Dear White Vegans, Stop Appropriating Food

Veganism is going through its own racial reckoning that's a long time coming, considering white vegan influencers have appropriated traditional foods forever.
August 13, 2020, 4:51pm
vegan Vegan influencers Afia Amoako and Emani Corcran
Veganism is going through its own racial reckoning. Photos courtesy of Afia Amoako (left) and Emani Corcran (Right) (Instagram) 

When Afia Amoako became a vegan five years ago, she said she didn’t see herself reflected in the community, which was dominated by wealthy white women.

They often touted recipes—”African peanut stew” or “Asian stir fry”—that rely on racial stereotypes, said Amoako.

“One, they don’t look like you, and, two, they are appropriating your food. Those are ways to turn racialized people away.”

Amoako, 23, is a vegan Instagrammer and blogger based in Toronto (@thecanadianafrican). She said the weeks and months following the killing of George Floyd have been marked with an onslaught of support for Black creators, particularly from white-run accounts. It's a stark departure from the white norm.

 “These white women, they are the gatekeepers of the vegan movement,” Amoako said. “We Black creators have been here this whole time.”

White women are starting to acknowledge Black and racialized vegans now, following a string of racial reckonings happening in several sectors and communities, Amoako said, but “I’m not gonna lie to you, some of us are still skeptical.” 

Amoako isn’t the only racialized vegan who felt sidelined by the community. Black vegan influencer Tabitha Brown previously told VICE that before she cut out meat and dairy she thought vegans were “white ladies who do yoga.” White people and their blogs dominate the results when key terms like “vegans,” “vegetarians,” or “vegan recipes” are plugged into Google. Nital Jethalal, a board member for Toronto Vegetarians Association, told VICE News he has been putting together a conference for vegans and it has been a lot easier to find prominent panellists online who are white. “The problem is few people think to go to the second page of Google results,” Jethalal said. 

Ayamase Stew and Ofada Rice

Ayamase Stew and Ofada Rice courtesy of Afia Amoako

The reality is that people of colour, especially Black people, are more likely to give up meat than white people. According to a 2018 Gallup poll, only 3 percent of white Americans said they follow a vegetarian diet, whereas 9 percent of “nonwhite” Americans identified as vegetarian. A 2016 Pew Research Center Poll found that 3 percent of people in the U.S. follow a vegan diet, but the number jumps to 8 percent for Black people. In fact, Black people make up the fastest growing vegan demographic right now. 

In this post-Floyd world of racial reckonings, many vegans are starting to look inwards at their own privilege. White vegan influencers are urging people to follow BIPOC accounts as part of the #AmplifyMelanatedVoices campaign, while racialized vegans who have amassed large followings continue to post about Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Stories are surfacing in the vegan corners of the internet, highlighting vegan Black Instagram accounts and vegan Black-owned businesses

Even pop star Lizzo has come out as vegan, coupling her new diet with the body positivity movement and racial justice. Thug Kitchen, a white-owned vegan blog that has faced years of consistent criticism for its use of anti-Black stereotypes in its branding, finally changed its name to “Bad Manners” in June. More and more Instagram accounts I follow (I’m vegan myself) are calling on Westerners to stop whitewashing vegan and vegetarian diets. 

Amoako told VICE News she started her Instagram account after going vegan five years ago because she wanted to create space for people like her. “I was like, ‘A lot of cultural foods are easily plant-based and no one is talking about this,’” said Amoaka, whose family is part of the Ashanti tribe in inland Ghana. “There are some huge vegan bloggers even in Canada who are guilty.” 

Amoako said she’s also not surprised Black people are turning to veganism, considering health outcomes in Black communities are disproportionately worse than in white ones. By going vegan or adopting nutritious diets, “Black people take matters into their own hands,” she said. But she added that vegetable-rich diets are not new for people of colour.

“It almost seems like now veganism is a new thing when in reality it's been here for centuries,” she said.

In fact, several communities globally, most of which are racialized, are either plant-based or largely so. According to the latest counts, Brazil and India have the largest vegetarian populations in the world: about a third of Indians—375 million people—and 14 percent of Brazilians, or 29 million people, are vegetarian. Taiwan, Jamaica, Mexico, and Vietnam also have sizable vegetarian or vegan populations. And while that’s not to discount the growing popularity of plant-based diets in predominantly white countries like Switzerland, New Zealand, Germany, and Australia, mainstream portrayals of vegetarianism and veganism are largely white. 

