Vegan. The image most people associate with this label is typically some hipster of the variety indigenous to Austin. They’re tattooed, and they’re probably slender. They have ratty hair which may or may not be fashioned into dreadlocks. But above all, they are definitely white.
While the mental image of a pale-skinned bro picking at his quinoa salad may appear harmless, the caricature is indicative of underlying problems in the vegan community. White veganism — which refers to the dominant cruelty-free culture of wealth, privilege and exclusivity — is not an option for most people. If vegans want to promote sustainable and compassionate diets for the world, their communities must be intersectional.
While American veganism is a “white thing” today, compassionate consumption has an international history. Indian cuisine offers many plant-based dishes. When Ethiopians observe meat-free days, their meals are almost entirely vegan. In most East Asian countries, lactose intolerance is present in huge chunks of the population, so dairy is hardly ever eaten.
But you don’t imagine these cultures when you imagine vegan. Instead, you gag at the thought of revolting imitation cheese and other American favorites frankensteined into cruelty-free dishes. Instead of promoting the foods of foreign cultures, vegans go great lengths to reinvent traditional foods which rely on animal products to taste good.
And of course, it will cost you an arm and a leg to shop for the ingredients these recipes require. While grocers that cater to white vegans may very well believe in the benefits of healthy diets, the prices they charge suggest profit is their primary motivation. The price inflation of these easily accessible vegan items shuts out large swaths of people, including students.
This cultural exclusivity is problematic enough, but that’s only the tip of an insensitive iceberg. Most vegan communities offer no sympathy to victims of racism, appropriating minorities’ struggles to advance their own cause. Black Lives Matter is degraded to a distraction from chicken and cow lives, and equating America’s chattel slavery to the agriculture industry’s “imprisonment” of animals is commonplace.
The vegan vision is one of global sustainability, but the community’s actions suggest interest in a costly and homogeneous culture. If vegans are truly committed to cleaner and more compassionate consumption, they need to recognize the importance of making plant-based diets accessible to everyone.
The first step in making a more inclusive veganism would be to stop acting so bourgeoisie. Vegan communities must stop fixating on tempeh chili recipes and shift dialogue toward issues that actually impact global food systems, like how to support sustainable diets within food deserts. Veganism can help us solve global hunger, but only if it doesn’t get distracted by popcorn tofu.
Buying groceries doesn’t need to cost an entire paycheck. Grocery shopping at Wheatsville Co-op isn’t an option for everyone, but that shouldn’t automatically exclude the possibility of affordable veganism. Vegan organizers should battle the misconception that drinking $6 asparagus water is the only way to be vegan by highlighting accessible vegan recipes like stir-frys and soups when promoting global plant-based cuisines.
Our struggles are intersectional. Instead of attacking movements that combat racism and classism, the cruelty-free community has to realize that they only alienate potential vegans by belittling others’ hardships. Amplify the voices of vegans from all different backgrounds, and we will be on a much shorter road to a kinder, more sustainable world.
Larcher is a Plan II and economics freshman from Austin.