On Swedish Veganism and Goodness: Intersections of Species, Gender, Race, & Nationality

By Anna Nygren

Oat Drink

I think about: Buying things, buying food, buying bodies, buying inclusivity and exclusivity and subjectivity.

In Sweden, in the fall of 2014: The company Oatly sells its oat based products with slogans such as “It’s like milk only made for humans” and “Wow, no cow!” which made LRF Mjölk (the national organization for diary producers) angry and they sued Oatly. In the end, I think Oatly won (I’m not very good at understanding trials and commercial law, but I read that the process raised the sales figures). OK, milk producers being upset about what should count as Real Milk is not really a new thing, but still, I think this thing with Oatly and LRF make visible something about the relation between drinking milk and being human…and being Swedish.

Dairy Farm

The dairy industry quite often sells their products using arguments like, “From Swedish farms.” They also work hard to produce a history of milk-drinking Swedish people, and a Swedish self-image that includes drinking milk from cows. It has worked so well so that “Landet Mellanmjölk” has become almost a synonym to Sweden, referring to a Swedish people as being moderate (“mellanmjölk” means pasteurized cow milk with 1.5 % fat).

mellanmjölk

Making milk-drinking a criteria for Swedishness not only make violence part of the Swedish history, but also creates a limit for who can be a “real” Swede. It is a definition that excludes everyone who doesn’t want to be part of the milk industry, and it also, very physically, excludes those bodies (for example many Asian-Swedish bodies) that are hurt by lactose and so on. So, LRF’s reaction to Oatly’s campaign also reflects the threat felt by an Astrid-Lindgren-blonde-healthy-good-racist Swedishness to the national self definition.

I hope my references concerning Swedishness are not too internal. I recognize the history of racism and racial biology in Sweden. I think about the “folkhem” (welfare state, literally translated as “the people’s home”), “folkhälsa”/public health, and the violence and exclusions in these concepts. I recognize how Lindgren’s books have been used to define real Swedishness and a romantic nationalism, something light and bright and fresh and white.

Image of Pippi Longstocking, white, red-haired girl with long braided hair smiling in the snow

Pippi Longstocking is perhaps one of author Astrid Lindgren’s most famous characters

I think I love Oatly for challenging this, for saying, “Hey, your products hurt, and that’s not a necessary.” Still, I have a problem with a lot of Oatly’s rhetoric. Because they, in many cases, use the same arguments for selling their products as the milk producers do. Take, for example, the Swedishness aspect. They not only write, “Wow, no cow!” on their products, but also: “No artificial badness,” “Swedish independent,” and “Packed with Swedish goodness.”

Firstly, in the end of 2014, Oatly launched Oatly Apparel featuring t-shirts with their slogans written on them. The photos of the t-shirts on their Facebook page show only white models. People have reacted to this, and Oatly writes that the models are their friends who did the shooting for free, and that they gladly show cool people of other ethnicity, gender and sexuality in other spaces such as Instagram. Looking at their Instagram, I can see that they might be sort of right, but mostly I see only the packages of the products. I think the whiteness of the models are also problematic and connected to “Swedishness.” Seeing a blonde girl dressed in blue jeans, jogging shoes, and a pink t-shirt saying “Packed with Swedish goodness” doesn’t really broaden the definition of Swedishness.

Several images of models wearing Oatly t-shirts. All are in their early 20s, male and female, and white.

Using Sweden in their rhetoric might be a sort of counter-strategy. For example, it is working against the milk industry, connecting the Swedishness, not with Mellanmjölk, but with oat. And for a buyer in Sweden, the ecological aspect of using Swedish (i.e. local) oat might be of importance.

However, consider also the name. I can only think of American Apparel (and I most often don’t want to think of American Apparel), and well, Apparel might have other connections than American Apparel, but it’s not very often used in Sweden, and I think the choice to use the word might come from a similar strategy as the Swedish-thing. It is a way of using words in a different way: I can think of sexist American Apparel pictures and all the debate about them, I can see non-pornographic pictures with the same word connected to them, and I can think, wow, words can have different meanings, or something like that.

