Unsettling Western Veganism


Uncanny Animals

A calf walking behind cows.
Aggie Frasunkiewicz

Veganism, as both a diet and a lifestyle, has exponentially grown in North America in recent years. The principles of veganism involve the refrainment of consumption or use of any animal products, including food, clothing, and beauty products. Compared to vegetarianism, which predominantly revolves around diet, veganism takes the form of a philosophy and a way of living. In response to the growing number of vegans in North America, fast food chains, grocery stores, clothing and beauty manufactures have altered and added products to satisfy their growing vegan customer base. Although the premise of veganism is simple and seeks to create a more environmentally friendly world without animal cruelty, intersectionality, decolonization and class consciousness tend to disappear in mainstream activist groups. Mainstream vegan activism, and the veganism adopted by corporations represents a faction of veganism called Western (or white) veganism. Western veganism reinforces settler futurity and assumes a neocolonial presence through the erasure of Indigeneity, the privileging of anthropocentrism, and the promotion of neoliberalism. This tendency is well illustrated in the various campaigns and political practices of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Looking to Donna Haraway and Margaret Robinson, who provide counterarguments to Western veganism, I propose an “unsettled” form of veganism as a practice that centers decolonization and class consciousness. Unsettling in this regard refers to the breakdown of colonial practices in mainstream veganism and the dissolution of the boundary between humans and animals.  

In “Animal Bodies, Colonial Subjects: (Re)Locating Animality in Decolonial Thought”, Billy-Ray Belcourt presents readers with an analysis and critique of mainstream animal rights advocacy. Belcourt explains that although some animal activists and Critical Animal Studies (CAS) scholars seek to address systems of oppression of animals, decolonial theory and decolonization are entirely decontextualized and effaced to fit within a unilateral model of social justice. While CAS scholars and animal activists often use terms such as “decolonization” and “intersectionality”, Belcourt argues that:

Intersectionality, for example, grounds critical theory in difference and consequently stabilizes the settler identity insofar as it seeks reform from within – a “within” that is both embodied and institutionalized (i.e. through settler identity politics and legislative reform). Decolonization, however, cannot exist within these fleshy and architectural spaces of whiteness through which Indigenous politico-economic structures are anachronized and the totality of decolonization is rendered unimaginable. (Belcourt 2-3)

This conscious erasure and misuse of decolonization, and Indigeneity by animal rights activists is a proliferation of settler-colonial expansion and white supremacy. Therefore, according to Belcourt, the basis of CAS, like Western veganism, is rooted in the reinforcement of settler futurity. To successfully tackle animal-ethical and environmental concerns, animal rights activists and scholars must first critically analyze the conditions under which human-animal relations deteriorated. These conditions include geographic settler-colonial expansion, the historic and ongoing erasure of Indigenous bodies and land, and forced human-animal contact through construction, deforestation, and food production.

While Western veganism presents arguments for ethical and environmental concerns surrounding the treatments of animals and the earth, their implications on Indigenous food and cultural sovereignty are profound. Veganism, like many interventions into food and animal resources, belongs to a long line of colonial tactics of erasure and assimilation. University of Oxford’s Rita Kimijima-Dennemeyer links contemporary Western vegan arguments to colonial objectives by explaining that, “…colonising groups have also suppressed indigenous food practices as a means of cultural suppression and assimilation, at times pointing to conservational concern as their rationale. Mainstream vegan groups have…often painted the consumption of meat or of hunting practices as fundamentally unsustainable…” (152). By adhering to a colonial model disguised as ethical/environmental concerns, Western veganism collapses Indigenous food customs and traditions toward a universal model of ethics.

