So, why a Vegans of Color panel? As we all know, veganism is a multicultural thing- there are vegans all over the world, just as there are vegan foods in just about every culture. However, there is only one face of veganism that many people see in mass media, and, as Mo remarked, "it's not necessarily a face that looks like mine or Terry's." Listening to these three talented women talk, it became evident that they often straddle two communities, that of their familial or cultural background, and that of compassionate veganism.
How is veganism interpreted in your ethnic/racial/cultural communities?
For Terry's family, her ethical vegetarianism and subsequent veganism could be alienating and baffling. Her father, who grew up in Venezuela with very little, interpreted her ethical choices as a refusal of the opportunities he had worked so hard to give her, and which he would had greatly desired as a young man himself. With meat holding high status in Latin American cultures ("Pork is who we are," a Dominican woman once told Terry), the decision of a Latina to abstain can cause others in her family and community to feel offended and defensive. "Food is very much tied to cultures. How do we do the dance of asserting who we are and being understood by the people we care about most?" Ultimately, Terry says, the people she cares about upsetting through her ethical choices aren't "some troll on the internet," but her family. "Be compassionate to them- they're the ones who are being challenged."
Mo, too, experienced how her ethical choices were interpreted as a blatant denial of her racial identity. Once, after turning down fried fish at a family barbeque, her uncle told her 'you don't eat fish? You're not Black!' "[My] veganism made people in my community want to deny me my Blackness," Mo says.
Doris, presenting an alternate experience, described how her Chinese heritage facilitated her transition to veganism. Chinese cooking tends to use less meat than the standard American diet, and, as many of us know, there is a long tradition of Buddhist vegetarianism in China. A person in mourning traditionally eats vegetarian for a year after the death of a loved one, and tofu and seitan are common ingredients in Chinese cooking, whether the final dish is vegetarian or not.
Terry wanted to emphasize that there is a lot of veganism available in other cultures- just because it doesn't appear in Whole Foods doesn't mean it doesn't exist. Believe it or not, Terry's first experience with a completely vegetarian restaurant was in Venezeula! It's not just us in "the global north" or at Vida Vegan Con who are involved in veganism. Speaking further to that experience, an audience member recollected his own story of finding a nondescript, humble vegan restaurant in Mexico. Speaking with the owners, he learned that they were reviving pre-European, traditional Mexican food as way of reclaiming their cultural heritage and identity. Although they were often accused of not being "proper Mexicans" by others in their community, they stuck to the ideal that beef and dairy were forced upon the native cultures of Mexico by the Spanish invaders, and that running the restaurant was a way of reclaiming their native heritage.
Mo's experience as a vegan of color arises from the phenomenon of "bad hair" and "good hair" in the African American community. What is commonly referred to as "good hair" is chemically straightened, whereas "bad hair" is natural and kinky. At 16, Mo made the conscious decision to no longer relax her hair with harsh chemicals and grew an afro. As a vegetarian looking to go vegan, Mo was frustrated by the dearth of vegan products available for Black women. "I devoured vegan magazines, and I could never find any makeup darker than an olive skin tone. I had to scour the internet for vegan hair products when dreading my hair." These experiences inspired Mo to blog about the issue on Vegan Pop and Loc.
Doris has noted that whenever an entire nationality or ethnic group is unilaterally condemned for animal cruelty, it's most often people of color who are being condemned. "So many will condemn an entire culture for eating whale, cats, and dogs, but it reeks of speciesism and cultural imperialism as well as racism; I see this [cultural condemnation] directed only at people of color. When I call it out for being racist, the response I often receive is 'people really do those things; you're only offended because you're Asian.'"
So how do we move forward to address these issues in a positive, constructive, sustainable way?
What does it mean to navigate our own cultures as a vegan? Food is such a centerpoint of cultural identity, and the choice to be vegan can be interpreted as elitist. But everyone has the potential to be better off than someone else- once we recognize that, we can move forward with the discussion, and recognize that other people have had different experiences than you have.
Naturally I found all this very edifying, and was happy that these issues were, at long last, being discussed in a large arena. So what are the next steps? And, more importantly, I wanted to know what I could do, as an ally who is not a person of color, to ensure that veganism remains welcoming and accessible to as many as possible? As Mo and Terry advised, pretending we live in a post-racial society is the worst thing we can do. If you hear or witness something unacceptable, say something. Recognize that there are racial issues, contexts, and experiences, and honor them.
Thank you, Terry, Mo, and Doris!