I think about my food choices a lot, and since writing my other post about vegetarianism/veganism, I’ve been thinking more about race and class politics in relation to my own diet (and getting more frustrated with myself and other people who call themselves vegetarians/vegans). Changing my diet has been like changing my vocabulary when I first started to learn more about the histories behind apparently innocuous words, histories that made those words into weapons that are used against marginalized peoples every day. When I learned about those histories, I would try and try and eventually succeed at removing the word from my vocabulary. Words that never used to draw my attention can sting me and alarm me now. I would rather not cause a small harm to someone if I can avoid it, although I hold no illusions (I hope) about the fact that changing my vocabulary is only the very beginning of making my actions oriented towards justice, rather than towards oppression. That’s how I think about vegetarianism. I do not think my actions are changing the inhumane industry that produces most food for sale, and I don’t think that I’m saving any animals any pain by not eating their already-dead bodies. But I would rather participate as little as possible in the meat industry, including by withholding my money from them. To not do is easy; and to not do something that is, however marginally, harmful, is better than doing it.
My point is that those things are small and do not change the state of the world by themselves. But I know that many people, including plenty of people on the vegan/vegetarian train, don’t care too much about social change. And I take issue with that. Caring about “food ethics” but not social justice is an exercise in privilege, a way to feel good without sacrificing anything. Not eating meat is not a sacrifice (although a lot of people who eat meat might disagree). Cutting out eggs and cheese is not giving up much. It’s a CHOICE that not everyone can make. It is another way of asserting moral superiority over people who lack access to “healthy” food, to organic food, to fresh produce; over people who lack the time to sift through recipes and cook from scratch; over people who lack the resources (books, the Internet, etc.) to figure out ways to replace animal-based proteins in their diets; over people for whom meat is valuable in ways unimportant to white America.
Changing a diet without changing other parts of one’s life demonstrates non-commitment to justice, and makes noble vegetarian/vegan intentions ring hollow. Caring about the pain and suffering of animals without also caring about the pain and suffering of low income people of color living in food deserts, or of farmers in the global south who are fucked over by huge corporations that force them to farm in unsustainable and unprofitable ways– that is evidence of racism, classism, and ethnocentrism. Judging and shaming people for eating meat or cheese is not a way to build a movement for food justice that spans across different communities and identities. Individual choices about eating don’t impact food systems in a significant way; if positive change in the world is something vegans and vegetarians claim to care about (and I would say many, but not all, do), then we need to be concerned not only with making up delicious and hearty meals even a meat eater would love, but with participating in activist movements headed by those people most harmed by current food systems.