Vegans of Color

Because we don’t have the luxury of being single-issue

Veganism and the Class War August 18, 2010

What follows is a thought exercise.

My own definition of a vegan is a human who eats fruits and vegetables [as well as whatever nuts, seeds or legumes he or she may desire], and never eats or uses animal products. For starts. For my purposes and for the purposes of this post, this vegan is not so heavily involved in extremely elaborate recipes, in highly-processed ingredients and additives, in soy and grains, etc. That can come later. I’m simplifying and scaling down for the purpose of understanding what this post wants to address, which is the skeletal basics (though in full disclosure I’m pretty much a fruitarian). A vegan, firstly, is someone anywhere in the world where fruits and vegetables are affordable and accessible who eats those items, eats produce. That sort of vegan, who isn’t strictly dependent on special products, mock meats, packaged goods, and so on, who could be just at home eating the fruits and veggies available in Kinshasa or Kisangani as are available in Karachi or Kansas City, might be said, for the purposes of this thought experiment, to be a universal vegan, or even a vehicular vegan, and I will use either term interchangebly going forward.

As for the class war, I define it as the conflict between workers and bosses, between capitalists and proletariats, between landlords and tenants, between elites and all us riff-raff, even between humans and animals, over access and claims of ownership over land, infrastructure, the means of production, the structure of our economy, the production of culture, and so on. It is the imperative of oppressors to oppress, to exploit, to profit, maintain ignorance, maintain illiteracy and food scarcity, maintain the divisions amongst working people, maintain ideological, religious, and political zeitgeists of constant histeria, and yet eat well and live comfortably all the while. It is the imperative of workers, of women, of ethnic or sexual minorities, of those rendered landless, to maintain unity in struggle, to vie for and claim power, land and freedom, to achieve self-determination and societies of fairness and justice, to collectivize resources, to build and practice pro-human cultures, and to, at a spiritual maximum as it were, prefer death to slavery. The class war is very real and it is everywhere and, whether or not we acknowledge it, we are all class warriors of some stripe, all over the world. If we find ourselves hating our banks and landlords and tiring of our bosses, that much makes us class warriors, just as a Naxalite Adivasi struggling against planned and perpetrated genocides and land thefts and who actually engages in armed struggle is a class warrior. The bosses that like exploiting and polluting and dominating – whether at Goldman Sachs or British Petroleum or Tyson Chicken or General Motors or Lockheed Martin or Uncle Sam himself – they’re all class warriors for their side.

So how can we mix veganism – as practiced by the universal vegan – with the class war? We start with the manner in which prestige is applied to certain objects to make them desirable, even when they aren’t healthy or necessary. Possession or consumption of these articles of prestige is then used to define who is of what class, or at least who aspires to more elevated social rankings. Yes, commodity fetishism includes propagating the meat prestige – look at the most extreme sorts of hamburgers the fast-food industry invents, or at the Heart Attack Grill.

So, all over the third world, even where meat is scarce or pastoralism is irrevocably destroying land, meat is a prestige. Automobile usage is another. The wealthiest eat the most meat and drive the most, and are often the most gorged and overweight, hence the typical gut of rich and powerful elites in Africa and elsewhere in the third world. (And thanks to the zombifying power of marketing and mass media, a million other useless, wasteful and dangerous products are rendered prestigious, and we must use our own voices and propaganda to fight this, but that is another topic.)

But if a society hedges closer to veganism, that means more calories will generally be available to its individual constituents, since growing plants is far more sustainable and efficient than growing animals which eat plants. So that society would naturally enable an environment of greater equity and less classism. On the other hand, if a society hankers hard after meat, that means fewer people will eat of the greater resultant scarcity in overall available calories. The meat-centric society will inevitably breed the conditions for less equality and for harsher stratification, just because of how much meat production usurps of limited environmental resources.

That’s macro-level. What about individual vehicular vegan class warriors?

Conscious vegan workers remove themselves partly from an equation of exploitation by striking animals from a hierarchy of exploitation and brutality from their own lives. They help keep the class war between humans and from involving non-humans, who have enough of their own struggles and class wars in the wild without having to worry about human consumption.

Conscientious vegan workers keep from supporting aspects of the elite apparatus and cash machine by non-participation in the meat-industrial complex and, should veganism keep them healthy, the medical-industrial complex. The industries of violence and slavery are among the largest which support class and caste structures worldwide. Not endorsing the meat prestige and engaging in veganism means one is using one’s own labor and consumer powers to directly disempower the most odious aspects of the system.

