Between wrapping up Veganuary and celebrating Black History Month, I’ve reflected on my nearly 3-year anniversary of being vegan and how it has intersected with Black culture.
Because I grew up in a Jamaican-Trini household, meat-centric dishes were the norm for the entirety of my life prior to moving out. One of my best memories as a child was waiting for Mom’s weekly dish of curry chicken with chickpeas, potatoes, and rice.
At the time, I was unaware of how veganism could be culturally influenced by and incorporate dishes from a Jamaican Rastafarian Ital diet, a primarily vegetarian diet whose name is derived from “vital foods.”
Shifting my perception of vegan food and seeing where it fit into my culture led to my discoveries that seasonings hold a high purpose in every meal and that it’s unnecessary for every dish to mimic the taste and texture of meat.
As I began filling my pantry with staples like grains, legumes, and beans, I was encouraged to incorporate dishes such as a chickpea-based curry or Jamaican “beef” patty inspired by my mom’s cooking into my new lifestyle.
Of course, this resulted in a lot of failures, attempts to settle for simpler dishes, and the all-too-familiar path of settling for meat alternatives from Gardein or Beyond Meat.
I felt as if I’d leaped into this diet without a proper understanding of nutrition. Plus, I was concerned about upholding my status as a foodie. “Is it really possible to enjoy a vegan diet?” I asked myself.
It’s a blur as to when I exactly got it, but by the time I moved away from home and headed to college, I somewhat knew what I was doing.
It seems as if every vegan I’ve spoken to eventually learns that they have a favorite dairy-free cheese brand, along with a preference for either Beyond Meat or Impossible Meat. And, of course, every vegan or vegetarian has their preferred nondairy milk — and yes, mine is oat.
In addition to finding my favorite foods, I quickly learned that I had to begin curating a specific feed on my social media that centered on Black and Caribbean vegans to reassure myself that I’m still able to be a foodie and actually enjoy every meal that I make.
Reading essays on Black veganism and activism in “Aphro-ism: Essays on Pop Culture, Feminism, and Black Veganism from Two Sisters” by Aph Ko and Syl Ko also helped me with thinking critically as a Black vegan and with decolonizing my diet.
Infusing identity into a vegan lifestyle
Along with my Caribbean background, I’ve lived in the South for my entire life, so soul food and Cajun food have influenced a lot of my dishes.
Your cultural identity is reflected in your culinary skills, so I desired vegan soul food and Jamaican curry to connect with my culture beyond the traditional curry chicken, curry goat, and oxtail.
Being raised in a town with an abundance of seafood and soul food meant weekly trips to the fish market and an unexplainable love for collard greens and macaroni and cheese.
Assuming that I would have to leave these adored meals behind for my new vegan diet was heartbreaking — until I came to the quick realization that it is possible to craft and perfect recipes that incorporate vegan products while infusing a little bit of home.
Once I started to accept the differences in the taste and texture of my meals, I began to stop questioning the reasons behind my veganism. However, other people’s inquiries surrounding my newfound lifestyle didn’t cease.
Fielding questions about going vegan
While attending barbecues and family dinners, I was questioned about cutting meat and dairy out of my life and dreaded the alienating experience of being the only vegan in the family.
Choosing to cook myself an entire meal prior to attending a family gathering can be exhausting, and I often felt like I was rebuking my culture.
The intersection of being Southern and Caribbean often means meat-based meals or dishes that include pieces of meat, like collard greens or steamed cabbage.
But most of these meals can easily be made vegan-friendly, so I learned not to feel ashamed of removing meat and keeping some familiar parts of my beloved dishes.
I can’t fault people for being inquisitive about my going vegan, because I became a different person in many ways after removing meat from my diet.
Prior to veganism, for example, I wasn’t aware of the harms of factory farms and the environmental impact of eating animals. I didn’t engage in environmental activism the way I do today.
When people ask about the benefits of going plant-based, I always refer to the effects that the lifestyle change has had on my life over the last 3 years in terms of my environmental footprint.
