Racist vegans: mass resignation at the top of The Vegan Society

By Joseph Conway, Opinion

A scandal has rocked The Vegan Society this week, as 6 members of the society resigned amidst allegations of racial abuse and bullying. Eshe Kiara Zuri, the now ex-vice chair, described it in their resignation letter as “2 years of abuse, racism and oppressive shit,” after some members made them a target for a mass of complaints.

The society hired a lawyer to investigate repeated complaints made against Zuri, who found that the complaints were primarily motivated by personal and racial bias. The lawyer found “a profound personal animosity towards [this trustee] related in part to [this trustee’s] identity and protected characteristics.

The ex-chair, Robb Masters described the council at the top of the society as a “toxic environment” marred by transphobia, ableism, racism. New members of the council were attacked and belittled by what was described as a “clique or cabal” of older council members. Former sustainability champion Joel Bravette said he’d been “belittled, demeaned, racialised, mischaracterised, publicly questioned because of my ethnic background,” and felt “coerced to abandon my principles on justice for all.”

The society responded saying the resignations were “regrettable” and that they have “a number of challenges that we must address as we evolve into an even more diverse and inclusive organisation.”

Racist vegans and plant-based bullying

The white environmental movement has frequently been marred by racism. White vegans often chastise indigenous people for traditional, sustainable hunting practices (For instance Short Hills Provincial Park, where vegan activists protest indigenous hunts annually). White vegans often uncritically glorify avocados, quinoa, and other fashionable vegan “superfoods” whose industries displace and kill large swathes of third world workers. White vegans often promote a “humans are the problem” narrative, ignoring vast inequalities in responsibility. This ends up, at worst, promoting a belief in a genocidal/eugenicist population control, that we need to reduce the world population to save ourselves, animals and nature – i.e. the overpopulation trap.

In these ways and many others, white vegans lose perspective. Ostracising themselves and in doing so they fail to fight the system – animal exploitation – which they are opposed to.

Many white vegans and environmentalists see their cause as greater than all others. This becomes an excuse to belittle racial justice struggles and to avoid confronting racism within movements. Dr Amie Harper, cited by Eshe Kiari Zuri in their resignation letter, calls this a “spiritual bypass” –  that vegan/environmentalist movements are somehow beyond human issues, which are unimportant to animal/earth liberation. It fails to see racial justice as connected to animal and climate justice, and black and brown activists as essential to movements.

Racism, beyond being traumatising for racialised people, is an immeasurable weight on movements. It distracts from the cause, divides the movement, and creates crisis. It is racism that does this, not anti-racism. You can see this vividly in the crisis rocking The Vegan Society today. It’s the slurs, hate campaigns and active ignorance that created this crisis, that forced people out. The racists are burning down their own house to preserve their whiteness.

Interconnected Struggles

Commodification is the process of making things into products to be bought and sold. This same process throughout the past 500 years of capitalism has had a helping hand in perpetuating racism, industrial animal farming, and climate disaster. It’s through commodifying humanity- black humanity- that created chattel slavery, robbing Africa and birthing contemporary racism. It’s commodifying animals that creates mass animal exploitation. And it’s commodifying land that causes intense agricultural farming, destroying land, soil and biodiversity in turn exacerbating the climate catastrophe. Colonisers came and made a commodity out of the world and its inhabitants.

You can think of it like Cerberus, the gigantic three headed hound from Greek mythology. Each head is huge and petrifying in its own way. One head is racism, one animal exploitation, one climate catastrophe. You can get so focused on fighting one, you get bitten by the other, as the Vegan society clearly has. You can try to fight all three, without realising the single body they all emerge from, which consists of capitalism, colonialism and commodification. These are three intertwining processes that are central to the degradation of our world.

Perhaps talk of killing a mutant dog in an article about animal welfare isn’t an ideal metaphor. Regardless, it’s important, whilst fighting each head, to remember to work with those fighting around you, and to aim for the heart of the problem, the belly of the beast.

The future of animal liberation

But the vegan movement isn’t defined by The Vegan Society. Recently, there was a brilliant action by Animal Rebellion which brought McDonald’s main distributor in the UK to a standstill, causing a rumoured £1.5 million loss for the company.

There is a growing understanding that buying oat milk and paper straws isn’t enough. Instead, we must take the fight to the heart of the beast, take hold of its supply chains and its centres of production. We are quickly learning that veganism alone is not enough and that moving with other movements is essential to the continued relevance and success of veganism.

We need to move beyond narrow-minded, white, individualistic notions of veganism and into a holistic, collective struggle towards what has been called total liberation. This can be understood as moving against domination wherever it is found, not just in the case of animals. We must understand that to ignore and perpetuate racism won’t help a movement but will only take it backwards and traumatise those involved.

Veganism can be a very liberating force for good, but not by itself. It’s blooming from the PETA-esque, business-oriented, change-the-system-from-within veganism into a revolutionary movement for total liberation of animals, humans and non-humans alike (such as land).

The Vegan Society is an active relic from the past and their crisis is our education. Yet Robb Masters, the ex-chair of the Vegan Society, took to twitter to describe “the monopoly that oppressive, consumerist “white veganism” has over the movement,” as it became apparent that very few vegan/vegetarian sites were reporting on what is an incredibly significant moment in the vegan movement. Clearly, this crisis is beyond the society itself and is endemic in the white vegan establishment.

As veganism grows in popularity, it’s time the new generation of vegans brought with them what Eshe describes as “fresh and up to date perspectives of veganism… and our own expertise and love for all animals and the Earth.” This was rejected and abused by the old white vegan establishment. It is time for the new vegan movement to boldly move beyond the archaic racism of The Vegan Society’s old guard and join the fight towards total liberation.

Graphic courtesy of Nahal Sheikh