One of the ways in which mainstream animal activists operate within and emphasize settler colonialism is through anthropocentrism. Belcourt expands on Andrea Smith’s three primary logics of white supremacy by adding anthropocentrism as the fourth logic. Smith’s three primary logics of white supremacy include: slaveability/ anti-Black racism (which anchors capitalism), genocide (which anchors colonialism) and orientalism (which anchors war) (4). Belcourt’s inclusion of anthropocentrism provides another dimension to white supremacy, and how it is used within animal rights discourses to cement settler colonialism within human-animal relationships. According to Belcourt, “This [anthropocentric] rendering of humanness as the objective subject position is…a speciesist (and patriarchal) project when personhood is secured as that which relates the “to man and mankind”” (4). The centering of the human in relation to other species sets up a precedent that everything exists in relation to the human. In this regard, humans are entitled to animals as commodities, food, a source of companionship, and objects of violence and eroticism. It is important to note that anthropocentrism centers only one specific type of human – the white human/settler. Black, Indigenous, and people of colour are systematically pushed to the peripheries of what it means to be human. As Belcourt points out, the hierarchies present within anthropocentric perspectives on human-animal relations mirror the racial hierarchies among humans within colonial and neo-liberal contexts.  

Veganism within a Western context is characterized by colour-blindness, and an upper-middle class privileged lifestyle. Corey Lee Wrenn explains that after the abolition of slavery, the Nonhuman Animal rights movement was in fact a manifestation of white supremacy (2). In their advocacy for anti-cruelty laws, the movement intentionally targeted lower class people and people of colour as the perpetrators of violence against animals. In its early stages, animal rights activism in the United States relied on biblical concepts of stewardship and morality, combined with American exceptionalism. Missionaries, government officials, and other agents of the early animal rights movement linked kindness to animals to human progress, targeting subsistence hunting practices, and other instances of animal use of rural African Americans, Indigenous peoples, and people on the margins of society (Pearson 237). The Nonhuman Animal rights movement is reflective of Belcourt’s critiques of anthropocentrism because it privileges the white, upper-middle class settler as the progenitor of human progress. Human progress then, is defined by its relation to the white settler, furthering racial hierarchies. Despite its foregrounding of many ethical and environmental concerns, the racist and colonial past of Western veganism trickles into contemporary ideologies and applications. This inheritance is clearly demonstrated in the practices of PETA; in particular, in their advocacy for the vegan lifestyle.

PETA is an animal rights activist group notorious for having incredibly gruesome and aggressive campaigns intended to shock viewers into pursuing a vegan lifestyle. Founded in 1980 by Ingrid Newkirk and Alex Pacheco, the group has expanded to include over 6.5 million supporters including prolific celebrities who frequently participate in their highly publicized campaigns. The scope of PETA’s work focuses primarily on laws surrounding the use of animals in laboratories, factory farms, in the clothing trade and entertainment industry. Although PETA has made many strides for the betterment of the treatment of animals, the tactics used by the organization demonstrate a praxis that is rooted in settler-colonialism. Perhaps the most basic core of PETA’s principles is the restructuring of human-animal relations within a settler-state framework governed by settler-state laws. This mirrors Belcourt’s critiques of Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka’s Zoopolis monograph. Donaldson and Kymlicka re-categorize animals as members of a settler-colonial infrastructure (citizens, denizens, and members of sovereign nations), thereby constituting colonial infrastructures as the accepted and natural system. Belcourt explains that “the animal body’s entrance into discourses of settler citizenship reproduces the assumed facticity of the settler state as the de facto technology of post-colonial power (as if colonialism is an historicized and finalized event)” (6). In this respect, PETA’s work to establish animal rights within a settler system solidifies a linear trajectory towards a post-colonial world governed by the settler state. If animals (and their rights) are conceived solely through a colonial lens, imagining a system outside of those colonial parameters would be impossible. Furthermore, animal rights conceived within a colonial infrastructure grant more privileges and rights to pets over human refugees and undocumented immigrants.  

In addition to using a settler-colonial framework to frame human-animal relations, PETA regularly uses racist campaigns to convince viewers to adopt a vegan lifestyle. One particular exhibit titled “Animal Liberation Project: We Are All Animals” (2005) compared animals in factory farming to African Americans, Indigenous peoples, and suffragettes. PETA made specific references to slavery, lynching and clandestine government experiments that made a clear association between animals and African Americans. Two other campaigns titled “Are Animals the New Slaves?” and “Glass Walls” exhibited at the Natural History Museum in New York City and a shopping mall in Washington DC also used Black bodies (photographs of USA antebellum Black slavery) juxtaposed against abused/ slaughtered animals. PETA’s intentional use of African Americans and Indigenous peoples in their campaigns to fight against animal abuse diminishes the oppression and experiences of these groups. Moreover, these comparisons indicate a more insidious connotation – equating Black and Indigenous peoples to animals. The juxtaposition of these images does not undo the human/animal hierarchy, it rather supports the anthropocentric and racist hierarchy that associates racialized humans with sub-human life. Philosopher and professor Luis Rodrigues argues that “PETA frames their campaigns through the assumption that racial violence against black people is a phenomenon of the past, invoking either images from antebellum USA or the Jim Crow era – both as examples of formalized/legalized racism” (76). These narratives point to the white normativity and post-racial ideology of PETA.  

