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Misrepresentation of the Vegan Community

Updated November 19, 2021
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Misrepresentation of the Vegan Community essay

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I am an upper-middle class, white woman from the United States, and I fall into the categories of what most people would stereotypically assign someone that is vegan into. To be more accurate, I fall into the categories created by the media’s misrepresentation of the vegan community through advertising and pop-culture. While the majority of the vegan community is female, the idea that the majority is upper-middle class/white not only is untrue, but it discourages the inclusion of vegans with lower income and of color.

So why is it that the face of veganism is still closely related to the upper-middle class/white demographic with images of Whole foods, organic tofu/ quinoa, and expensive grocery bills coming to mind? The answer is actually quite simple: White veganism. White veganism can be defined as the recent trends of promoting veganism through targeting a white demographic. Veganism as most people think of it today didn’t emerge as a concept until 1944 when British woodworker Donald Watson created a lasting identity to the term to separate vegetarians who ate animal products from those who did not.

Watson, a white man acknowledged by many as the father of mainstream veganism, went on to establish The Vegan Society, which helped solidify veganism’s place as a lifestyle. (The Vegan Society, n.d.) But these ideologies and traditions had flourished in communities of color for centuries prior, if not longer. The historical presence of plant-based lifestyles lies largely in religion. Eastern religions like Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism all promote not consuming animals and animal products in some format because of the belief systems centered around nonviolence and kindness to all beings. Due to this religious presence, peace with nature and meals that we would now call vegan have been common in the east since ancient times.

It has more recently manifested itself within the Rastafarian Ital culture in Jamaica in the early 20th century. ‘Ital is a belief system which dictates that its followers should eat food grown from the earth around them without modifying them. This lifestyle began with those historically living in the hills, eating the food they could grow around them, and respecting the world they lived in. (Thrillist , 2018) So why do we associate Jamaican food with Jerk chicken? Why is India – a country which worships cows so much and is against their slaughtering – the world’s greater exporter of beef? Why are the vegan places of origin now being associated to animal consumption? The answer is disgustingly simple: colonialization.

Foods commonly associated with vegan meals (crumbly blocks of tofu, quinoa, pots of chia pudding, wraps made from collard greens, etc) originated in communities of color who have been eating these items for hundreds of years before they were plucked and rebranded as ‘superfoods’ or clever meat alternatives. White veganism borrows from so many different cultures and strips of them of their identities.

There is a clear pattern in the market that when anything gets sucked up into the movement of what’s trendy, the price goes up, making it harder for the communities that have long depended on these ingredients to afford them. (Climate Tracker, 2018) So many people, including a number who are Mexican, don’t recognize how much of our food their original culture wasn’t really dependent animal products like cheese and meat. While ‘Mexican food” has a common representation of meat filled tacos and cheese-covered enchiladas, it could not be further from the truth. Indigenous Mexican cooking used meat sparingly, dairy was non-existent, and meals were constructed mainly from beans, wild greens, seeds, and squash. (O’Connor, 2017)

The problem of white veganism is that it claims other people’s culture as its own while ignoring colonization. Minorities have limited access to healthier foods that come from their own bloodline, and the ideas of their original food traditions have been replaced with animal products. White veganism only takes this colonization a step further through its advertising. With only half of one percent of the USA population, or 1.62 million of us, being vegan, it is easy to make assumptions about the vegan community from the little exposure that people have through pop-culture or advertisements. (Vegan Bits, 2018)

Like most things, the divide in the vegan world boils down to money. Brands are failing to capitalize on the buying power of vegans of color, often advertising for their snacks and beauty products with a noticeable drought of non-white faces. When I look at Instagram accounts of brands like Ripple, a popular plant-based milk alternative, and Sweet Earth Foods, which makes frozen vegan meals, there is little to no representation of people of color in their advertisements. It can be extremely frustrating for people of color to see these brands being sold in major stores like Whole Foods that fail to acknowledge that vegans of color shop there, too. A large percentage of their targeted market should not even be white people.

As a matter of fact, In 2012, The Vegetarian Resource Group conducted a study researching the total population of vegans in the United States, 6% were black while only 3% were white. Not to mention that 8% were Hispanic. This means that more than half the population of vegans in the United States in 2012 were people of color. (VGR, 2012) It’s really unfortunate that there are vegan businesses that are breaking into new markets, but instead of advertising to vegans of color, they’re going after the money and targeting the more bougie crowds.

I personally had no idea of the conflict that existed in the vegan community due to my white privilege. My privilege allows myself to not think about the equal representation of race or racism on a daily basis, and this unawareness was the main reason that I fell victim to white veganism. When I first got involved in veganism, my family was supportive enough to offer cooking me alternative vegan meals for when we all ate together. However, we all lacked education on vegan foods that were inexpensive, quick to make, and nutritious.

With the combination of my family’s main priority of obtaining nutritious foods that are quick to make and our lack of education on the vegan lifestyle, it was easy to feed into the information easily accessible to us through advertisements and social media influencers. This instant information promoted unreasonably expensive lifestyles such as eating all organic at bougie restaurants that specifically target the upper-middle class demographic. This type of lifestyle is not sustainable financially for a now broke college student like myself, but more importantly, it is not sustainable for the majority of vegans living in the United States. In 2017, the average American earns $54,000. The largest concentration of vegans is at or below the $50,000 income range. (Vegan Bits, 2018)

The face of veganism does not represent the majority and causes more harm than good when targeting specific demographics for money. As I started to interact with more of the actual majority (vegans of color), I learned more about how the lifestyles they live and how they save money. When I attended vegan festivals, I was surprised to see the wide arrange of cuisines from different cultures and the abundance of diversity present in the community. I also learned a lot about the culture differences of white veganism to those that don’t feed into its lies.

In addition to cultural differences, I learned useful tips to save money such as buying foods in season and learning to avoid those that are not, buying in bulk, avoiding the unnecessary, shopping for canned vegetables at convenient stores, eating humbly, etc. Before my exposure to others experiences, I was disconnected from a culture in my community with a main focus on authentic vegan foods, equality for all animals (humans included), and a means to live in a financially sustainable manner… all things that made me attracted to veganism in the first place.

There are numerous problems regarding white veganism perpetuating racism and sexism in their quest to promote veganism or just in everyday actions as they do not care about dismantling other systems of oppression. A common argument in the white community is that they believe that talking about issues of white veganism takes away from the animals, but nothing could be farther from the truth. White veganism creates barriers against veganism and it paints veganism as being inherently racist and exclusive (and not in a cool way). (Vegan Voices of Color, 2018) I do not mean to imply that all mainstream vegans do not believe that veganism is a complex issue. Veganism is not just about animals and it is not only for one group, either. If you care about animals, and humans are animals, then it should be inclusive. All factions of veganism can be about empathy towards every person.

However, you can be vegan and not cruelty-free. To combat these racist movements, we must understand them. The diversity of this movement should not be underestimated. I would like to be a part of a community whose representation is first correlated to the promotion of sustainability, health, and animal rights instead of its current misrepresentation of the bougie white demographic.

There are numerous benefits to joining the lifestyle, and most people don’t know how transformative the lifestyle can be with benefits such as its ability to reverse climate change and cancer cell production. As an upper-middle class, white woman from the United States, I can now acknowledge that it is up to people like me to stand up to white veganism and issues of race, clarify the inaccuracies of my community, and represent veganism in a way that promotes the values we all share. Veganism did not start with white people, and it certainly does not have to end there too.

Misrepresentation of the Vegan Community essay

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Misrepresentation of the Vegan Community. (2021, Nov 19). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/misrepresentation-of-the-vegan-community/

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