Look at the photo above. This may be veganism’s present — a pretty rainbow fruit deal held in white hands — but it’s by no means its past, as Thrillist brings up during its Meatless Week.
Think about it: who was the first vegan you ever encountered? Unless you have ties to Indian or Rastafarian culture, it was probably Alicia Silverstone, Pamela Anderson, Moby or one of the other famous folks who helped bring veganism into the mainstream in the late 1990s. In fact, take a peek at this list of vegan celebrities. With a small handful of exceptions, that roster is just one example of the underrepresentation of people of color whose generations-old beliefs include animal product-free diets.
Not to sound the death knell of cultural appropriation, but veganism did not “poof” into existence when Woody Harrelson decided, fresh off The People vs. Larry Flynt, that compassion was good. Rastafarianism was developed in Jamaica in the 1930s, an independent religion influenced by the era’s complex sociopolitical and ethnological issues. It’s also believed that Rastafarianism contains elements of the Hindu faith of Indian immigrants to Jamaica. Its followers eschew all animal products in favor of whole foods, particularly unprocessed fruits and vegetables. See also: Macka B’s Medical Mondays.
Other Eastern religions also espouse “spiritually motivated diets,” like Hinduism, Buddhism and especially Jainism, as a basic tenet of active non-violence. The term “vegan” wasn’t even coined by the British Vegetarian Society until 1944. And as Rastafarians, Hindus, Buddhists and Jains are typically not white, it really does encourage the observation that they’re chronically underrepresented in depictions of mainstream vegan culture. Why aren’t brown or black hands holding that preposterous elaborate rainbow papaya bowl?
We reached out to former Food Republic writer and LA-based vegan chef and cookbook author Ayinde Howell for his take.
“The real reason I stay in the vegan chef game is because we need to be repped. We need to have a representation of black people and a culture of blackness, especially from the taste respective,” said Howell via email. “I’ve been in this industry since I was a kid. I remember getting accounts with my mother when I was about 13 years old. We had a business selling wholesale vegan sandwiches to stores. People liked how the food tasted, but it was a fight, tooth and nail, because my mom didn’t look or act like they wanted.”
And it’s not simply those of Jamaican descent Howell is referring to. “My parents are from the deep South and East Coast south, and decided to become vegan,” adds Howell. “But people can’t seem to put the two together. You can be a regular-ass black person and be vegan.”
Once more, the gripe here is not that white people are enjoying vegan lifestyles — everyone should feel empowered enough to take good care of their health with environmentalism in mind. It’s the stark absence of crediting the origins of a trend that’s taken such a flashy hold over Western diets. Of the stacks of vegan cookbooks we read at Food Republic, the vast majority feature a white author with an “aha!” moment to share with the world, and very few (or whitewashed) ethnic recipes that represent the roots of this long-ignored diet.
And speaking of those very few or whitewashed ethnic recipes, that’s one of the reasons why non-vegans — white, black, brown and everyone else — think vegan food is lame.
“Part of the reason why veganism is not as accepted by black people is because most vegan food they experience is ‘bland and mushy’ because, wait for it, it wasn’t cooked by black people. So the only real solution I see is having more black people involved to make better-tasting food to hit the tipping point,” offers Howell.
The vegan has spoken! Oh, and if you were looking to brush up on your knowledge of notable vegan black Americans (including Howell), here you go.