Another facet of the relationship between colonialism and attitudes towards animals in Western veganism is the implementation and encouragement of neoliberal practices and policies. Belcourt critiques the neoliberal trends in CAS and Zoopolis as they reframe animality solely within a settler-colonial context (animal rights, animals as citizens of the settler-colonial state).  

In this regard, I want to expand upon Belcourt’s argument where he explains that “...modern reconfigurations of animality cannot be oriented towards a politics of neoliberal citizenship and settler sovereignty. Instead, they must be embedded in a politics of neoliberal citizenship that recognizes the ways in which Indigenous bodies and epistemologies are literally at stake in statist re-imaginings of animality” (7). Belcourt is looking at the implications of assigning animals within a neoliberal citizenship system that inherently erases Indigenous peoples and Indigeneity. Using Belcourt’s framework, I will consider the environmental and socio-economic implications of Western veganism. These implications expand the colonial structures brought forth by Belcourt to reflect contemporary manifestations of colonial expansion in the form of resource and land destruction.  

Because it subscribes to a neoliberal citizenship system, Western veganism has profound consequences on the environment. Contemporary animal consumption practices on a global scale are not sustainable or ethical (i.e. factory farming), however a universal vegan approach similarly threatens the fine balance needed for the viability of the world we live in. Due to the fast-growing and widespread popularity of the vegan lifestyle/diet, industrial agriculture of large-scale farms is necessary to support the larger consumer base. Kimijima-Dennemeyer writes that the production of soy beans for tofu or meat alternatives destroys regions such as the Amazon rainforest and thornbush savannas (152). Furthermore, the farming of soy is a monoculture production that utilizes pesticides in the GMO crop that in turn decimates the soil (Kimijima-Dennemeyer 152). Another example is the use of bees for the pollination of almond trees for the production of almond milk. Based on a survey of commercial keepers, 50 billion bees were killed in the winter months of 2018-2019 due to their role in pollinating almonds. The high mortality rate of the bees is associated to exposure of pesticides, diseases from parasites, and habitat loss. The reliance on bees for the production of almond milk is akin to livestock in the factory farming complex. The many examples of the detrimental effects of Western veganism points to its regurgitation of neoliberal (and colonial) attitudes. These attitudes demonstrate the radical individualism that sees land as a resource to further capitalist and colonial structures. Western veganism washes over the individualism necessary for the advancement of these structures under the guise of animal and environmentally friendly pursuits. As Kimijima-Dennemeyer succinctly points out, “Mainstream veganism still relies on industrial-capitalist agricultural production” (152). Given these repercussions, alternative means of approaching veganism in an ethical and decolonial way is essential for the sustainability of our relations with humans, animals, and our environment.  

Donna Haraway’s “When Species Meet” provides counter-arguments for Western veganism with regards to human-animal relations. Haraway uses the terms “messmates” and “companion species” to imagine an alternative way of connecting and living with animals and non-human organisms (17-18). For Haraway, embracing the mess around us (bacteria, cells, humans, animals etc.) is important to recognize the interconnectedness of our existence (4). Sharing organic material, food and our lives with our messmates produces webs of entanglement between species. The idea of an individual disappears, to be replaced with an entire ecosystem reliant on each entity. Instead of prescribing to distinct divisions between the animal and human, Haraway suggests that we flatten the differences of the “great divide” between humans and animals by demanding respect and response between species (15). Haraway writes that “to knot companion and species together in encounter, in regard and respect, is to enter the world of becoming with, where who and what are is precisely what is at stake” (19). In this regard, veganism takes on a new meaning that seeks an egalitarian relationship with animals and the natural environment emerging from the most basic instinct of being with and communicating. Western veganism can never accomplish this, as it relies on hierarchical and neo-liberal/capitalist structures.  

