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White Anti-Racism: No Hairshirt Necessary

Any responses to Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Eating Animals” from vegans/vegetarians of color?

I’ve been pescovegetarian for the past four years and after reading Eating Animals, I’ve decided to give up fish and become actually vegetarian. Though the book was a bit overwraught at points, it made me care (in my heart not my head) about animal welfare and species preservation more acutely than I ever had before. My previous eating choices were only ethically motivated insofar as I think it is ethically necessary to take charge of ones health and to make sacrifices for the environment. My decision to forgo meat was only occasionally motivated by emotional responses to animal oppression.

The other day I read an interview of Breeze Harper of Sistah Vegan, in which she was asked how the legacies of colonialism manifest themselves in mainstream dialogues and attitudes about what we eat. In her response she mentioned that the most prominent dialogues about veganism, vegetarianism and mindful consumption come from an almost exclusively white perspective that assumes unfettered access to whatever foods one decides are best. In particular she cites Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma and Rory Freedman’s Skinny Bitch. I’ve read both of these books. I found Pollan’s to be fascinating from a culinary and scientific standpoint, and an engaging piece of writing. Skinny Bitch temporarily succeeded in making me want to loose a bit of weight, but in general the tone was so condescending and the content so narrowly focused on body issues that I do not include it as a text that has informed my decisions. (Though I suspect it has had more lasting impact on other women who might not have been politically or ethically motivated to choose veganism or vegetarianism)

Foer’s “Eating Animals” strikes me as quite different from the standard white-centric veg. literature. While the expose parts of the book alone may dissuade some from eating meat, I think its greatest strength is that it highlights the intense personal connections we have between our food and our heritage, and also to the animal world. I would love to hear if veg people of color find Foer’s book more approachable and less myopic in its view than other veggie texts. By advocating each of us to consciously choose the stories we tell about our food, and while eating it, does Foer create more room for diversity within the veggie culture?

I recognize that Foer doesn’t adequately address the issues of food accessibility and options that often preclude underserved individuals from seeing veggie lifestyles as a viable option. But, in terms of the motivations he provides, does it seem correct to say that this book has the potential to compel a greater variety of people to choose, or at least to consider, a vegetarian lifestyle by pandering to the more empathetic side of our shared humanity?

I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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Filed under: activism, Books, Personal, Society, , , , , , , , , ,

3 Responses

  1. Amy says:

    Your blog is great! I can’t wait to read about all of the accidental racist/sexist/elitist/unsympathetic things I do! You are my new, cyber Jiminy Cricket.

    Oddly enough, my oldest brother has given up eating meat (at least non-free range/hormone free/organic etc. meat) and this book has been all he has been talking about for the past few months. We grew up with parents that still believe that a meal without meat is not a meal, but he and I both have been dating vegetarians for some time now. I eat meat very occasionally, only when I am out to dinner with someone other than my vegetarian boy friend. We don’t keep meat in the house and I can’t remember the last time I have cooked meat. I would never consider myself a vegetarian, though I eat meat only a few times a month–and feel very guilty about it when I do. My brother began his “vegetarianism” in the same way I did–his girlfriend (now fiancee) is a vegetarian yadda yadda yadda. Then he read Safran Foer’s book and has become militant. He says he isn’t giving up meat for moral/ethical reasons, he is giving it up for health reasons–I haven’t read the book, but something about factory farms and dead animals stewing in their own puss really got to him. He didn’t even eat our Aunt Janet’s turkey on Thanksgiving! I don’t quite know what I am driving at, but I figured I would tell his story. I wonder if it really is the puss idea that is getting to him. We have been eating entrails and tripe and oysters and snails and all sorts of stranger food than puss since we were little kids. Perhaps we have different ideas about health and things, but I can’t help but think my big, macho brother is eating less meat because of a cow’s big, sad eyes and a the idea that even a headless, wingless, genetically modified chicken has a soul.

    I guess I am asking if it is possible to really be a vegetarian without thinking of the horrible suffering that these animals have gone through. I have a hard time thinking that you can. But that is just me and my macho brother.

  2. mgummere says:

    @Amy

    Kudos for being the first comment!!!
    I hope that I will not accidentally be racist/sexist/elitist. And, in fact, if I am, I think I will reflect upon the instance apologetically. I think the point is more that in my discussions of race, racism and anti-racism, I am not going to limit myself to discussions of the white privilege from which I have certainly benefited.

    I think it’s silly for white ‘anti-racists’ to only ponder white privilege and to attempt to distance themselves from it. For the foreseeable future, I can’t imagine systemic white privilege disappearing, so I think our anti-racist energies might be better spent on other more pro-active agendas.

    That said, I cannot believe ELI, OF ALL PEOPLE, is a vegetarian!!!! That is crazy! WOW!
    I like your question at the end about whether it is possible to be a vegetarian without thinking about the suffering of animals. In my opinion, yes, it is possible. For a long time I was vegetarian only for health reasons. Of course I thought about animal suffering from time to time, but those thoughts never sustained my dietary choices, probably because it is such a complicated issue to hash out thoroughly and I didn’t feel prepared to approach it. Also, I think the simplistic idea that “it’s ‘natural for animals to eat other animals” seemed unapproachable to me. So, even though I did have animal suffering concerns from time to time, I always explained my choices in terms of my own personal health.

    I think that by making it an issue of personal health, vegetarians are also able to avoid being characterized as morally judgemental people who frown upon others dietary choices, whether or not they choose to do so…

    Anyways, it’s so interesting to hear about your brother’s conversion!!

  3. […] An article titled Five Fatal Flaws of Animal Activism caught my eye. With my earlier post about the mainstream promotion (or lack thereof) of veganism/vegetarianism in mind, I hoped one of the 5 flaws would be the lack of attention and […]

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