Last November saw the continuation of a local tradition in Rochester, N.Y., where hundreds of women adorned the grave of Susan B. Anthony with their “I Voted” stickers. The act is a nod to the role she played in earning women the right to vote. But the tradition glosses over a major problem with the history of the women’s suffrage movement: It was done almost entirely for the benefit of white women. Anthony was willing to denigrate Black men to advance white women’s suffrage. Her contemporary Elizabeth Cady Stanton was explicitly racist, and both women left the work of Black activists out of their narrative of early feminism. The prioritization of white women at the expense of people of color dominated mainstream feminism during the 20th century and still does today. This branch of advocacy has become a distinct form of “feminism” known as white feminism, and has been rightly criticized and called out.
However, I’m not writing today to call out Anthony or Stanton or to critique white feminism (although you should definitely spend time reading pieces that do). Rather, I’m using the feminist movement’s struggle with white feminism as a framework of comparison for another advocacy movement that’s struggling severely with pervasive whiteness in its mainstream: veganism.
That very word may have made you cringe. Vegans aren’t winning any popularity contests anytime soon, and lots of stereotypes surround the movement, one of them being that of whiteness. Perhaps the image conjured in your mind when you think of a vegan is a white person decked out in Lululemon and non-leather Birkenstocks toting a Whole Foods bag filled with cashews and quinoa. Maybe, more negatively, you also thought of this person speaking down to others and demanding that everyone go vegan regardless of circumstance, while also refusing to acknowledge the privileges that allow them to have choice in their diets.
The prevalence of whiteness in mainstream veganism has made many want to reject the ideas of veganism entirely, claiming it’s a “gateway to white supremacy” or that it’s intrinsically racist, ableist and classist. White veganism is so damaging that many are outright dismissing a movement and philosophy which seeks to end the suffering and exploitation of billions of animals each year and which has “as far as is possible and practicable” built into its definition.
The relationship between veganism and white veganism is very similar to that between feminism and white feminism. Both movements have been and still are progressing through the work of people of color — work that has often gone unnoticed or uncredited. The white version of both movements is fundamentally opposed to the true goals of each movement, serving only white and often middle-class people at the expense of others, helping them benefit from oppressive systems rather than dismantling those systems entirely. White people who appropriate each movement refuse to acknowledge their own privileges and the constrained circumstances and choices others face that may limit their activism, contrasting with the intersectional approach both movements should be pursuing.
However, there is a dissimilarity between feminism and veganism in how their white counterparts have impacted their perception as a whole. While many acknowledge white feminism is a problem and it needs to be stopped, they still believe the fundamental purposes of feminism — to advance gender equity and human rights — are legitimate, and that feminism is still valid and important. But when it comes to veganism, its white form has given people license to dismiss it entirely. While this is frustrating, it’s partially on us; vegans have not done enough to quarantine or reject whiteness from veganism. However, I also think veganism’s detractors should genuinely reflect on their criticisms of veganism and evaluate if they may be motivated by their discomfort with veganism’s implications and goals.
On our end, vegans must root out whiteness from our practice and advocacy on both the individual and systemic levels. Unfollow and stop supporting influencers that perpetuate white veganism, such as sisters Ellen Fisher and Hannah McNeely or the somewhat infamous Freelee the Banana Girl, and make room in your feed for vegans of color like Jenné Claiborne, Joanne Molinaro and Nisha Vora, among many others. This doesn’t mean you can’t follow any vegans who are white, but make sure the white vegans you choose to support aren’t perpetuating white veganism and that your understanding of veganism is also informed by voices of color. Similarly, call out animal rights organizations that perpetuate the image of veganism as a “white thing” and demand they make space for diversity in veganism.
And this definitely doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be or become vegan or advocate for veganism if you’re white — I’m writing this as a white vegan. But you must make an effort to be educated on and cognizant of how pervasive whiteness is in mainstream veganism, in order to avoid perpetuating white veganism and to ensure your advocacy is intersectional. This also entails rejecting plant-based capitalism and acknowledging that we will never end the oppression of humans and animals under an economic system based on exploitation. In the poignant and revolutionary words of Audre Lorde, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” This is true whether we’re talking about sexism and the patriarchy or speciesism and animal oppression.
White veganism is a problem. If vegan advocacy wants to end the oppression and advance the rights of animals, it needs to distinguish white veganism from veganism as a whole and reject it, much like many feminists have done with white feminism. Veganism has a problem with racism, but we can isolate and remove this appropriation of the movement and work to uphold intersectional veganism in a way that benefits all humans and animals.
As for non-vegans who still believe veganism should be rejected entirely due to mainstream prioritization of whiteness: Would you reject feminism entirely on the same grounds? If not, you may need to reconsider whether it’s really white veganism preventing you from supporting veganism, or if you’re unable to confront the reality and magnitude of animal exploitation at this time. But if you ever decide you are ready, veganism will have space for you, no matter who you are.
Mary Rolfes is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com.