So Vegan's Roxy Pope looks into the role of race in our movement and argues for more diverse voices in the vegan community
Over the past turbulent six months, we’ve witnessed civil unrest around the world in response to the tragic death of George Floyd. What started as protests against police brutality in the United States has developed into a global fight against racial discrimination and a long overdue discussion about the role of white privilege in today’s society.
What’s more, social media has proven a powerful tool for holding individuals and organisations to account. Big brands, many of which have no black board members despite proclaiming support for Black Lives Matter, are being called out for their hypocrisy.
Meanwhile, individuals with large platforms on social media are effectively being ‘called in’ to show their solidarity. In June, heaps of accounts on Instagram pledged their support by posting a black square on #BlackoutTuesday.
The task ahead is clear: we must listen, learn and work to establish an anti-racist culture in our society. When I say ‘we’, yes, I also mean the vegan community.
Veganism is about standing up to injustice and as a community we believe in showing compassion to all living things, right? So surely fighting against the oppression of all animals includes humans, too.
Sadly, not everyone feels the same. As one half of So Vegan, I feel lucky – and privileged – to have built a platform followed by over 1.5 million people worldwide.
We launched the channel in 2016, because we wanted to share our new-found passion for vegan food with as many people as possible.
The truth is we had no idea where it would take us. Fast-forward to today and, along with sharing delicious vegan recipes, we also use our platform to speak out against injustices, whether political, environmental or cultural, which, it turns out, is not to everyone’s taste…
“I thought this is a vegan page. When did this get political?”; “I am also leaving this idiotic group”; “What has this got to do with being vegan?”. These are some of the responses we’ve received after posting our support for Black Lives Matter.
There is never a wrong time or place to speak out against injustice. As a mixed-race woman who is also a proud vegan, I recently felt compelled to share my story on So Vegan and I spoke about my experience as a victim of racial discrimination.
The reaction was overwhelmingly positive, but the negative responses, albeit in the minority, tell me one thing: we need to talk a lot more about race and the role it plays in veganism.
Why? Because as compassionate human beings we have a duty to do so, but also because this crucial conversation is so important when it comes to welcoming more people to our movement.
When I was first exposed to veganism, long before I decided to ditch meat and dairy, I pictured the common stereotypes long associated with the lifestyle: it’s almost entirely white, middle-class and expensive.
The media had successfully manufactured an image in my head of privileged vegans waking up to colourful acai bowls, living their best life. As far as I could tell, there weren’t any role models that looked like me or talked like me. Veganism just didn’t seem like a realistic lifestyle choice.
Vegan cookbook authors Ben Pook and Roxy Pop run the popular vegan recipe site So Vegan
It wasn’t until I was vegan that I realised how badly veganism is interpreted in mainstream culture. Even now, mainstream veganism, which some commentators have labelled ‘white veganism’, doesn’t accurately reflect the diversity in our community and often overlooks the contribution of people of colour and their ancestors. Type “famous vegans” into Google and you’ll find yourself scrolling through a list of mostly white faces.
For example, how many times have we heard vegan food described as a ‘new trend’? As a vegan cook, I’m occasionally asked to comment on plant-based food as some sort of ‘dietary phenomenon’, a description I now find jarring. This misrepresentation can be damaging and it risks whitewashing a way of life that has existed for generations.
The term ‘vegan’ was first coined in 1944 by Donald Watson, founder of the Vegan Society.
Look a lot further back and you’ll discover cultures that have long advocated plant-based diets for ethical reasons. Take Jainism as an example, a religion founded in India in the 6th century BC, which teaches five ethical duties, one of which is ‘Ahimsa’, a vow to cause no harm to other human beings, as well as all living beings, in particular animals.
Rastafarianism is another religion that promotes a cruelty-free diet. Developed in Jamaica in 1930, the Rastafari movement was born over a decade before Watson coined his famous term. Rastafarians follow a diet known as ‘ital’, which predominantly includes organic and locally-grown plant-based food and is, as far as it is possible, ‘natural’.
Does this description sound familiar? It wouldn’t sound out of place in a modern vegan cookbook. The term in fact originates from the word “vital” – the implication being healthy food is essential to living a long and ‘righteous’ life.
Much of modern vegan food is inspired by these cuisines, and many others. However, mainstream veganism often fails to recognise the contribution these cultures have made to the food we all love to eat, which can be a barrier to welcoming more people of colour into our movement, because it perpetuates the false narrative that veganism is indeed white, middle-class and expensive.
This is why it’s important we do everything we can to promote diversity in mainstream veganism and why we must provide a platform to more people of colour.
Diversity is crucial when it comes to making veganism more accessible, because it recognises that our movement is made up of people from all different backgrounds, religions and ethnicities.
Elevating their voices will strengthen the diversity of thought in our community and, ultimately, it helps break down the harmful stereotypes often associated with veganism.
At So Vegan I know there’s a lot more we can do. We’ll be working harder and using our social media platform for good, to change the narrative and celebrate diversity in a community we’re proud to be part of. Hopefully we can all be part of this change together.
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