Several high-profile vegan influencers are facing criticisms for comparing the slaughtering of animals to the Holocaust and the meat and dairy industries to rape and slavery—feeding into mainstream veganism’s stereotype as a lifestyle choice for fit, rich white people.
One said, “animal lives matter,” while another was called out for doing blackface after she painted her face and skin black. Multiple have posted signs that say, “End the Animal Holocaust, Abolish Animal Slavery,” and they’ll call critics who don’t like what they’re saying “speciesist.”
“Anytime there is an attempt to equate the Holocaust with other events, it’s deeply offensive to me, as it is to many Jews and those survivors,” said Abraham Silverman, a 78-year-old Holocaust survivor and manager of public relations at a Canadian branch of B’nai Brith, a global Jewish human rights organization.
Silverman said the comparison of animal slaughter and meat consumption to the Holocaust undermines the horrors that millions of Jews suffered during World War II, and inspires anti-Semitic folks online at a time when hate crimes targeting them are skyrocketing.
Veganism has exploded over the last two decades, with nearly 10 million people identifying as vegan in the U.S. alone—up from less than 300,000 in 2004, according to Ipsos. Even though Black people make up the fastest growing demographic of plant-based eaters, veganism is largely viewed as a white, elite lifestyle choice. When veganism’s biggest stars use language deemed oppressive, it further isolates racialized people and religious minorities in the movement.
“This creates a reality where people from oppressed communities don't want to be involved in the vegan movement,” said Paula Meninato, a vegan Latina activist and artist based in Philadelphia.
It’s concerning, Meninato added, and undermines the fact that veganism actually has roots in racialized communities. Many Indigenous peoples have also spoken out against militant forms of veganism for perpetuating colonialism and failing to acknowledge the relationships Indigenous communities have to land and animals.
“What does it say about (veganism) that Black and brown people are more likely to be vegan, yet we persist with this reputation that the movement is white and elite?” said Christoper Sebastian, a Columbia University writer and researcher who specializes in race and animal rights. “It’s a PR problem.”
Australian animal rights activist James Aspey, 34, has been vegan for more than eight years and is best known for going a full year without speaking to draw attention to his cause. He has given speeches internationally and boasts 254,000 followers on Instagram.
The first line of Aspey’s Instagram bio says, “Animal rights is an anti-Holocaust movement,” comparing the slaughter of animals to mass execution of persecuted people. Throughout his page you can easily find several posts referencing the Holocaust, slavery, rape—and a comment where he says “animal lives matter.” Many posts are screenshots of his conversations and debates with people who disagree with his messaging. “Please tell me you’re vegan, because if you aren’t, you support the rape and slaughter of female earthlings and that is very NOT FEMINIST,” he says to a woman in one post.
In a statement to VICE World News, Aspey refuted the idea that his posts alienate people.
“If people are so easily hurt that hearing a word can cause them significant trauma, I would suggest they have a lot of healing to do before they use the internet, which has violence and triggering words all over it,” Aspey said. “The truth is, they aren’t actually hurt by hearing the word ‘Holocaust,’ they simply disagree that non-human Earthlings deserve to have their situation described using the same terminology that was used to describe human atrocities, and that is because they are speciesist.”
In some cases, when the behaviour is called out, the influencers double down on their posts or draw attention to critics by posting their exchanges, some public and some private, which can result in racialized and religious minority vegans getting trolled and doxed.
Aspey said Jewish people, feminists, and other marginalized groups should feel compelled to join the vegan movement because they understand what animals are going through. “Accurately describing the animals plight as a Holocaust should get Jewish people (and all people!) to realize how serious this matter is,” he said.
For generations, white people have compared people of colour and religious minorities to animals, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that oppressed people are harmed when certain vegan factions do the same thing, said Los Angeles-based vegan activist Tyra June.
“Animals don't care about which words you use, but humans do, and our fellow humans are triggered by these words,” she told VICE World News.
Facing scrutiny over their tactics, many of the movement’s bigger icons are publicly offering support and solidarity to one another.
Influencer Kristina Carrillo-Bucaram is one of them. Carrillo-Bucaram is best known for advocating for a raw vegan lifestyle—a diet that consists entirely of uncooked plants. Her YouTube account, which features videos ranging from raw recipes to self-care routines, has amassed over 100 million views, and her Instagram (@fullyrawkristina) has 1 million followers.
