Stop calling veganism “compassionate”: intersections of poverty, feminism, and veganism

Note, for the Curious or Demanding: Yes, I am vegan — or at least, as vegan as I can be. My girlfriend, some would say sadly, is not, but that doesn’t matter much as I am in charge of running and supplying the kitchen.

One of the main arguments for becoming vegan is that our food choices don’t exist in a vacuum, correct?

Some arguments for veganism say that because of the violence of slaughterhouses and dairy farms, many of the workers therein either sustain PTSD or transfer the aggression of the killing they do onto their families. And there are arguments involving climate change and the brutality of murder and health and self-determination and all that jazz.

I’m not here to argue against any of it. I agree with lots of it, after all, or I wouldn’t try to practice veganism in the first place. But all these arguments for veganism aren’t the be all, end all in this discussion. There are, in fact, legitimate reasons not to be a vegan and I’m tired of people ignoring them for the sake of a self-congratulating narrative.

Self-congratulation and an increasing ignorance of privilege is not what’s necessary to grow a kind, self-sustaining, effective movement. Those attitudes stagnate a movement, make it think that selling out another marginalized group for the sake of its own progress is a good move. I’m reminded of PETA here — which is known less for its animal rights activism and more for its fat-shaming, sexism and racism.

Though… being honest, I admit that I’m not as surprised by the racism as I should be. Why? Because there aren’t many other people of color involved in the vegan community and there aren’t many other poor people involved in the vegan community.

Being vegan is hard enough right now, when I just have to deal with powerful depression and a lack of money. It would have been impossible, say, ten years ago, when my grandpa worked nights cleaning passenger planes, my grandmum worked at all times of the day assembling newspapers, internet access was negligible, and I was nine fucking years old. Hell, it’s still impossible for my parents now for a third of the year, when they work for eighteen hours a day at home and they fear that them cooking/eating/taking care of other basic needs will make them look inefficient or unprofessional.

The most naive reading of my situation will seem to offer some hope to the privileged, that it is possible to go vegan and still be poor. But that completely ignores all the challenges that we are privileged enough to overcome. We live in one of the largest cities in our state, in one of the better neighborhoods of that city. I can count at least four supermarkets within a ten minute drive, and all of them have tofu and ground soy in stock. Even the Walmart.

But if you cross the bridge, you find something completely different. There are tons of chicharronerias there, because it’s cheap and culturally affirming. There aren’t many big supermarkets in that side of town, and in the few that exist, the quality of food is markedly worse, and there’s no millet, soy sausages, nutritional yeast, or any other rich vegan food. There’s not cheap tofu either. Experts call this “living in a food desert,” or alternatively, “not being able to live near the university or other centers of commerce in the city.”

And that shit matters, a lot. Because adopting veganism takes time, energy, and education. And I fully admit that I’m an outlier, going through an extremely spartan lifestyle with what means are available to me. I think that asking the things I’m doing of others is ridiculous and unfair. It shows a huge lack of understanding of the roles poverty, culture, and disability play in our lives.

Going vegan has made it harder to eat some of the foods I grew up eating and loving, which were some of the last ties I had to Venezuela. Going vegan has been hard, since it requires more preparation from me in order to have edible food ready. It’s hard, because depression takes my energy and will away from me, because it’s impossible to cook while undergoing complete sensory overload or while having a seizure, and because I don’t have the strength/coordination to operate the only reliable can opener in the house. Going vegan has made my health worse at times, because the scarcity that veganism has foist on me has made it easier for me to succumb to anorexia.

What I’m saying is that shit is hard, okay? And that shit is complicated. To frame veganism as “compassionate” is to shame poor people of color for not having the opportunity to adopt your way of living, or to shame people with disabilites for not having the means.

This self-congratulation only serves to keep the whitest, richest members of the group satisfied with themselves; it sets up a hierarchy of Just and Deficient people, which is exactly how a system of oppression and kyriarchy propagates. It also ignores how veganism can also fuel imperialistic and racist narratives, such as how pesticide treatment of plants is poisoning the undocumented immigrants and other people of color tending to crops or how the quinoa demand is tearing parts of Bolivia apart.

Vegans are complicit too. In imperialism, in racism, in kyriarchal exploitation. I think that veganism is a better lifestyle than carnism, but no amount of good on its part is be able to justify the current toxicity of the internet vegan community.

3 thoughts on “Stop calling veganism “compassionate”: intersections of poverty, feminism, and veganism

  1. Circumstances vary. I eat vegan, almost never pay for food, and typically have plenty. On very bad weeks I’m reduced to getting 90% of my calories from white bread, but that’s rare. It’s not difficult for everyone. If it were hard for me, I probably wouldn’t do it. Presenting veganism as a huge challenge potentially bolsters rather than undermines the self-congratulation you criticize. Grains and legumes tend to be super cheap; various folks across the planet eat nearly vegan because they have to. Poverty can swing both ways.

  2. Interesting point of view. And I totally understand how crippling depression can be. I agree that there is a lot of privilege that goes on in the vegan community. I am a vegan currently subsisting on lentils, pasta and frozen veggies since that is all I can afford right now. The specialty items are just too expensive. I happen to be on a bus route where I can get to a decent grocery store but I know that there have been times in my life where not even that was available. It makes me want to throw up when I hear vegans who have the disposable income to go out to eat bemoaning the fact that there aren’t enough vegan options. It’s like, come on guys, really? You mean that the twelve restaurants that cater to your diet aren’t enough? But I think it’s like that for many groups that exist in a bubble. I’ve found a lot of vegan communities are fairly homogenous when it comes both to race and income level (though woe be it that you try to address this in most public forum). I’m not saying that all vegan communities are like this, just a few of the ones I’ve happened to be part of over the past several years.

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