The Sistah Vegan Project

“Living in post apartheid South Africa inflicts such great wounds on a person of color, especially one coming from a country where the settlers have all but left”

PhotoBreeze

Dr. A. Breeze Harper

(This post was originally titled: “Not everyone has the ‘privilege’ or desire to practice veganism through the lens of ‘post-racial’ whiteness”. However, I decided to change and update it.)

Sistah Vegan Project is the alternative space for those of us Black women and allies who have grown tired of PETA-type post-racial vegan politics that so dominate not just the USA, but many white-settler nations.

A few days a ago, I received a letter from S—- (i am protecting her identity and she gave me permission to publish her letter), a Black Kenyan woman living in South Africa. I read her email and it made me cry for many reasons. I wanted to share it with you because her experience and her open-heart truth-song are the reasons why I must keep the Sistah Vegan Project going, and turn it into a fully functional non-profit organization. Black women, not just those of use who practice veganism, really need to be surrounded by people who don’t force us to ‘accept’ a post-racial utopia myth the neoliberalism has so ‘brilliantly’ done to the consciousness of so many of us living in white-settler nations.

Dear Dr Breeze Harper,

My name is S— from Kenya, but I am currently living in Cape Town South Africa. I recently embarked on a juice fast primarily for weight-loss but a month in, after watching copious youtube videos, I began to see my journey as one that was broader than just the idea of losing weight for aesthetic reasons. I started thinking about my health and how I just wanted better for myself. I have been overweight for almost seven years now and the birth of my son four years ago exacerbated my condition.  I found a blackhealthvillage video on youtube about Queen Afua and through this medium i discovered you. I am writing just to say thank you so much, you have no idea how much what you have to say has moved me and changed my life.

I started flirting with the idea of going vegan, which especially in a very white post colonial Cape Town, is such a white “hippie”, yoga life concept and is not really considered normal for a person of color. I struggled with the looks of disbelief I got from a lot of people when i spoke about my journey into the raw vegan life style. One of the things that struck out to me the most, was how my boss particularly (who has recently gone vegetarian), only wanted to discuss veganism/vegetarianism in terms of cruelty to animals. I always had a sense that we were communicating past each other. I do hate the extent to which the animal products and meat industry is destroying our planet and also the extremity of the cruelty to which many animals are subjected just so humans can eat abundantly. I find obscene the amount of waste (food) generated by the meat and fish industry.   The conversation around these issues however,always seemed shallow and very basic to me, it just seemed to lack conviction. 

I have been watching your videos and I feel like I am home. Looking at veganism as a way to decolonize my body has provided the conviction I need to proceed on with my journey.

Living in post apartheid South Africa inflicts such great wounds on a person of color, especially one coming from a country where the settlers have all but left. I first really noticed the color of my skin when i moved here 13 years ago. I stopped being “S— the girl in my English class” and became “that black chic, man, the one who sits two rows down in English”. I noticed the segregation, people naturally just hang around with their own kind. I was at a progressive university, where the History department (I majored in History for my BA) was renowned for its work in studying neocolonialism and post apartheid whiteness, but i was still having to defend my lived experiences of racial attacks to white middle class suburban students. These were spoiled and entitled people: They would not acknowledge sprawling townships that existed not too far beyond their high electric fences, where people of color still lived in tin shacks and used buckets as toilets…it was altogether inconceivable that they would ever acknowledge that i experienced racism on a daily basis. I had heard stories where orientation week for black South African student included guidelines to using toilets that flushed; I could not fathom anything more demeaning.

As result of years of this battery I just started letting  a lot slide, i ignored racial comment, acting as though i was unaffected. I worked hard and gave off an air of disdain to all the white folk that dared challenge my prowess and abilities based on my skin color. I had the advantage of being well traveled (as my parents had worked for the UN) and being very “well spoken” in an accent that was acceptable to my white counterparts. I was therefore accepted, i somehow was excluded from the stereo types attributed to black people. My son is a biracial child and thus fact that i married into a white family made me more appealing to the white neo- liberal society. Nothing is more patronizing than being the token and acceptable black person, i am the girl that allows white people to say “I am not racist, I have black friend”. 

I cannot decide what is worse, the patronizing or the out right hateful racism i get form the Afrikaaners (the coiners of the term Kafir). There have also been moments where i feel isolated form the black community because of my choice in mate and my child is hurt (although not intentionally) when discussions about bi-racial children arise – these usually evoke such fierce sentiments from white and black alike.