It could be observed that much of veganism, as it is known particularly in North America, is associated with upper classes and privileged populations, but veganism at the grassroots is actually potentially most revolutionary. In the US, poor communities of color are often bereft of access to fresh healthy foods, and disproportionately find themselves afflicted with the diseases of Western diets and lifestyles. This is part of class war, as I see it, keeping the most chronically impoverished from being able to be healthy, long-lived and highly functioning, and from excelling as human beings. The elites don’t really care to ameliorate this problem.

Thus it is up to grassroots universal vegan workers of color, aware that existence in a human society configured such as ours means lifelong class war, to promote healthy lifestyles, to strive and struggle to increase access to affordable fresh fruits and vegetables in our communities, and to speak loudly and widely on the benefits of non-meat consumption and the fallacies of the meat prestige and meat addiction.

Thoughtful vegans should make natural class warriors. Their veganism empowers them to escape relationships of oppression and violence with both humans and non-humans, while granting them the vitality and awareness to struggle for just power and representation for as long as necessary. The vehicular vegan revolutionary can be a revolutionary of stamina and substance, of vision and actualization, actually practicing diplomacy (with non-humans) and militancy (against industries and economies of subjugation).

And that is how, and why, veganism can relate to the class war, and why vegans, especially working-class vegans of color, should consider themselves class warriors. But it’s just one small open-source theory that still needs help (or refutation) from y’all.

Veganism can indeed be revolutionary, and we must make it so if we are serious about social change, food sovereignty, Earth and non-human justice, and human freedom and equity.

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12 Responses to “Veganism and the Class War”

  1. adam Says:

    Another great post! I like hod direct you are about the class war, something absent in the majority of conversations on veganism–especially from those who defend veganism against the accusations that it is elitist of a privileged diet. I’ve been thinking through this thing on my blog a lot–particularly in my last post on Socialism and animal rights. I really hope issues of class (and not just race and sex) are addressed by the AR movement.

  2. Corvus Says:

    Beautiful analysis. Thank you.

  3. Jason Says:

    What an empowering and well-worded article. Thank you for your insight into the incorrect perception of veganism being an upper-class, caucasian activity.

  4. How timely, as I literally am writing my dissertation right now and focusing on how class comes into play with black female vegan activists. There is such little written about class and veganism within mainstream best selling title, so I’m glad that you posted this food for thought.

    I unfortunately still feel that the accessbility of veganism as being something for upper class white folk is a truth. Why? BECAUSE the food system in the USA is structured in a way that benefits white class privileged people the most to have ‘easier’ access to a well planned vegan diet (well, any well planned whole foods dietary choice, whether it be omnivorous holistic diet or vegan or vegetarian holistic diet)…but like Precision Afrikan was saying , the roots of veganism are not elitist and if the global food system were not so embedded in imperialistic capitalism, neocolonialism, and racialized hierarchies of power, veganism could be a possibility for many people who are otherwise hindered by classism and environmental racism.

    I am a critical food geographer and employ critical race and black feminist theories into my dissertation work. As I look through the narratives of black female vegans, I am trying to understanding how place/region (because geography is all about place) merges with the effects of racialization, class, and vegan food access. I am trying to figure out to what degree is veganism a grassroots activist pursuit for freedom and alleviation of suffering for some of these women… and to what degree does veganism become a ‘high class’ status for some black female vegans who don’t want to be ‘mistaken for low class blacks.’

    I would like to know if I’m making sense here. I’m still trying to figure out how class elitism, class struggle, etc play into my analysis of black female vegans. Black folk are not a monolith and there is class elitism amongst them and I wonder how this plays out in terms of black vegans at least here in the USA (which is the regional focus of my work). True, meat is a marker of class elitism, but what, if any specific vegan foods become markers of class elitism amongst black female vegans who enjoy middle to upper class privileges?

    • Kate Says:

      This sounds really really interesting. It may show my privilege or naivety, but the idea of class warfare amongst people of the same race had not occurred to me. And the idea of using veganism as a class marker in the same way meat can be is also very interesting.

      Good luck with your dissertation!

  5. Sister Breeze, I agree with you, and I think we need to make veganism something working-class people can be properly about, can be indigenously and deliberately about, wherever we find ourselves. It’s about claiming it in a common-sense way.

