Sunday, September 9, 2012

My Western Vegan Privilege and India

Vegan privilege, if you’ve never heard of it, is the idea that living animal-free is a lifestyle bestowed only upon a certain section of the population; typically those from a Western, middle to upper class background. The argument is that the fundamental principles behind veganism ignores, and therefore ostracizes, groups that are not particularly rich or Western.

Let me give an example of vegan privilege. Let’s say I list a vegan recipe for a black bean quinoa salad that calls for kalamata olives.  This recipe is easily made in any kitchen in the States.

The recipe when read by an India audience, however, is exclusionary in ways not realized by those outside of the West. How? 1) Cans of black beans are not easily found here in India, though they are cheaply available in the US. This is an example of Western exclusion. Quinoa, a nutrient-dense grain, is also hard to find here, as are kalamata olives.  If you can find them, they’re quite expensive—to put it in perspective, a single jar of quinoa is more than a full day’s wage of a driver here (a lower-middle class profession, I’ll add. Of which they represent a large portion of the population of this country). 

Are American or European vegans conscientiously projecting this privilege? Of course not. Just as I don’t intentionally display my own when I post recipes calling for ingredients found only at Amma Nana, or even writing in English as opposed to Tamil or Hindi.

But let’s face it—the resources available on veganism are overwhelmingly from the lens of the West. The vast majority of online vegan recipes simply can’t be replicated here because of the differences in produce (calls for lettuce, kale, blueberries, peaches, cherries, avocados, etc), and staple pantry items (nutritional yeast, agave syrup, vegan sausage, etc).

I’ve thought long and hard about the decision to promote veganism here in India. I still think about it. I often wonder if my views on veganism will come across as out of touch, culturally insensitive, or irrelevant. I wonder if it will come across as proselytizing to a country already very wary of foreigners telling them how their culture needs to be “improved,” be it by converting to Christianity, selling spices to the Brits, and so on. I wonder if animal rights campaigns will be met with disgust, as they wonder why I’m not allocating my time and resources to improving the lives of humans here. Or if they’ll get offended that I, as a person who hasn’t been raised here, believe India needs “improving” at all.

India does make me acknowledge my Western values (and Western privilege) in ways I hadn’t seen before. A friend of mine posted a picture of an “eco-friendly” dwelling constructed by a woman in Finland, lauding it for its use of raw materials and renewable energy sources. I wrote home to my mother and said how this home, idealized by those in the West as a vision of a utopian future, is the day-to-day reality of most Indians in this country.  I’ll include the picture here: 

I mean, to my eyes, it’s an artsier version of something you’d find in the rural villages here in Chennai. People in the West are ever-so-slowly eschewing average apartments and large homes for a more rustic, rural lifestyle. People in India, on the other hand, are striving to build those same apartments and large homes for a more upscale, modernized lifestyle.

I wonder how much of myself and my vegan promotion could be found in this Finnish woman constructing her Earth dwelling, a venture which smacks of privilege in ways she probably doesn’t even notice. After all, she’s advocating a dwelling lived in by most Indians out of necessity while she lauds it as her soul-captivating pet project, and I’m strongly advocating a strict vegetarian diet… which is basically what most Indians eat because of the economics of their situation.

A lot of this goes back to a post I wrote earlier about the food movements of both respective countries. As the US emerges from its phase of cheap convenience goods into a movement marked by gourmet microniche products, India is just now moving into a phase of welcoming such cheap convenient goods into the country. In this respect, India is entering the phase of where the US was 30 years ago. I as a vegan am advocating for India to retain the best of its traditional practices (quality ingredients, home cooked meals with love, classic bold flavors) while embracing new styles of cooking that rely on microniche ingredients (say, baba ganoujwith tahini). I understand how such advocacy can be a weird hybrid of progression and tradition… while also adapting to modern times, by posting easy quick recipes suitable for the Indian working woman, for instance.

I also have to acknowledge how my Indian privilege will permeate my writings. India is a stratified, classist society. It’s not good or bad (okay, it’s both, depending). But it is what it is. The writings of any Indian will be marked by her caste, language, customs, family structure, marriage status, etc. In this respect, my writings will be no different though I was born and raised in another country. For as much as I desperately wish that what I write can be for everyone irrespective of our differences, it simply won’t be the case. This blog might not resonate with the socialite in Mumbai who has zero interest in cooking because her chef does all of it for her. It might not appeal to a middle-class, freshly married woman who has to base her eating habits around the preferences of her in-laws. For others this blog is wholly irrelevant, as is the case for the non-English speaking population, those with no computer, and those who have no qualms with milk and eggs because it’s all they can afford.