But, I still think the Swedishness aspect is problematic because of the whiteness and because of the “goodness.” Lately, the “goodness” (the superiority, the equality and being-best) of the Sweden (or the [self] picture of Sweden, or of Swedish history) has been questioned in different ways. Recall that Sweden was the first country to have a national racial biological institute. Observe that “neutral” can never be neutral because neutrality can never exist. Remember that Sweden has also enacted war and colonization. Researchers like Tobias Hübinette discuss Swedish whiteness as a discourse of Sweden as the whitest country, with the Swedish whiteness as the purest. This discourse creates violence on a lot of bodies. This Swedish whiteness is what I think about when I see Oatly’s t-shirts. It is a violent whiteness and it hurts. It reproduces a picture of a white Swedishness and Swedish whiteness.

On their website, under the heading, “Swedish independent” Oatly writes:

We know how it sounds. Tall, blond, beautiful, hard to get, extremely liberal with no sense of attachment or responsibility whatsoever. Sorry to disappoint you, that’s just not us. We are the other Swede – somewhat boring, super practical, painfully honest, notoriously hardworking and independent not because we don’t want to be social but merely because we want to have the right to say what we think and do what we think is right. 

It’s like, they make fun of the Swedishness, but they hardly challenge the whiteness. They also keep the discussion somewhat middle class-bound (that can be discussed), within a hipster-ish circle, and in line with a discourse of superiority. And then consider the use of the language, the consciousness, the negations. I mean, I think you might only want to abnegate your Swedishness if you’re not really risking losing it, and it might be impossible to distance yourself from it if you’ve never really been included.

So, I think that using Swedishness in any way is problematic. Maybe especially at the moment, when the elections in 2014 gave at hand that the third largest party in Sweden is a racist, nationalistic and fascistic one. I mean, I don’t think that nationalism in any case can save the world, or do much good, because nationalism per se is based on excluding (but still, some sort of “nationalism” might be temporally needed to fight colonialism and so on, though, Sweden doesn’t really need that kind of temporally nationalism).

Secondly, the use of goodness is, I think, another problem. For me, goodness is closely connected to Christian ecclestical discourse, and in the name of that goodness a lot of violent actions have taken place, like missionary colonialism and burning women for being witches. I think: The most violent and cruel actions are often made for goodness sake. And I think: in order for the good to exist, there must be a bad, and for some people to be good, some must be called bad, this creates a dichotomy that will always hurt the Other.

Goodness is also related to the individualistic view of the world. The goodness is tied to the individual person, who, by eating and drinking and buying Oatly’s products will do a good action and become a good person. And the problem is: Not hurting other is something that can never be done for your own ego, because then it is easily the case that what will gain this ego is instead something that will hurt other.

On the webpage for a post-humanist seminar in Lund, Sweden (that I wasn’t able to attend and for which I am crying my eyes out!), I read about the research of Claire Molloy (of the UK). I want to cite it because I can’t write it better!

She also problematized the (at least in the anglo-world) ongoing mainstreaming of (celebrity) veganism, arguing that when veganism becomes another private consumer choice, a hobby to find easy pleasure and fulfillment in, it easily gets detatched from its ethical dimension and radical driving force. The risk is that  the long term goal of abolishing the use of animals in food industry disolves and disappears under the horizon. 

I think this can be connected to the goodness concept. There are a lot of “good” celebrities, and it seems to me that it is quite easy for them to be “good” because they have the money, the power, and the opportunity. Not everyone has this privilege. This is another reason why goodness is a problem.

So, I think about Oatly, about being good, about buying things and selling things and living in a nation and who could be a part of this nation. I think that the problem is probably the market and the commerce and the capitalism, and the language and discourse existing within these, and building these. I think about violence and veganism and goodness. And the problems of how things get connected. And then, I think, I still like Oatly’s product (maybe except for the t-shirts).

Oatly Vegan

Are You Bringing Racist Cookies to Your Vegan Thanksgiving?

Content Warning: Racism and white-washing of indigenous genocide.

Three toilet paper tubes, one dressed as a native american, two as pilgrims. NA character speaks in broken english: "Medicine man say I must eat no gluten." Pilgram says "My husband has the same problem." Caption: "Small Talk in Early America"

Alright folks, let’s play “Cowboys & Indians.”  Guess who loses again?

On November 15, Liz Lovely (a Vermont-based vegan cookie business) posted the above Thanksgiving meme in their fan club newsletter, and met with a number of well-earned criticisms.

