As a follower of various abolitionist vegan pages on Facebook, I’ve noticed that there are a few people whose main activity seems to be to continually accuse anyone promoting veganism of being guilty of “white-centrism” or “white privilege”. In particular, Corey Wren, writing as The Academic Aboitionist Vegan regularly tends to attack other vegans on that basis, or on the basis on sexism or classism. Here is an example.
Wrenn’s attack is against this post:
I see lots of articles, blogs, videos etc. dedicated to making it easy to go vegan. Well, going vegan is incredibly easy if you follow the Grumpy two-stage method:
1. Adopt the position that animal exploitation is morally unacceptable.
2. Just do it!
It really is that simple.
Now that position is a fairly typical abolitionist one, intended to counter the argument that “it’s too hard”, and particularly to counter the claim that people need “baby steps” to transition to veganism. This is a major issue for abolitionists, those who believe all animal use should end, because the need for “baby steps” is the excuse used by most welfarists to promote anything other than veganism. “Baby steps” are often taken to mean starting with becoming vegetarian, a practice that usually leads to even greater harm to animals, and more death, since increased use of dairy products by vegetarians often engender far more harm to animals than simply eating meat. Even worse, many “animal rights” sites actually end up promoting use of “humanely raised/killed” animals. This simply calms the conscience of people without actually reducing animal use at all
The two steps are fairly basic, if a little simplistic. Adopting the position that animal exploitation is morally unacceptable is a cognitive leap, that goes against most of our social conditioning, and by “our”, I mean people of all cultures. It certainly goes against the conditioning of members of the global capitalist consumer culture generally. It may be more accessible to cultures that see animals as beings with spirits, more equal to humans. But it does go against almost all cultures.
Still, the cognitive leap to recognition of the right of non-human animals not to be used is something anyone can do at any time, and not culturally determined, and not governed by money, or race, or sex. (Religion can be a problem). The change is in the mind. It is not dependant on external circumstance.
The second step, “just do it”, is not always so simple. It depends a lot on our circumstance, and the strength of our conviction. It may be difficult for someone with a spouse or living with parents. It may be difficult if one is constrained (in prison, in the military, living in a rig camp). It may be different for a very, very few people who live in an area where plant-based food is unavailable (The Arctic, the Australian central desert). Most people don’t live in those places. Many constrained situations can provide alternatives for people with special diets. Spouses and parents can be challenged. (not always easily). However, all these limitations are not specific to race or sex, though sexist cultures can make things more difficult for women than for men. Still, it is generally the case that food for a plant-based diet is available, and generally less expensive than animal products. So, “just do it” applies to most people. It certainly is what is necessary if one genuinely recognises that other animals are not here for us to use, and using them is morally reprehensible.
Wrenn attacked the post with this comment:
Classic example of white-centrism and classism in animal rights advocacy. I guess it is really that simple if you are white, male, live in the developed West, are not living in poverty, and are not living in a food desert, and you see no problem with an all-white elitist vegan movement. As long as the movement stubbornly refuses to recognize the real structural barriers that disadvantaged groups face, veganism will always remain a “white thing” and a “yuppie thing”…and the movement will continue to stagnate.
This is a “classic example” of Wrenn’s comments on almost any vegan’s posts. It seems to assert that if the poster is white, it is an example of white-centrism. As a tangent, she also attacks men and anyone living in the west, as if that invalidates their statement unless they somehow include a preface about the disadvantage of others. She seems to see veganism as an “all-white elitist […] movement”, a “white-thing” and a “yuppie” thing. This denies the current diversity of the movement, and ignores the fact that if many visible vegans are white, this speaks to the fact that white, higher income people are more likely to have computers and spend time on the web, and more articulate people are more likely to speak out, and more likely to be listened to. That doesn’t mean veganism is exclusive to those people, …and “veganism” as a word is not the only way people have to speak for a refusal to use other animals, or a recognition of their personhood. She also ignores that fact that, strictly speaking, social movements like socialism, feminism, gender equality, and many other social goods are predominantly considered normative by Western European-derived cultures, including Canada, Australia, and the US. But in Africa, the Middle East, the Pacific Islands, much of Latin America and the Far East, and many “traditional” or tribal cultures, these are foreign concepts. This does not mean proponents of sexual or economic equity are “racist” or “classist”.
Of course, cultural imperialism is a real thing. But as social activists, we often need to work against culture, including our own cultural prejudices. It is not acceptable to wash our hands of ethical issues under the rubric of cultural relativity. It is, however, important to let other cultures approach social change from their own perspectives, and from within their cultures, rather than imposing change. In my years doing community development, this principle, that development must not only be done by local community, but be under control of local community, has been central to any genuine benefit.
