Monday, August 26, 2013

Sure, Veganism is Easy & Cheap . . . If You're White

Alternate title:  ADVENTURES IN WHITE PRIVILEGE AND CLASSISM IN VEGAN OUTREACH EFFORTS

On Facebook recently, a vegan spokesperson promoted a maple tempeh and fresh vegetable recipe as evidence to how cheap and easy veganism is.  Actually, their exact words leading up to the link were:  "ADVENTURES IN THE STUPIDITY OF SAYING THAT BEING VEGAN IS EXPENSIVE AND DIFFICULT".  Without even looking past the title, I can assure you right now that there is little cheap or easy about maple syrup, tempeh, or fresh vegetables.  But let's investigate further.

Here are the ingredients with estimated cost:1, 2
  • 8 oz package tempeh ($3)
  • 1 tablespoon sesame oil, coconut oil or olive oil ($4-10)
  • 1/3 red cabbage, thinly sliced ($1-2)
  • 2 -3 large carrots, peeled and thinly sliced diagonally ($2)
  • 2 -3 scallions, thinly sliced ($1)
  • sesame seeds, garnish ($3-5)
  • cilantro, garnish, optional  ($1)
  • 8 oz. package soba noodles, or rice would fine too ($1-4)
  • 1/3 cup mirin ($3)
  • 3 tablespoons pure maple syrup ($5-10)
  • 3 tablespoons warm water (~$0!)
  • 2 tablespoons tamari, bragg’s aminos or soy sauce ($3-5)
  • 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes, or to taste ($1)
Conservative price of these meal:  $28
Potential price of this meal:  $47

"Stupid?"  Really?3

To insist that such an ostentatious and expensive meal is easy and affordable and to suggest anyone who disagrees is "stupid" is about as privileged and arrogant as it gets.  Tempeh, maple syrup, tamari, soba noodles, and mirin?  Sesame oil?  Bragg's or tamari?  Scallions?  These are luxury items, things people purchase on the occasional pay day if they're lucky enough to even live somewhere where this stuff is even sold.  My spellchecker isn't even picking half of them up.

The recipe also requires a bamboo steamer.  Who in the world has access to bamboo steamers except people living near Asian grocers or high end kitchen appliance stores?4

Please direct me to your tempeh selection!
The truth is that being vegan is not always easy or presented as affordable for some disadvantaged groups who are poor, living in food deserts, and/or living with a legacy of institutionalized discrimination and colonization. This does not mean veganism is off limits to those people or that they are excused from participating, it simply means that there are some added challenges to address. Indeed, the human/nonhuman rights issues linked to veganism makes it an imperative for all, but perhaps even more so for these at-risk groups who stand to gain the most. It's time for a real talk in our advocacy efforts, one that recognizes rather than rejects real social differences. I don't even live in a food desert and I can't find tempeh.  How many of us can afford the cost of making this promoted recipe? This movement will stay middle class and white forever at this rate.  Suggesting that people who take issue with the "ease" and "affordability" of white, middle class veganism are somehow "stupid" reflects the unchecked privilege of many vegan advocates.  Absolutely, veganism can be done cheaply and safely, but it must be presented in a way that is accessible to everyone, not just people of privilege.

USDA map of food deserts in the United States.  Notice the high concentrations in Appalachia, the South, the northern Great Plains, and the Southwest, where there are high populations of poor whites, African Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanic Americans. 
The white experience may represent the experience of many in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement (as it is a mostly white movement), but the white experience does not represent the experience of everyone else. For one, if you are white, in all likelihood, you neither live in a food desert nor have any inkling whatsoever of what the implications of living in a food desert are. The white experience is not the default experience.  Until we come to grips with this reality, rattle up our privileged world view, and knock off our white people blinders, we are never going to make any headway.  Veganism will continue to be a rich white thing that benefits rich white people.  Vulnerable populations who are suffering from malnutrition and diet-related diseases will continue to be overlooked and blamed for their misfortune.  Instead of recognizing structural inequalities and systematic racism and classism, we blame the individual for being lazy, callous, or "stupid."  Humans and Nonhumans are dying--they don't have time for this nonsense.  If we want to reduce suffering, we need to recognize difference and accommodate.

Notes
1.  These are my own price estimates which reflect my geographic areas (having lived in rural Virginia and a major city in Colorado).  These are only estimates.  I cannot afford to buy most of these products often, so I may not be completely accurate in my estimation.  I have not divided any costs from the possibility that items may be bought in bulk (like a bag of carrots or a bottle of olive oil).  I'm basing this on a grocery list that someone new to veganism and these exotic ingredients would have to compile.  This is offset by the fact that some people will live in areas where specialty ingredients are more affordable and accessible.  If someone lives near an Asian grocer, they will be paying maybe $3 for a package of sesame seeds.  If they do not and must rely on a regular grocery store chain, they will likely pay twice that.
2.  This recipe makes approximately two servings.
3.  Incidentally, I reject the use of disableist language which is unfortunately a favorite tactic for many vegan educators.
4.  Actually, I got a bamboo steamer for Christmas last year.  My mom found a 25 year old one for $1 at a yardsale.  A stroke of luck, not access.