What I really want to say is that your work has awoken something in me and I feel empowered and politicized again. I know that it is okay to talk about how hurtful racism is, and to let people know that the denial of its existence is such  an insult to a person who lives it everyday. I have pandered to the feelings of white “friends, colleagues and neighbors'” by not discussing my feelings around racism for fear of being deemed militant or too heavy, whilst the very same people have not considered my feelings when they discuss people of color, our cultures and our politics from a place of non compassion and understanding. 

I have been empowered by you to find a safe space to release my anguish, to find like minded sisters and brothers who will help me heal A place where it is safe to discuss my views. My family lives in Kenya and the US so i am surrounded by a white family where my opinions are quietly discouraged. I recall once being asked to step off my soap box as it was dinner time and thus very inappropriate to discuss politics. At the time i was talking about the plight of the immigrant Zimbabweans crossing the South African boarder everyday, looking for a better life; i failed to understand why this was deemed inappropriate politic whereas deeming the new black regime wasn’t.

In a nutshell I am truly grateful for your work and thank you for opening my eyes to so much.

Kindest regards
S—-

“I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t laugh.”
 ― Maya Angelou

This letter helped to ground me and recenter me. If you have been following my blog for the past few months, you have read or heard how I struggle with what is the “worth” in doing this work; particularly in this harsh job economy in which a person with my particular ‘skillset’ (that critiques ‘the system’) cannot secure full time employment… But thank you S— for reminding me why I must somehow make the Sistah Vegan Project my livelihood.

I have been doing this work for years, and as much as I enjoy it, I can no longer do it for free. If you enjoy the work I have done, if it has helped you, your organization, your students, your family, etc, and you want to see it go to the next level of a non-profit social justice organization, please contribute what you can by clicking on the GOFUNDME Link below. If you do not want to use this method, but prefer paypal, click on the link on the right upper corner of this blog page to donate via PAYPAL.

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9 thoughts on ““Living in post apartheid South Africa inflicts such great wounds on a person of color, especially one coming from a country where the settlers have all but left”

  1. Pingback: Not everyone has the ‘privilege’ or desire to practice veganism through the lens of ‘post-racial’ whiteness | The Sistah Vegan Project

  2. It sounds to me like S__ is a Plant-based or strict vegetarian eater, not Vegan. She says that she approached a plant-based diet due to health concerns, which is great, but that’s not Vegan. Her boss, on the other hand, is Vegan, which is why they had such a hard time communicating. He is using the term correctly, she is not. If she, in time, comes to have the belief that animals are not ours to exploit or use, and chooses to refrain from that exploitation in all ways, then she will be Vegan, and I hope she gets there.

    • Athonwy,

      Is this the only thing about her message that ‘stood out’ for you?

      Was there anything you were able to connect with?

      Just wondering, because I had a completely different emotional response to her letter. Nope, I can’t control how anyone responds to anything, but it is quite striking to me that that was what stood out for you.

      The purpose of the Sistah Vegan project is for women like S—- to translate/define veganism in a way that reflects their lived experience of racism, sexism, colorism and sexism, which are legacies of white European colonialism. Many of us enter veganism and define it as a way to decolonizing our health from the effects of colonialism. In her letter, I never read that she didn’t consider veganism as a way to alleviate the suffering of animals, bur for her, the ‘health’ part is central– not the only defining reason of why she practices veganism. Her particular racialized suffering produced a different entree into veganism, and that is what is most striking to me… as well as the fact that so many of the racial-class status quo don’t understand that, nor do they collectively want to consider S—‘s experiences and build solidarity with her; at least, this is what she narrates in her letter and what I see as an overall theme amongst Black women who practice veganism, whether they do it for health or animal rights, or both reasons.

      I just was trying to be mindful but honest that I found your response to this letter a little ‘odd’ for someone like me who has founded the Sistah Vegan project for reasons that don’t bode well with those who have defined veganism and it’s central reason as being for ‘animal rights’ first.

      Thanks for dialoguing.

      • Athonwy on said:

        There were certainly other things that stood out to me, but I chose to address this one because it is the very foundation upon which her dialogue rests, and without clarification of that point then the rest of the dialogue will be skewed. Veganism is not about being for animal rights “first”, it is the sum total of what Veganism is about. Once again, at the risk of repeating, Veganism rests upon a belief that animals are not ours to use or exploit in any way, and the actions that accompany that belief are secondary. If that belief is not there then Veganism is also not there. Just like eating kosher does not make me a Jew, eating a plant-based diet does not make me Vegan. A belief is required, an adherence to a philosophy, in this case. I think S__ would have a much easier time relating to people if she were willing (or able) to be honest with herself about not being Vegan. As for the rest of her letter, I feel unqualified to comment on the race issues, being a middle-class white male. I don’t think my opinion matters on those subjects.