Haraway’s arguments also ask readers to think introspectively about the ontology of humanity and animality. Can one ever confidently demarcate the boundaries of the human and the animal? Haraway suggests that no, such a line will never be clearly demarcated. If one recognizes the blurriness of the boundary between humanity and animality, the relationships between other humans and animals becomes more fraught. The anthropocentric and racial hierarchies supported by the clear division between human and animal are revealed to be arbitrary impositions, which is deeply unsettling. Supported by Haraway’s arguments, unsettled veganism develops beyond a diet or lifestyle to become a praxis and way of being. Unsettled veganism is a term that I imagine to challenge contemporary conceptions of what veganism is. Unsettling works in two ways, to literally un-settle colonial practices and foundations of Western veganism, and to literally un-settle the human-animal divide that privileges human experiences and anthropocentric ways of being in the world. Instead of looking towards veganism as a single solution for animal and environmental welfare, unsettled veganism can take on kaleidoscopic vision that looks at intersections, reflections, and overlaps that can be mediated through mutual understanding and interdependence.  

Margaret Robinson, a Mi’kmaq scholar, also provides counterarguments to Western veganism, but instead suggests postcolonial and ecofeminist readings of Mi’kmaq legends as the foundations for veganism. Robinson begins by identifying two barriers to Aboriginal veganism: the association of veganism with whiteness, and the portrayal of veganism as a product of class privilege (189). Traditionally, Indigenous communities relied on hunting and meat-eating as both a means of survival and spirituality. Since contact with the European settlers, Indigenous people have been pushed to the peripheries of their lands onto reserves unsuitable for agriculture, hunting, and fishing. This class-warfare aims to impoverish and malnourish those deemed ‘undesirable’ by settler colonial society/government and prevents them from healthy, high-functioning, and long-lived lives.

The distinctions between Western human-animal divides and the relationships between humans and animals in Mi’kmaq culture provide a useful analytic to consider alternatives to Western veganism. Robinson explains that in Mi’kmaq legends; “…the othering of animal life that makes meat-eating psychologically comfortable is replaced by a model of creation in which animals are portrayed as our siblings. Mi’kmaq legends view humanity and animal life as being on a continuum, spiritually and physically” (191). Making meat-eating part of a kinship structure changes the way one relates to the food they are eating. If we were to imagine the steaks on our dinner plates not as ambiguous slabs of meat, but rather a fellow creature that we shared a fraction of our lives and resources with, we could begin to envision a symbiotic, and mutually dependent relationship between ourselves and the animals we eat. This model shifts away from anthropocentric paradigms of Western veganism to instead imagine an inter-connectedness between humans and animals. Like Haraway’s messmates that acknowledge, and celebrate the interdependence of species, this model envisions an ouroboros of relationality between humans, animals, and other organic/inorganic materials. Whereas Western veganism seeks to elevate animals into the realm of humans (with colonial models of citizenship and anthropocentric hierarchy), the kinship model complicates the decision to either eat meat, or to be vegan. Under the kinship model, people who eat meat think more consciously about who they’re eating, while vegans consider animals as kin instead of viewing themselves as saviours of animals.  

Contemporary Western veganism and mainstream animal activism reinforces the human-animal divide upon which settler colonialism thrives through excluding Indigeneity and critical race theory. Western veganism and mainstream animal activism further alienates humans from animals by privileging anthropocentrism and by developing neoliberal policies and structures. The models and practices of Western veganism reproduce the binaries of the animal-human divide rooted in colonial objectives under the veil of post-racial and eco-friendly rhetoric. If we abandon the static shores of human and animal to instead investigate the liminal and messy spaces between them, alternative models of veganism emerge to imagine opportunities of kinship between species based on respect.

Aggie Frasunkiewicz

Aggie is a recent graduate of the Visual and Critical Studies program. Her research interests include feminist theories, gender and sex studies, Latin American studies and Eastern European studies. Aggie will continue her studies at the graduate level at Concordia University in the fall.

