Veganism, race, and culture

See update for June 18, 2021, at end of post.

When I was still living in California, I went into a vegan restaurant in east Oakland. There was one other white guy in there and he asked a question of the lady behind the counter that I had felt too sensitive to broach.

“Why,” he boldly (I thought) asked, “are so many vegan restaurants in Oakland owned by Blacks?” She answered by pointing to health reasons. Not the ethical reasons preferred by animal rights activists. Not even referring to the environment.

I guess the story might be similar in Texas:

Within a few months of removing animal products from my diet, my sleep improved, bloating diminished, and running endurance increased. I began looking at my veganism as a quiet form of protest. As of 2018, Black Americans were 30 percent more likely to die of heart disease than non-Hispanic whites. We are twice as likely to die of diabetes as non-Hispanic whites. Four out of five Black women are overweight or obese. Declining to eat animal products (or “anything that has the will to live and will run from you,” as my uncle Martin calls them) and processed foods that are often disproportionately marketed to Black people like me took on a feeling of self-preservation. In its most simple form, it felt like self-love.[1]

The ethical reason is still there: Jennifer Epperson’s uncle referred to “anything that has the will to live and will run from you.”[2] But there’s no reference whatsoever to the environment—going vegan is the single most effective thing an individual can do to reduce pollution and lower their carbon footprint. And Epperson is also not a pure vegan:

I decided that my own veganism would make room for exceptions. When my mom makes her legendary sesame shrimp and asparagus dish that she’s prepared especially for me for a decade, I will not tell her, “Thanks for all the love, but I don’t eat shrimp!” I will eat it, and I will enjoy it.[3]

Which is to say she does not embrace what she calls her uncle’s rigidity. Animal suffering will not be a deal-breaker for her. And that attitude outrages some in my Twitter feed: “You’re not a vegan,” they yell.

I’m also not an absolutist. Insects that venture into my living space are in peril, I am much more concerned with washing the splattered insects off my car’s grill than I am their puny lives, and yes, I got vaccinated against COVID-19.[4]

But I’m certainly more absolutist than Epperson. Which means that shared meals with family and friends can be difficult. Animal products are ubiquitous; they show up in all sorts of unexpected places, making grocery shopping a challenge. I’ve given up trying to find out if my beer has been made with isinglass, for example, or filtered through a fish[5] or if bone char was used to refine my sugar.[6] The steering wheel in my new car[7] will still be covered in leather, but thankfully, the seats themselves will no longer be. (Toyota is using somthing called Softex instead, which is supposed to be easier to clean and allegedly has no animal ingredients.)[8]

But I do what I can. And that could mean interrogations about ingredients at family meals. These just don’t make sense for me. As for Epperson,

I’ll refrain from telling people they’re killing their salad when I see a bottle of ranch dressing making its way around the dinner table. I have no interest in lecturing others to become strict, regimented vegans. According to [Naomi Hendrix] Oyegoke, resisting the absolutism commonly associated with veganism allows a pathway in for more Black Americans. “Meet people where they are,” she says. “We don’t need any more perfect vegans. We just need a lot more people who are willing to lean into more plant-based options.” A steadily increasing number of Black Texans, myself included, are willing—even if we might not care to eat our apples stem and all.[9]

Actually, we do need more “perfect” vegans; it’s not like the climate crisis has become any less existential just because Donald Trump is no longer president. And it’s not like voluntary flesh-eating is any less a part of a system of oppression that affects us as humans and the environment we all depend upon to survive as well.[10] Epperson’s mother’s shrimp is a part of that oppression, whether either of them are willing to acknowledge it or not.

And as time goes by, Epperson might find that shrimp less palatable. If I accidentally eat some meat these days, I’ll be nauseous, I presume because my gut biome has now adjusted to my diet.[11] It’s a giveaway that I ate something I shouldn’t.

But because I care about that oppression, I appreciate Epperson’s path, even if she hasn’t gone as far as I’d like. Because yes, the more plant-based meals she eats, the fewer animal flesh meals she eats, and the less oppression there will be.[12] Some of my fellow vegans would do well to remember that.

Update, June 18, 2021:

  1. [1]Jennifer Epperson, “The Changing Face of Veganism,” Texas Monthly, June 11, 2021,
  2. [2]quoted in Jennifer Epperson, “The Changing Face of Veganism,” Texas Monthly, June 11, 2021,
  3. [3]Jennifer Epperson, “The Changing Face of Veganism,” Texas Monthly, June 11, 2021,
  4. [4]David Benfell, “Against vegan absolutism,” Not Housebroken, June 1, 2021,
  5. [5]Liam Barnes, “The fishy ingredient in beer that bothers vegetarians,” British Broadcasting Corporation, September 15, 2016,
  6. [6]Kate Bratskeir, “Your Sugar Might Be Made With Animal Bones. Sorry, Vegans,” Huffington Post, January 5, 2015,
  7. [7]I am having to buy a new car principally because the old one simply isn’t standing up to Pittsburgh’s ubiquitous potholes and bumpy brick and cobblestone streets. I expect everything even vaguely related to wheels on the new car to be more robust. The old car’s interior has also suffered from passenger abuse—I drive for Uber and Lyft—and so I have ordered options that I hope will be more resilient, as well as other options that I hope will serve me well down the road.
  8. [8]Toyota, “What is SofTex®?” n.d.,; Toyota, “Your 2021 RAV4,” April 25, 2021,
  9. [9]Jennifer Epperson, “The Changing Face of Veganism,” Texas Monthly, June 11, 2021,
  10. [10]David Benfell, “Factory farmed humans,” Not Housebroken, May 17, 2021,; David Benfell, “Yes, people of color and other subaltern groups should go vegan,” Not Housebroken, May 31, 2021,; Greta Gaard, “Vegetarian Ecofeminism: A Review Essay,” Frontiers 23, no. 3 (2002): 117-146; pattrice jones, “Mothers with Monkeywrenches: Feminist Imperatives and the ALF,” in Terrorists or Freedom Fighters? Reflections on the Liberation of Animals, Steven Best and Anthony J. Nocella II, eds. (New York: Lantern, 2004), 137-156.
  11. [11]Aleksandra Tomova et al., “The Effects of Vegetarian and Vegan Diets on Gut Microbiota,” Frontiers in Nutrition 6, no. 47 (April 17, 2019), doi: 10.3389%2Ffnut.2019.00047
  12. [12]Erik Marcus, Meat Market (Boston: Brio, 2005).

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