A bowl of Red Red

A bowl of Red Red (earthenware bowl with a ring of plantains and beans inside) courtesy of Afia Amoako

Western plant-based accounts often omit or forget to nod at the origins of some of their favourite foods—legumes, yams, rice, quinoa, chia seeds, tofu—and who cultivates them. Quinoa, for example, is a high protein, gluten-free grain originating in Latin America, and continues to be a staple for Indigenous communities in the Andean region. "There is a story that 3,000 to 5,000 years ago, the stars gave quinoa to the Aymara Indigenous people as a gift. These cultural roots give farmers here enormous benefit over people who try to copy them," John Bliek of the International Labour Organisation told BBC News.

Today, Bolivia and Peru produce between 70 percent and 80 percent of global quinoa supply. Whether the crop’s surge in popularity has created barriers for local communities to access it themselves is in dispute, but the volatility associated with rising and falling prices as well as competition inherent in global markets can be difficult for farmers on the ground to manage.

Divya Mehta, 24, grew up eating mostly vegan in San Fernando, Trinidad, dishes like Callaloo—blended greens mixed with other vegetables like pumpkin—over rice as well as salad, roti, plantain, fried rice, and Tomato Choka (roasted tomatoes with garlic and onions), Mehta said. 

Mehta said part of the problem might be that the term “vegan” is more popular in North American than in other parts of the world. “The food we eat has been passed down from generation to generation; it's been here,” Mehta said. “It’s just been modernized by Western society and we (racialized people around the world) just didn't know to call it ‘vegan.’ At the end of the day, vegan food is just food.”

Almost one-third of Delhi, India residents identify as vegetarian today. A rich variety of lentil dishes—yellow lentil, brown lentil, and split chickpea dals, and mung beans cooked in different curries marked Siddharth Seth’s upbringing in New Delhi. Seth was raised vegetarian because his family identifies as Hindu and follows an interpretation of the religion that preaches nonviolence— Ahimsa—including towards animals. For Seth, who is now 40, vegetarianism was never a fad; it was just part of daily life.

“When I was born and raised vegetarian I was not thinking of it as a matter of choice,” said Seth, who has since become vegan. “My entire family was vegetarian and it was the only right thing to do because you're being kind to others and animals.”

Seth brought up the cheaper costs associated with plants as well. He said that in India, meat-eating is often associated with wealth; richer people can afford to slaughter an animal, whereas others relied on cheaper sources of protein, like lentils. 

Emani Corcran, 23, started her Instagram account, BLK AND VEGAN, this year. She said the media is to blame for the “vegan girl” stereotype, a girl who is “white, tanned, super skinny, and does yoga—the L.A. Girl.” This imagery ignores “the roots of a lot of cultures” and risks conflating Western understanding of “whole foods” or “organic foods” with whiteness, instead of paying homage to cultures teeming with vegetables, grains, and legumes, Corcran said. 

Ultimately, it’s up to people with a platform to highlight the diversity of plant-based diets, she said.

“Showing that many dishes from around the world are already plant-based is a huge step for people of colour who are maybe intimidated by veganism,” Corcran said. “That’s what influencers are supposed to do: show what you like to eat. I’m a woman of colour, so I like to eat what women of colour like to eat, and that’s what I’m going to show.”

Vegan empanadas

Vegan empanadas by Emani Corcran (Instagram)

I found Corcran’s account after a white Canadian vegan influencer with more than 200,000 followers on Instagram tagged her in early July. According to Amoako, efforts by big name vegans, especially the white gatekeepers, need to be sustained.

“People didn't see the value of our pages until now, but that drove us. And now, this is the time,” Amoako said. “The thing that irks us is when the #amplifymelanatedvoices happened our biggest question was: Are you going to support me in the long-term?”

For Seth, a lifelong vegetarian-turned vegan, watching racial conversations unfold in the plant-based community has uncovered how people assess whether there is room for them. 

“I know a lot of people who don't connect with veganism...like, “Oh, I could be vegetarian or vegan, but it's too expensive” or, you know, “It’s only something a certain kind of person could do,’” Seth said. “But I have seen the other side of it where people of colour do connect with it. That’s the conundrum and it depends on who you are and where you are from.”

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