The Myth of "White Veganism" And Why The Phrase Is Harmful

September 1, 2021

While veganism is growing with each year, it is also facing fiercer resistance than ever before. Critics try to falsely claim that it isn’t better for the planet or that it’s impossible to be healthy on a vegan diet, but that is no longer an option for them since the science says otherwise time and time again. Now, they are clapping back with an argument disguised as “wokeness” in the attempt to discredit the philosophy and diet, claiming that the diet should instead be called “white veganism” because it’s for wealthy white people who oppress marginalized groups.

Here is the thing: veganism can be practiced by wealthy white people, or by people who oppress others. It can be called “white veganism” in these instances, and in instances where the only vegans served and given a platform are white vegans with money. It should be kept in mind though that the problem with these instances isn’t the veganism: it’s the exclusion of those deemed as “other.” Pinning this idea of “white veganism” on vegans and veganism itself is problematic and inaccurate. Here’s a few reasons why we need to do away with this label immediately.

Veganism isn’t a “white diet,” a term that erases those who practice it.

Black Americans are three times more likely to be vegan than any other group of people. The most vegan city in the country (meaning the city with the most vegan restaurants per capita) is Washington D.C.—a city with a higher percentage of black residents than white residents. There are so many cultures where eating vegan or mostly vegan is the norm, including many Asian, Middle Eastern, and African countries. Israel has the most vegans in the world per capita as far as countries go, with nearly 10% of the population practicing the diet. India, China, Malaysia, Turkey, and Greece are also among the top in terms of number of vegans. Using the phrase “white veganism” encourages ignorance of true statistics in order to fit a narrative that critics hold about the diet. This narrative is harmful for vegans and flexitarians who aren’t white. It isolates the majority of vegans and encourages a lack of representation or even accurate representation.

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Veganism is not a trendy new fad, because it has actually existed for thousands of years.

The phrase “white veganism” tends to also center veganism around white celebrities who are starting to embrace this old diet, claiming that it’s a new trend for wealthy white people. White celebrities didn’t birth veganism, and claiming that they did erases history and the true roots of this way of life. Many cultures have been enjoying the vegan diet or mostly vegan diets since the dawn of time. There is evidence of people avoiding animal products 2,000 years ago, and many of the oldest religions prioritized animal welfare over animal consumption (like Jainism). There are also countless examples of ancient philosophers and poets who abstained from animal products. Pythagoras reportedly practiced a strict vegan lifestyle which included avoiding wool. A student of Plato said, “Pythagoras was distinguished by such purity and so avoided killing and killers that he not only abstained from animal foods, but even kept his distance from cooks and hunters.” The Arab poet al’ Ma’arri lived in 900 CE and was known to be a strict vegan. There were countless vegan communities established from the 1700s onward, including the famous Alcott House. Starting the 1930s, the Rastafarian religion practiced veganism in the Caribbean. Veganism is also steeped in the history of the civil rights movement, with leaders like Dick Gregory practicing it.

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The word veganism was coined in the 1940s, which means it has been named for almost a century and has existed for much longer than that. It is by no means new, and it is not a fad, as the term “white veganism” seems to claim. Centering the narrative around a small portion of vegans in order to erase the real and diverse history of it is wrong and misrepresents what veganism even is. It wasn’t invented for and by white vegans, and it doesn’t exist for white wealthy people. A rather small proportion of them are starting to enjoy it, but that doesn’t give them the power to claim it as users of the phrase would have people believe.

Vegan food isn’t inherently for wealthy white people, and is actually historically and currently enjoyed by cultures around the world.

Vegan food has existed since the beginning of time. Aside from grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables, tofu has been enjoyed for thousands of years in Asia and people have been drinking almond milk since the Middle Ages. People in the Indus River Valley enjoyed a mostly vegan diet back in 3300 BCE and that area of the world continues to consume mainly vegan dishes. South Americans have been treating beans and rice as the anchor of their diet for thousands of years, with tropical produce taking up another large portion of their plates. People in Africa and the Middle East eat a largely plant-based diet with greens, grains, and legumes being the center of their meals. Foods like almond milk, hummus, falafel, tofu, beans, local vegetables, rice, and other vegan foods are not expensive. Vegan food wasn’t invented for white people with money, because it existed for thousands of years before they got on board. It serves as important cultural dishes and highlights of traditional meals to people around the world. The diet is not expensive and elitist, and claiming that it is that way puts the focus on white people, who don’t even make up the majority of vegans.

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Vegan burgers and cheeses are expensive, but they are better for the environment than burgers and cheeses made from animals and their secretions, as they use less land and water. That said, they are by no means the center of the vegan diet. These products exist so that omnivores can transition to more ethical and sustainable diets more smoothly, and as treats for those who used to enjoy animal products. They are results of eating animals, and wouldn’t exist had we never eaten them. Vegans don’t eat them for every meal, or even usually every week. What makes up the average vegan meals are inexpensive, widely available, healthy, and culturally appropriate ingredients. Centering the narrative on expensive vegan junk food consumed mostly by wealthy white people is another way that the phrase “white veganism” causes erasure and misinformation.

Veganism is not to blame for human rights violations, deforestation, and all of the world’s human-caused problems.

