[Update 03/2017: This essay will be included in Aph’s new book Aphro-ism: Essays on Pop Culture, Feminism, and Black Veganism from Two Sisters. If you want access to the edited/updated version of this essay, please contact Aph at: aphkoproductions[at]gmail[dot]com]
By: Aph Ko
Now that the mainstream is slowly taking notice of black and brown vegans because some folks are legitimately excited about this (and others are realizing that it’s marketable), there seems to be a new, but unsurprising, trend popping up. Because of the mainstream reductive framing of black veganism as simply black people planting gardens and advocating for animal rights (rather than a socio-political movement that uses the black social experience as a launching pad for re-articulating animal oppression), there seems to be an unfortunate air of respectability politics emerging from mainstream stories about black vegans and other vegans of color.
Because mainstream veganism is saturated with Eurocentric logic, the assumption is that black folks who go vegan are “transcending” their negative situations, not only in terms of their health, but also in terms of their racial location.
In particular, the mainstream seems to be obsessing over former black ‘gang-members’ going vegan or ‘gangsters’ who are now vegan. There’s not one week that goes by that I’m not seeing stories coming from certain mainstream pages centering on former black gang-members or ‘gangsters’ who have seen the light and are now vegan and ‘peaceful.’
Guerrilla gardeners like Ron Finley (known as the Gangsta Gardener) are fighting white supremacy in creative ways, despite the fact that he doesn’t explicitly say this. However, his story is being de-contextualized and re-framed through a narrative that makes the dominant class comfortable. Wow-If black people just stopped being lazy and cleaned up their communities, they would be respected more!
However, Ron isn’t just digging holes in the ground and planting food for fun. He’s fighting a white supremacist capitalist system that has shoved certain bodies into communities where there’s no access to fresh foods and good healthcare. Actually, it’s sad that black people need to plant gardens on curbs because our government doesn’t care that these bodies are nutritionally starving. This is an epidemic that goes hand-in-hand with communities in Flint, Michigan drinking poisoned water. This isn’t a romantic, “feel good” story. This is fucked up—plain and simple.
There’s something ironic about a man like Ron Finley, who plants gardens in spaces white supremacy created to nutritionally and intellectually starve minorities, being celebrated by the mainstream news media.
The goal of guerrilla gardening isn’t to make black folks look more peaceful and benevolent—it’s to engage in a new type of fight where we are taking care of ourselves in an era that’s actively trying to poison us and kill us. It’s an act of survival.
It’s great that people like Ron and other urban farmers are engaging with DIY, grassroots activism to fight back, however, we need to watch how we frame their stories and who is framing their stories.
Ron’s story is treated very similarly to black vegan gang-member transformation stories which are currently being used to show the “mainstream” how black people can be civilized, nurturing, productive, and peaceful, especially at a time when the dominant class is panicking because of Black Lives Matter protests and riots. However, the framing of these stories coincidentally leaves out any mention of white supremacy and systemic racism which is why these folks are in gangs in the first place and why they are forced to garden on curbs and other nontraditional spaces.
This rhetoric reeks of black-on-black crime nostalgia as though black folks are individually responsible for “cleaning up” crime-filled communities that they seemingly created, even though these spaces are a product of systemic racism and classism. The responsibility is still on the minorities.
There’s something infantilizing about the framing of these black vegan stories and spotlights. It reminds me of people who chalk up black-on-blame crime to “fatherless” men rather than systemic racism and generations worth of racial terrorism. Black men are seemingly “acting out” because “their fathers are absent.”
Similarly, black vegans who were former gang-members are framed through a narrative of transformation and maturation as though they were merely dangerous irresponsible black children before, and now they’re respectable, civilized grown adults who are individually “transcending” racial stereotypes because they made the individual choice to go vegan and plant gardens.
Eurocentric articulations of veganism are framed as a therapeutic corrective to racism.
Because veganism is still associated with whiteness, there’s a mythological narrative that says vegans are (conveniently) peaceful, non-violent, intelligent and evolved, which is why minorities who go vegan are treated as if they’ve transcended their race. The framing of ‘gang-member’ to ‘gardener’ is saturated with a racialized narrative.
This is generally why I dislike videos that display non-vegan minorities trying vegan foods because it is always wrapped up in racialized stereotypes. Check out this video below of minority “gangsters” trying vegan food for the first time which relies on tropes of violence and drug-use to show just how backwards these particular folks are because they are not vegan. In fact, all of these “gangsters” think the kale is weed. Veganism is so far removed from their everyday discourse and they are framed as unintelligent, infantile, and criminal. We are supposed to be entertained by their lack of familiarity with healthy foods.