It is also worthwhile to recognise that most vegan advocates are speaking to their own culture, their own community. That is as it should be. What may be appropriate for a UK citizen speaking to the developed west, may be an imposition it applied to very different cultures, no matter how culturally sensitive the application is. I’ve seen plenty of westerners in Nepal and elsewhere, pushing for more education, or for greater equality, where the result is definitely cultural imperialism. On the other hand, I’ve seen local groups pushing for greater gender and social (varna) equality from within, re-interpreting traditional ways, rather than imposing foreign ones. It is not wrong for a vegan advocate to speak to members of their own culture.
I am posting this as a blog because I responded to Wrenn’s post on her site, but she immediately blocked it. I do think issues of racism, sexism, and classism are important, and should not be forgotten in doing vegan education. Still, I do not think simply guilt-tripping people, and implying, or stating, that others are racist, sexist, or classist, should be done without providing at least some evidence of that proposition. If we take other vegan advocates as well-meaning, we need to point out where the racism is, and not just say, “Racism!”
Before re-printing my response, I’d also like to take up the issue of “real structural barriers”. Most poorer people globally (and that’s most people), do not eat a lot of animal products. This is because in most cases they are expensive, and more difficult to obtain. That is one reason a lot of “ethnic” food centres around a plant-based diet, grains and pulses. Whether it is dhal and chapatis, rice and tofu, beans and corn, hummus, falafels, manioc, fufu and peanuts, it is vegetable based. Of course, most cuisines world-wide are supplemented with animal products. But the core food is usually plant-based (except perhaps in “white” culture, where animal products are central). And veganism is not about imposing a culture. No-one disputes that humans have generally used animals. Abolitionist veganism seeks to overturn that, for all cultures.
In any case, veganism is not more expensive. In almost any market, beans and grain are available, and cheaper than animal products. Cost is not a barrier. One does not need to buy special “vegan” products. I don’t. I’m not sure what a “food dessert” is, in the context of most people. There is a shortage of food in the Arctic, of the Australian central dessert, but very, very few people live there, …and these days, most have access to a store, where one can at least buy flour and tins of baked beans, if lentils or uncooked beans are unavailable. And we shouldn’t generalise about barriers by the exceptional situations.
In any case, here was the reply I posted on her site, which was blocked:
Academic Abolitionist, I’m sorry, but don’t follow.
There certainly may be “white-centrism” in any point of view. But I don’t see that “white-centrism” is inherent in veganism. Likewise, people can make casual, unconsidered classist comments in any context, but that doesn’t mean all comments are classist.
As to “white-centrism” and veganism, I certainly don’t think it inherent. Most “white” people live in a culture of high consumption of animal products. On the other hand, most Asian people, for example, live in a culture of low consumption of animal products (except for the very rich). This is a generalisation, not intended to cover all cultures. Certainly, high consumption of animal products is definitely associated with wealthier classes, or power-possessing classes (“upper” classes) in many cultures. Poorer people globally often cannot afford to consume a high level of animal products. Some tribal people are excepted, but tribal people living traditionally tend to be a very small percentage of the global population, particularly because most tribal people have been colonised and alienated from traditional culture. Even the Inuit or Australian Aboriginals today get most of their food from stores, and a lot of that is manufactured food. To the extent many people from “non-white” cultures now consume a lot of animal products, that is a result of increased wealth and emulation of dominant (often “white”) cultures. In particular, many people in the Indian subcontinent have cultural norms that see not eating animal flesh as morally superior, a view uncommon in Northern European (“white”) cultures.
That being so, I don’t see promotion of veganism as coming from a “white” perspective. It cannot simply be because the speaker is “white”. Are you a person of colour? Are all your views from a “white” perspective? NB, my question is sincere. I have relatives of mixed Aboriginal race with blond hair and blue eyes, who nevertheless grew up in “coloured” shanty-towns, so I don’t assume appearance is “proof”. My real issue is that I don’t see any indication from you of what in the simple promotion of veganism, without reference to race, is racist. Veganism is certainly not a “white” practice. If anything, it could be seen as culturally closest to Hindu/Jain culture. “White” people certainly have more barriers to veganism (think “thanksgiving” for Americans visiting their family) than adopting veganism might be for a Hindu from India. The latter would probably have their decision recognised as valid, if not actually honoured. The American would probably be accused of “spoiling” the holiday with their “weird” beliefs.
I’ve seen you frequently bring up the issue of “white-centrism” and “classism”. It is not enough simply to use those words. You need to indicate *how* a comment is actually white-centric, or classist.
