the mainstream vegan movement has an orientalist problem
by ashley layo masing, 2nd year sociology at LSE
Perhaps I should preface this article with the fact that I was a vegetarian for 2 years with an interest in animal rights and environmentalism. At the time of writing this, I still maintain a vested interest in environmentalism and have now taken on a pollo-pescatarian diet (meaning that I have given up red meat entirely). I’m still debating how central my interest in animal rights is.
Aside from environmentalism and animal rights, I had and always have been an advocate for social justice, inclusion, diversity, anti-racism, intersectionality, queer activism, and quite recently, ecosocialism and post-colonial Marxism. The truth of the matter is that a vegan diet is the most sustainable diet, reducing an individual’s carbon footprint by up to 73%. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to dispute this when the research and evidence is in support of this claim. Taking on a vegan diet seemed inevitable in my next step as an environmentalist.
Yet, after having been involved with people in the vegan movement and listening to people in the online vegan community, I cannot help but feel…antagonised as a person of colour. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of vegans of colour out there doing the good work, the issue herein lies in the way the mainstream vegan community treats any sort of issue that extends beyond animals/ the environment.
A few years back, a quick YouTube search of some of the biggest vegan activist names had led me down a rabbit hole of anti-feminist, anti-PoC, anti-working class rants. Vilifying working class people for prioritising high-calorie, cheap food (that is typically non-vegan) was a norm, and so was comparing slaughter houses to slavery / the Holocaust. A deeper analysis of these problems can be found here.
What drew me into writing this article, however, was something that happened last year. Someone from the vegan twitter-sphere posted this:
For those of you who are unaware of what the picture is depicting, it is a traditional Chinese hot-pot, where people would gather around to cook food in and immediately eat out of the pot. This method or dish has been a staple in Chinese cuisine. And yes, in case you were wondering, it can be made vegan. This caused outrage in the online Chinese, and by extension, Asian community. One twitter user responded to this tweet with this:
There is a deep disconnect between the mainstream, typically white American vegan community, and the cuisine that they consume. Tofu, tempeh, seitan, etc., staples in many a vegan dishes have their origins in Buddhist and Hindu cultures for centuries now. Yet, there is also the tendency to present Asian cultures as simple and uncivilised, whilst also appropriating elements of their cuisine to fit into their worldview. It shouldn’t be a stretch to say that the mainstream vegan movement has an Orientalist problem.
Edward Said in his book ‘Orientalism’ talks about the way construction of the non-west (the Orient) in relation to the Occident, and how the portrayal of the Orient is embedded within asymmetrical relations of power. The mainstream vegan movement has painted an interesting portrait of Asia: it has portrayed us as a kind of Mecca of vegan food, with many a staunch vegans making pilgrimages to places like Thailand and India to go and experience their cuisine and lifestyle.
As a result, Asian food and culture is becoming increasingly appropriated and bastardised for a Western vegan lifestyle – but to be honest, this isn’t inherently a bad thing. What is so wrong with changing your diet using centuries old recipes for the sake of saving the environment, by going against the grain of Western capitalist modernity that pushes us to unsustainably consume meat?
The problem is when the cognitive dissonance becomes so apparent in the mainstream movement that someone can say something like Mr. Weinhofen did, while continuing to benefit from the same culture they have vilified. Yet, is there really a difference in these contrasting portraits of Asia? In the end, Asia has been reduced to nothing more than this simple, backwards, paradise, instead of the booming developing continent full of a diverse range of peoples and cultures.
Going back to Malaysia while I was still a vegetarian wasn’t a difficult thing for me: many Buddhist and Indian restaurants were able to accommodate my diet perfectly. But at the same time, eating out with my family was still a difficult process, especially when fish paste and lard were staple ingredients in many dishes. Furthermore, my decision to give up on pork has been especially difficult considering the way it connects me to my Indigenous culture and peoples. There is a difficulty for me to bring up the important role of cuisine as a cohesive force in my culture to some vegans I knew, and the things I’d be giving up as a result of transitioning to becoming completely vegan. But at the same time, I knew many vegetarians/vegans in Malaysia who have managed to balance their culture and diet. But rarely do you hear conversations surrounding this specific nuance that many vegan Asians have to go through. After all, Asia is just a magical paradise for Western vegans to come in and have a good time.
The point I’m trying to make here is that the mainstream vegan movement has many problems it has to address. So far, there has been a movement within the mainstream vegan movement to look at the issues concerning the environment, race, indigeneity, gender, capitalism etc. I recommend vegan leftists such as Mexie or a privileged vegan for these more nuanced conversations.
But the main point I want to draw out is to be aware of the diverse range of issues being faced by different types of vegans and the many ways their identities have shaped their relationship to the diet and the movement. Marginalising these voices does nothing but alienate people, whilst continuing to contribute to an unhelpful and problematic portrayal of the lives of different kinds of people living around the world.