January 27, 2013
“Why did you become a vegan?” I hear this question more than almost any other. So much so that it seems about time to write an article about it – but not this one. The question I never hear is, “As someone who has spent four years as a vegan, what do you think about now?”
When I became vegan, I was thinking a lot more about environmentalism than about issues of social justice. Thirty percent of the Earth’s land is now used for livestock production, including over 70 percent of previously forested land in the Amazon – a substantial biodiversity loss. Feedcrop cultivation and cattle waste pose threats to scarce freshwater supplies. Animal agriculture is responsible for a huge portion of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, about 51 percent, according to a World Watch study. Sometime in the past four years I learned that minimizing or slowing global climate change now is a social justice issue. After all, the poor and marginalized worldwide are likely to be the most affected by increased frequency of harsh storms and droughts. Food choices, besides environmental, are also political; they have the potential to reflect and support the human rights we believe in.
My food choices came to mean more to me after I was introduced to theories on gender and race. A white high school student, I had the recognition, upon first reading Peggy McIntosh’s “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” that I had been raised to see my life as morally neutral. McIntosh wrote about whiteness and race, but I was also thinking about other types of privileges. My (white) privilege extended, I realized at that time, to what I ate. The status quo of meat consumption had seemed unquestionable until right then. Yes, I grew up eating animal products, but I had lost the illusion that I could just keep on with my lifestyle. The experience of recognizing that you are not ethically neutral—in fact, you are perhaps having a negative impact—is frightening.
Wonderful writers, including but not limited to A. Breeze Harper at Sistah Vegan and the contributors to Vegans of Color, write about how race, class, gender, and sexuality affect the experience of those who practice plant-based diets. In her work, Harper has discussed, among other things, the erasure of black women and men in popular portrayals of veganism; and how a plant-based diet can serve as a means to health and decolonization in a society of systemic oppression. Eating is an expression of power and agency. Eating can either help or hinder the oppressed.
But veganism is often seen as a middle-class, white privilege. In response, many vegans will point out that plant-based staples such as beans and rice are less expensive than meat. Many vegans will point out that there are hidden (environmental and social) costs in animal products, and that we will pay for them someday. These things are true; also true is the fact that our very ability to recognize, learn about, and correct our habits can be a product of privilege.
I am making some efforts to achieve the distant goals of becoming both carbon-neutral and truly ethically neutral. My hope is to recognize the privileges available to me and act in a way that is respectful, not ignorant, of this accessibility. Past generations of feminists have secured many freedoms for me; now, I seek more freedoms for myself and other folks – for people of color, queer people, trans people, poor people, people with disabilities, people with mental illness, people who are incarcerated, women, and others. Beyond the observably feminist agenda, I also seek more freedoms for nonhuman animals and plants. I believe that animals and plants should have more opportunities to live and thrive, not as part of monocultures cultivated for human conception, but with greater biodiversity.
I have access to produce, to grains and nuts, to soy and specialty “health” products; a family and community that value or at least tolerate that decision. Because I am able to eat vegan, I do. In my experience, being a vegan (if it is economically and nutritionally feasible) is easier than being a feminist. In my diet I can draw very clear lines for myself, which requires only that I obey a habit at each meal. In contrast, responsible feminism requires the mental exercise of regularly throwing off the patriarchy’s kyriarchy’s hold.
Responsible eating, like responsible feminism, requires learning to question previously held beliefs. It requires tuning one’s ear to try to hear more voices. Who have you not listened to before? Who has society not listened to yet? I find that the many new voices I have been exposed to via feminist, environmentalist, and queer theory feed into my conscience, affecting my understanding of how I affect others, and the physical world, with my decisions. Pardon me for the synesthetic metaphor, but very few things taste better.
I am human, not perfect, and still limited in my eating choices by price and time. But I try to improve my eating, like my social justice. “Textbook” veganism is complicated by social justice concerns. For instance, the former does not account for the fact that plant-based items are not all equally just. The revenue of certain tomatoes, oranges, chocolates, and coffees reaches the humans who cultivate them; while the revenue of other food products can force people to work in slavery conditions. And these choices are made differently by different people; a friend of mine chose flexitarianism – she usually avoids eating animals but most values the human connection of accepting food that is offered to her.
Many feminists cede privileges. Men who fight for gender equality combat the existence of male privilege, because they understand it to be unjust. Some cis, trans, queer, and straight women who are feminists do not have access to the discourse of conventional femininity, and thus the agency that can make life easier for the not-in-power. People who do not fit into the gender binary frequently have access to neither the power nor agency of masculinity/femininity. A whole lot of folks stand up against injustice, and may lose some access because of it.
Some of us vegans indulge in healthy complaints about the inconvenient or infuriating aspects of a vegan lifestyle in society right now. There are often no vegan options at a dining hall or eatery; we receive a lot of irksome comments; an individual vegan is often treated as if they speak for the whole vegan hive mind. Vegans cede certain privileges when they make the choice to become vegan – the privilege to eat some foods, the privilege to participate in some food-related forms of culture and socialization. But – and this is important – vegans do not face the degree of marginalization that many populations do.
In choosing to eat vegan, I have found not oppression but empowerment. At age 15, no longer able to see myself as ethically neutral, I felt guilty each time I ate dairy or eggs. A vegan diet, vegans are often told by nonvegans, requires superhuman willpower. At 15, as now, I was tempted to hesitate when faced with things that involve “willpower,” because the “power” part sounds like an awful lot of effort expended. Yet I propose an alternate definition, one that indicates the “power” received from the use of will. Because, here is a little vegan-secret: the comic series/movie Scott Pilgrim speaks the truth, I receive superpowers from veganism. In many circles, there is social currency in it; it is seen as impressive or unique. On a more personal level, to practice a lifestyle in accordance with my beliefs is an incredible privilege, and gives me incredible confidence. My veganism is feminist. I find it an incredibly empowering experience to listen to my conscience – and to act.
A. Grace Steig is a sophomore in Yale College. She is the copy editor for Broad Recognition.