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On Anti-Asian Racism, Orientalism, and the Gendered and Racial Politics of Plant-Based Eating

January 20, 2022
Time to read: 4 minutes

As a Chinese woman from Atlanta with family in the spa and massage industry, I was horrified by the shooting that took place on March 16, 2021, where a gunman killed eight people at three spas, six of whom were of Asian descent. It was especially infuriating to hear the captain of the sheriff’s department say that they believe the attack was not racially motivated and that the shooter, who described himself as a sex addict, was just having “a bad day.” Given how Asian women have been dehumanized, hypersexualized, and fetishized throughout the history of the United States (and the West, in general), many have rejected the idea that racism simply did not play a role. 

After the shooting, my social media flooded with people posting and sharing hashtags like #StopAsianHate and #StopAAPIHate, and while I appreciated people rushing to show their support, I, among many others, had mixed feelings about these phrases. #StopAsianHate feels empty in the sense that “hate” limits the scope of the issue to interpersonal feelings and implies that all will be well if people just stop being hateful to Asians. In reality, however, the root of what incited the violence goes much deeper, which means larger systems at play must be challenged to truly “stop Asian hate.”

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Orientalism, a concept first coined and described by Edward Said for the fabricated juxtaposition of an exotic, feminine, and deviant “Orient” (Asia) with the civilized, morally superior “Occident” (the West), operates as an underlying motivation for anti-Asian racism. Orientalism illuminates how the West has historically used ideas of Asians as the “White Man’s Burden” to civilize foreigners and justify imperialism, colonialism, war, and genocide. Under an orientalism mentality, Asian men are cast as weak and effeminate, and Asian women are cast as hypersexual, submissive, and child-like. Even PETA’s advertisement posters featuring Maggie Q, Annie Yi, Alicia Mayer, Geneva Cruz, Raya Mananquil, Yasmien Kurdi, who, despite choosing to represent themselves according to the stereotypes of Asian women, unfortunately perpetuate them. 

Asians are also animalized as disease-carrying rats, which can be seen in US history with the branding of Chinese women as prostitutes and disease vectors that led to the passing of the Page Act of 1875. Trump and others calling COVID-19 the ”Chinese virus” or “kung flu,” invoke this imagery that Chinese people resemble the rats that spread the Bubonic plague (see the image on the left). These persisting orientalist ideas have likely played a role in the recent surge of anti-Asian hate crimes and racism exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Orientalism in plant-based eating

Now you might be wondering, what does orientalism have to do with factory farming? Well, it turns out, a lot. As mentioned in the Factory Farming is a Feminist Issue blog post, plant foods are feminized in Western culture, which can be traced back to European colonizers believing people of the global majority’s plant-based diets and lactose intolerance (or, perhaps more fairly, lactase non-persistence) made them intellectually, morally, and physically inferior. Consider this quote from American neurologist James Corning in his book Brain Exhaustion:

“Flesh-eating nations have ever been more aggressive than those peoples whose diet is largely or exclusively vegetable. The effeminate rice-eaters of India and China have again and again yielded to the superior moral courage of an infinitely smaller number of meat-eating Englishmen.”

Even working class white people have weaponized these colonial notions linking plant-based eating with race, femininity, and intellect against non-white immigrants. In a 1902 pamphlet titled Meat vs. Rice: American Manhood vs. Asiatic Coolieism, Which will Survive?, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) called for a second extension of the Chinese Exclusion Act, on the grounds that American workers could not afford meat and would have to resort to “the scanty food and half-civilized habits of the Chinaman” if their wages did not go up. Author of 'White Power Milk': Milk, Dietary Racism, and the 'Alt-Right', Vasile Stanescu believes that one reason the US government propped up the animal agriculture industry to the extent that it did was to pacify and “buy off” the white laborers instead of improving labor standards.

Unfortunately, many people in Asia, such as in China, have also bought into the dubious notion that one should eat more meat and dairy. The International Farm Animal Welfare Fellowship website notes that “while per capita consumption of meat and dairy is below that of the world average, China’s large population, economic development, and rising household income have meant that overall consumption of animal products have more than doubled in the past three decades.” Dismantling these orientalist tropes around plant-based eating will serve to liberate both animals and humans from injustice. As Aph Ko reminds us in her book Aphro-ism, “Setting animals free physically requires us to conceptually reevaluate all systems that have sustained and normalized their oppression.”


To learn more about the gendered, racial, and oriental politics of plant-based eating, check out the following resources:

Elly Ren is FFAC’s Program Coordinator for the Advocacy Institute and Leadership Collective.

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