The Sistah Vegan Project

On the Neoliberal, Afrocentric, and Decolonial Politics of “Cruelty-Free”

Tonight I gave a lecture to a class at California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. I spoke about my dissertation work for about an hour. They asked me to specifically come and talk about vegan politics and how I engage in critical studies of race.

So, I wanted to share with y’all the dissertation abstract to get a sense of what it is that I’m doing and  in what direction the manuscript is heading. After the abstract will be the table of contents for you to see as well.

Vegan consciousness and the Commodity Chain: On the Neoliberal, Afrocentric, and Decolonial Politics of “Cruelty-Free”

Abstract

In my dissertation, I analyze how neoliberal whiteness, race consciousness, decolonization, and anti-racism operate within three different vegan food guides: Sacred Woman (Afua 2000), Food Empowerment Project’s Ethical Food Choices (FEP), and PETA’s Vegan Shopping Guide. PETA, FEP, and Sacred Woman are located within the landscape of vegan food philosophies to produce “cruelty-free” and “ethical” spaces across multiple scales (i.e. consciousness, the body, the home, the community, and the globe). However, these three sites represent three different engagements with vegan commodities as the method for achieving ethical consumption and spaces. Such differences are not so much about food, as much as they are about the social, political, and economic relationships underlying the food commodity chain. Through the lenses of critical studies of race, decolonial world-systems theory, food semiology, and black feminism, this dissertation explores such underlying relationships.

Chapter two is titled, “Feeding a Black Nation: Afrocentric Vegan Food Politics and Queen Afua’s Kitchen.” Queen Afua is one of the most popular and widely read health activists amongst Black women in the USA. She offers an approach to diet and health from an Afrocentric perspective. In this chapter, I analyze the vegan commodities that Afua (2000) recommends in the “Sacred Foods” section of Sacred Woman as a way to ‘purify’, ‘decolonize,’ and ‘liberate’ Black Americans from legacies of colonialism and racism (i.e. racialized nutritional health disparities). First, through an Afrocentric framework, I show how Afua’s vegan philosophy combats anti-black conceptualizations of Black women as “unfeminine” and “breeders.” After this analysis, I use Black feminist theorizing (Collins 2000; Williams-Forson 2006) to explore how the meanings Afua places on particular ‘liberating’ vegan commodities simultaneously reproduce heterosexist, ableist, and black middle-class ‘reformist’ conceptualizations of a ‘healthy’ Black nation.

Chapter three is titled, “PETA and Marketing Neoliberal Whiteness as ‘Cruelty-Free.’” This chapter explores how neoliberal whiteness operates within PETA’s Cruelty-Free Vegan Shopping Guide. Through the analytical frameworks of dysconscious racism (King 1991) and decolonial world-systems analysis (Grosfoguel and Cervantes-Rodríguez 2002), I show how “cruelty free” vegan commodities rely on the cruelty of uneven development and structural racism-poverty-sexism (i.e. NAFTA) to make tomato and cocoa based vegan commodities such as Tofutti Pizza Pizzaz, Amy’s Spinach Pizza, and So Delicious chocolate non-dairy desserts possible. Most importantly, I show how PETA’s fundamental understanding of ‘cruelty-free’ and ‘ethical’ are shaped by PETA as being beneficiaries of neoliberalism, First World geopolitical status, and socio-economically privileged USA consumer-citizens within global food commodity chain.

Lastly chapter four is named “FEP, Semiotics of Coloniality, and the Underside of Veganized Modernity.” FEP is pro-vegan food justice organization in South Bay California. They place great emphasis on farmworker rights and alleviating environmental racism. FEP knows that most ‘eco-conscious’ USA vegan consumers have been ‘educated’ to believe that companies selling vegan labeled ‘sustainable’ products ‘guarantee’ that no animals or the environment have suffered to make their product. However, engaging with decolonial world-systems analysis, along with Roland Barthes theories of food semiotics (1972) and his treatise on the objects of post-empire whiteness (Sandoval 1997), I show that vegan food justice organization FEP exposes how neoliberalism, corporate-capitalist profits, and hyper-consumerism dictate “ethical” vegan marketing schemes and labels such as “sustainable,” “ethically sourced,” and “Fair Trade.” FEP achieves this by re-signifying the meaning of ‘sustainable’ palm oil products and cocoa through the semiotics of coloniality and grounded reality of exploited human laborers of the global South. FEP’s advocacy to boycott the incredibly popular ‘eco-conscious’ and ‘sustainable’ labeled vegan products from Earth Balance and CLIF Bar are the case studies employed.

