Many people would argue that the current boom in vegan living is down to the rise of social media, which allows for social justice messages to have quick, instant reach of millions. Opening eyes and changing minds has never been as easy as it is today – but if you look closely at the poster boys and girls of the new vegan movement, many of them have something in common, and it’s not the kale smoothie in their hands. Overwhelmingly, the faces of the cruelty-free tribe are young, slender, female, cis – and white. Which is strange if you consider the origins of veganism – way before Donald Watson coined the term in 1941 – as this insightful story recounts, not eating animals is incorporated into religions like Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, which are all prominent in primarily non-white territories. Veganism, or varieties of plant-based food, also frequently appears in Indian and Rastafarian cultures.
But something has switched in modern veganism.
From the authors of vegan recipe books to the activists inspiring action all over the globe, modern veganism has a clear face, and it’s white. While the female part of the stereotype is challenged by the male activists who are stepping up to become significant voices for veganism in the public sphere, the white-vegan stereotype is yet to be washed away.
Writer Aph Ko is trying to change this. Her website Black Vegans Rock was born to highlight important voices of colour in veganism, to “dismantle the stereotype that veganism is a ‘white person’s’ thing” – which echoed in the article that gave birth to the site, 100 Black Vegans. An academic with a B.A. in Women’s and Gender Studies, and an M.A. in Communication/Media Studies, Aph co-wrote Aphro-Ism: Essays on Pop Culture, Feminism, and Black Veganism from Two Sisters with her sister Syl Ko – the book offers theories on animal rights activism, feminism and race. We talked to Aph about her perceptions of diversity and why there needs to be a conversation on race in the vegan movement.
First of all, can you give us some insight into your background? What led you to veganism?
I actually had an untraditional path to veganism. I was vegetarian in high school, however, I didn’t really understand animal rights at all. I was really engaged in anti-racist/feminist movement building and only then did I start to make connections to animal oppression. As an activist, I always gravitate towards issues that are the most sensitive or controversial. I love focusing on the ‘sore spots’, you know, the issues that spark the most emotion and tension because within that tension, we are often clinging to coloniality in some way. We don’t want to confront certain realities because it’s too inconvenient or it challenges the frameworks we’ve been operating from as activists.
In feminist/anti-racist spaces, I saw that conversations about animals/animality made activists for human rights incredibly uncomfortable. So, naturally I started reading more scholarship about animals and race, and I learned how animality and racism constitute one another. In fact, once when I started to morally consider animals in my work, I began to develop a deeper, more robust understanding of racism. Racism uses animality as a vehicle to oppress any being that is not considered ‘human’ and I use my understanding of this concept when I speak to anti-racist activists in my talks.
Would you say that the vegan movement has a diversity problem? If so, how is this manifested? Where do you see it?
This is a complex question, so I’m going to answer it by saying yes and no.
First off, we have to collectively come to the realisation that just because people of colour aren’t in a given space doesn’t mean they’re not doing the work. This means that people of colour have been doing animal rights work for a really, really long time in different ways, however, our efforts typically haven’t been seen or celebrated as mainstream ‘animal rights work.’ So, focusing on diversity in the mainstream movement bypasses all of the incredible work people of colour are doing outside of the vegan/animal rights movement. We have to realise that the vegan/animal rights movement isn’t the only movement that advocates for animals. So many anti-racist activists and thinkers have been interrogating animality and animal oppression for years – even before the animal rights movement started. There is a lot of history and literature that proves this.
This is why I don’t really ever participate in the whole diversity conversation. Black and brown people are only seen as being capable of commenting on white-centered efforts and white-centered spaces, and that’s not very empowering because we are architects of our own movements. So, if the mainstream vegan/animal rights movement lacks diversity, that’s not really my problem, nor should that be the problem of any person of colour. There might be a good reason why we’re not there – and it’s because we’re too busy running our own movements.
So, to answer your question, I think that animal rights theory lacks diversity! We tend to focus too much on whether or not people of colour are in the room, but we’re not asking questions about the ideas and books and theories that guide the animal rights movement. Also, within these cosmetic diversity conversations, I think individual ‘white vegans’ get blamed for polluting the animal rights movement, and I don’t actually believe that’s true. White vegans have become low-hanging fruit – it’s really easy to point to them as the source of all of the problems, but it’s intellectually dishonest and it advertises a false idea that being a person of colour means that you’re automatically ‘progressive’ and immune to colonial thinking, which has destructive consequences for any movement. I don’t think there’s enough diversity in what’s considered to be the ‘canon’ of animal rights literature, and that’s a completely different conversation from cosmetic diversity.
Why do you think this has occurred?
Well, I think that we tend to privilege Eurocentric theory and theorists, so naturally, people from the dominant class get to structure how we’re supposed to think about animals, and that’s the problem. They also have access to the most financial resources, and this shapes how the movement looks. So, I think the question should be: do we have a diversity problem in the animal rights movement when it come to whose books and theories and documentaries we celebrate? Do we have a diversity problem when it comes to who the funders are?
Vilda has previously discussed the intersection between feminism and veganism. We mentioned the similarities between the oppression of human women and the oppression of animals. Do you think there are similar intersections between the oppression of people of colour and the exploitation of animals? And are there connections between animal rights activism and anti-racist activism?
I personally don’t use intersectionality theory anymore in my work. We often assume that if someone is a minority, they are automatically ‘intersectional’, which isn’t true. There are a lot of black-authored theories outside of intersectionality that I subscribe to. I have a new book coming out this year where I discuss this further, however, I will say that racism and animality constitute one another. So, it’s not that race oppression intersects or conne
How is your and your sister’s book changing the views of both vegans and anti-racist activists?
I believe (and hope) that our thoughts are making an impact. I get emails from anti-racist activists and vegans all over the world who have completely changed the trajectory of their activism because of what we’ve written, which is so humbling and inspiring. We demonstrate that you don’t need to ask for permission to create new ideas! You don’t need a Ph.D. to write theory! We are regular, everyday people who have something to say and so we wrote a book. I can tell the tide is slowly changing in animal rights circles, and this is exciting. This is the power of theory – it doesn’t necessarily have an immediate impact – it takes time for new ideas to circulate, and we will see the impact of these ideas in a few years. A lot of anti-racist activists and groups are also starting to include conversations about animality, which is amazing.
You founded Black Vegans Rock – an online community that showcases POC vegans on the internet. You feature a vast variety of people: chefs, entrepreneurs, trainers. What are some unexpected things you have learned about the voices of black veganism while working on this project?
I have learned that people enter the vegan space for a lot of different reasons, however, those reasons evolve and change over time. Someone might become vegan for health reasons initially, however, after being in the scene for a while, they get exposed to animal rights arguments, and then become animal rights activists. Additionally, I have learned that black folks have been doing this work for a very, very long time.
Photo courtesy of Aph Ko