Cultural barriers to veganism make the transition to a healthy lifestyle harder

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Graphic by Virginia Suardi

Virginia Suardi

It was a late spring night, amid quarantine, when I finally told my dad that I was going vegan. I had been dreading doing it for a while, and as I expected, the reaction was far from enthusiastic. “Nooooo,” he groaned, leaning back into his chair, slapping his hand to his forehead. He looked supremely disappointed. I knew part of it was sarcasm, an overdramatization of how he actually felt, but I knew that deep down, it did bother him somewhat. After all, he grew up in Northern Italy, the Italian home of cheese, butter, and meat-laden dishes. To see his American daughter willingly reject an integral part of his cuisine must’ve felt like I was slowly snipping away at those ties, fraying the rope that tied me to my birthplace until it broke. And in a way, I felt it too. Sometimes a pang of worry would hit me in the middle of the night: what will Nonno say when I visit next summer, and I don’t can’t try the fresh mozzarella or the prosciutto slices he put out? Will he be disappointed? Will he be hurt?

For a lot of people, going vegan can be an emotional process, especially if what they eat is a big part of their culture. Going to family events and not being able to eat the dishes that your relatives have prepared with love and care can be a draining experience, especially if you’re constantly being berated for your lifestyle choices. It’s a huge reason why many people choose not to go vegan: it seems too difficult, too demanding, too culturally isolating to have to stick to such a “strict” way of eating.

For Rema Haile, fellow vegan and owner of the vegan Instagram account @skysthespinach, the experience was mixed. Since her family identifies as Orthodox Christian, for four months out of the year, they undergo a fasting process where they only consume plant-based products. This is initially what led to Rema going vegan. However, after the fasting period of the year was over, and her family went back to eating meat and dairy, Rema had to face a lot of pushback from her family and friends. She describes getting “mixed reviews” and a general confusion as to why she had become vegan. Despite their vegan fasting period, Eritrean food involves a lot of meat, which sometimes made it hard for her to maintain her lifestyle. “A lot of people, not just my family, but Black people in general will be like ‘Do you think you’re white?’” She continues. “And that’s another problem. Veganism is immediately associated with white people, and white culture and that’s just not what it is at all.” 

 I couldn’t agree more. It’s a huge misconception that veganism is a “new concept”  invented by white Americans and only involves bland foods like salad and soymilk. The Indian, Burmese, and Vietnamese cultures in particular have always had delicious, vegan-friendly cuisines. In fact, most non-European or Western cuisines are much easier to follow a vegan diet under.

Rema also brought up that because the vegan community is predominantly white, there’s a huge communication problem in their outreach to minority groups. “A lot of people in social media will try to compare slavery to the killings of animals, and that’s not how you get your point across. Slavery and racism in America is not a tactic you can use to push your mission forward, ever, It’s not okay,” she asserts. This “tactic” is not only disrespectful and repugnant, but it is entirely counterproductive to the vegan agenda. Tactics like these and the false narrative that veganism is part of “white culture” are also a turn off for many immigrants, who Rema believes “don’t want to change and be corrupted by American ideals,” and also because their food traditions have such strong ties to meat and dairy. Overall, “if you’re not educating people with the right tone and the right message, it can be haywire,” Rema explains.

So what is the right message? The argument against animal cruelty is a popular one, but it hasn’t proven to be very effective. Rema remembers that she used to post what one might call “vegan propaganda” or ads like an image of a Popeyes chicken sandwich positioned next to an image of a chicken getting slaughtered. The reaction was often less sympathetic than she’d hoped. “A lot of people would say, ‘I don’t care about animals dying! It’s just the way of life!’” A better way to frame it, in her opinion, would be to educate people about the personal health impact of consuming animals when they’re kept in such unsanitary conditions. “Then, you might start to think ‘Hmmm, maybe I shouldn’t be eating that,’” she says. 

Another big part of reforming vegan outreach, Rema says, is to make sure that people feel welcomed by the vegan community. “This community is so friendly and supportive of you. We want to make it as easy as possible!” she affirms, a big smile lighting up her face. “It won’t always be supportive friends, it won’t always be great, but that’s what happens with every lifestyle change, there’s hard times and there’s good times, and at the end of the day, it’s really, really good for your body.”

No matter their culture, ethnicity, or race, vegans or people looking to go vegan should not be made to feel remorseful about choosing to not consume animal products. With all of the benefits of a plant-based diet, whether for personal health or environmental reasons, the pushback against veganism is unwarranted and outdated.

It also should be stated that vegans have no right to judge or berate non-vegans for their diet choices. Many people have cultural ties to consuming meat and dairy, and others have specific nutritional needs or deficiencies that prevent them from adopting the vegan diet. In a society where meat and dairy corporations give money to the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Association (essentially bribing them) to promote the false assumptions that a vegan diet is expensive and doesn’t provide enough protein (among other lies), it’s ignorant to blame individuals for choosing to eat animal and dairy products. Calling non-vegans immoral or lazy is untrue, disrespectful, and counterproductive. 

Finally, all privileged people, whether vegan or not, have a moral responsibility to research the human exploitation that the food industry promotes and particularly, where their food is coming from. Meat and dairy eaters, have a bigger responsibility to make sure they’re not buying from exploitative companies, as these industries tend to be much more industrialized and abusive. However, simply being vegan does not prevent one from participating in the exploitation of disadvantaged laborers, and it’s equally necessary for vegans who have the wealth and privilege to do so to shop ethically. 

On a more personal note, while my journey into veganism was difficult initially because of my Italian cultural ties, I’ve found it’s still possible to enjoy delicious, vegan food from my culture. I’ve started to cook more southern Italian recipes, which involve less butter and cheese and more delicious ingredients like olive oil, tomatoes, garlic, artichokes, eggplants, and so much more. So yes, it’s still possible to eat delicious food that makes you feel better, helps the earth, and reminds you of home, without any animal products involved. 

 

RESOURCES: 

@skysthespinach is Rema Haile’s vegan account! She posts amazing recipes, educational threads, and also recommendations & reviews on primarily Black owned vegan restaurants. 

@dcveganlife highlights vegan restaurants and meals in the DMV, and is a great resource for finding affordable, diverse vegan options.

@sweetpotatosoul is run by Jenné Claiborne, a Black vegan activist whose page is filled with delicious recipes and lifestyle content. 

 

I also recommend watching these documentaries: 

The Game Changers follows several pro-athletes that are also vegan.

Food, Inc., goes into detail about the corruption and exploitation in the food industry. 

Eating Animals investigates the ethics of eating animal products in an industrialized society.