Table of Contents

Chapter One: Introduction, Methods and Methodologies, and Chapter Summaries                 4

A Critical Food Studies Approach to Vegan Food Guides: An Introduction…………………………………………… 4

Brief Overview of Veganism in the USA………………………………………… 7

Brief Genealogy of Racial and Feminist Analysis in Veganism…………………….. 10

Burgeoning Literature in Intersections of Critical Race and Vegan Food Studies…………………………….. 18

Methods and Methodologies……………… 22

Black Feminist Theorizing…………………………… 23

Critical Studies of Race…………………………………….. 27

Critical Studies of Whiteness: White Supremacy as Structures and Systems………………. 30

Decolonial World Systems Analysis……………….. 34

Afrocentrism……………………………………. 36

Methods: Material Culture Approach and Discursive Analysis………… 37

Chapter Summaries……………………….. 38

Chapter Two: Afrocentric Vegan Food Politics and Queen Afua’s Kitchen…….. 41

Introduction: Sacred Woman, Re-Signifying Veganism, and Black Feminist Theorizing…… 41

From Capitalist Commodity to the Sacred Divine: Reclaiming the Space of the Black Female Womb  …..   45

Queen Afua’s Kitchen: Revolutionary Black Feminism or [Race-Conscious] Middle Class Food Reform?       64

Decolonization and the Limits of “Returning of Home”………………….. 79

Chapter Three: PETA: From Vegan Consciousness to Vegan Commodity…………………. 88

“Never Be Silent” and Trayvon Martin: PETA’s Illusion of Transparency………… 94

PETA Approved: Getting your vegan chocolate “fix” through child slavery…………… 107

PETA, Neoliberal whiteness, and Vegan Consumer Activism…………………… 114

Chapter Four: Food Empowerment Project and the Underside of Veganized Modernity        127

Food Justice Beyond a Single [vegan] Issue……………….. 128

Critical Pedagogies of Consumption, Earth [In]Balance, and Doing what is Right: A Tale of Two Butters                  131

FEP and the Contested Semiotics of Vegan Chocolate: Unpacking the ‘invisible knapsack’ of vegan consumer privilege        151

Conclusion…………………….. 176

Works Cited……………………………….. 177

Works Cited

Afua, Queen. Sacred Woman: A Guide to Healing the Feminine Body, Mind, and Spirit. New York: Ballantine Publishing Group, 2000.

Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. New York,: Hill and Wang, 1972.

Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. Rev. 10th anniversary ed. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Grosfoguel, Ramón, and Ana Margarita Cervantes-Rodríguez. The Modern/Colonial/Capitalist World-System in the Twentieth Century : Global Processes, Antisystemic Movements, and the Geopolitics of Knowledge, Contributions in Economics and Economic History, No. 227. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002.

King, Joyce E. “Dysconscious Racism: Ideology, Identity, and the Miseducation of Teachers.” The Journal of Negro Education 60, no. 2 (Spring, 1991) (1991): 133-46.

Sandoval, Chéla. “Theorizing White Consciousness.” In Displacing Whiteness: Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism, edited by Ruth Frankenberg, 86-106. Durham: Duke University Press, 1997.

Williams-Forson, Psyche. Building Houses out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, & Power. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

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4 thoughts on “On the Neoliberal, Afrocentric, and Decolonial Politics of “Cruelty-Free”

  1. I was in the class tonight!!! Thank you for your presentation. After you left we all agreed that we were honored you came and shared with us. Really looking forward to reading your dissertation when you’re finished. Thanks again, Claudia

    • Thanks Claudia. I really enjoyed discussing it and this was the first time ever I didn’t READ FROM ANYTHING. I am becoming more confident with how to convey my research without reading from a script; great timing since I am hoping to get job interviews and they require us to give talks!

  2. I am thoroughly pleased that you are able to present your research to an audience that is able to understand and absorb the excellent work you are doing. Let’s get the acceptance and publication on the way.

  3. This is a beautifully written and so, so important. I am so inspired by you—as a fellow feminist, a fellow vegan, a fellow anti-racist, and a fellow academic! Solidarity.

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