By Rachel Gerhart
When searching ‘Vegan’ on any social media platform, there is a steady stream of white influencers making “African Peanut Stew” or “Asian Stir Fry”, and a definite lack of black and brown influencers at the top of the charts. Not only has present-day veganism been created by overpowering white voices appropriating BIPOC’s culture, but veganism has been rebranded as this new and shiny trend as its history has been neatly swept under the rug.
Veganism originated in religions like Buddhism, Jainism, and Hinduism as early as the 7th century BCE, where the followers lived a ‘non-animal’, ‘non-harming’, or ‘non-killing’ diet, depending on their beliefs. During 675 AD in East and Southeast Asia, there was an increase in the number of vegans/vegetarians as the spread of Chinese Buddhism increased. Over time, the idea of vegetarianism spread from Asia to Europe, and then to the United States. The more distance this practice traveled, as time passed, the more watered down the culture became, and the product of that was the vegans that can be seen today. Vegans today use ancient products that have been rebranded in order to appeal to more consumers, and many of these products are seen everywhere in pop culture.
Along with many other products that have been rebranded and white-washed by today’s vegans, tofu’s history has been erased. The first recording of “tofu”, originally called bean curd, was around 2,000 years ago in China. It soon spread to Japan around 100 years later and continued to spread throughout Asia. The vegetarian lifestyle was a large part of Buddhism, and the spread of bean curd, which is an excellent source of protein, coincided with the spread of Buddhism.
As international trade became more and more popular, bean curd began to spread to neighboring continents. The first recorded mention of tofu in the US was by Benjamin Franklin in a letter to his friend, John Bartram, in 1770. He wrote about how he had “cheese from China”, and then went on to explain how they made ‘tofu’ from soybeans.
Bean curd was sparsely seen throughout history in the US, with a few mentions of travelers eating it in Europe. Along with a few other cheaply produced foods, bean curd was a part of many slaves’ diets in the United States. In history, we see it referred to as ‘bean curd’ when it is being eaten by BIPOC and then referred to as ‘tofu’ when being fed to white people.
One of the first tofu companies to open in the US was run by Mr. Sing-how Lee in 1904 and it is still running today. After the opening of this company followed by a few others, the popularity of tofu started to rise, but not to the point of popularity we see today. It is estimated that a majority of people in the US didn’t know about tofu, although it was widely available in many large cities.
Dr. Yamei Kin was one of the first to speak about tofu to the greater public. She worked with the USDA to research how soybeans and tofu could be used during the meat shortages of WWI, and she even opened her own tofu plant. Her tofu company, named Soy Products Co., was successful until they were forced to close after the war ended and the meat shortages no longer were present in the US. The introduction to tofu was done by people with Chinese or Japanese ancestry, and it took a while for Americans and Europeans to see the reasoning behind the food which they soon adapted and appropriated instead of celebrating the culture it came from.
There was a lull in the admiration of tofu until the 1960s/1970s when Americanized Chinese food became popular with the greater population. This provided a catalyst for tofu’s usage, which was made a staple in the non-Asian hippie community, where many were vegetarians and used tofu as a protein substitute. The love for tofu only grew from there, and the Asian history was quickly covered by Americans stereotyping it with hippies and vegetarians in the US.
This grain has recently been seen everywhere -in many vegan recipes and even vegan options at restaurants like Panera Bread. Consumers may think since it has been newly introduced to mainstream customers, that it must be a new product in itself, but that is not true. We first see quinoa as the main staple of the Inca’s diet, being grown on the Southern Altiplano. It was such an important food source to them they called it the “mother grain” and even had ceremonies to break the ground before the first planting of the crop.
When the Europeans conquered South America, they referred to quinoa as “dirty Indian food” and dismissed its importance in their culture by banning it from being cultivated. Quinoa was not seen in the US until the 1950s, after the Bolivian Revolution, and the US started to support Bolivia in many ways. In 1970, the first tractors reached the Southern Altiplano, and started to impact the crops. Since the tractors couldn’t operate on hills, quinoa crops were forced to move to flatter land. The tractors were not as good for the soil quality as the “primitive” techniques, but they were more efficient. The decrease in soil quality continued over time, and as fewer people worked on the Southern Altiplano, more tractors were necessary for production.