On Instagram, she occasionally posts messages of gratitude below Aspey’s animal Holocaust-themed posts. “Thank you for keeping me calm last night and being there. Thank you for helping the animals. You have so much courage, James,” she said in one.
Carrillo-Bucaram has faced backlash for posing in blackface and for welcoming John Rose, a vegan who has publicly shared anti-Semitic and anti-vax views, onto her YouTube channel. “Hitler was actually pretty nice to the Jews,” Rose said in one of his own videos.
Carrillo-Bucaram has denied the photographs—in which she is painted black and covered in colourful fruit and plants—are blackface. In a statement to VICE World News, her lawyer Jessica Kuredjian said Carrillo-Bucaram is “well-aware of the painful history of blackface.”
“As a creative expression, an artist painted neon fruits and vegetables on her body with a black backdrop,” Kuredjian said. “Kristina has since publicly apologized to anyone who was offended by the photos and invites anyone who was personally offended to reach out to her to discuss this.”
The statement also denied Carrillo-Bucaram knew Rose’s views before she hosted him onto her YouTube channel. “Kristina neither bears fault nor responsibility for the historically inaccurate and offensive views allegedly expressed by that individual,” Kuredjian said, adding Carrillo-Bucaram removed her YouTube videos featuring Rose upon learning his beliefs.
This year, plant-based news site VegNews removed Carrillo-Bucaram from its vegan awards ballot after hearing concerns from readers. “When we shared Kristina as a nominee for Favorite Vegan Instagrammer in the 2021 Veggie Awards, we became inundated with public and private messages from VegNews readers voicing concerns over some of Kristina's past content,” VegNews senior editor Richard Bowie said in a statement. He added his team took her off the ballot because of the “well-documented nature” of the content, and the way readers felt about it.
He said VegNews has apologized for not reaching out to Carrillo-Bucaram before removing her from the awards ballot.
Carrillo-Bucaram posted two videos last month denying allegations of racism and anti-Semitism. She also denounced VegNews for the way the site treated her, calling the behaviour “white supremacy” (she’s Ecuadorian-Lebanese), and blames the hate she’s been receiving since on “cancel culture.” Her supporters, many of whom have hundreds of thousands or millions of followers, have also spoken out against cancel culture.
In 2019, Carrillo-Bucaram posted a video addressing rumours swirling about her at the time, including that she held similar beliefs to Rose.
“All she had to do was say, “I made a mistake and will continue to apologize,” June said, adding she wishes Carrillo-Bucaram had validated concerns and moved on. (June has publicly criticized Carrillo-Bucaram via social media.)
In Carrillo-Bucaram’s Instagram highlight entitled “Rumors,” she includes screenshots of Instagram users who accused her of racism and anti-Semitism. In doing so, June said she’s putting vegans of colour at risk of harassment; many marginalized vegans have since received hateful messages. One vegan of colour refused to speak to VICE World News on the record about it because they feared for their safety.
“Just as Kristina is responsible for her words and actions, so were the individuals that left public comments on posts,” Kuredjian said. “Public statements ought to be defensible. It is not on Kristina to defend the people bullying her.”
Kuredjian added that some of the comments targeted Kristina’s relationship with her long-term partner. Of the 21 posts shared in Carrillo-Bucaram’s highlight, two reference her boyfriend.
Aspey and others have deflected criticism by saying veganism is “only for the animals”—not for the people criticizing them. But others cite plenty of reasons to give up meat, including animal rights, human rights, environmentalism, and health. After all, few can dispute the horrific conditions in slaughterhouses that harm both humans and animals, or the worrisome effects factory farming has on the climate crisis. (For transparency, I’m a vegan, too.)
Sebastian said he understands why some activists are doubling down.
“It’s a righteous indignation that fuels our desire to use incendiary language—like the more triggered people are, the better job we’re doing,” Sebastian said. “I get that but it’s not effective or meaningful.”
When influential vegans shut out huge groups of people, it skews mainstream perceptions of what veganism is and what it can become, June said, which is a movement largely centred on compassion. “Something I’ve noticed is Black and Indigenous and other people of colour vegans just don't get a platform or the amount of exposure that these stereotypical white male vegans have,” June said.
“We’ve got to start asking these questions,” she said. “What makes people think ignoring human oppression will help?”
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