Because minorities are viewed as sub-human, watching these folks try healthy vegan foods (read as white people foods) is framed in a comical way that’s reminiscent of watching a chimpanzee wear a tuxedo. In both scenarios, they are framed as emulating “ideal homo sapiens” (read as white humans) and miserably failing, naturalizing their supposed inferiority and the superiority of the dominant class.
Those of us who actively frame veganism within a non-Eurocentric framework know that the “vegans are peaceful” trope isn’t necessarily true considering we’re consistently dealing with racial attacks and violence almost every day from mainstream vegans because they are uncomfortable with our articulation of vegan activism.
So long as we plant gardens and advocate for animals outside of an explicit racial context, we are fine, but when we start to create our own movements and theories that take into account our racial experiences within white supremacist capitalism, then we are attacked.
Unsurprisingly, veganism and animal rights are domains that the dominant class feels ownership over which is why they incessantly feel the need to insert their comments into our spaces when our projects have absolutely nothing to do with them. They approve of the Ron Finley’s of the world and in the next breath, chastise the Syl Ko’s of the world who are actively trying to articulate a vegan politic that doesn’t conflict with racial oppression.
Since veganism is seemingly associated with whiteness, there’s an unfortunate narrative of racial transcendence for minority folks who embrace the vegan lifestyle. So, when we still insert our racial experiences even after we embrace veganism, the dominant class is confused. What does race have to do with veganism? We let you into this space where you won’t have the baggage of racial stereotypes!
In fact, many from the dominant class get offended when we speak of our racial oppression as a phenomenon that’s entangled with animal oppression because through veganism, the dominant class seemingly gave us a new black citizenship, a refuge from racial prejudice, a passport of sorts to a new ‘post-racial’ landscape. By conjuring up “race” again in this new territory, we are displaying signs that we’re not “fully” rehabilitated.
This is why a lot of folks from the dominant class like to talk about former gang-members as “gardeners” which is a different type of racial citizenship for black folks that they approve of. It’s respectable.
Veganism shouldn’t be a tool the dominant class uses to rehabilitate blackness, as though blackness is inherently criminal, deviant, and barbaric.
The consistent focus on former gang-members turned vegan perpetuates this narrative that veganism is peaceful and automatically leads to social justice.
Veganism is sold as the perfect antidote to years of systemic racism.
I’m writing this piece as conversations about the overwhelming whiteness of the Oscars is taking place and I would like to connect the two issues.
Black people who are interested in authoring their own unique stories and who want to produce new narratives about black life aren’t celebrated. The black filmmakers who are celebrated are the ones who share stories about slavery or hyper-racialized themes that make the dominant class feel comfortable. Similarly, vegan stories that continue this narrative of poor-black-person-struggling-to-survive-and-be-better seems to be shared and celebrated because the dominant class is erased from the story line. They are absolved of their guilt and can now try to “help” us in the way adults help children who want to set up a lemonade stand in their neighborhood to raise money to buy a bike. It’s non-threatening.
As soon as black folks want to create new vegan theories or new models to re-articulate animal oppression or new intellectual projects to cater to underserved audiences, we’re chastised by the dominant class and ridiculed because they aren’t the main authors of the project.
Of course within both Hollywood slave films as well as vegan stories about guerrilla gardeners or rehabilitated gang members, white supremacy is conveniently pushed to the back drop. We can easily talk about Ron Finley and guerrilla gardeners without ever mentioning white supremacy. We can easily talk about food deserts without ever mentioning capitalism or whiteness and that makes everyone comfortable.
Ron and other black folks who are framed as being “rehabilitated” through veganism are held up as an example for all other black folks to follow. It’s cosmetic diversity at it’s finest: black faces are advertised and white authors are writing the story.
Euroentric logic attempts to frame Ron as a modern-day Martin Luther King Jr. figure who is seemingly peaceful and calm, without realizing that his shovel is his weapon, not a marker of his subservience.
We need to stop expecting veganism to correct systemic racism. We need to let the oppressed folks write their own movements with their own voices. The dominant class needs to stop trying to find their next Martin Luther King Jr. to manipulate black folks into being calm and “civilized” because what Ron and other guerrilla gardeners are doing has nothing to do with being peaceful and everything to do with survival and protest.