never able to understand how eco-sustainability, animal rights, and plant-based diets could be integral to my work. I honestly thought that these issues were the domain of the privileged white middle and upper class people of America.
Sure, it was easy for them, I had thought with ignorance and prejudice. Race and class struggle is not a reality for them, so they can “waste” their time on saving dolphins, whining about recycling cans, and preserving Redwood trees while my Black and brown brothas continue to be denied “human rights” because of the color of our skin.
It has been only in the past several years that I realized that eco-sustainability, nonhuman animal rights, plant-based diets, and human rights are inextricably linked to each other.
Unfortunately, in my opinion, it has been the tone and delivery of the message—via the white class-privileged perspective—that has been offensive to a majority of people of color and working-class people in America.
Though there are many factors that prevent people of color and working-class people from practicing plant-based diets, eco-sustainability, and more (such as environmental racism, financial stability, connections food has to ethnic solidarity, and so on), this article focuses largely on why people of color engaged in antiracism and antipoverty social justice work can strengthen their understanding of social justice by taking a critical and often difficult look at how our consumption choices—dietary and nondietary—may actually be hindering our social justice activism.
I know that health problems due improper nutrition and knowledge about food are not specific to “ethnic diets,” such as postindustrialist Soul Food among Black people. A significant number of people in the United States are suffering from improper nutrition and health care.
My research interests are specific to the intersections of health disparities, perceptions of social justice, animal rights, environmental racism, and critical race theory as it pertains to Black- and brown-identified people in North America.
“I have experienced personally over the past few years how a purity of diet and thought are interrelated. And when Americans become truly concerned with the purity of the food that enters their own personal systems, when they learn to eat properly, we can expect to see profound changes effected in the social and political system of this nation. The two systems are inseparable.”
The above quote is by Dick Gregory, civil rights activist, comedian, and nutritional liberationist, who has spent much of his adult life advocating that people in America—particularly African-Americans—cannot obtain true social justice until we begin to question our post-industrial unhealthy dietary practices and food beliefs.
Gregory believes that the high-saturated fatty, sugar-laden, meaty-dairy, junk food dietary practice of Black America is at the root of many of our social justice problems.
Gregory’s concerns, voiced decades ago, ring especially true for today’s Black population in the United States of America whose health has been compromised due to our diets and inadequate health care. Gregory states:
“I personally would say that the quickest way to wipe out a group of people is to put them on a Soul Food diet. One of the tragedies is that the very folks in the Black community who are most sophisticated in terms of the political realities in this country are nonetheless advocates of ‘Soul Food’. They will lay down a heavy rap on genocide in America with regard to Black folks, then walk into a Soul Food restaurant and help the genocide along.”
The implication of this brotha’s words is profound and unsettling—especially since Soul Food has been rooted in how many Black-identified people embrace or define their “Blackness.
However, it is with Gregory’s words that I feel I must scrutinize how collectively, our health and consumption practices (food as well as nondietary) are frequently contradictory to our social justice beliefs in the Black community as well as other communities engaged in antiracist and antipoverty social justice work here in the United States.
Recent research shows that we are hurting ourselves and exploiting and enslaving others—nonhuman animals and humans—in a way that is similar to colonialism; similar to when many of our African ancestors were viciously torn from their communities and shipped to the Caribbean and Americas to chop cane for the production of sucrose and rum for addicted Europeans; an entire nation whose civilization rested on the shoulders of the savage African and indigenous American slaves to harvest their drug.
The production of this food encompasses multiple layers of suffering. Production of addictive “civilized” substances such as refined sugar, processed flesh foods, chocolate, and coffee take away and often pollute land that could be used to grow whole foods that can feed the malnourished and starving human beings of this planet.
Even more important, human beings and nonhuman animals and the ecosystem suffer greatly because of our First World addiction to unmindful human-ego centric consumption.
Many people do not know this (including myself, when I used to eat meat) but the pig that had been enslaved and eventually killed, mutilated, and processed to become part of America’s Dunkin Donuts breakfast sandwich (or any other pig-filled meal) required a lot of water to be raised and eventually slaughtered. Pig farming—along with all nonorganic meat and dairy farming production—is overconsuming and contaminating the world’s water supply.
This is just one example of how, yet again, those who are already oppressed will be hurt the most by environmental crises. Around the world, it is mostly women and girls who are responsible for obtaining household water.
Yes, my brothas and sistahs in the United States, even if you are one of the many human beings on the planet who are not concerned with nonhuman animals rights at this point in your antiracism and antipoverty praxis and spiritual path—your consumption of nonsustainably produced animal products may not only be increasing your chances for cancer, obesity, and heart disease, you may be [in]directly oppressing and causing suffering to people who look just like you.
I was astounded to learn that the poor and people of color have a much higher chance and likelihood of suffering and dying simply because they did not have rightful access to clean water, water that has been polluted and/or misused for our American addiction to flesh foods.
I must elaborate once again that those who will potentially suffer and/or die from lack of clean water access will be the poor and people of color. My brothas and sistahs in the struggle, that could be you.
