Black Vegans Rock! Founder Aph Ko talks to Vegan Life about her project that aims to dismantle the sterotype that “black people aren’t vegan”.
Writer, theorist, and academic Aph Ko is the founder of Black Vegans Rock – a digital project dismantling the stereotype that ‘black people aren’t vegan’ as well as creating a space to highlight the journeys and thoughts of black vegans, as well as their reasons for going vegan.
According to Aph, in creating blackvegansrock.com, she wanted to build a platform that offered an online community for vegans of colour, especially in response to the amount of racism in the mainstream vegan movement. So far, this has been very effective, with a daily celebration of either a black vegan, oran event that centers on black vegans every day. The ultimate aim is to move BVR offline, creating meet-
ups, where attendees can ‘read different critical articles and books by black and brown revolutionaries and have challenging conversations about animality and race.’
Aph was awarded the 2015 Anti-Racist Changemaker of the Year Award from the Sistah Vegan Project and the Pollination Project, and recently served as an associate producer for the documentary film, Always in Season, which examines the impact of racial terrorism and lynching on communities in the United States, and spotlights contemporary efforts for racial justice and reconciliation.
Can you talk a little bit about why blackvegansrock.com has been so well-received – and why it’s so important to have a platform like this?
I think there are a lot of different ways that I could answer this question.
First of all, I think Black Vegans Rock is refreshing. I think black vegans are situated in a unique space – oftentimes our perspectives on animality are regarded as distractions in mainstream anti-racist black communities, and our racialized perspectives are seen as irrelevant to the mainstream animal rights and vegan movements.
I remember I was doing a podcast interview once with Jamie Broadnax of Black Girl Nerds and she referred to black vegans as the ‘sub-culture of the black sub-culture’, which is a pretty accurate description. Black Vegans Rock offers a space where black folks can explore who they are, while grapping with the ways that animality has directly contributed to oppressive racist conditions. It offers a sense of community where you don’t have to hide the fact that you want to fight racism, while simultaneously advocating for animal liberation. You’re not any ‘less black’ because you don’t eat meat, or because you are invested in exploring how white supremacy impacts multiple marginalized groups.
I also think Black Vegans Rock is ‘successful’ because it’s extremely grassroots. We don’t partner with giant corporate organizations, and our goal isn’t just to make money. We sincerely want to change people’s minds. Because we’re really independent, our message isn’t compromised which gives us more freedom to say what we want…and gives us permission to not feel forced to say too much as well. It is important to me to stay independent and small. Black Vegans Rock is extremely minimalist, and I love it like that.
On the other hand, I think Black Vegans Rock is increasingly popular (especially among some mainstream vegan folks) because they feel as though I’m ‘bringing’ black people into THEIR vegan movement, which can be a problematic interpretation of my work.
Since mainstream veganism is often associated with purity and whiteness, black people who go vegan are treated as though they’re racially ‘rehabilitated’. I’ve observed that some white vegans celebrate black folks who adopt veganism, yet stay quiet about the racialized violence that black people experience. There’s almost this strange type of respectability politics that happens when black people go vegan. I have written an entire essay about this called Vegans of Color and Respectability Politics: When Eurocentric Veganism is used to Rehabilitate Minorities.
Before you created BVR, you wrote an article called #BlackVegansRock: 100 Black Vegans to Check Out, which you define as an ‘activist performance art piece’. This is fascinating: can you explain more about this definition please?
In the animal rights movement, I noticed that a lot of people were committed to making their spaces more diverse, yet didn’t necessarily have the right tools to accomplish this.
Unfortunately, the hyper-focus on diversity itself accidentally eclipsed the work vegans of color had been doing for quite some time. For example, I remember I was reading different articles coming from animal rights activists about the overwhelming whiteness of the movement while people like Dr. Amie Breeze Harper launched an entire online conference titled, “The Vegan Praxis of Black Lives Matter.” Presenters discussed the intersections between racism and speciesism, and unfortunately, this conference went slightly under the radar when it came to the mainstream movement.
The presence of black vegans doesn’t necessarily negate the fact that the movement is still organized through a racial grammar of whiteness, but it does highlight how we have a tendency to make whiteness hyper-visible, while forgetting that people of color are ALREADY vegan. In other words, I noticed how conversations about whiteness and the lack of diversity trumped conversations about the work people of color were actually doing in the movement.
This made me realize that as a collective, we are working way too hard on trying to make our movements diverse when there is already so much incredible work happening right in front of us from people of color.
So, the goal of my piece was to essentially say: HELLO! Look over here. Look at all of these people who are vegan who could use some visibility.
I realized that incessantly talking about diversity doesn’t necessarily produce diversity. We just needed a paradigm-shift when it came to talking about race in the movement, which is why I created my article. I called it a political performance art piece because I wanted people to do something. I wanted people check out work by the vegans of color on the list, I wanted them to share their messages and support their projects.
There is a stereotype of veganism being a ‘white’ movement – How has this come about?
This is an incredibly difficult question to answer because veganism, as well as the racial politics surrounding vegan movements, are really complex. The term ‘vegan’ itself was coined by a white man (Donald Watson), however, the concept of eating a plant-based diet and caring for non-human animals has been around for quite some time now in multiple societies and cultures.
When it comes to talking about whiteness in the mainstream animal rights and vegan movements, we have empirical evidence for this. Some of the most popular theorists, filmmakers, writers, and thinkers in the mainstream animal rights movement are white people. White people run some of the largest and most influential animal rights and vegan organizations. They also get the most funding in this movement.