Proponents of the “white veganism” narrative claim that vegans ignore the rights of people and are the cause of migrant workers facing human rights violations. While human rights are obviously so important and necessary, veganism is about animal welfare. Everyone, including vegans, should care about human rights and do all they can to be socially responsible independently. Bringing human rights into veganism or saying veganism is wrong because it doesn’t include them is a form of “whataboutism.” Believing that humans deserve kindness certainly is related to believing that humans shouldn’t consume other animals or harm them (because that is also related to kindness), but just because veganism doesn’t inherently include human rights in its world view doesn’t mean that it is to blame for those problems. It also doesn’t mean that vegans are “just as bad” as non-vegans because their dietary beliefs about the way humans treat animals aren’t attached to the belief that humans should be treated well too. It would be wrong to go up to BLM protestors and say they are “just as bad” as those outside the BLM movement if they aren’t also talking about non-human animal rights. It would be wrong to criticize their movement for not including animal rights in an attempt to discredit it as an ideology. Yes, these two issues are important, but the BLM argument isn’t discredited by the fact that animal rights isn’t a part of it or by the fact that BLM protestors aren’t also making signs about animal welfare in their marches. Both are important issues, and people should be fighting for both, but it would be recognized that this is an attempt to minimize this part of the fight for human decency. In other words, throwing another social issue or ethical issue at a group fighting for something important is just a way that those outside the movement try to discredit it or distract from it. Veganism is about not harming or killing animals, and that’s important.

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The working conditions of immigrant farm workers is always brought up when people want to minimize veganism, but the fact is that the vegan diet relies on 75% less land than non-vegans do, so vegans still contribute way less if they are buying from farms that employ immigrant workers. On top of that, non-vegans also contribute to the even worse conditions of animal farm workers (factory farms, dairy farms, etc.). Non-vegans harm humans significantly more than vegans do, despite the fact that veganism is centered around animal welfare—the very fact being used against vegans in this argument.

Deforestation is also brought up in the attempt to discredit veganism when “white veganism” is being argued, saying that soy milk and tofu is destroying the Amazon and displacing native people. This is when veganism is said to be a fake “woke” diet for wealthy white people who do as much harm as everyone else (or in this argument, do more harm). The truth is only 6% of the soy being harvested in the Amazon is consumed directly by humans, including vegans, in the form of products like tofu and soy milk. The rest of that soy, all 94% of it, is converted into animal feed that those who eat meat, eggs, and dairy are responsible for.

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Despite the “white veganism” narrative, vegans are not to blame for deforestation, human rights violations, and the displacement of native people. If these people truly cared about the environment they would be calling out the fishing industry for destroying our functioning oceans, which produce 50–80% of the air that we breathe (far more than the Amazon), because bottom trawling and fishing net litter is the main cause of the seas’ downfall. They would be calling out the agriculture industry for destroying mangroves that act as a barrier for vulnerable people on the coast, and sequester much more carbon than our rainforests do. They would be calling out the beef industry for displacing native people, slaughterhouses for causing such high rates of PTSD in workers, and any other diet for using up more land and resources than the vegan diet does. The narrative of “white veganism” upholds the myth that veganism oppresses non-white people and the ecosystems that they rely on, and the truth couldn’t be further from this.

The bottom line?

Veganism can be intersectional and is inherently that way in many ways (feminism and being opposed to dairy go hand in hand), but the term “white veganism” is used as whataboutism to say that veganism is new, harms humans, doesn’t tackle every human social issue (despite the fact that nonveganism doesn’t either and in fact contributes more to it), is only for white people, and is only for the rich. Veganism isn’t here to solve human issues (but it does by default a lot), just like the BLM movement isn’t here to solve nonhuman animal issues or hate experienced by other groups of people. The people themselves should fight for both, but it shouldn’t be a critique of the movement if it isn’t out to solve every issue being faced by every being on the planet.

If everyone went vegan, the same amount of emissions created by all forms of transportation combined would be eliminated. Our food would create 70% less emissions, saving all of us $515,130,000,000. 8 million less people would die every year due to diseases proven to be caused by eating animal products, the disastrous rate of climate change would slow down, and all of the food that grew would directly go to humans and alleviate world hunger. The benefits are countless when it comes to the environment of our precious and only home planet, and obviously when it comes to the lives of animals. Deeming the diet as “white veganism” ignores all of that and wrongfully puts the blame on those living in a way that is saving the planet for them. It also erases the beautiful and rich history of people who have enjoyed vegan foods and vegan diets for thousands of years, and overlooks the population who make up the majority of vegans domestically and globally—people who aren’t white.

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“White veganism” is a phrase that needs to stop being used for the sake of marginalized groups of people (the same people this phrase supposedly defends), history, culture, the environment, and activism itself. This phrase is just whataboutism disguised as activism.

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Photo: Emily Iris Degn

Emily Iris Degn
Emily Iris Degn is a multilingual travel and freelance writer, editor, professional artist, model, and published poet. She is from the San Juan Islands, but currently lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains with her incredible partner and dozens of plant babies. She is also an ecofeminist activist, and works to focus her professional work on those issues. You can find her in many spaces on Instagram: @emilyirisdegn @wildearthgoods @happyvegansfeed @emfallstoearth @emilydegnart OR at Em Falls to Earth.

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