      • I have made it clear for the past 7 years that the Sistah Vegan project and the space of this blog should be a safe space from the day to day dismissal of our (black women) collective challenges, suffering, etc dealing with racism, racialized-sexualized violence, white supremacy. I experience your chosen engagement with S—‘s letter as you knowing ‘better”what a Black Kenyan woman, dealing with the violence of racism, should do, who is simultaneously and sincerely trying to practice veganism as quite astounding to me. Telling us/her she is not being ‘honest with herself’ about being a vegan is quite astounding to me as well. Her relationship with people would be better if she were a vegan for animal rights as her foundation? Perhaps I misread, but are you implying that her relations with people about her consumption philosophies have nothing to do with white racism all around her, but simply her not being ‘honest’ about not being a true vegan?

        I interpret you as feeling quite ‘qualified’ to speak on race issues, as you have commented on racialized experience of a Black Woman in South Africa, and shared it through the lens of your ‘white middle class’ male experience. Veganism doesn’t exist in a vacuum. How can you parse out her veganism from the ‘race issues’ in the letter and then feel that your opinion doesn’t matter on ‘race issues’? And please do let me know if I’m completely misreading your response, as I acknowledge that this medium of communication is something i am still trying to get better at. It is hard for me to dialogue effectively when I can’t hear tone, read body language, etc.

        Thanks
        Breeze

    • SYL K on said:

      Hi Athonwy,

      For some reason, I’m getting a different read from S—-‘s message.

      Like many other vegans, S— was initially attracted to veganism because of health benefits. This is not an uncommon entry into the vegan lifestyle. Even PeTA, the biggest mainstream vegan organization in the world, appeals to health benefits (and having an “awesome” body) to attract non-vegans to the lifestyle. Despite being a militant animal rights activist, I’m not necessarily opposed to this line of thinking. After S— went vegan for health reasons, she did more research, found the work of Queen Afua, responded strongly to this work, and stabilized her veganism. S— *does* have concerns about the treatment and exploitation of animals. She *is* horrified that humans think they can subject animals to cruelty just for their superfluous needs. She *is* concerned about the impact of our consumption practices on the environment. She said as much in her message above. She just thinks that conversations had by vegans that SOLELY revolve around those concerns are “shallow and very basic”.

      I think she’s right! Animal rights is certainly a robust site of activism, but I think it remains superficial if one refuses to admit that the denial of basic rights to animals is structurally intertwined with all of the regressive “-isms”. It seems to me that (at least) two things follow from this. 1) A movement that refuses to deal with regressive “-isms” internal to itself is self-defeating, and 2) sites of activism that aim to escape superficiality must address and engage with intersecting sites of oppression. The concept that moved S— (that of “decolonizing the body”) is a wonderful synthesis of 1 and 2. The current mainstream vegan movement is riddled with internal regressive “-isms” and refuses to engage with (or even consider) intersecting sites of oppression. As a result, there is the “single-issue” approach, which prevents the mainstream vegan from 1) recognizing or reflecting on his/her own regressive “-isms”, 2) taking into account how oppressions intersect and amplify each other, thus leading to 3) the mainstream vegan’s inability to appreciate how S—‘s message is compelling vegan testimony that moves our cause forward.

      ( Thanks for sharing S—‘s message with us, Breeze! )

  3. In response to Anthonwy, I am not surprised that you looked right past the anguish of S’s letter to Dr. Breeze. In fact, I am certain that you clearly have no idea what it means when the statement to ‘decolonize the body’ of an African descended person even means. Do you? For you to respond in such a way which completely ignores S’s letter, and what her struggles are surrounding her choice to become vegan implies that you have not a clue what is happening here. What is happening to S and why she chose to become vegan; including what she experiences on a day to day basis being Kenyan in a white dominated society. Let’s think about this. Being black, Kenyan, in a white dominated society, white dominated city, white dominated university, white dominated company; in which white people ‘unknowingly’ mistreat (and ‘mistreat’ is an understatement) black Africans with disgrace by way of demeaning their character and making stereotypical disconnects when discussing black Africans clearly lets us readers know that the deeper issue S faces is not in defining Veganism as a way to eat ‘animal cruelty’ free; it is a lifestyle change from the long-standing European Colonialism which has left the bad taste of mental enslavement which trickles down through the generations of black Africans and who are left with a lacking of resources (because whites have come in to take over and control, allotting all for themselves and their ‘own’ people); the fact that S mentioned how black Africans have to use buckets as toilets is a PRIME example of this ongoing mental enslavement a lingering effect of European Colonialism. So let’s marinate on this, and re-think WHY S chose to define Veganism for herself being for health reasons and not to save the animals. For the privileged, sure one CHOOSES to ‘Go-Vegan’ for animal cruelty rights; but for those who are STILL feeling the trickle-down effects of European Colonialism, she cannot simply choose animal rights over her own health, over her community, over her blackness, over her lack ACCESS to resources; ‘Going-Vegan’ for S is not because of ‘privilege it is for the betterment of her body; to free her mind, spirit, and body from the mental chains of enslavement, freeing herself from the mental chains of European Colonialism. Perhaps even with my explanation, you may still not fully ever understand.

