I wrote this essay as an assignment for a class through Athabasca University in Alberta for The Anthropology of Gender. I wanted to post it here to possibly get feedback, start a conversation or just to highlight on my blog as it is a very important connection between colonialism, settlers and *food*. I am writing from a white institutionally educated cis-gendered femme queer female perspective so I really want to emphasize these are not my words nor thoughts but a presentation of vegans of colours views. I cannot claim to know, or ever know the complexity between marginalized racialized identities so please seek out the women I cite for more emphasize on the points.
‘You are what you eat’ is a loaded idiom that serves as a starting point to critically investigate what counts as food, who consumes what, where it is processed, purchased and prepared which ultimately is an act of contextualizing behaviours. Specifically I will argue that veganism can be a project of decolonization and liberation for women. However, before this argument can be made veganism has to be historicized and made sense of outside of the mainstream post-racial conceptual of veganism to re-imagine it as a movement connecting several injustices. First I will describe the importance of this topic to the anthropology of gender, followed by an attempt at defining veganism. I will then follow this with three feminist vegans of colours’ perspectives who all argue for veganism as not just a white concern, but a colonized persons concern. Then I will finish by incorporating my own stance on the matter.
The topic I have chosen to elaborate on weaves together two aspects of the course, food and colonialism. This course has made it clear that food is a worthy site of inquiry to understand social reproduction and culture. Food according to anthropology is used as a way of expression and adherence to a social group (Taylor 2010, pg. 73). Like the clever statement “tell me what you eat: I will tell you what you are” illustrates how food is a language that can convey an identity (Taylor 2010, pg. 73). Food involves production, reproduction, status enhancement, and the regular ritual aspects creating communities (Ward & Edelstein 2009, pg.20). Therefore, with destabilizing the surmised apolitical palates, power relations are revealed.
On the other hand, colonialism is defined as “process and policies in which a nation-state acquires, extends, or retains its political, social, cultural, and economic dominance over other peoples or territories” (Ward & Edelstein 2009, pg. 236). Critically examining food as a site of colonialism has been a feminist project for quite some time. Evidently, whiteness is most palpable in the alternative food movements when foods are incorporated on a mass level that are indigenous plants and seeds without considering “Native Americans deep local knowledge” which can be applied to other geographical contexts beyond North America (Anguelovski 2014, pg. 4). This disrespect and appropriation creates a false sense of ownership of ‘health’ and ethical consumerism. It is my intention to disrupt and problematicize the act of eating which has become normalized through patriarchy while pushing veganism as a tool to decolonize colonized palates.
The second part of this assignment is to review the current literature on this topic. For this part I will define at the practice of veganism is followed by a discussion of the post-racial tone witnessed in the vegan discourse that severs participation and is exclusionary. From here it will become palpable why veganism is both rejected and embraced by people of colour. I will explore three different perspectives on veganism practiced by people of colour and indigenous peoples.
First, it is important to define veganism. Veganism in the simplest sense is the choice to no longer include animals or animal by-products in ones consumption patterns. Choice can be contingent on several reasons such as ethical, health, environmental or as an act of decolonizing bodies as I will argue. Veganism runs counter to carnivorism. The production of literature began in the 1960’s alongside other revolutionary movements like civil rights, gay, and women’s movements (Harper 2012, pg.158). As has been established in this paper, it is critical to historicalize what we ‘eat’. Meat eating has been associated with a “civilized, white, man body” thus positioning itself as a step in evolutionary terms (Bailey 2007, pg.44). This has pushed for veganism to be described as a privileged issue thus creating a perceived ‘right’ vegan (Barron 2013, pg.19). Running in contrast to this sentiment, Barron argues that in fact if African American women in the United States re-imagined original foodways and soulfoods they would reflect “Green, sustainable, organic” practices therefore veganism is in fact aligned to defending their heritage in face of colonialism (Barron 2014, pg. 5).
