When it comes to the climate crisis, people often ask: What can I do? What part can I play to alleviate this problem? Advice given ranges from systemic action such as peaceful protests and climate-friendly voting, to flying and driving less, to offsetting necessary travel, and reducing meat consumption, which can come in the form of veganism or vegetarianism... and the vegan and vegetarian movements have certainly gained steam in recent years!
One example of this can be found in the UK, with the number of vegans quadrupling between 2014 and 2019. In 2019 there were 600,000 vegans, 1.16% of the population; 276,000 (0.46%) in 2016; and 150,000 (0.25%) in 2014. But like every movement, there are pros and cons - critiques to be made along with celebrations… and in this article, we take a dive into the important issue of inclusivity, diversity and veganism.
The origins of the term ‘veganism’ can be traced back to 1944, when British woodworker Donald Watson, coined the term to separate vegetarians who eat animal products from vegetarians who avoid all animal products (e.g. avoiding milk). He went on to found The Vegan Society, an organisation that still exists today. This organisation has been integral in mainstreaming veganism’s place as a lifestyle. However, this is simply the origin of the recognised term of veganism, not the actual practice itself!
In actuality, these ideologies and traditions have flourished in communities of colour for centuries prior, if not since the beginning of the time. Vegan practices can be dated as early as 500 BCE, when Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras promoted peace and benevolence among all species. Siddhartha Guatama, also known as the Buddha, was also discussing vegetarianism with his followers around the 6th Century BC.
More specifically, Eastern religions like Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism, have historically advocated “eschewing animals and animal products in some format because of the belief systems centred around nonviolence.” Rastafarianism also encourages cruelty-free manners of living, and engages in a way of eating known as “Ital”, which stems from the word “vital”. This type of diet was developed in the 1930s in Jamaica and encourages plant-based unprocessed meals. Taoists in China are generally vegetarian or vegan and the Coptic Christians of Egypt participate in a vegan fast 210 days a year… the list goes on!
According to a 2018 Gallup poll, 5% of U.S. adults consider themselves to be vegetarian, nonwhite Americans are three times as likely as white Americans (3%) to describe themselves as vegetarian. Beyond this, Brazil and India have the largest vegetarian populations in the world: A third of Indians, 375 million people and 14% of Brazilians, 29 million people, are vegetarian. Taiwan, Jamaica, Mexico, and Vietnam are also countries with sisable vegetarian or vegan populations.
Ultimately, it is in communities of colour that historically, a vegan diet has been prevalent, yet the face of veganism has been consistently ‘whitewashed’. If you were to run a quick Google search of the word “vegans”, “popular vegans”, or “vegan blogs”, you will see a majority number of White faces looking back at you. It’s an uncomfortable problem that often goes unnoticed by White vegans, or sadly worse - noticed but unaddressed. While the veganism movement should include everyone, the same levels of attention and respect should be given by those in the movement to BIPOC vegans as well as White vegans: Inclusivity is key, especially considering the historical importance of vegan diets in BIPOC communities.
The prevalence of White chefs, bloggers, and personalities that have sprung forth within the veganism movement have left many BIPOC vegan feeling underrepresented. In 2015, In 2015, activist Aph Ko compiled a list of prominent black vegans to show how many well-known Black people were vegans. Her list was of 100 people, ranging from renowned Black rights activist Angela Davis to Venus Williams, world famous professional tennis player, and it was widely circulated. She drafted this list in order to provide “undeniable proof that veganism was thriving in communities of colour.”
In the five years since Ko drafted that list, the community of BIPOC vegans has continued to flourish, with some prominent members attracting mainstream audiences, like Black vegan chef Bryant Terry and the successful launch of his cookbook Afro-Vegan. Brenda Beener, also known as Chef B., and her son Aaron Beener opened their restaurant Seasoned Vegan in Harlem, New York, featuring an extensive menu of veganized Southern food. Their family has been vegan since the 1990s, after her husband fasted for 21 days and emerged with the desire to remove all animal products from his diet. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. Jenné Claireborne, vegan food blogger and the author of cookbook Sweet Potato Soul said that in Atlanta, where she was raised, “There are a few black-owned vegan restaurants that have been around for decades. It’s nothing new.”
Part of the problem lies in the way that mainstream White vegans have portrayed veganism; sometimes using certain ingredients and recipes that originated in Latin America, Africa, India, (and the list goes on!) without giving credit where it’s due. Often enough, it is forgotten that some of the favourite vegan foods, legumes, yams, rice, quinoa, chia seeds, and tofu originated in BIPOC communities. For example, quinoa is originally sourced from Latin America, and continues to be a staple food for Indigenous communities in the Andean region. "There is a story that 3,000 to 5,000 years ago, the stars gave quinoa to the Aymara Indigenous people as a gift. These cultural roots give farmers here enormous benefit over people who try to copy them," John Bliek of the International Labour Organisation told BBC News.
So, if you’re a White person asking ‘What can I do?’ ‘How can I be more inclusive?’, the answer is simple: Give credit where it’s due. Look up the history of the vegan foods you love, and the recipes that you stumble upon in White vegan pages and accounts. Find vegans in the Black, Brown, and Asian communities to follow on social media or to buy cookbooks from. Spread the word that the Vegan movement is a rainbow!
Bonus: Does anyone know the iconic line “Bye, Felicia!” (It’s actually Felisha - although Felicia is how it’s been spelled in mainstream pop culture) from 90s classic stoner flick Friday? The actress Kaya opened her own vegan cafe, Jackfruit Cafe, in South Los Angeles that looks pretty cool! Check out the Vice article on her.