“Isaias, why do you think there’s a lack of diversity in veganism?” is a question I get a lot. I use the name Queer Brown Vegan to speak to my intersectional identity and it often invites questions on race and the environmental movement, especially within the vegan/plant-based community. It’s framed as “why do you think there’s a lack of diversity in veganism?”, but the question is really a much bigger one: how have organizations failed to build diverse movements?
On its surface, the former is a fair question to ask, but when we summarize movements like veganism as “lacking diversity”, we miss the point. The same applies to movements for sustainability, zero-waste, and the environment, which in the media are also white-dominated subcultures. The problem isn’t simply a lack of BIPOC vegans or diverse voices – that’s a result of the problem. The problem I’m speaking of is the systematic failure of organizations and institutions to prioritize diversity and inclusion in policies, practices, and organizational cultures.
This isn’t a problem that’s solved just by having BIPOC in campaigns, but by ensuring that Veganism’s roots and core messages are truly interconnected in the liberation of humans and animals. How do animal rights organizations shape their workplace cultures? What problems do they prioritize? Diversity and inclusion cannot be secondary in intersectional movements, they must be a core component and become a foundation to build upon.
Social media acts as a mirror for our society’s values, and in a world dominated by eurocentric thought and culture, white folks are frequently upheld in lifestyle movements, campaigns, and speaking engagements. Many well-known Vegans that are often glorified also contribute to the white savior complex and do not incorporate an interconnected lens. To solve this problem, we must look beyond individuals and focus on larger systems and practices.
Animals rights and conservation organizations are generally some of the most funded groups compared to other environmental organizations. For example, The Nature Conservancy receives more in an average week than environmental justice nonprofits receive in a year. The largest animal rights group, The Humane Society of the United States, receives around $100 million a year. The World Wildlife Fund receives around $250 million. Despite an abundance of resources, there is still a lack of representation, which begs the question: how do these organizations prioritize diversity and inclusion?
Research shows that despite receiving so much funding, hardly any BIPOC folks are a part of those organizations. A study from 2005 found that U.S. nonhuman animal welfare organizations commonly lacked diversity. Out of the 32 animal welfare organizations featured in the study, 13 organizations were found not to have a single black employee. For the other 19 organizations, it was found that no more than 7% of the employees were black. There are limited opportunities for BIPOC to be introduced into careers in animal welfare organizations, even though so much funding is poured into them. So, even if there were BIPOC individuals in an organization, or a campaign, we can’t let the work end there. Diversity and inclusion work has to look further, especially in the environmental and vegan movements.
In summary, “why is there a lack of diversity in veganism” ought to be framed as, “why do animal rights organizations struggle with equity, inclusion, and diversity?”. The lack of inclusion is a reflection of a lack of progress on larger societal issues, like cultures of white supremacy and colonization, that end up inadvertently affecting organizations and BIPOC representation.
Secondly, “diversification requires a redistribution of power”. Organizations that have become accustomed to racist cultures and belief systems won’t notice it for themselves, in the same way that you may have never noticed that almost all medical diagrams in textbooks feature white individuals. It’s rarely intentional, but harmful nonetheless and a result of exclusive cultural norms. Organizational power structures should be built with diversity and inclusion in mind.
Lastly, organizations must actively work towards being anti-racist. To be anti-racist, nonprofits in this space should start examining how their organizational policies and cultures uphold racist belief systems. Tokenizing BIPOC individuals won’t solve this problem.