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Why veganism has everything to do with race

CRITICAL THEORIST: Dr A. Breeze Harper

CRITICAL THEORIST and author Dr A Breeze Harper is a woman on a mission. Well known for her work, which focuses on how systems of oppression – namely racism – operate within the USA, the renowned writer has extensively examined how veganism, in particular, connects with the issue of race.

To the uninformed, it’s not an obvious connection, particularly as the vegan lifestyle is often discussed in the context of food. But through her groundbreaking anthology Sistah Vegan: Black Female Vegans Speak On Food, Identity, Health, and Society, and through her countless public speaking engagements, Dr. Harper has examined how race – and gender – affects ethical consumption, such as veganism.

Preparing to take part in the upcoming vegan festival, VegFest London, the US author, who has a PhD in Social Science, talks to The Voice about founding the organisation, The Sistah Vegan Project and why veganism has everything to do with race.

Where in The States were you born and where do you currently reside?
I was born in Lebanon, Connecticut and currently live in the San Francisco Bay Area.

When and why did you launch the Sistah Vegan Project?
In 2005, I transitioned into veganism and realised that there was no literature out there that interrogated how racial formation, as well as the white racial caste system in the USA, influenced how and why someone would practice veganism.

Since there was plenty of critical studies of race over the past few decades that explored how racial formation affect praxis, institutions, systems and ethics, I thought it only made sense to interrogate how race – and gender – affects ethical consumption, such as veganism. At the same time, the vegan mainstream literature was very ‘post-racial’ and didn’t engage with the realities of choice and socio-economic class when it comes to how ‘easy’ it is to go vegan, i.e. access to food, food apartheid, lack of transportation, etc. Yes, veganism is an entire lifestyle beyond just eating, but most people enact their veganism first through food.

Why did you feel it was important to specifically chart the experiences of black female vegans in Sistah Vegan: Black Female Vegans Speak On Food, Identity, Health, and Society?
I had never met a black vegan in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I was living at the time, and only saw images of white vegetarians and vegans in magazines or in other ads. So in 2005, I did a call for papers for an anthology searching for black identified women who transitioned into veganism and wanted them to specifically talk about how both their racial and gender experience shaped their vegan praxis.

The Sistah Vegan Project had the anthology published in 2010 and we continue doing publications, conferences, blogging, and consulting around issues of race, ethical consumption, ethics and beyond.

What would you say are the top myths/inaccuracies about veganism?
I think one of the top myths is that veganism has nothing to do with race and that bringing up the consequences of USA’s systemic racism are ‘distracting’ to veganism. Nothing could be further from the truth. One cannot fully understand veganism without understanding how the 500 years-plus white supremacist racial caste system in the USA is the ‘moral’ fabric of the country. Veganism will not be untouched by this reality.

But because most white people in the USA who practice veganism don’t have a critical race literacy to understand this, there is the myth that veganism should be approached with a ‘post-racial’ lens because talking about race is ‘racist’.

What would you say to the critics who might query why it was necessary to chart the vegan experiences of black women, specifically?
The only ‘critics’ I have had a problem with are collectively white identified people who have been taught that ‘race doesn’t matter’ and that bringing up race is ‘racist’. I don’t waste so much time with this. I just send them to the entire canon of critical studies of race, as well as critical studies of food and race that shut the conversation down.


GROUNDBREAKING: Dr. Harper’s 2010 anthology

Your forthcoming book Recipes for Racial Tension Headaches will include issues relating to black masculinity, veganism and ethical consumption? How will you go about exploring these themes?
I will explore black identified vegan men’s praxis of masculinity, blackness, and anti-racism – all which will be unique, depending on their own individual experiences, regional upbringing, age, sexual orientation, etc.

One of the themes that connects all of these men is that they are conscious of how systemic racism, anti-blackness and legacies of colonialism affect their lives and their community’s lives. Such themes of racial formation and impact of a white racial caste system are not typically explored amongst mainstream vegans in the USA. This is because ‘white’ for them is a racial category that is privileged but also ignored when considering how their sense of ethics and veganism are impacted. It’s how most people are socialised/racialised into whiteness.

Are you looking forward to participating in VegFest London and what can audiences expect from you?
I am looking forward to exploring how a white racial caste system in the USA deeply impacts the ethical foodscape in the USA, in particular veganism. I’ll also explore my own personal experiences with trying to broach the subject of race amongst mostly white people who are often dismissive, hostile, or defensive.

VegFest London takes place at Olympia London, Hammersmith Road, London W14 on October 22 and 23. For more information, visit www.london.vegfest.co.uk

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