Three ways Black veganism challenges white supremacy (unlike conventional veganism)
What if Black veganism succeeds where popular, white-centered representations of vegan ethics fail to scrutinize oppressive social norms?
By Sincere Kirabo
There are certain things Black folk refer to as White People Shit. You know, activities predominantly enjoyed by white people. This often includes things like storm chasing, BASE jumping, hot yoga, brunch, Burning Man, and trusting the police.
Many would say veganism also belongs on this list. That’s what I used to think, the assumption being abandoning all animal products and byproducts is an extra, bizarre, and inaccessible pursuit for most of us. I’ve seen so many vegans—white people, of course—that left me with the impression that veganism is merely a diet indulged by those with disposable income. They further turned me off by trying to compare nonhuman animal oppression with chattel slavery, and by trying to shame meat consumption with graphic images of animal suffering.
But what if there’s more to veganism than that?
I’m not vegan, but I was put onto reading Aphro-ism: Essays on Pop Culture, Feminism, and Black Veganism from Two Sisters by a close friend (also a non-vegan) who claimed the book conceptualizes veganism in a way that de-centers whiteness and critiques the intersection of colonialism, race-thinking, and animality.
This got me thinking: What if Black veganism succeeds where popular, white-centered representations of vegan ethics fail to scrutinize oppressive social norms connected to the plight of human and nonhuman animals?
I always assumed “Black veganism” was just white veganism experienced and perpetrated by Black people, and not a framework to analyze various oppressions. I damn sure never considered it to be anything revolutionary. Seeing that Aphro-ism was written by two Black women (Aph and Syl Ko) that name themselves as being animal rights advocates and anti-racist activists, I gave the book a try. Now I’m rethinking the entire way the defining biases of our society create dehumanizing standards that not only impact me as a Black person, but also extend to animals, inform our food options, and empower the anti-Black food industry.
I want to emphasize that the liberation the Ko sisters envision is less about meat consumption and more about the necessity of re-framing racism to include the relationship between anti-Blackness and anti-animal sentiment as codified into the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. It is this cultural arrangement that informs our overall conceptualization of, and justifications for, meat consumption in white supremacist capitalist patriarchal societies.
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Given this distinct analysis, here are the three key things I’ve learned about Black veganism I think the whole world needs to know:
- Black veganism investigates the root and scope of colonial thought.
Aph and Syl Ko bring to the forefront the work of anti-colonial writers such as Franz Fanon, Sylvia Wynter, María Lugones, and Aimé Césaire to argue that the category animal is also a colonial invention imposed on human and nonhuman animals. In their book, the Ko sisters explore how colonial constructs of understanding disadvantages nonhuman animals while also infiltrating human oppressions, particularly racialized oppression. This ties into how we think about race, or race-thinking, which leads to point two:
- Black veganism forces us to consider the ways the idea of race extends beyond human bodies.
The Ko sisters argue that the idea of race encompasses more than discourse limiting discussions of race to skin color, human bodies, and location. They re-frame race-thinking as a tool that targets and distorts not only people, but also regions, all members of the environment, knowledge, language, and human conceptualization of time and space itself.
Intertwined with race-thinking and colonialist tools of understanding is animality, which brings us to the powerful interplay of colonialism and race-thinking in point three:
- Black veganism scrutinizes how “animal characteristics” are negatively attributed to both nonhuman animals and non-whites.
The Ko sisters argue animality is a Eurocentric concept that has contributed to the oppression of any group that deviates from the white supremacist ideal of being—white Homo sapiens.
Consider how people demand their humanity by juxtaposing its imagined superior value with the assumed inferior status of the animal. I’m sure we’ve all said, thought, or witnessed sentiment along the lines of “I am not an animal!” and “Don’t treat me like a dog!”
This language casually relies upon a prescriptive idea that grants humans (the right humans) a superior status to those regarded as non-human—less than. Black veganism asks us examine the socialized thought processes that deem certain entities abuse-able, thought processes that many, including me, simply don’t second-guess.
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Thinking that employs hierarchical ideas of “other” or “subhuman” mirrors how the socially and politically constructed concept of “whiteness” is conceived and understood as opposing other categories in the racial hierarchy. Similar to how whiteness defines itself by demarcating a separation from “others,” the conception of and allusions associated with “humanity” and “human” is so arranged in opposition to “animal.”
This isn’t to say the experiences of Black people and animals are the same, but that white supremacy seeks to organize social systems that satiate the interests of whiteness at the expense of all those who fall outside this form of categorization.
White supremacy renders a higher regard for the intellectual, behavioral, and inherent value of those defined as “white.”
White supremacy is both a systemic and systematic ideology baked into the social DNA of this nation.
Black veganism is determined to reveal how this Eurocentric logic is reproduced to create the distinction of animal through numerous examples of colonialist conceptions being foisted onto different societies. The Ko sisters deconstruct how Black people—as an extension of the racialized nature of both human and animal categories—are animalized within our white supremacist society as a means to exploit, violate, and eliminate us.
Black veganism isn’t merely the act of Black people planting gardens and advocating for animal rights in a white-centric way. Black veganism is a sociopolitical movement that renounces white-centered definitions of the world while rearticulating Black liberation politics to incorporate nonhuman animals through the lens of animality and race.
In other words, Black veganism re-examines social norms imposed on us and calls out politics many of us take for granted.
Both sisters summarize this undertaking of Black veganism in the book Aphro-ism. In Chapter 7, Syl Ko states:
I propose we change the terms of the conversation by refusing to center whiteness in our lives and work…de-centering whiteness essentially means we need to take seriously non-white theoretical constructs and frameworks and use these to change our understanding of the world, others, and ourselves…refusing to center whiteness also encourages us to move away from the human–animal divide.
Later, in chapter 15, Aph Ko remarks:
We’ve inherited our conceptual tools and activist theories from the Eurocentric system. Before we can start ‘dismantling’ this system of oppression, we first need to understand how we’re still chained to it through the theory we employ to understand and discuss oppression. In other words, liberation can’t happen until we change the way we understand oppression.
I’m not saying I agree with every argument and conclusion offered by this book. However, learning more about veganism through a Black lens has certainly challenged my assumptions and the way I view the world.
It’s pushed me to reassess what I think I know about history and the ways white supremacist standards have informed our culture, the language we use, and what’s become legitimized means of diet and food sources.
Angela Davis taught me that “radical simply means grasping at the roots.” If we want to realize liberation from all the oppressions woven into the tapestry of our culture, it makes sense for us to destabilize dominant theoretical models of oppression (and liberation) that may be embedded in white supremacist colonialist origins.
Or, at the very least, listen to what Black vegans have to say about these complex subjects. Who knows, perhaps listening may cause more of us to rethink our perceptions of both the mundane and what “getting free” looks like.
Sincere Kirabo is the social justice coordinator with the American Humanist Association. His work can be found on The Humanist, HuffPost, Everyday Feminism, among other media.