At some point there comes the following realization: we all have privilege. Everyone reading this is better off than someone else, guaranteed. The fact that you’re sitting at a computer reading this, capable of understanding the words on this page, make it so. There is an upside to vegan privilege: It’s the work of those who are better off in some way that paves the road for others to enjoy similar goods and services.

I know this is getting really long, but bear with me while I explain this point. Going back to the quinoa black bean olive recipe, I want to throttle the person with jealousy and exclaim, “you don’t realize how inaccessible this recipe is for the vast majority of people, especially in other countries!” But the demand and willingness to pay a higher price for those goods is the only thing that will make that item cheaper and more widely available. If people overseas didn’t buy quinoa, the stores here would never think to supply it. If enough people here start to buy quinoa (even at its high price), more stores will stock it and the competition from the stores decrease the price.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you have to go out in droves and buy quinoa to be vegan. At the heart of everything, veganism is a choice to abstain from animal products. Nothing more, nothing less; everything else is superfluous. But what I am saying is that if enough people get interested in a certain product, idea, or lifestyle, such things get ushered into the mainstream at affordable prices. Cell phone technology is a great example—enough people paid enough for phones that the technology cost became low enough for even villagers in highly remote areas to adopt cell phones as a way of life.

It’s for this reason that I won’t be too apologetic about endorsing veganism here, even if it comes with privilege. I understand that this lifestyle will not—and cannot—resonate with everyone. But I am willing to try and get enough people on board to serve as a tipping point and bring it to the masses in a more accessible and affordable way. 

Letting vegan privilege interfere with its promotion is also problematic for reasons emphasized by others who don’t buy into the “vegan privilege” argument: it emphasizes the differences amongst us instead of working to unite similarities. Though the internet is rife with examples of how veganism is practiced in Europe, there are too many similarities to the lifestyle to connect veganism to India. With its incredible roots to vegetarianism and the Jain’s philosophy of no harm, veganism might have been invented by the British but I feel it’s more at home in India than any other country. I feel comforted knowing that veganism is one of the simplest, cheapest ways to make a difference. After all, lentils are far less expensive than chicken. 

In sum, I apologize in advance for when my glaring privilege shows at the exclusion of anyone else…ESPECIALLY Indians, given that this blog is for this community. My differences and/or privilege will inevitably show, like when I review a restaurant at the Hyatt, or blog about my overseas adventures to countries in which Indians have difficulties obtaining visas. Likewise, you can laugh when my background means I hold up a bottle of garlic pickle clueless of what to do with it. I face my own disadvantages as a result of not being Indian, such as keeping a smile plastered to my face as everyone around me talks in a language I don’t understand; or, when I’m oblivious to certain mores like the respectful way to greet my in-law’s second cousin’s grandfather. At the end of the day, I’m just a vegan living in India with my husband and his family. Whatever that comes with. 


  1. Well put, Catherine. However, I think there are many ways to be vegan, the list of ingredients and produce available in the sub-continent is so vast that there is no need to practice a Euro-centric form of veganism. In India especially, the simple, traditional meal consists primarily of a variety of nutritional grains, vegetables, pulses and fruit - everything one needs for a balanced diet, with no trace of animal products in sight if we stay with a lighter, simpler method of cooking. I fear the introduction of non-local grains and foods, such as quinoa, is detrimental to the local economy as well as to the health of the exporting nations (one only has to read of the consequences wrought by the global demand for coffee and cacao from Africa, and of grains like quinoa from South America). Advocating more non-local packaged products is counter-productive and reinforces elite vegan privilege. India's millets are more than equal to the task! Try sorghum, finger-millet, amaranth, etc. - they are nutritionally sound (much more in many ways than other exported grains, or the dominant mono-culture of wheat), grow naturally and easily in their founding climate, and pack in enough nutrition for the undernourished masses. It is precisely the unthinking policies promoting and subsidising dairy, eggs, packaged retail exports, among others that are pushing naturally healthy, vegan, farmer-friendly foods off the radar. A community-conscious, engaged vegan will surely promote a veganism of the commons, to benefit the average consumer and to influence non-elitist policy-change (for no matter how cheap quinoa gets, it will still be affordable only to a certain section of society in this country, not to the taxi driver or the security guard, or the house maid). Veganism after all, and above all, is a philosophy and practice of empathy, of conscience and connectivity.