Environmental justice is intersectional with veganism, which is intersectional with — you guessed it — race.
We can see these relationships at work in many conversations. For example, Black people are more likely to be diagnosed with heart disease, and the fight to end animal exploitation often overshadows discrimination within the vegan community.
These conversations always lead me to the same conclusion: There’s a pipeline from beginner vegan to environmental justice advocate.
But this pipeline often isn’t recognized by white vegans, who are more likely to value animal rights over the lives of Latinx farmworkers struggling for fair wages or Black people suffering from food apartheid.
Subsequently, investigating this leads to the not-so-shocking discovery that these unfazed white vegans usually support People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), an organization that has come under fire for speciesism and racism on many occasions.
In my eyes, most white vegans seem more concerned with the aesthetics or individual health benefits of going vegan and don’t engage deeply with the social and political aspects of what we eat, where our food comes from, and what injustices exist in our food systems.
But as a Vegan of Color, I see that identity, culture, food access, and environmental justice are linked.
Seeing firsthand how food access is racialized
I’ve lived in Tallahassee, Florida, for nearly 3 years and attend Florida A&M University, a historically Black university located within a food desert and food swamp.
A look at the terminology
The terms “food desert” and “food swamp” refer to areas in which access to fresh, health-promoting food is limited.
In a food desert, fresh foods are prohibitively expensive or inaccessible due to factors such as limited grocery stores and lack of access to reliable transportation.
A food swamp is a place where fast-food restaurants and convenience stores are more reliable sources of food than grocery stores or farmers markets.
Most often, food deserts and swamps affect Communities of Color. That’s why many food justice scholars use the term “food apartheid” to describe these situations (and other failures of our food system) instead.
While real deserts and swamps are natural and important to the environment, racialized disparities in food access are not — and they’re constructed by racist politics.
It’s a shame our students and nearby residents are suffering from the lack of access to health-promoting foods, while this city can offer healthier choices and walkable access to organic grocery stores for the predominately white institution — Florida State University — next door.
The fact that racialized food access is a common problem in so many cities didn’t come to my attention until after I adopted a plant-based diet and realized that veganism can be so inaccessible in many communities.
Where ‘white veganism’ falls short
I had the honor of speaking with Isaias Hernandez, known in the environmental justice space as @queerbrownvegan. Hernandez said that white vegans often don’t acknowledge how colonization has distorted mainstream views on veganism.
“I think that there are people who directly are focused on animal liberation and also advocate for human rights,” he said. But “they are not able to address… the reasons why they’re trying to abolish these existing industries is because the industries exist today because of colonialism and global capitalism.
“One example of that is looking directly into factory farms as the development of industrial agriculture itself, the privatization of seeds, the privatization of land, who grew that land — racial capitalism plays a huge role in people not understanding shifting to plant-based systems.”
And in a VICE article from 2020, writer Anya Zoledziowski highlighted the whitewashing of veganism — specifically the “newfound” obsession over avocados and quinoa, which have been staples in the households of People of Color for millennia.
As Zoledziowski mentions, it seems as if a racial reckoning was necessary for white vegans to acknowledge the existence of Vegans of Color.
In the summer of 2020, after George Floyd’s murder, a sea of pastel infographics haunted Instagram, sharing the usernames of nonwhite vegan chefs and influencers.
It felt like a long-awaited method of including us in the conversation — a conversation we should have been a part of from the beginning.
The experience of being vegan while Black is not a monolithic one.
Black veganism can be many things. It can be lining up for hours in Atlanta’s scorching heat for a taste of Pinky Cole’s Slutty Vegan burgers. It can also be advocating for food and environmental justice and healthier options in lower income communities.
And at the same time, it can be educating my carnivorous family on the benefits of opting into a Meatless Monday.
Because Black people are the fastest-growing vegan demographic in America, it feels like sharing my adoration for veganism and passion for environmental justice is time well spent.
Mine isn’t a unique experience — it’s shared by many Black vegans. These reflections on the racialized politics of veganism — and, more broadly, of food access — seem vital for others who are wondering where to go next in their plant-based chapter.