A feminist perspective by Cathyrn Bailey uses the term “contextual vegan” to liberate the single-issued meaning of veganism that is used in mainstream white vegan discourse (Bailey 2007, pg.50). This allows for multiple perspectives of veganism as well as opens up space to realize consuming animals has different meanings. Bailey argues that constructing veganism as racist, classist, sexist, colonialist furthers the erasure of how race, class, sexism, colonial forces has created the very foodways we have in the West (Bailey 2007, pg.58). This paradoxical understanding is fashioned by patriarchal normalization which in reality is whiteness that creates the norms and cultural expectations on all levels including gastronomically (Dean, 2014, 124).
There are three feminist vegans of colour that push arguments forward for veganism to be debunked as a white consciousness movement. First I will outline Margaret Robinson’s proposal for veganism aligning with Mi’kmaq peoples. The second proponent is Claudia Serrato, a self-identified Xicana Indigena feminist who elucidates on the myth that fleshy foods are central to Mexican cuisine. Next, I will present the arguments made by the well-known A. Breeze Harper, the founded of The Sistah Vegan Project, an online blog and book dedicated to African American female vegan voices. All three feminist vegans of colour challenge the assumption that veganism is ethically, culturally and spiritually incompatible with their indigeneity.
To begin with, Margaret Robinson is a Mi’kmaq queer feminist scholar who advocates a post-colonial ecofeminist reading of veganism rooted in aboriginal culture. Robsinson articulates two barriers that hinder an aboriginal veganism from fruition, which are the issue of veganism as white and veganism as a product of class privilege. The former point is summed up nicely by the ‘joke’ that if an indigenous person abstains from flesh they are simply a “bad hunter” and thus not capable of having ethical stances towards consuming flesh (Robinson 2013, pg. 190). This subscribes to a colonist limited definition of what it means to be ‘authentically’ indigenous, however since society is determined by settler mindsets, it has very real, negative consequences in realities of indigenous peoples. For example, daily life processes have been used historically to assess the authentic claims of an indigenous person’s identity which either permits or disapproves of obtaining a status card (Robinson 2013, pg.193). Therefore, it becomes a problem to claim identities and practices that have not been deemed ‘authentic’ by colonist standards.
The second barrier Robinson highlights is that veganism is believed to be a product of class privilege. This argument is faulty on many levels. First it reduces veganism to a primarily a dietary pattern, which it is for health-ists but for the majority of vegans, it is a political act of resistance. By discrediting the real impact that veganism has dilutes the politics backing the movement (Morris & Kirwin 2012, pg. 552). It also fails to make any real challenge to the alternative food movements in order to improve access to people with lower class privilege. Another flaw of this argument is that it makes poverty synonymous with living an unhealthy lifestyle. The majority of peoples of colour are of lower economic class due to structural and systematic racism, yet continue to eat in traditional healthy ways. Therefore, this argument devalues the health aspects of other cultures cuisines because they do not subscribe to a white consciousness understanding of health. However, this becomes problematized with white culture appropriates indigenous foods such as quinoa that are worthy of being classified as health food items (Anguelovski 2014, pg.13).
The most compelling argument that Robinson pushes is that although Mi’kmaq traditional diet was heavily weighted towards consuming animals such as beavers, fish, eels, birds, caribou and more, the current mode of food production such as the slaughterhouse industries are not compatible with an indigenous worldview. The food production systems under colonialism do not make connections, rather disconnections are preferred. The issue of disconnect has been theorized by Carol J. Adams with the term ‘absent referent’ which through the process of objectification and dismemberment, the once subject animal becomes food (Robison 2013, pg.191). Under an indigenous worldview, animals are not seen as distinct creatures rather sentient creatures inextricably bound in the lives of humans. Moreover, the mass industrialization of animal flesh is in opposition to the indigenous understanding of calling on animals which enables consent or refusal (Robinson 2013, pg.191). Robinson argues that claiming an indigenous veganism is not an act of “sacrificing our cultural identity” but rather translating traditional values and practices to the industrialist settler society (Robinson 2013, pg.190).