    It seems it all depends on how veganism is defined, why it is pursued, and how the diet is constructed. I tried defining veganism in terms of a “universal vegan” because I’ve been a vegan in the third world where PETA or IVU veganism with meat-replacers and other special products are rare, expensive and/or inconvenient, though the notion of not eating meat is certainly not rare or unknown. Plenty of relatives and fam in Nigeria and Ghana considered what I was doing to make perfect sense, i.e. eating predominantly or all fruits and veggies, but maybe I was hanging around too many thoughtful people over there.

    And when it comes to class and how one complicates or simplifies what veganism is, I find that being just a produce-eating vegan that eats whatever’s at the local farmer’s market or Asian produce joint is actually much easier for me as a poor person than if I was still on all the grains, processed products and supplements I used years ago. But since a trip to Africa instantly renders me privileged, that raises other complicating questions, though all the big tropical fruits would be immensely cheaper for me there than in NYC.

    So within “veganism” there are many ways class, prestige, and other markers, including as you say among black vegans, complicate things and give people pause as to how they wish to present themselves. Sometimes I don’t even like the word “vegan,” because it so often conjures a bunch of things I am not and that I don’t do and that aren’t even any closer to “nature” than we probably ought to aspire. I’m just a dude that eats fruits and vegetables, like bananas and spinach and watermelon and things, not even organic because I’m just broke as a mofo.

    Anyway, I don’t know what I’m doing. Trying to do the best I can, I suppose. Veganism and class is a hard subject, but I think we at the grassroots need to redefine it, remix it, and stake our claim.

    • Kate Says:

      ” Sometimes I don’t even like the word “vegan,” because it so often conjures a bunch of things I am not and that I don’t do and that aren’t even any closer to “nature” than we probably ought to aspire. I’m just a dude that eats fruits and vegetables, like bananas and spinach and watermelon and things, not even organic because I’m just broke as a mofo.

      Anyway, I don’t know what I’m doing. Trying to do the best I can, I suppose. Veganism and class is a hard subject, but I think we at the grassroots need to redefine it, remix it, and stake our claim.”

      This. So much. I admire your way with words and your outlook.

      I am also afraid to label myself as ‘vegan’ to others, because of the associations it conjures (especially for omnivores), when to me it is just a natural and yummy thing that I do because it feels better.

      Thank you for your insightful comments!

  6. charlotte Says:

    excellent post. i find so few vegans in the U.S. who are willing to talk about class, and so few other activists who dare to see how animals have been dragged into the class war. it seems to me that just as class society developed with the notion of private property, so too all the nastiest forms of oppression. when human society began to think of land, food, and other resources as private property, monopolized by one class over another, it also became easy to think of other beings the same way: slaves, women and children, and domestic animals. it’s really heartening to find others thinking through these issues!

  7. Kate Says:

    This is very interesting. I think veganism is quite often portrayed as only for the upper middle class or the rich, which is why I like projects like http://dollamenu.wordpress.com/ which proves by living it that a healthy vegan diet is possible on a small budget. And also the Window Farm project, which aims to allow people to grow produce in their inner city apartment with a recycled plastic bottle hanging garden.

  8. Kate Says:

    And of course I know that I’m speaking from a position of privilege, and I don’t expect or need everyone to be vegan, nor judge those who are not, whatever their reasons may be. I just know that it’s right for me. I feel uncomfortable promoting it heavily like some people do, and only really encourage when someone already seems interested.

    This blog is very eye-opening for me, as someone who has never really thought about the politics of veganism. I appreciate the well written and thought out post :)

  9. jjj Says:

    First, millions of animals are killed each year through the harvesting of various plant based products: their land is razed, machines that till the land chop them to pieces, pesticides are sprayed liberally…

    Second, some of the wealthiest people in most first world countries are, contrary to what you’ve said, relatively thin. The US food infrastructure peddles shitty products (tons of meat-by products) to those of the lower classes. There’s a obesity epidemic, and most who fall within this statistic are not the capitalist elite who can afford to eat otherwise…

    • Jason Says:

      jjj,

      More animals are killed to grow crops to feed to animals which are then killed than would be killed simply to grow crops for us to eat. “Food” animals must eat something, and we grow the crops they eat. Depending on the crop (usually corn) and the “food” animal (usually cows and chickens), it can take up to 20x the amount of land, and thus field mice/crickets/etc, to produce an equivalent amount of human-ready calories.


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