Vegans of Color

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

Exotic to whom? November 3, 2007

Filed under: Uncategorized — johanna @ 10:18 am
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A few years ago, there was an article in a veg magazine that was called “Exotic Produce 101.” I think it was meant to be part of a series; anyway, the one I saw focused on Asian produce. Apparently, “[f]or your family and friends, [Asian] greens are exotic enough to be interesting but familiar enough not to be scary.”

Let’s unpack the assumptions in that sentence. First of all, the assumption that whoever is reading this is unfamiliar with Asian vegetables — & thus is probably not Asian. Second of all, that “exotic” equals “interesting.” And also, that while “exotic” is good, too exotic is bad, Other, frightening.

Now I know that vegans pride themselves on the wide variety of food they cook & eat. Me too; I’ve long thought that veg*ns (especially vegans) eat a more varied diet than omnivores. And I like to learn about new cuisines to try too. But sometimes it starts to feel a little colonial, a little imperialist, you know what I mean? Calling the article “Produce from Around the World,” for example, would’ve been a lot less loaded than “Exotic Produce 101.” If we are what we eat, what does this imply for folks for whom this “exotic” produce is normal? Are we exotic & exciting & Other, too? Are we to be coveted for our ability to spice up your (white) life? (Oh yeah, I forgot: that’s how it works. Gwen Stefani wearing a bindi = cool. People who wear bindis because it is part of their cultural background & tradition are “too ethnic” & get targeted by people like the Dotbusters gang.)

Related to this, I mentioned online that one thing I wish I could find a really good vegan substitute for was bi bim bap — the vegetarian kind that has a fried egg in it. A few people mentioned that they had no idea what food I was even talking about. Okay, I’m not Korean, but I am Asian, & I have friends who are Korean & w/whom I’ve eaten bi bim bap. For me, it’s part of my cultural experience of being Asian. I could’ve substituted in pancit or lumpia from my own cultural tradition (both of which are easier to veganize, but let’s just use that as an example) & probably would’ve received the same bewilderment. Sure, there are probably lots of vegans who know what all these foods are (some of them are probably even Asian too). But because the only response I received was puzzlement, I feel safe assuming that there are many vegans who don’t. It felt kind of lonely. If I had said, “I want a really convincing mac & cheese recipe!” I don’t think anyone in the thread would’ve had trouble understanding what I was looking for.

Oyceter writes here about common & hidden cultural knowledge (Coffeeandink has a round-up of responses here). She says:

Your holidays, the ones that you travel miles away to celebrate, are always the ones people forget about. Your history, the one where you trace back where your ancestors came from, is never taught in class. You have to explain what you’re eating. You have to sit there and feel dumb that you don’t get a reference when everyone else in the room does, or face their disbelief when you say that you don’t get it. But when you mention something from your culture, everyone shuts up and doesn’t know what to say, since they don’t know what it is.

It’s not people denying you a job or refusing a loan, but it’s still isolating and painful. And it can be a little thing, like a non-knitter sitting with knitters. But the non-knitter can go back to non-knitter society pretty darn fast (ha! darn! get it? ok-i’ll-go-away-now).

Yeah. Vegans feel alienated from mainstream society a lot. And some vegans feel further alienated by vegan society, y’know?