The cartoon depicts a Native American character in cliché garb (headbands are a white Hollywood invention) who speaks with broken English.  The broken English stereotype is meant to emphasize Native American ignorance and white “settler” superiority, while the “Medicine Man” trope also used here draws on the problematic stereotype of the  “mystical Indian.”

Another issue raised in this cartoon is the white-washing of institutionalized violence inflicted on indigenous populations with the arrival of European colonizers. These intruders arrived uninvited, attempted to colonize regions already inhabited by indigenous communities, and almost all of them died from cold, illness, and hunger in this failed attempt at conquest. Local tribes assisted survivors, only for more European boats to arrive with more white people who would soon pass on their deadly diseases, exploit the land, and declare war on the native population. This history is made invisible in the smiling faces of the toilet roll caricatures.

In a nutshell, Liz Lovely, a white-owned company, is exploiting a stereotype of a heavily oppressed indigenous population to sell expensive white people cookies to other white people.

Liz Lovely Owners

So, they boobooed.  It happens. But instead of making it right with a sincere apology and retraction, they made it worse. Way worse.

Following complaints, the cartoon was deleted and Liz Lovely followed up with a mean-spirited not-pology to clear the air (emphasis added):

Message from Cowboy Dan:

First, let me apologize for unintentionally offending Native Americans (and somehow also people who are not Native American, but are extremely sensitive). I am not a racist, I am not ignorant of the plight of Native Americans, and I was not seeking to degrade their heritage.

I knowingly played on a well-established media stereotype to make a silly joke about the first Thanksgiving, assuming the construction paper cutouts would tip people off that it was meant to be ridiculous ~ like an SNL skit for example.

This is not the first content-complaint I’ve received on the fan club. Although, this may be the most well-founded. And while Liz and I like our sense of humor, we understand that it’s not for everyone.

So moving forward, the fan club will be simpler [ . . . ]

Thank you so much for being fans and supporters.

Liz Lovely is sorry that the reader took offense.  So, it is not really sorry at all.  It’s the reader’s fault for being offended, not Liz Lovely’s for offending you. See, “Cowboy Dan” “gets” the issues, and his post was so obviously “ridiculous,” it doesn’t count as racism. After all, these racist stereotypes are “well-established,” so what’s the harm? Cowboy Dan does not identify as a racist, so that means he can’t be racist.

But simply declaring yourself not racist does not actually make you not racist . . . it’s your actions that define you.

By signing off with a thanks to fans and supporters, Cowboy Dan insinuates that his intended or perceived audience is a white one. Liz Lovely makes it clear that the message is really intended for those who are either 1) not Native American, or, 2) persons of color who respect white supremacy; those who are not “extremely sensitive” and can “take a joke.”

The content of the comments on Liz Lovely’s Facebook page that followed the announcement attest to the boundary work of this white space. For instance, one theme was the elevation of cookies over injustice:

Love your humor….but really LOVE THOSE COOKIES!!!

Can’t we all just get along for the sake of DELICIOUS COOKIES!!

Another theme was the dismissal of racism:

People need to stop being so damn sensitive. Bunch of stupid, ugly, butt hurt losers.

I didn’t see it, but am aware that in general society has become far too sensitive. You make a fantastic product, I find you guys to be pretty funny. You can’t please everyone.

Unsubscribe if you’re that easily offended so the rest of us don’t have to walk on egg shells around you!

Seriously, people … if you’re that easily offended, how do you survive in this world? Get over yourselves. It’s a joke. So you didn’t find it funny. Have a cookie and move on.

Those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind. If we’re looking for a reason to be offended, we’ll always find one. Words to live by from two of my favorite people, Dr. Seuss and Wayne Dyer. BTW, I love your cookies!!

People are WAY TOO SENSITIVE and need to calm down! Being “politically correct” has gone over the top.

And “reverse racism”:

Why is no one offended about the pilgrims?

Because pilgrims are white, and everyone knows any sort of racist tones don’t apply to white people.

Finally, don’t like it? Go elsewhere:

Wow now people are analyzing the sincerity of an apology for a humorous and post that was deleted? Like that was really the most bothersome thing you saw online today – Grow up! If it bothered you that much unlike the page and spend your $ elsewhere.