Incidentally, I put “white” in quotes because it is definitely a “white-centric” term. It is the “white” people who divide the world into “white” and “non-white”/“coloured”. It is an imperialist view, that collapses all “nonwhite” cultures into one class of otherness. It is a perspective that completely ignores the vast differences in the incredible diversity of cultures. Moreover, it is the “white” imperialist culture that develops notions of miscegenation, and places all people with a drop of “coloured” blood into the “non-white” camp. It is the dominant, mainly Anglo-Germanic culture that claims they are “white” and claims even Mediterranean peoples are somehow “darker”. The notion that there is a single “white” culture is also an imperialist one that seeks to press normative standards even on other light-skinned people. “White” culture also tends to prejudice against cultures like that of the Scots, Irish, Welsh, and Britons, and other such people. Even the French are suspect. On the other hand, even terms like “Aboriginal” are a collapse of culture from an imperialist perspective. There is Bardi, NyulNyul, Pitchenjara and other specific tribes. There is no more of an “Aboriginal” culture than there is a single “Native American” one.
I realise that there are many victims of European imperialism, especially those “coloured” people who are colonised, partially assimilated and have Creole cultures, and little or no traditional cultural knowledge or background. These people may choose/need to adopt a “coloured” identity in opposition to the “white” imperialists, but they are mainly examples of identity politics, rather than traditional culture. I don’t see how these identities have inherent barriers to veganism that “white” identities do not. Collapsing the world into “white/coloured” not only ignores “white” cultural minorities (Irish, etc), but also completely ignores that individuals are placed in a topology of various factors, and there are intersectional issues, like gender, sexuality, abled-ness, language, religion, class, etc.
I am certainly not claiming imperialism does not exist. There is certainly “white privilege” just as there is “male privilege”, “education privilege” “native-speaking privilege”, “heterosexual privilege”, “rich privilege”, “attractive privilege”, “abled privilege”, “ age-30s privilege”, “articulate privilege”, and so on, covering all the ways certain people automatically see some people as better. (This includes a more complex “colour-privilege” that exists even among non-”whites”). As a species, we discriminate on all sorts of grounds. Certainly, white/male/wealth/education seems a particularly powerful hierarchy of privilege in western societies, and to the extent the world is colonised, in most of the world.
The reality, though, is that we are all living with whatever the lottery of birth has given us. We are influenced by many factors, but we do not live in a deterministic world. Poor people can become wealthy, people from uneducated backgrounds become educated, “white” people can work against racism and “white” privilege. The fact that there is some mobility does not negate the need to eliminate most forms of discrimination. We are complex beings. Veganism represents a big change from almost all cultures. Speciesism is the most widespread discrimination globally.
For me, I frequently see you dismiss comments as being “white-centric” or “classist”. To maintain credibility, you need to show how those comments are so. If you consider veganism important, you also need to show non-racist and non-classist examples of how to promote veganism, or you are simply blocking others efforts to promote veganism. It is particularly unhelpful simply to wag your finger at everyone promoting veganism and invoke the spectre of “white privilege”, or “white-centrism” or “classism”. We do need to avoid racism, classism, able-ism, sexism. But there is nothing of these inherent in veganism. The call to veganism is, after all, a call to ethics, and an ethical principle rarely seen in *any* culture. It does not partake of any culture, and in itself, certainly goes against the egocentric, individualistic, materialistic, capitalistic Western European culture that sees all of nature as resources and potential property, and gives maximum emphasis to “personal choice” as persons and especially as consumers. This is especially opposed to the idea of abolitionism, which would create boundaries on personal choice in relation to animal use.
Incidentally, I understand that comments are sometimes hidden, so I will also publish this as a blog.
To reiterate, I get a bit tired of people wanting to bang other drums, and impose that on all efforts vegan advocates make. Some people demand capitalism end before veganism is addressed. Wrenn continually seems to say any vegan advocates must address global inquality, cultural imperialism and racism first. These things, including capitalism, are certainly problematic, but do not need to be solves before advocating for veganism.
Speciesism is one of the deepest and most general prejudices humans (of all cultures) have. If we can recognise members of other species as having an inherent value equal to our own, then it is hard to claim that my value is greater than that of another race, or religion, or gender. It is hard to claim someone is better simply because they have more stuff (wealth). If we can accept other animals as being of equal value, how can we justify human diversity as “better” or “worse”. That said, it is appropriate to judge human behaviour, though we need to do so without setting ourselves up as a rigid standard. Still, most would agree that robbery, rape, and abuse is “wrong”. It is certainly contrary to social intercourse, and therefore counter to community. And, I believe that it is wrong to use other sentient beings as if they were objects, as if they were “ours”. That’s why I’m an abolionist vegan, and my race, class, sex has nothing to do with it.