Works Cited & Consulted

  • Belcourt, Billy-Ray. “Animal Bodies, Colonial Subjects: (Re)Locating Animality in Decolonial     Thought.” Societies vol. 5, no. 1, 2015, pp. 1-11. doi:10.3390/soc5010001.  
  • Cullinane, Susannah. “Monkey Does Not Own Selfie Copyright, Appeals Court Rules.” CNN, https://www.cnn.com/2018/04/24/us/monkey-selfie-peta-appeal. Accessed 28 March 2021.  
  • Greenebaum, Jessica. “Vegans of colour: managing visible and invisible stigmas.” Food, Culture & Society: An International Journal of Multidisciplinary Research vol. 21, no. 5, 2018, pp.  680-697. doi: 10.1080/15528014.2018.1512285.  
  • Haraway, Donna. “When Species Meet.” in When Species Meet, 3-44. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.  
  • Kimijima-Dennemeyer, Rita. “Environmental Veganism and the Land: Beyond a Capitalist-Colonialist Food Ethics.” Broad Street Humanities Review vol. 4, February 2021, pp. 147-159. https://broadstreethumanitiesreview.com/wpcontent/uploads/2021/02/BSHR-IV-Journal-Nature-    Final.pdf#page=148.  
  • McGivney, Annette. “‘Like sending bees to war’: the deadly truth behind your almond milk obsession.” The Guardian, Jan. 8, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jan/07/honeybees-deaths-almonds-hives-aoe. Accessed 28 March 2021.  
  • Pearson, Susan J.“Building a Humane Empire – Janet M. Davis The Gospel of Kindness: Animal Welfare & the Making of Modern America.” The Journal of Gilded Age and Progressive Era vol. 16, no. 2, 2017, pp. 119-242. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1537781416000785.  
  • “All About PETA.” PETA, https://www.peta.org/about-peta/learn-about-peta/. Accessed March 28, 2021.
  • “About PETA.” PETA, https://www.peta.org/about-peta/. Accessed March 28, 2021.
  • Polish, Jennifer. “Decolonizing Veganism: On Resisting Vegan Whiteness and Racism.”     Critical Perspectives on Veganism, edited by Jodey Castricano and Rasmus R.    Simonsen, Palgrave Macmillan, Springer International Publishing, 2016, pp. 373-391.
  • Robinson, Margaret. “Is the Moose Still My Brother if We Don’t Eat Him?” Critical Perspectives on Veganism, edited by Jodey Castricano and Rasmus R. Simonsen, Palgrave Macmillan, Springer International Publishing, 2016, pp. 261-275.
  • Robinson, Margaret. “Veganism and Mi’kmaq Legends.” The Canadian Journal of Native     Studies vol. 33, no. 1, 2013, pp. 189-196. http://ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/loginurl=https://www-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/scholarly-journals/veganism-mikmaqlegends/docview/1498366037/se-2?accountid=13631.
  • Rodrigues, Luis C. “White normativity, animal advocacy and PETA’s campaigns.” Ethnicities     vol. 20, no. 1, 2020, pp. 71-92. DOI: 10.1177/1468796819873101.  
  • Shah, Khushbu. “The Vegan Race Wars: How the Mainstream Ignores Vegans of Colour.” Thrillist, https://www.thrillist.com/eat/nation/vegan-race-wars-white-veganism. Accessed 4 June 2021.  
  • Smith, Andrea. "Indigeneity, Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy." Global Dialogue     (Online) vol. 12, no. 2, 2010, pp. 1-13. http://ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/loginurl=https://wwwproquest-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/scholarly-journals/indigeneity-settler-colonialism-white-supremacy/docview/866741293/se-2?accountid=13631.
  • Sze, Julie. “Race, Animality, and Animal Studies.” American Quarterly vol. 72, no. 2, June 2020, pp. 497-505. https://doi.org/10.1353/aq.2020.0028.  
  • Wrenn, Corey Lee. “Trump Veganism: A Political Survey of American Vegans in the Era of Identity Politics.” Societies vol. 7, no. 32, 2017, pp. 1-13. DOI:10.3390/soc7040032.