The White Privilege in Vegan Moral Superiority

Dog wit face in paws looking sad

I usually love it when I’m wrong. I truly get excited when my paradigm shifts, when I learn new things, or when I see things in a new way.

Unfortunately, in my line of work (critical sociology), being wrong about something usually means that I’ve hurt someone. If my argument about oppression is wrong, that often means I’m abetting oppression. In these cases, the best I can do is own up to my mistakes and try to make an example of them.

I once posted an opinion piece on lactose intolerance on my blog, the purpose of which was to vent my frustration. I was responding to a buddy who had replied to one of my anti-speciesist social media posts declaring that she was lactose intolerant. I responded with, in so many words, “Okay, great, but I’d prefer if you did it for the right  reasons.”

She was white, by the way, as are all of my lactose intolerant friends. Most people who are lactose intolerant, however, are not white, which goes to show how homogeneous and undiverse my circle of friends is.

When I wrote that piece, I was thinking of my friend Katie, my friend Francesca, and my friend Danny: three friends that have said something similar to me: “Oh you’re vegan? Well, I’m lactose intolerant!” They’re all white.

With this in mind, I wrote in the blog piece that being lactose intolerant is not the same as being vegan for political reasons. I said that it’s not good enough. I was thinking and responding from my white worldview.

Then, I went on to explain how lactose intolerance is prevalent among people of color and non-Westerners. I wrote that framing lactose tolerance as normal and natural is a means of looking down on others and maintaining white superiority.

A reader very rightly pointed out how ridiculous and offensive it was that I was, on one hand, chastising people who are not vegan for the “right” reasons, and, on the other, emphasizing that lactose intolerance was not a white thing. She wrote that such a claim implies that going vegan for other animals is the superior way, and people of color who go vegan for their own health are morally inferior.

I completely agree.

Some time ago, I began to abandon promoting veganism as a strictly Nonhuman Animal rights issue. Although I believe veganism remains a political action in the service of nonhuman liberation, veganism is also understood as a political diet by some (in that it relates only to food consumed, and may not relate to non-food items or services that involve speciesism). But we should not be quick to write off veganism as a diet. This is because eating Nonhuman Animal products hurts humans almost as much as it hurts other animals. The oppression of other animals exacerbates the oppression of humans. Humans are exploited and enslaved in the production, and humans are suffering and dying from eating them. Not just humans in general, but at-risk populations in particular. This includes undocumented workers, immigrants, people of color, and the poor. When we make veganism solely about our moral obligations to Nonhuman Animals, what we imply is that the suffering of vulnerable humans doesn’t matter as much or doesn’t matter at all.

Going vegan “for the animals” generally reflects white privilege. It’s something I have the “luxury” of prioritizing. Some groups, however, are dealing with intense oppression, which necessitates them prioritizing themselves and their community. A lot of white activists find such a position offensive, as though the animals are being “sold out” and some people are being “excused” for participating in the oppression of other animals if they don’t go vegan or can’t go completely vegan. But, the underlying message from this response is that only whites have the “right” morals, and non-whites must be lacking. It becomes a means of upholding white superiority. In fact, the Nonhuman Animal rights movement was founded as a means of otherizing people of color and legitimizing white supremacy. We must remember this history to inform our activism today.

Whites in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement often pull on human inequality when it works to back up anti-speciesist claimsmaking, but then fall right back into the white framework to exclude or blame vulnerable populations for not struggling against violence in ways more accessible to those with privilege. Intersectionality is merely tokenized. I hate to say it, but that’s exactly what I did.

Veganism as a political concept was developed to deconstruct speciesism, but some folks are engaging veganism as a diet for political reasons as well. Only with sensitivity to differing life positions can we begin to build the coalitions needed for an all out attack on the (in the words of bell hooks) white supremacist, patriarchal, imperialist social system that oppresses so many for the benefit of few. Anti-speciesist  veganism and food justice/anti-racist veganism have a lot in common. We should respect one another, not pull on our privilege to shame others for walking a different path to the same goal.


A version of this essay was originally published on August 27, 2013 on The Academic Activist Vegan.

If you enjoyed this essay, these ideas and more are explored in my book, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights (Palgrave 2016). Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.