The exportation of quinoa to the United States started in 1984, but the process was not yet perfected as it was done manually. It was normal for quinoa to have a bitter taste, which was the result of a coating of saponins that wasn’t adequately removed. There was very little support from other countries in this process, so a cooperative of quinoa processors formed. They traveled to countries like Peru and Brazil to see how they could successfully produce quinoa, and they even attempted to build their own processors that ultimately failed. In the 1990’s, the United Nations started to finance and oversee the construction of these processing plants. Denmark and the US developed ways to make the process more efficient.
The rise in popularity of quinoa grew rapidly from there, as it was praised for its health benefits. The Southern Altiplano has been devastated by the rise in demand for quinoa. The US went from paying $500 for 1 ton of quinoa for decades, to $1300 in 2010. Farmers stopped waiting 2-3 years for the soil to rest before planting another crop, and started planting yearly.
This has decreased the soil quality even more. Families also sold their native livestock, Llamas, so they can farm on the grazing land or buy tractors. The communities living near the Southern Altiplano are very malnourished, despite selling and growing quinoa which is praised for its health benefits. This is because the families sell the expensive quinoa for cheaper, less nutritious foods.
This dark past and present day has been covered by the US, as they rebrand quinoa as a ‘superfood’, and they cover up the violent and devisating origins.
FRUITS AND VEGETABLES
Many vegans pursue the lifestyle/diet for a variety of different reasons, and it depends on the individual. One of the most popular reasons, is that they don’t want any animals to be killed or they want a ‘cruelty free’ diet. The sadly ironic reality is that the fruits and vegetables that vegans, and many other people, are eating are being picked and cultivated by cruely underpaid and overworked people.
There are over 3 million farmworkers in the United States. About 2 million are family farmworkers, and the other 1 million are hired. Trump has put even more stress on top of these current conditions, by looking to lower the pay for 205,000 migrant workers. (Migrant means they move with the seasonal crops.) Trump is trying to lower the wages after he recently gave the companies that the farm workers work for billions of dollars in bailouts. Many of the farmworkers are immigrants, lots of them undocumented, and are being urged by their employers to ignore safety concerns involving Covid-19, to keep working in the fields. A majority of farmworkers are undocumented from Mexico, have resided in the United States for years, and some have American-born children. They spend every day with the chance of being deported looming in the back of their mind. There is a heartbreaking truth as stated by a farmworker in Bakersfield, California, Ms. Silva, “It’s like suddenly they realized we are here contributing.” The farmworkers have been underpaid and overworked for years, and mainstream media has only just begun highlighting it because of how the pandemic has impacted them.
Veganism has been slowly white-washed overtime by the media, the government and the people. It has been white-washed from simple ingredients and foods, to entire cultures and groups of people getting erased from something they created. Recently, there has been light brought to this issue, as the rise of the Black Lives Matters movement allows for many vegans and vegan influencers to take a step back and look at their actions. The first step to replenishing the fields of the Southern Altiplanos, honoring the culture of the Southeast Asians, and healing the hands of the immigrant farmworkers, is acknowledgment and self-reflection.
BIPOC OWNED VEGAN/SUSTAINABLE COMPANIES
As a result to Black and brown voices being overpowered in the vegan community, their companies tend to not receive as much praise. A way to help unlift the voices of vegan BIPOC, is to buy from their companies, and to make it easier for the consumer, below a list of sustainable Black owned brands. These brands are vegan, and they take into account their impact on the Earth and the environment. Many of the companies also donate or have projects focusing on helping those in need, or donating to issues in developing countries.
- Symphony Potato Chips (@symphonychips) – potato chips
- Southern Roots Vegan Bakery (@southernrootsbiz) – baked goods
- Project Pop (@eatprojectpop) – popcorn
- Vegan Smart (@livevegansmart) – protein powder
- Hella Nuts (@hella_nuts) – plant and nut based meat replacement
- Liquid Gold Cheese Sauce (@fineapplevegan) – cheese sauce
- Tubby’s Taste (@tubbystaste) – cookies
- Oat Butter (@oatbutterbrand) – oat butter
- Mary Louise Cosmetics (@marylouisecosmetics) – skincare
- Golde (@golde) – cosmetics and beauty
- Briogeo (@briogeo) – beauty and hair
- ACURE (@acurebeauty) – hair and cosmetics
- HanaHana Beauty (@hanahana_beauty) – beauty and skincare
Clothing + Jewelry
- Trap Vegan Clothing (@trapveganbrand) – clothing
- Brother Vellies (@brothervellies) – shoes, handbags and leather goods
- Galerie.LA (@galeirela) – clothing and accessories
- Omi Woods (@omiwoods) – accessories and jewelry
- Two Days Off (@twodaysoffclothing) – clothing