“I didn’t take you for a baker,” one of my students said, after I’d offered some vegan carrot cake round the class yesterday morning.

“If you’re vegan, you probably need to make your own,” said another. “Otherwise you’d never have any cake at all.”

“There’s one place,” I explained, “in Newcastle’s Grainger Market, the Health Box, that makes vegan cakes. But it’s only on certain days. Tuesdays or Saturdays, I think. So yes, I bake my own quite a lot.”

I’d originally made the cake for finishers at the Newcastle Town Moor Marathon, but I was marshalling a way from the finish line and didn’t want to leave my spot, as cheering on the runners, fast and slow, had become an important and enjoyable role. So I had too much cake on my hands for personal consumption, and I brought it into work/class.

Cake was already on the curriculum, however. It was one of the students’ birthdays, and the others had bought her a chocolate caterpillar cake, possibly the hardest of all the food types to resist–for me, anyway, having been brought up on sugary foods, chocolate and cake (my mother worked for Nestle, so brought home plenty of goods, and was also an excellent baker herself).

“It’s probably the worst thing you could give up being vegan for,” said the same student, pointing to the caterpillar cake. “It’s even shaped like an animal.”

It brought a laugh, but it’s rather a relevant point. So much food we eat doesn’t look like the animal from which it came. As I read somewhere recently, it is strange that meat eaters pillory vegans for having ‘fake’ foods that look like ‘meat’ such as sausages and burgers, when these, in their ‘original’ forms, are completely artificial shapes and bear no resemblance to the animal they came from.

Which is not a problem with vegan carrot cake. Although if it were shaped like a face of some sort, it would be, perhaps, a saving face. That’s because, as Jessica Greenebaum from Central Connecticut State University, suggests in the journal of Humanity and Society, we vegans use a number of “face-saving strategies” to maintain our social relations while managing vegan living.

Most people strive to create an image of the self in a positive light; people don’t like to be shunned, discredited, or have people respond to us aggressively. For the vegetarians and vegans in Greenebaum’s study, it was “critically important to represent vegetarianism and veganism in a positive light in order for their audience to listen and accept what they hear” (312). Many of them, when first becoming vegan, would be proactive, blunt, advocating for change in powerful and emotional terms. But nearly all found this didn’t work:

Stephanie (vegetarian) concurs: “I learned along the way that the majority of people have no idea how the animal gets to that plate. They are just completely ignorant about that. And when I start talking about it they just tell me to shut up.” Many of the participants were told at some point during their tenure as vegetarian or vegan they they were “wrong,” “biased” or “making it up”.

According to Carol Adams, in Living Among Meat Eaters, this is no real surprise, because such facts are “experienced emotionally by the omnivore.”

In a way how could they not be? If the meat eater knows what is going on and doesn’t care; or if the meat eater doesn’t want to know, because they know that it would change their entire life, and they don’t want their life to change… either way, the realities of the Animal-Industrial Complex (warning: Graphic Images) would be an affront and challenge to their, they believe, absolute core values of living. That animals have no rights. That we have a right to eat meat and other animal products, regardless of the ways in which those products are produced.

What happens is that, to steal from Sara Ahmed’s work on feminist killjoys, the vegan or vegetarian is seen as the killjoy, the problem, for speaking out, or even simply embodying their values. When a woman/feminist points out something is sexist, she is belittled, seen as tiring, ruining everything. The same goes for the vegan, in my experience.

And this is alienating. As Greenebaum goes on to say: “Since many of the vegans in the study have felt alienated from the mainstream society, they recognize the threat of standing out and being rejected by omnivores after adopting a vegan lifestyle” (315). According to one of the participants, Leah (vegan), “the marginalization takes place in two ways. You marginalize yourself and others marginalize you:

When you decide to be vegan, you choose to in some ways marginalize yourself. There are assumptions about where you stand politically, but there are also assumptions about how you marginalize yourself and how you don’t take of other things. So you don’t get invited to other things as much because there’s an assumption that you are not going to go along with it or you want to go along with it. In addition to having people not invite me, I’ve also cut my social circle down. My partner has a lot of non-vegan friends and I don’t like to go to their events. I don’t even like to go to my partner’s mom’s house because I won’t have anything to eat there.

I understand this, as do many others struggling with being “vegan in a non-vegan world“. Would you want to go to a party with a load of sexists and racists? I guess not — you’d end up playing with the dog. For a vegan, well, at least for me, going to a party full of meat eaters is a party full of speciesists. I don’t particularly want to go there either, especially when food is a central part of the event (e.g. a friend’s summer barbecue). How do you negotiate this?

As Greenebaum summarises: “Initially, many of the vegetarians or vegans used traditional tactics of confrontation, but they found that it was not an effective way to get people to listen to them. Aggressively defending this identity created boundaries that left them feeling isolated. They created strategies that proactively protect relationships with omnivores using technique that ‘save face’ for all involved in the vegan encounter” (322).

Which is why I bake vegan carrot cake and share it around. First with a very accepting running clubplant-based athletes are welcomed as perfectly normal, I’ve found, in their search for improved nutrition and fitness. And now with work and students. That by baking something that tastes good — “It’s just like a normal carrot cake, for normal people,” said my student — it’s something that is positive about veganism and about my lifestyle choices, while also planting some seeds of how veganism isn’t unbearable or lonely or, in the end, too difficult.

If the food system makes it “possible, even necessary, to not think about the production and quality of food, particularly food that comes from animals” (323) then offering alternatives, and using those alternatives to talk about the reasons why veganism is a healthier, happier, more compassionate way of living, is a way forward for vegans and omnivores.

[Update 29/10: more people thinking Veganism via Sara Ahmed’s Feminist Killjoys concept, such as James Stanescu on his blog]

Greenebaum, J (2012) Managing Impressions: “Face-Saving” Strategies of Vegetarians and Vegans. Humanity and Society 36(4).

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