Lisa Betty Researches the Link Between Veganism and White Supremacy

Lisa Betty critiques the modern veganism movement for its inherent racism. (Courtesy of Medium)

Lisa Betty critiques the modern veganism movement for its inherent racism. (Courtesy of Medium)

Lisa Betty, a Ph.D. candidate and teaching fellow in Fordham’s history department, has put a great deal of time and energy into her research on modern health and wellness movements and their ties to colonialism and white supremacy. Much of her research focuses on critiquing the modern veganism movement for its inherent racism.

Betty recently published an article on Medium called “Veganism Is in Crisis” that delves into the many ways mainstream veganism, as an anti-oppressive social justice movement, is inextricably linked to white supremacy and the oppression of people of color. 

The popular conception of the average vegan is someone who is young, white and thin, explained Betty. This link between whiteness and wellness contains an unspoken claim about Blackness as well.

“If whiteness is fit, if whiteness is well, then the opposite of that is Blackness,” said Betty. “Blackness as not as fit or fat and Blackness as unwell and perpetually unwell is perpetuated throughout these narratives.” 

But that image does not reflect the many cultures that have historically maintained sustainable and nutritious diets long before the vegan lifestyle became popular amongst white people. Betty’s family is originally from a small farming community in Jamaica, where they grew mostly tropical fruits, legumes and vegetables. “Before there was even a notion of ‘organic’ and ‘sustainability,’ that’s what we were doing,” said Betty. “That’s how we lived.”

Their town was also one of the first places in the eastern part of the country where the Rastafari movement took hold. The movement centers on “decolonizing one’s way of being,” and many adherents have plant-based diets, explained Betty. She also pointed to the Maroons as another example of a group in Jamaican history that lived sustainably as part of a larger mission to escape slavery in the plantation system and decolonize their country. 

“It was not hard for me to [understand] veganism and plant-based eating and being closer to the Earth and being more ecological sound and really thinking about alternative systems to capitalism,” said Betty. “It was not hard for me to do that because it’s a part of my lineage.” 

Though Betty’s family immigrated to the U.S., the sustainable practices and plant-based diets they have used for generations are still a part of their daily lives, she explained. But families like Betty’s are not at the center of the modern veganism movement in the U.S., where the conversation is almost always led by and centered on white people. 

The modern health and wellness movement is founded on ideologies of white supremacy and eugenics, explained Betty. For example, the creator of Kellogg’s cereals, J. Harvey Kellogg, became well-known for promoting health and wellness during the first half of the 20th century. However, he was also an advocate for eugenics and held deeply racist views that were embedded in his outlook on health. 

Veganism, in particular, was also founded at the intersection of harmful ideologies and colonialism. The term “vegan” was coined by Donald Watson in 1944, and he founded the Society of Vegans to promote a dairy-free diet and animal rights, Betty writes in her article. But early vegans like Watson had a narrow view of who could achieve the extreme wellness and morality they promote, explained Betty. 

“From its beginnings, veganism, as structured by this organization and its offshoots, was unequivocally colonial, white-centered-supremacist, and elitist,” writes Betty. “Culturally Eurocentric, veganism required moral astuteness, restriction, vigilance, and shame. It was not liberatory, intersectional, radical, or decolonial — at least from the perspective and standards of the colonized world.” 

Betty also outlines how racist attitudes still play a major role in veganism today. She points to “racial gaslighting” that she and other Black vegans regularly experience within the movement. This issue is highlighted in posts on her Instagram page, which she started last summer. 

In the first post, Betty pushes back against the common assumption held by many white vegans that Black people lack a fundamental understanding of veganism and healthy living as a whole. She points out that not only have many non-white cultures been practicing veganism long before it became popular in the mainstream, but that the health problems that disproportionately impact Black communities are not the result of individual failures but of inequities in medical and food systems. 

“The American food system is an American problem, not the problem of Black people,” writes Betty. She argues that cultural appropriation, food sovereignty efforts, land theft, militarization, corporate marketing, European food traditions, Afro-indigenous food traditions, colonialism, neocolonialism, Americanization and racial gaslighting all have to be part of any discussion on contemporary food consumption. 

However, visitors to the Instagram account should not view her content as just a response to the racial gaslighting she and other Black vegans experience, said Betty. Her work is not catered to white people and does not seek to increase the visibility of Black vegans. 

“I don’t really care if they know I exist,” said Betty.  “If [trendsetting mainstream veganism] they know that I exist, they are going to watch what I am doing and appropriate more of my culture and thoughts that I am disseminating out there. That’s worse for me. That means I won’t be able to access certain traditional foods in the next five years — it’ll be triple the price for me plus tax.” 

There are many examples of harmful and racist language used to promote veganism and fight animal cruelty that fails to account for the historical oppression of BIPOC, explained Betty. For example, movement leaders often invoke the Holocaust and slavery to condemn the treatment of livestock animals. 

“The problem that persists is that you have Black people, in particular, being very dehumanized in the process of advocating for animal rights,” she said. 

Overall, Betty said she is frustrated with the tendency within the movement to only reach out to Black vegans when it is politically expedient and otherwise ignore their perspectives and sideline their goals. “Black people are taken out during Black History Month, but other than that, their voices are not elevated,” said Betty. 

Another fundamental flaw in the veganism movement, as well as other progressive movements focused on sustainability, environmentalism and feminism, is its overwhelming commitment to finding solutions within a capitalist framework, explained Betty. 

“There’s a disconnect, but that has always been the history of white-led anti-oppressive movements,” she said. “It’s not about dismantling white supremacy …You’re not changing the system. You’re just trying to tweak it to make people feel better and make the system less heinous.”

Betty said this “tunnel vision” forces Black liberation movements and other causes led by people of color to the fringes. Despite this marginalization in the veganism movement, Betty said she believes Black women and femmes (as well as non-Black Indigenous POC and allies) will continue their work and grow in numbers.

“I do foresee these radical liberatory spaces growing, even if the mainstream doesn’t change,” said Betty.