    • @Athonwy – you do not feel “unqualified to comment on the race issues,” you are, sadly, like a large number of middle-class white men who simply choose not to ACKNOWLEDGE race issues. Dr. Harper was incredibly eloquent (and spot on) but I’m not as charming or articulate. Quite frankly, your tunnel vision concept of veganism comes from white supremacist derived privilege–which is exactly why S described that kind of veganism as “white ‘hippie’ yoga concept,” because many animal rights/liberation movements dismiss the sexist, racist, and classist (among others) aspects of the discourse they produce. In the same way you easily dismissed the “race issues” in S’s letter, major animal rights organizations dismiss their exploitative images of half naked woman or enslaved black people because “racism” or “sexism” are not the real point, it’s only about eliminating the suffering of nonhuman animals–because (predominately)the white privilege card grants that kind of singular thinking. Central to S’s letter is the lack of the white privilege card, instead she holds the black and female cards which do not grant the power of just picking and choosing your convictions. Instead those cards require you to pick and chose the convictions of those in power and over the years, more and more of us black and female card holders have decided to rebel–get used to it.

      Had you not dismissed S’s letter, you might have gotten some exposure as to how much privilege you have and how much of that same privilege has provided you with, wanted or not, power and acceptance. How this privilege has shaped the decisions and actions of those in power. You could have learned that those same privileges are not universal and that power and acceptance vary for everyone. Ultimately, you could have walked away with a better understanding for those of us NOT granted the same privilege as you and have a higher awareness of our disadvantages–maybe even choose to just LISTEN to us instead of continuing to pull the power card.

      I realize it was much more convenient for you to remove race from S’s discussion, giving you the luxury of ignoring her suffering and very easily placing all your values over hers.

  4. @ Athonwy

    I also disagree with your comments about the letter that Breeze received. Perhaps I disagree because this whole space (The Sistah Vegan Project) is dedicated to questioning white supremacy and privilege in the vegan/animal-rights movements and engages in re-articulating the vegan space as one that is not only concerned with diet and animals, but one that attempts to link oppressions together. You state, “She says that she approached a plant-based diet due to health concerns, which is great, but that’s not Vegan” and this alone demonstrates how whiteness has pervaded your understanding of the racialized experience. “Eating” does not occur in a vacuum; therefore, having “poor” health can actually be a result of a negative racialized or gendered experience. Structural stress, like racism, can negatively impact your health which is a valid reason for wanting to decolonize your body through veganism. The oppression of animals is not disconnected from the oppression of women and people of color! Perhaps we can extend our narrow understanding of veganism, which have been defined by white audiences, and re-narrativize the vegan experience as one that seeks to dismantle oppression in the mind and body.

    As women of color, we do not have the privilege of “individualizing” oppressions and interrogating them singularly. Reducing veganism to “just” a diet OR “just” concern for animals proves that whiteness is the framework for your analysis, considering the white supremacist thought seeks to “individualize” oppression. “Individualizing” oppression is not possible considering “isms” are linked and this is manifested through the black female body! That’s why our voices must be heard. It may not be comforting to realize that you’ve been part of a movement that actually creates more violence towards women and people of color, but one way you can help is by critiquing your current knowledge and your current ideas of veganism. I appreciate your ability to question; however, you’re questioning the wrong people. Question the mainstream movements.
    If you’re unable to locate your privilege in a mainstream movement that caters to whiteness and maleness, then perhaps that indicates that you are also unable to locate oppression in others experiences as well. The first step to understanding oppression is understanding the concept of privilege.

    Your classifications of what constitutes being a “plant-based eater” vs. a “vegan” demonstrates that the measurement your using to allocate S into a group is just as uncritical as your analysis, meaning that it’s void of linking larger oppressions together. The whole point of the Sistah Vegan project is to interrogate these seemingly naturalized definitions of veganism which has completely excluded voices of color! Your discomfort with our interrogation of veganism is perhaps linked to the unquestioned hegemony of whiteness and maleness in the current vegan movement. We seek to rupture the white norm and the singularity of oppression.

    You can’t understand how decolonization is tied to veganism if you don’t understand how whiteness already functions in the current movement. You’re merely engaging in the act of silencing S which is something that she’s all too familiar with.

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