When people of color say that veganism is white, we don’t necessarily mean that white folks are the only ones who eat kale, we mean that the theories and philosophies and knowledge produced about animal oppression itself is largely coming from a white world-view that’s become universalized. That’s a problem because we’re not taking into account different perspectives when it comes to understanding animal oppression.
In other words, we seem to be experiencing an epistemic problem, manifesting itself through a diversity problem. Therefore, the issue isn’t necessarily diversity itself; it’s a matter of who is allowed to produce the knowledge that becomes a part of the ‘canon’ of animal rights literature.
When we talk about whiteness, we’re not necessarily talking about individual white people either. We are talking bout a framework, a way of viewing and organizing the world. I think it’s easy to individualize this and make it seem like individual white people are the problem, but it’s much more complex than that.
Could you further explain this distinction please?
For people who are routinely animalized and considered sub-human, we can have a different relationship to animal oppression. It doesn’t feel as external to us as it might for a person who gets the advantage of being considered ‘human.’
This is why a lot of black and brown vegans insert themselves and their community’s struggles into their conversations about animal oppression. This doesn’t mean that we don’t care about non-human animals; it just means that we are going about it in a different way because we are located differently in this system.
This is confusing for some people in the dominant class who assume animal rights activism MUST be centered on literal non-human animal bodies. That perspective might make sense for you if you don’t regularly have to grapple with being ‘sub-human.’ My sister Syl has a brilliant essay in the book about this titled, Notes from the Border of the Human/Animal Divide: Thinking and Talking about Animal Oppression When You’re Not Quite Human Yourself.
When a lot of people of color (not all) use the term ‘vegan’, we don’t just want our communities to go vegan for the sake of being vegan…we are actually using veganism as one of many tools in our activist toolkit to talk about white supremacy. Again, this isn’t true in all cases, but it’s just my observation.
I think this conversation is generally confusing because we’re using the term ‘vegan’, but we’re articulating it in different ways. In fact, there are a lot of interesting conversations currently happening where marginalized people are debating whether or not we should even use the term ‘vegan’ to describe our activism considering we are doing something a little different than traditional Eurocentric vegan work. Rather than trying to smuggle our experiences with racism into the word “vegan” to validate what we’re doing, some folks of color are just using different labels and engaging in different movements to do the work, while still being plant-based. I feel inspired by these conversations. I am always trying to negotiate how I feel about the labels I choose to define my own activism.
Currently, I call myself ‘vegan’ but I’m oftentimes uncomfortable with that label because it feels so reductionist. It doesn’t capture my politics in a way that reflects my anti-racist commitments.
How has ‘whiteness’ informed and shaped mainstream veganism?
Normally when people answer questions like this, they are encouraged to say the obvious answers. We just talk about individual white people and how much power and influence they have in the movement or we speak about obvious racism in the movement, however, to be honest, I think that we need to start having more conversations about the epistemic problem. Whiteness is revealed in how we are trained to understand what oppression is. I’m essentially saying that the problem isn’t necessarily white people per se, because there are a lot of people of color who subscribe to the same ideologies as white people in this movement. It just means that on an epistemic level, we privilege thoughts from the dominant class to organize the world and its members. We use their conceptual map of the world to direct us in our activism…, which is the problem. For example, when we talk about animal oppression without anchoring it to racialization and coloniality, we are already subscribing to whiteness. We naturalize whiteness as the norm when we subscribe to the compartmentalization of the world and its members.
When people of colour are represented in vegan imagery, it is often in violent portrayals-comparing the oppression of black people to the oppression of animals. I have seen quite a lot of discourse between people arguing about who has the right to appropriate this type of imagery and language. What’s your position on this?
For me, I think this discussion is boring – and that’s not a critique of your question, it’s a critique of the ridiculous discussions currently happening in the movement at large. And we wonder why a lot of people don’t take the vegan movement seriously.
In people having these ‘debates’ they are spending extra energy on ‘comparisons’ that don’t even make sense and they are ignoring more pressing conversations. In fact, this conversation about ‘comparing oppressions’ is a distraction from the actual things that we should be talking about.
First of all, we collectively need to stop borrowing imagery from black folks’ oppression to draw sympathy to animal oppression, which is overtly problematic (and most folks already know this). Secondly, we need to abandon the idea that we can explain oppression through a meme, or a simple poster. These issues are really complex, and we can’t always explain that complexity in five minutes, or through a visual prop. Thirdly, I think that the distorted and misguided conversations about intersectionality that are happening right now in the animal rights movement has pressured people to try really hard to make ‘connections’ between oppressions which can produce really sloppy, inaccurate, illogical portrayals of ‘similarities’ between oppressed humans and non-human animals, which isn’t even the direction we should be going in. It’s just conceptually lazy.
As I always say, the only connection between black oppression and animal oppression is that both groups were smuggled onto a racial hierarchy that the dominant class created to naturalize their own superiority and the inferiority of everyone else.
I generally try to stay away from mainstream debates in these movements, which usually happen on social media. As a movement, we just need to spend more time reading about these issues so that we’re more informed when trying to talk about them.
You have just written a book – can you tell us a bit about that please?
I am actually still in the process of the book publication process, however, yes, I will hopefully have a book coming out this year. It’s titled Aphro-ism: Essays on Pop Culture, Feminism, and Black Veganism from Two Sisters. I co-wrote the book with my sister Syl, who is a brilliant thinker and philosopher. We have a website called Aphro-ism, where we have blogged about feminism, black veganism, and decolonial theory, and we are editing those essays and putting them in the book.
I can’t share too many details about the book at this point, but we’re publishing through Lantern books. They also published Sistah Vegan by Dr. Amie Breeze Harper. You can follow me on social media, as well as Lantern Books to get updates on the progress of my book.
Black Vegans Rock logo designed by Eastrand Studios.