Guest Blog: Veganism, Black Culture, and Environmental Justice

Written by William Romain

Veganism is often presented as a “white people thing.” We see images of white people with yoga pants coming out of a fancy gym with expensive kombucha in hand on their way to pick up their favorite “African Peanut Stew,” telling us that veganism is “not even that expensive!” Or, we might stumble across “The Vegan Teacher” or any of her followers on TikTok, shaming us for eating meat as it is a sin. These examples, paired with various other unfortunate tactics, tend to play into the notion that veganism is only for white and wealthy people. However, plant-based eating has a long history with African countries and other colonized nations and ethnic groups. Still, because of environmental racism, it is difficult for people of color to go back to their roots. 

“Our ancestors followed a plant-based diet, and they thrived, and most died of old age. The food they ate was organic, and meat and meat products were consumed minimally.” – Tendai Chiapara, Zimbabwean blogger

Before European colonization, various people and communities across African countries had diets rich in fruit, vegetables, and legumes. If they used meat, it was usually only served as an additional seasoning for their meals. However, once the Europeans came, they brought more than diseases. They also brought cattle and capitalistic meat-eating practices. The vast majority of Europeans believed that food was what differentiated countries and made some places superior to others. They also thought that if they were to consume foods from countries deemed inferior to them, they too would become inferior. Thus, Europeans consciously decided to violate their colonized people’s food production and consumption rights, significantly changing their diets, for the worse, for years to come. So, it is important to recognize that veganism is not something new that white people created. In fact, historically, veganism and vegetarianism are something that white people tried to destroy. Because numerous societies of color have advocated for plant-based diets for centuries, for many, plant-based eating can be a return to the homeland from which we have been deprived. 

“Our ancestors were vegan. We have always been vegan, and that tradition and culture should not be forgotten.” – Nicola Kagoro, South African Vegan chef

“It is important to spread Veganism in Africa, because it originated in Africa, our ancestors didn’t eat as much meat, it is through colonization that we learned these crazy meat eating practices.”- Niccola Chef, vegan who cooks for group of female soldiers that go after poachers based in Zimbabwe 

Despite this history, if you Google the word vegans the majority of the images that appear are of white people. However, even if one wants to deny the history, you cannot deny the current impact and benefits of plant-based eating. According to a survey from the Pew Research Center, Black people are three times more likely than white people to become vegan. The most popular reason for this, is that our bodies were not made for this colonized, eurocentric, and meat-centric diet. We can point to a study published in Circulation that reported a near 20% reduction of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (ASCVD) for African Americans who consumed a vegan diet for five weeks. A different study found that African Americans who ate vegan had a 44% reduced risk for hypertension, lower blood pressure, and half the risk of diabetes than nonvegan/vegetarian participants. The Adventist Health Study-2 found that for Black participants who ate a vegan/vegetarian diet, early death and cancer incidence rates were lower 36% and 22% respectively. Clearly, plant-based diets have life-saving benefits on Black people’s health. 

Unfortunately, due to environmental racism, which is defined by GreenAction as “the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color,” it is difficult for people of color to get the fresh food sources they deserve. A disproportionate amount of Black and Brown people live in places that are informally called food apartheids, which is a term that communicates that the “geographic distribution of increased barriers to food access can be explained not by a community’s lack of initiative, but by the continued legacy of racially discriminatory economic and political structures.” This means that there are more gas stations and liquor stores than grocery stores that carry fresh and farmed produce, simply because the government refuses to offer the proper food resources for these areas.

Thankfully, due to the Environmental Justice Movement, which is “an intergenerational, multi-racial and international movement, promoting environmental, economic, and social justice by recognizing the direct link between economic, environmental and health issues and demanding a safe, clean community and workplace environment,” there are many people and organizations that are helping to solve the crisis of environmental racism by providing healthy food and vegan/vegetarian options for people in need. Some organizations in Arkansas, including Be Mighty, provide fresh breakfast and lunches to kids Monday through Saturday. Other necessary organizations are community gardens, specifically the Dunbar Community Garden whose mission is “to provide educational resources and interactive opportunities for youth, families, and the community through sustainable urban agriculture.” There are a few restaurants that can also be included in this list, one of my favorites is The House of Mental. This is a Black owned, soul food based, vegan restaurant in downtown Little Rock. Restaurants like this, offer the chance to healthily experience the richly flavored and bomb cooking that is arguably the basis of Black culture. 

Veganism and vegetarianism have never been just a white people thing. It is important for us to recognize that plant-based eating has a flavorful and dynamic history with many ethnic groups and this lifestyle has the ability to save many of us (health-wise), if we can work together to fight and provide ourselves with the resources we deserve.

Citations:

https://foodispower.org

https://plantbasednews.org/culture/black-americans-more-likely-to-be-vegan-than-white-americans/

https://www.pewresearch.org/science/2016/12/01/the-new-food-fights/

https://www.pcrm.org/news/health-nutrition/vegan-diets-decrease-heart-attack-risk-among-african-americans

https://www.pcrm.org/good-nutrition/healthy-communities/black-health

https://www.pcrm.org/news/health-nutrition/seventh-day-adventists-have-lower-risk-cancer-and-death

https://greenaction.org/what-is-environmental-justice/

https://thebolditalic.com/vegetarianism-isnt-just-for-white-people-6f0c6c348050

https://greenaction.org

https://utenvironment.org/projects/microfarm/food-justice/glossary/food-apartheid-not-desert/

https://thinkzerollc.com/zero-waste-blog-1/f/food-deserts-are-environmental-racism-at-work

http://dunbargarden.org

About the Author:

William Romain has been a dedicated volunteer with the Be Mighty program throughout the pandemic. He is a senior at Little Rock Central High School and has called the library “home” as long as he can remember. William says working with Be Mighty this past year has been his saving grace amidst all the craziness, and that discussions with other volunteers and folks collecting meals have only fueled his passion for food. “From talking about institutionalized racism to the incredibleness of David Fincher,” Be Mighty has given him a place to express his thoughts amidst a food community so open to discussion, growth, and learning.

Read William’s previous guest blog here:

Disclaimer: The content in this blog post does not necessarily reflect the thoughts of the Be Mighty program or the Central Arkansas Library System. We share it to spark conversation and discussion, and to share a glimpse into the thoughts of the audience we serve most closely, kids and teens 18 and under in Little Rock.

If you would like to write a guest blog for Be Mighty Little Rock, please contact Jasmine Zandi, jzandi@cals.org.