Let’s look deeper into ourselves and ask how flesh food products, cane sugar, caffeine addiction, and overconsumption in general are not only destroying our beautiful bodies—but our Black and brown families, our Black and brown neighborhoods, our Black and brown communities, locally and globally, along with the global ecosystem.
Interestingly, such consumption may be linked to how many of us, from the past to the present, have dealt with institutionalized racism.
Many human communities indigenous to tropical forests are starving to death; native rainforest tribes are being wiped out. I was startled and saddened to realize that America’s addictions and overconsumption are in collusion with environmental racism and cultural genocide of our own brown and Black indigenous brothas and sistahs as well as the working poor, locally and globally.
Our unmindful consumption behavior is not only harming our own health in the United States of America; we are supporting the pain, suffering, and cultural genocide of those whose land and people we have enslaved and/or exploited for meat as well as sucrose, coffee, black tea, and chocolate, too.
Collectively, maybe we in the United States are too addicted to see clearly, to see past the next fix. This addictive behavior has occurred for centuries. Sadly, those who were originally enslaved to harvest sugar cane (Africans and indigenous Americans) are now enslaved in multiple ways: as consumers of sucrose, hormone-injected processed meat and dairy products, and junk food products.
This enslaved palate—along with other nutritionally dead foods such as bleached white flour and partially hydrogenated oil—has helped to foster an astronomical rise in health disparities (obesity, heart disease, diabetes) in African-American communities that far exceed the health statistics of white America.
Statistically, Black folk are far sicker than white Americans. Unfortunately, institutionalized racism and the slave health deficit, which are manifestations from inequities caused by Black slavery in America, are key reasons why so many Black people struggle daily to get access to proper health information, food, and resources to maintain optimal wellness.
Health disparities between Black and white Americans are one of the worst legacies of slavery and colonialism.
This is why compassionate and environmentally sustainable health and nutritional practices must be part of our antiracist and antipoverty praxis in our own fight against the continued colonization of our Black and brown bodies and the ecosystem.
If in Black America, health and nutrition is still suffering because of institutional racism and colonialism, we should be the first people to want to prevent this from happening to anyone else who is now on the receiving end of American addiction and materialistic-induced neocolonialism, neo-slavery, and neo-imperialism in the developing world.
The school texts I read, the movies my friends and I watched, the food (and nonfood) advertisements my twin and I consumed never told us how many human and nonhuman animals have been maimed, tortured, killed and/or enslaved for our individual freedom to choose a ham croissant in the morning,
Little did I know that American society is a continuum of colonialism and imperialism driven by the collective addiction of material acquisition. These materials are usually stolen then extrapolated from the land as a natural holistic resource then drastically altered into a controlled, artificial, and addictive product perpetuating a life-killing imperial ideology we call civilization.
It was within this perspective that I initially built my social justice beliefs. Never did I fully look at how my perception of antiracism and anticlassism was clouded by this.
Ultimately, we must deeply consider, do our addictions and other forms of consumption contradict our antiracist and antipoverty social justice beliefs? For twenty-seven years, my practices did, simply because I did not see the reason why I should even question if my consumption contradicted my activism or understanding of equality.
In his book, Eternal Treblinka, Charles Patterson argues that humanity’s capacity to enslave, torture, and maim animals led certain groups of humans to accept a natural hierarchy of animal species and the inferiority of certain human beings, themselves being the “superior” race/gender—that is white class-privileged males—and that they have the right to do with all other human beings, nonhuman animals, plants, minerals, etc., as they please.
This includes the Nazi Holocaust, Native American genocide, African slavery, and the medical experimentation and abuse of people of color and the working poor in America, such as the Tuskegee syphilis experiment and the forced sterilization of poor women in America.
Patterson’s research conveys an example of how we in the West are a society based on violence, oppression, misery and domination that has led to an ongoing societal trauma from the microscale to the macroscale for all of us—whether we are the oppressors, the oppressed, or both.
I see this clearly in how we collectively consume and how we rationalize why it is okay if our products come from a place of suffering, violence, and inequality.
Contrary to what we have been taught, many of us in the United States do not need meat with every meal in our dietary practices in order to be healthy or get enough protein.
This is one of the first myths of nutrition that we must acknowledge: the myth that protein can only come from an animal-based diet. Just like the myth that most whites during antebellum America believed they could not live without the benefits of African slavery, it is a misconception that all human beings cannot live without meat protein derived from enslaved nonhuman animals.
While attending Dartmouth College from 1994 to 1998, upon meeting those “crazy, tree-hugging” environmentalists and vegetarians (and the occasional vegan) for the first time, I couldn’t believe they thought they had the right to tell me I shouldn’t be eating Kentucky Fried chicken or taking thirty-minute showers or buying GAP clothing.
Who the hell were they to tell me this? I naively thought with prejudice, “They’re just bored overprivileged rich white kids who do not have real problems.”
I realized nearly a decade later that they simply were not trained or well read enough in antiracist and antipoverty praxis to deliver their message to me in a way that connected to my social justice work as a Black working-class female trying to deal with sexism, classism, and racism at Dartmouth College.