In a similar vein, Claudia Serrato argues for an indigenous veganism from an Xicana Indigena feminist standpoint. She argues that Mexican indigenous foodways pre-contact were predominantly plant and maize-based with flesh-foods not “major nor vital” (Serrato 2010, pg. 53). This statement holds against the perceived heavy animal flesh diets when we think of ‘Mexican’ foods. Serrato contends that this is because of ‘culinary imperialism’ where colonists upon arrival told indigenous peoples their food was “tasteless and inferior” creating a patriarchal hierarchy of food (Serrato 2010, pg. 54). Serrato also writes about the worldview that accompanied the colonial dietary conquest. Colonists feminized the landscapes meaning that they had a mentality of how to conquer the land in the quickest and most invasive way possible (Serrato 2010, pg. 55). Moreover, animals and indigenous people have received similar treatments from white colonists which is the act of removing indigenous beings from their lands, ecosystems and relationships (Serrato 2010, pg. 55). This parallel struck a particular chord for Serrato that there was a shared experience of being displaced and removed from indigenous lands. However, indigenous peoples resisted this contrasting mentality by actively resisting and rejecting imperial cuisines.
Moreover, Serrato makes the connection between industrialized animal flesh processing industries and laborers. The people hired are marginalized themselves and experience exploitation in the work place which parallels the treatments of the animals. Gail E. Eisnitz documented the working conditions in slaughterhouses across the United States. Moreover, Eisnitz’s revealed that most of the laborers were Mexican or Latin American women and men (Eisnitz 2007, pg. 269). Her investigation also revealed that with a ratio of thirty-six injuries or illness to 100 employees, working in a meat packing factory is the most dangerous industry in the United States (Eisnitz 2007, pg. 271). Serrato also emphasizes a similar view with Robinson that it is more sensible to be vegan than to support the exploitation and industrialization of animal flesh consuming. Traditions and values held by indigenous peoples can be easily translated into contemporary circumstances without losing authenticity. In fact, this is an act of self-determination by deciding what is ‘authentic’ according to them.
The final perspective I want to bring into this paper is from two feminist African American vegans, A. Breeze Harper and Briaan Barron. Both advocate a framework of ‘total liberation’ or in other words see all oppressions structurally connected. Barron uncovers that the same strategies are being used by those in power of desensitizing and ignoring suffering involved in slavery and slaughterhouses. There are strategies utilized to ensure “public oblivion” to these issues of objectification and animation (Barron 2014, pg. 20). Corollary to this, Harper employs a socio-spatial epistemology which conceptualizes why and how we know what we know. From her project Sistah Vegan two emerging themes explained the importance of veganism. The first was that there is a shared collective socio-historal underpinning as well as issues of health and the real possibility of decolonizing bodies (Harper 2012, pg. 157-8).
Harper has spent a lot of energy in visibilizing people of colour’s voices in the vegan movement whether it historical or contemporary. A central tenant in feminist theory is representation. Harper traces vegans of colours voices from Queen Afua who identified food akin to a drug addiction for African Americans; bell hooks who spoke to a race-conscious understanding of food; and Gregary Dick who challenged African Americans to challenge racist society by liberating themselves through their diets (Harper 2012, pg. 165-6). However, as the two previous scholars have noted, claiming veganism while being marginalized puts your authenticity into question by the ruling and decision-making class.
In this essay I have challenged the Western trajectory that food is benign and has actively depreciated the centralizing abilities of food and the relationships that involve and surround foodstuffs. This is inherently an anthropological feminist project because ‘the personal is political’ and it is pertinent to challenge socially constructed practices. By structuring our discussions of food in a political framework, women’s voices emerge and show active resistance towards colonialism. Vegans of colour have been significant forces in moving the animal rights and animal liberation movements towards interconnectedness (Harper 2011, pg. 222). Moreover, I believe that one of the greatest contributions is that they have re-focused veganism to be a complex movement with many motivations and perceptive in face of the corporatization and commodification of a ‘vegan’ lifestyle.
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