In your mind’s eye, what would a group of vegans look like?
There’s no right answer, but I bet that your mental depiction of veganism is predominantly (if not exclusively) white.
Veganism has been seen as a “white thing” for quite some time, and it’s not completely off. The vegan community is predominantly white. Organizations try their best to stay mindful of diversity, but despite their attempts, veganism is still seen as something for the white and privileged.
So what’s my point? Why would race have anything to do with animal liberation?
When a very white movement needs to “sway the black vote” away from meat consumption, it will take some understanding of black culture—something the mainstream vegan movement doesn’t always have.
So what can you do to make veganism more appealing to African Americans, Caribbean Americans, and other communities of color? Here are some factors to keep in mind and how to address them with cultural awareness.
Meat is a huge part of black culture
Centuries of enslavement and poverty means making do with what you have.
Black culture was built on eating everything from common staples—like chicken and fish—to chitlins, pigs’ feet, and other discarded animal parts our ancestors ate in desperation. These recipes have been passed down for generations and both cooking and eating are central parts of the black family.
When meat is seen as a cultural connection and a means of survival, it’ll take time for the black community to see “normal” meals in a negative light.
Turning away food is also teetering on disrespect. It may take three Thanksgivings to build up the courage to deny our grandmothers’ cooking.
So how can vegans support pre-vegans of color? Applaud small wins.
You don’t go from turkey gizzards to garden burgers overnight. Aspiring vegans may not transition at a pace you’d prefer, but since most black omnivores spent a lifetime with meat in every meal, small gains for you are big deals for them.
Celebrate and give continuous support (not judgment) during their period of transition.
Black people are dealing with other issues
Newsflash: veganism is for the privileged. But privilege isn’t always financial. If you’re living such a safe, supported life that you can put the needs of animals before the needs of your community, that’s a privilege.
How can we ask a black teen to fight for animal rights when she’s still getting followed trough department stores? And isn’t it reasonable for someone to care more about systematic imprisonment of males in their community that the welfare of circus animals?
Racism is exhausting. When black people don’t have a basic sense of wellbeing, they can’t care for the wellbeing of others. Until we live in a post-racial society, encouraging African Americans to fight for animal rights when our own welfare is questionable is a strange order of operations.
My suggestion: don’t promote veganism to communities of color from an animal rights perspective alone. Encouraging black people to go vegan “for the animals” might show just how disconnected you are from the black experience.
Lead with health benefits instead. Every African American has an uncle with high blood pressure or a diabetic grandmother, so highlighting veganism as a panacea will be better received.
We don’t know any vegans
In general, the black community doesn’t understand what veganism is all about.
We may have limited interactions with the message through a sexualized PETA ad or Russell Simmons sound bite, but the annual mention of veganism isn’t enough to create lasting change.
And since we’re less likely to support something if we see no black representation, it helps to have a few black celebrities in mind who recognize the benefits of veganism.
Rapper Waka Flocka, NBA champion John Salley, Black-ish actor Anthony Anderson, and the legendary Williams sisters are a few public figures who follow plant-based diets.
Poor access to vegan options
Food deserts are real, and communities of color are more likely to live in areas where affordable produce is limited.
We can’t expect people to live off instant rice and ramen noodles for the sake of animal welfare. If families can’t find or afford nutritious options in their area, it’s obvious they’d feed their families animal products.
One of the most effective ways of promoting veganism in communities of color is by fighting for more access to plant-based options.
Reach out to organizations that work on food security and see how you can help. (Respectfully) ask store clerks in inner-city grocery stores why their produce selection is so limited.
Instead of expecting low-income communities to live off affordable, nutrient-void vegan options, work to get more fresh fruits and vegetables into these areas.
Watch and learn
There are lots of organizations that promote both plant-based eating in black communities and racial diversity in veganism; turn to them for inspiration.
Black Vegans Rock showcases vegans of color every day of the year to bring more brown faces to the forefront of veganism. The 10th Element of Hip Hop mixes urban culture and health to influence veganism within communities of color. Ron Finleysaw a need for more plant-based options and started sidewalk farms in South LA.
Commentary from black vegan thinkers like Dr. Breeze Harper and Bryant Terry will give you new insights into veganism from a brown perspective. Use their writings as a learning experience and see how their perspective can influence your activism.
How do ad agencies get us hooked? They invest lots of time and money into making their audience feel understood. Advertisers know that in order to get a consumer on their side, they need to speak their language.
Try taking a page from their manual and speak with your audience in mind. By adjusting your message and appealing to African Americans, you’ll draw the leading consumers of animal products to the benefits of veganism.