In the spring of 2005, after attending and volunteering at my first animal-rights conference, I found myself or the first time with vegan friends and an awareness of a larger, multi-dimensional vegan community. Yet, as my enthusiasm for this new lifestyle, philosophy, and community grew, I could not help but realize that the most vocal skepticism I encountered came from my other female, Black-identified friends.
One friend made the connection that often veganism meant having the luxury of enough time and money to go out of one’s way and engage in specific, harder-to-find consumer choices; a prerequsite that makes assumptions about class and privilige that are largely at odds with the more mainstream Black experience. Another,more financially succesful Black friend has been put of by hearing vegans making ethical arguments that analogized animal agriculture to slavery. Still another friend, whom I watched go from childhood in the projects to a law school by the sweat of her own brow, couldn’t help but interpret what I said as though someone was asking her to sacrifice after all she’d been through. And though I’m committed to veganism, I don’t necessarily disagree with their arguments. I still feel I can see where these friends are coming from, simply because I know where they’ve been.
Outside the Vegan Box.
As I talked to these women I realized that my feelings for them didn’t amount to having forgiveness while I waited patiently for them to change their minds; rather it amounted to having respect for the fact that they were in the middle of a process of intergrating their own experience, just as I was in the process of intergrating mine. I am not uncommitted to my cause, but I didn’t need for them in particular to change their minds. Nor did I fear that the difficult, honest conclusions they had come to (about what was right for them) would alter mine or sway me from my own.
Diversity, the different needs and opinions of an infinite number of individuals, was for me, a fact of life. If there were an underlying truth, it would have to be big enough to encompass *all* of our experiences, natures, and inalienable rights:mine, theirs, *and* the animals. And my faith that such truth does exist is what kept me from desperately wanting to impose my particular piece of the puzzle on those honest quests to discern their own.
It wasn’t until I started to deconstruct my lifelong releationships with these women and to understand that my acceptance of their nonvegan choices was born out of appreciation for their divinity, and their journey towards embracing that divinity, that I came to understand my strangeness in the context of what I felt had been outlined for me as the larger vegan movement.
This strangeness wouldn’t come up oftenm but it would always rear its head when, in an attempt to explain how one tolerates living in a nonvegan world, someone would say something likem “If I could just force all the people in the world to stop eating meat right now I would, but I can’t.” This has always stopped me in my tracks to pose the question mentally to myself: “If I could *force* everyone to stop eating meat, would I?” And the answer came back invariably, “No”.
I’ve never been fond of hypothetical questions. I think they are a big distraction created by debate-minded folk to take the heat off of what people can actually do in the world. We think we know how we feel of what we would do in seemingly cut-and-dried situations, but we really have no way of knowing. Still, this is one question haunts me because of its far reaching implications. If the question came to me as “If you could *encourage* or *influence* everyone in the world to stop eating meat, would you?” I beleive you’d be able to say, “Yes”. But in the more common phrasing of the question lurks a condition I cannot abide. Forcing sentient beings to behave in a particular way - especially with regard to their own bodies - is always wrong; and although as a vegan I can see the connection between my nonvegan friend’s purchase andthe financial support of an unspeakably cruel institution, I do not have the right to usurp her decision-making in this regard *nor would I want to*. Any prayer or dream for mind control and world domination, even a benevolent, hypothetical one, only perpetuates the cycle of domination and oppression the vegan lifestyle seeks to end.
To my mind, the cause ought not to be to end slaughter, but to end the cycle that causes people to choose it. Fight ignorance, fight deception, fight self-loathing, fight fear of the other, be a witness to the truth as you have experienced it- reject the inevitability of that unspoken social contract - and in doing such, empower people to make compassionate choices for themselves.
Journey Toward Compassionate Choice: Intergrating Vegan and Sistah Experience. Tara Sophia Bahna-James in the Sistah Vegan anthology.