Though I would have appreciated a much more culturally sensitive delivery in their message to me—and cultural sensitivity is something I think the largely white, middle-class, eco-sustainable and alternative health movement in the United States needs to work on—these kids’ concerns were not only real, but dire.
Until I made the connections on my own, I too felt this way; that [ethical consumption] was a “white thing.” Just recently, I realized that the message made sense but was usually lost in an oppressive tone that reminded me of another form of trying to colonize people of color to live in a way the white class-privileged people deemed as civilized and healthy.
As you read to this, maybe you are asking yourself the same thing: what right do I have to ask you to strongly consider how your current consumption pattern impacts your goal of abolishing race and class oppression? To ask the ways in which our own American consumption practices are frequently diametrically opposed to our antiracist and antipoverty practices?
Let’s go back to the 1700s antebellum South. How many whites angrily asked abolitionists, what right do they have to take away my freedom to have access to cheap cotton and labor? Most of us, now, easily know that the answer is “No damn right at all.”
Now, are we going to emulate the European colonizers and American slave masters from centuries ago who thought they had the right to kill or enslave people and damage the land base to fulfill their addiction to material goods?
Or will we start transitioning into antiracist and anticlassist lifestyle, philosophy, and practice that will cause the least amount of suffering for our bodies, our friends, family, and all life on this planet?
I’m not asking you to consider waking up tomorrow morning and becoming a raw foods vegan who only buys local organic produce and has access to your own land to grow your own food.
Such a suggestion would imply that everyone on this planet no longer has to battle the poverty, environmental racism, and sexism that makes this transition incredibly challenging—a reality that the white class-privileged eco-sustainable and alternative foods movement in the United States tends to ignore.
What I am asking you to do is to perhaps reflect on how you can start consuming with compassion within your own economic, health, and geographical situation.
Our antiracist and antipoverty praxis must promote a breaking away from addictive, ecocidal, uncompassionate consumption. Our praxis for social justice must center on breaking our addictions and ecocidal habits.
We must choose to fully live—not simply survive—and understand that we are not sacrificing anything by ridding ourselves of our old addictive and unmindful habits, which are largely based on the colonizer’s imperialistic and uncompassionate consumption practices and value system.
I do understand that many of us have our ethnic and racial identities embedded in the foods that we, and our families, have been eating since colonialism. We are scared to lose these.
However, there are many ways one can be Black without eating the traditional Soul Food diet. There are thriving communities of color throughout America that are rooted in holistic healing and have adapted their ethnic identity to more plant-based diets from their people’s indigenous philosophy before colonization, while simultaneously practicing eco-sustainability, decolonization, and respect for nonhuman animals.
These communities wholeheartedly know that “the master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house,” nor will his concept of food production or abuse of natural resources and nonhuman animals.
They have chosen to live and thrive in ways that the postindustrial Soul Food and junk-food diets could not holistically support. I emphasize this because I have met many people of color who are misinformed that eco-sustainability and plant-based diets are a “white thing”; that it goes against what makes them Black, Asian, Chicano, Native American, and so on. However, this is simply not true.
I believe that much of the confusion stems—once again—from lack of cultural sensitivity of the mainstream ethical consumption movement whose tone and delivery make it seem like it is part of white class-privileged identity.
However, I do ask you, how did our ancestors eat before colonization? For example, was our concept of Soul Food destroying our body temples? Was our concept of consumption polluting our water? Was our concept of equality similar to that of the colonizer’s model of consumption?
Yes, I know that the transition into mindful consumption is challenging and often frustrating, isolating, confusing, and alienating at first—particularly if you are not part of class-privileged communities in which access to healthier lifestyles is easier, or if you have family members of color who feel you are “trying to be white” by rejecting your mama’s southern fried chicken in favor of hummus or quinoa.
However, we must come to terms with the fact that the foods we have grown accustomed to—that have even helped to create our concept of our ethnic identity—may actually be feeding the machine of neo-colonialism; that we remain enslaved to a system that thrives on our addictions and mental, physical, and emotional illnesses.
Access to locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables, proper nutritional information, and community gardens is currently very difficult in most low-income communities and communities of colors.
However, we must challenge the norm. We must no longer accept the lack of healthy food resources, community gardens, and nutritional information in our neighborhoods.
We must extend our antiracist and antipoverty beliefs to all people, nonhuman animals, and Mother Gaia.
People of color have organized at the grassroots level to bring necessary social justice changes to our communities that many found inconceivable, such as abolishing slavery and getting the Civil Rights Act enacted.
We boycotted the bus line to desegregate the buses and it worked. I know this is not going to happen overnight, but maybe if we start now, we will be able to get what we need to have access to local and eco-sustainable goods for harmoniously balanced plant-based lifestyles for our children.
Let’s start now.
This is an edited extract from Sistah Vegan: Black Female Vegans Speak on Food, Identity, Health, and Society, edited by A. Breeze Harper. The extract is from Harper’s contribution to the anthology. Published by Lantern Books.