If you’ve ever perused the #vegan and #veganism tags on Instagram or TikTok, you’ve probably seen edited photos of beautiful meals, trendy restaurant recommendations, and memes designed to shame non-vegans for eating meat. Maybe you’ve heard the jokes about veganism, too, often rooted in stereotypes about how vegans look, act, and talk about their lifestyle. It’s no wonder, then, that vegans have a very specific reputation, especially online — namely, that they prioritize aesthetics over everything else. But, intersectional vegan activists are working to change that, by starting a nuanced, thoughtful conversation about the many interconnected reasons to eliminate meat consumption.
Before 24-year-old Debbie Morales (@sisoyvegan) went vegan, she was skeptical about whether it would be the right choice for her; the vegans she’d encountered didn’t necessarily center the issues she cared about, like climate change or workers’ rights. According to a Human Rights Watch study, animal slaughtering and processing companies report more (and worse) injuries than the oil and gas drilling industry, sawmills, and construction companies; between 2015 and 2018, one worker within the industry was hospitalized every other day. On average, these workers earn under $15 an hour.
“That is what really pushed me, because l have always cared, I think, first and foremost about labor issues and workers’ rights,” Debbie tells Refinery29. “I'm Guatemalan, so I care a lot about undocumented workers and how they get exploited. And so once I learned how rampant that was in the animal agriculture industry, too, I think that I realized I needed to go vegan in order to align the way that I was consuming food with my values.”
According to a 2020 Gallup poll, almost one out of every four Americans cut back on their meat consumption the prior year. There are multiple reasons why that is: Several studies show that, across the globe, vegans are citing concerns about animal welfare and their health. But Debbie, along with other activists making waves on TikTok and Instagram, believes that it’s impossible to support veganism and speak out against animal cruelty without also advocating for climate justice and workers’ rights.
“When we talk about animal agriculture, you just cannot separate the political landscape from that. And how animal agriculture is, of course, getting these huge subsidies,” Debbie says. (Recent studies indicate that the U.S. government spends as much as $38 billion a year on subsidizing the meat industry.) “It relies on immigrant, undocumented labor to be exploited to produce meat. And all of these different factors make me think veganism is always inherently political.”
On her Instagram, Debbie shares her own culinary creations, along with information on environmental racism, factory farming, and white supremacy within the vegan movement. Her post on the latter — in which she called out vegans who fail to criticize the mistreatment of farm workers, police people of color who aren’t vegan, and co-opt movements like Black Lives Matter — went viral. “I think it’s important for people to recognize that veganism is not an inherently white thing, but it’s kind of up to the vegan community to stop centering whiteness in our veganism to dispel that myth,” she says.
Jessica (@plantawhisperer), a 22-year-old TikToker, agrees that veganism is widely perceived to be a movement populated mainly by white people — a false assumption that causes a lot of harm. “I think white veganism is the mainstream form of veganism right now, and it has been for a really long time,” Jessica says. “And it’s really damaging to what veganism actually is, because I still see people on Twitter posting pictures or videos of field workers harvesting strawberries, and the caption is like, ‘Why aren’t vegans talking about this?’ But we are. Veganism has silenced BIPOC for so long.”
Contrary to some people’s perceptions, veganism and vegetarianism are not historically white movements. The term “veganism” itself wasn’t coined until 1944, but cultures around the world have been going meatless for centuries: Religions like Jainism, Hinduism, and Buddhism all promote vegetarianism, and many Jamaicans in the Rastafarian community have long subscribed to the idea of “ital eating,” a diet that prohibits meat and any artificial additives. But the current discourse around veganism is often focused on whiteness and capitalism. It’s a reality that 25-year-old Isaias (@queerbrownvegan) says he wants to see disrupted.
“My veganism is really centered in a very human, animal rights, justice lens that recognizes that industrialized, large-scale food systems uphold unsustainable futures, which inherently punishes a lot of people and animals in the supply chain,” Isaias tells Refinery29. To a combined following of 121,000 on TikTok and Instagram, they discuss issues of environmental racism, food injustice, and vegan capitalism. To Isaias, the heart of veganism is the idea that our current food system isn’t working — for the environment, for animals, and for us.
“In recognizing veganism, we’re acknowledging that these systems are unjust and they were never designed to ethically and really pay people living wages to feed us properly,” Isaias says. “You’re divesting away from a system that is overproducing large amounts of meat. You are helping to really restore localized ecosystems, which is supporting those that are around you, supporting local farmers’ markets. And the other environmental benefit is recognizing that the waterway streams and the air quality levels in industrial settings are often built nearby low-income communities of color.”
According to the Food Empowerment Project, corporations often build their facilities in these communities. This contributes to industrial pollution which, in turn, impacts their respiratory health, access to clean water, and quality of life. For example, in North Carolina, pig farms are so ubiquitous that hogs outnumber the state’s human population. Due to the sheer number of hogs, North Carolina has sweeping landscapes dotted by farms filled with manure, which can lead to widespread respiratory and intestinal illness, reports the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. “Hog operations are usually in BIPOC communities, and these communities are just sitting in pig waste,” says Jessica.
Raising awareness about the meat industry’s impact is important, and cutting out or reducing your own meat consumption is said to be the biggest way an individual can reduce their own carbon footprint. But activists believe it’s counterintuitive to convince everyone to go vegan. After all, meat is often more convenient and affordable because of this large-scale, billion-dollar, government-subsidized industry — something that some vegan “advocates” doesn’t acknowledge when promoting the benefits of $14 smoothies to their followers.
“What a lot of vegans are arguing is that we don’t want people coming into our communities, especially low-income communities, and telling us to go vegan,” Isaias says. “We want people to first address the systemic racism, policies, and issues that prevented us from growing our food. Why is our water not healthy? Why is our soil contaminated?”
Debbie also recognizes that, for many people, veganism can feel like an unreachable luxury. “A lot of my family, they don’t really have the time to read about veganism and the climate crisis. And of course they care, because it affects their life — you know, Guatemala was hit by two major hurricanes last year, and a lot of climate refugees are coming from Central America,” says Debbie. “But when you’re really just concerned about keeping any food on the table, you’re not going to be really thinking about what exactly you’re eating… And I know a lot of vegans will say, ‘Veganism doesn’t have to be expensive. You can eat beans, you can eat rice.’ But those things take time, and they require access to a kitchen, which a lot of people don’t have.”
One thing that could make veganism more accessible, Isaias says, is education. In their videos and posts, Isaias shares tips and information on foraging, cooking, and learning more about food sovereignty and environmental justice. “I believe that growing your own food is very revolutionary, it's an act of self-love,” they say. “And so I think that when more people are reconnecting themselves, whether it's gardening or growing micrograins in their own apartment or going foraging for fruits or mushrooms — these are acts that would help make veganism more accessible.”
For some people, veganism might simply be a dietary preference, or a choice made with only the safety of animals in mind. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it isn’t the entire picture. To these activists and many, many others, the value of veganism revolves around evaluating and understanding the relationship between what you eat and the world around you. It’s about identifying what’s really in your food, why you have access to it, and who is harmed by its consumption. Like any progressive movement, veganism is inherently political, but it’s also about community, about culture, and about personal choice — kind of like food itself.