…which is exactly what countless oppressed persons of color who are regularly made to feel unwelcome in vegan spaces frequently do.

It should be no wonder as to why veganism is viewed as pretentious, elitist, and frivolous when racism is openly supported and people of color are harassed, marginalized, or erased entirely.

 

Note:  The Food Empowerment Project does not recommend Liz Lovely Cookies because it does not source its chocolate ethically.  Much of the world’s chocolate comes from child slavery.


Corey Lee WrennDr. Wrenn is Lecturer of Sociology and past Director of Gender Studies (2016-2018) with Monmouth University. She received her Ph.D. in Sociology with Colorado State University in 2016. She received her M.S. in Sociology in 2008 and her B.A. in Political Science in 2005, both from Virginia Tech. She was awarded Exemplary Diversity Scholar, 2016 by the University of Michigan’s National Center for Institutional Diversity. She served as council member with the American Sociological Association’s Animals & Society section (2013-2016) and was elected Chair in 2018. She serves as Book Review Editor to Society & Animals and has contributed to the Human-Animal Studies Images and Cinema blogs for the Animals and Society Institute. She has been published in several peer-reviewed academic journals including the Journal of Gender Studies, Feminist Media Studies, Disability & Society, Food, Culture & Society, and Society & Animals. In July 2013, she founded the Vegan Feminist Network, an academic-activist project engaging intersectional social justice praxis. She is the author of A Rational Approach to Animal Rights: Extensions in Abolitionist Theory (Palgrave MacMillan 2016).

What’s Wrong With This Soap?

Three hula dancers

By Professor Corey Lee Wrenn

Hugo and Debra Naturals is a high-end vegan soap company that touts food-grade, ethically sourced, cruelty-free bath and body products.  To promote their new Creamy Coconut line, which it describes as an “exotic blend” of oils, exfoliants, and scents, the company has been posting a vintage image of three Hawaiian hula dancers (pictured above) on its Facebook promotional page.

Sociologists have noted that the hula girl is a symbol of western imperialism. She is the accessible ethnic woman ready to serve and please the colonizers.  In fact, the hula dance as we know it today is an adulterated version of a men’s storytelling dance.  Colonizers morphed it into a sexualized dance for “exotic” women to perform in front of white tourists.

When Hugo and Debra Naturals draws on the image of the sexualized, tokenized, and colonized brown woman to sell “exotic” products to wealthy (and primarily white) customers, it is drawing on a history of white imperialism and the “othering” of the oppressed.  Dr. Breeze Harper has often commented on the “whiteness” preserved and protected in vegan consumption and the concealment of human suffering behind many so-called “cruelty-free” vegan products.  The white-dominated vegan community has largely failed to welcome people of color, often alienating them and tokenizing them when convenient.

Using a symbol of racial colonization and sexual domination to sell “cruelty-free” “exotic” soap demonstrates the white normativity of veganism.  Obviously, products that are free from Nonhuman Animal ingredients and testing are a major improvement, but we should be cognizant of how human suffering often goes overlooked in ingredient sourcing and, in this case, product promotion.  The intention seems to be to romanticize luxury soap items by drawing on Hawaiian imagery.  In many ways, however, it is colonization, sexual conquest, and systemic racism that’s actually being romanticized.

 


Corey Lee WrennDr. Wrenn is Lecturer of Sociology and past Director of Gender Studies (2016-2018) with Monmouth University. She received her Ph.D. in Sociology with Colorado State University in 2016. She received her M.S. in Sociology in 2008 and her B.A. in Political Science in 2005, both from Virginia Tech. She was awarded Exemplary Diversity Scholar, 2016 by the University of Michigan’s National Center for Institutional Diversity. She served as council member with the American Sociological Association’s Animals & Society section (2013-2016) and was elected Chair in 2018. She serves as Book Review Editor to Society & Animals and has contributed to the Human-Animal Studies Images and Cinema blogs for the Animals and Society Institute. She has been published in several peer-reviewed academic journals including the Journal of Gender Studies, Feminist Media Studies, Disability & Society, Food, Culture & Society, and Society & Animals. In July 2013, she founded the Vegan Feminist Network, an academic-activist project engaging intersectional social justice praxis. She is the author of A Rational Approach to Animal Rights: Extensions in Abolitionist Theory (Palgrave MacMillan 2016).