I am a middle class, white woman from the United Kingdom, falling exactly into the categories of stereotypically most likely to go vegan. The issues of classist or gendered veganism are whole other articles, but over the next couple of weeks I want to look more deeply into why veganism is a predominantly white, western lifestyle choice? Or if it is just presented in this way.
This week I want to dip into history and consider types of plant-based eating which came long before the term ‘vegan’ was coined by a Brit in 1944 (though even this fact is disputed by Ayinde Howell and others).
The historical presence of plant-based lifestyles lies largely in religion. Some westerners know about the Hindu and Buddhist beliefs of kindness to all beings. Hindus traditionally abstain from meat and eggs, and Buddhists have a belief of no killing, so monks would traditionally accept left-over meat but not that which had been especially killed for their consumption. Both would consume dairy, but dairy farming was not traditional in some parts of Asia, so meals we would now call vegan were common in this area. Jainism is another ancient Indian advocate of kindness to all beings which has its roots in canonical Hindu and Buddhist texts.
This peace with nature has therefore been clearly present in the east since ancient times. It has more recently manifested itself within the Rastafarian Ital culture in Jamaica in the early 20th century. ‘Ital, a variation on ‘vital’, is a belief system, compulsory in the Nyabinghi Mansion of Rastafari, which dictates that its followers should eat food grown from the earth around them – unmodified. Typically, it’s a plant-based diet.’ This lifestyle began with those historically living in the hills, eating the food they could grow around them, and respecting the world they lived in.
So why do we associate Jamaican food with Jerk chicken? And why is India – a country which worships cows so much – the world’s greater exporter of beef?
The answer is depressingly simple, colonialization.
With the suppression of people of colour, came the removal of their freedom to choose their food. Slavery and poverty lead to eating whatever is available – whether it comes from an animal or not. In Afro-American slavery for example this led to Soul Food.
Even Mexican cuisine, one we associate largely with meat, cheese and sour cream, was plant based until the Spanish ‘discovery’ of South America. This was once another culture steeped in using the products around them that was corrupted by western views of what food should be.
So, we can see that there is a strong non-western foundation of the plant-based lifestyle. As with so many other things, white westerners have taken a non-western lifestyle, or at the very least influence from the beliefs of other cultures, and claimed them as their own. White veganism has jumped on this and ridden it straight into a socially perfectionist world: perfect looking food made by what western society deems as “perfect” looking people. The media only provides us with palatable white vegans and their creations, with lists of famous or popular vegans including next to no people of colour. In doing this, we have increased prices of foods – like jackfruit for example – by making them into ‘exotic’ and ‘exciting’ products. These are foods that communities who we have traditionally pushed to the bottom of the socio-economic ladder once relied on.
But is there a difference between environmental or ethical veganism and these traditionally plant-based diets? Clearly yes, their motivations are different, veganism is stricter due to the availability of food and how it is dictated, and the lifestyles will present themselves in different ways. But the principle of thinking about where the food is coming from, and whose right it is to eat what, is rooted in a shared philosophy.
There is something we need to learn properly from these suppressed cultures. In our time of diminishing resources and desperate need for a circular economy there is extreme necessity in adopting the use of what is around us and respecting our environments.
The saddest part about all of this is that so much of this information was new to me in my research. Simply putting a search into google to look into the prevalence of veganism in the non-western world, I am bombarded with recipes and restaurants offering me veganised Asian dishes – but a distinct absence of actual information.
We are not told about these things because our whitewashing society does not deem this information important. Plant based diets aren’t new. Using and protecting the world you live in isn’t a new concept. But the recent rise in veganism conveys that the parts of the western world are finally starting to come back around to this ancient understanding of our need to care for the planet that we have so selfishly ravished.