In “Being Vegan Without Being an Outsider,” Sarah Schultz Robinson wrote aptly about raising vegan kids to not feel like outsiders, or, as she eloquently spins the phrase, to ask “how do you make being an outsider a positive thing?” This is a wonderful way to think of raising kids with the label “vegan” because too often the term is connected to the feeling of outsiderness. Being “vegan” simply means not using animal products, but it’s often hurled like a slur at the intended individual-meant to cut them, to slight them, to define them. The word, rather than being a mere (positive) descriptor, becomes a weapon. It becomes the sole negative identifying feature of the recipient because it takes the form of a stereotype. Just as saying “he is fat” or “she is stinky” is slighting, saying “he is the vegan” can serve to cut down the subject and affix hurtfulness (and outsiderness) to them. When a word becomes a label in this way, it works in the way author and motivational speaker Leo Buscaglia described as a “distancing phenomena.” As such, “[Labels] push us away from each other.”
Sadly, kids are used to the slights and cuts found in the labels that peers bestow upon them. No matter how ordinary or inane a feature, kids will often (intentionally or not) point it out as a marker by which to classify, and thus stereotype, the intended victim–being the new kid, the fat kid, the dark-skinned kid, the kid with glasses, the stinky kid, the vegan kid. Kids might not know the word “vegan,” but during the ritual of lunch or at a friend’s birthday party, they will certainly know that little Betty doesn’t drink milk or that Timmy eats some weird looking sandwich. So how should we react to the label “vegan”? How do we, as Robinson says, make being an outsider positive? Here are a few of my thoughts:
Know that it is OK to be hurt. Really, it is OK to be hurt and saddened by the things that others say. We don’t have to be stone walls of emotional stoicism or cynically dismissive of our feelings. Let your kid know that it is OK to feel hurt or sad or angry or frustrated at the things people say because we are all human, and those emotions are part of what it means to be human. Sticks and stones may break your bones, and names really can hurt you.
Remember that in the end it doesn’t matter. Remind kids that while it’s OK to feel all those things, it does not do to dwell on them. While “names really can hurt you,” it really doesn’t matter that they are being labeled whatever it is they are being labeled as. Our kids need to know that they can be their own person, their own individual, and that they should not place stock in what others say or think. This is because…
You aren’t alone. There are lots of other people who wear the label “vegan,” who are or have been deemed an “outsider”—kids should know that they are not alone in being vegan. Whether the hurtful words continue or not, it is reassuring to know that there are hundreds of thousands of vegans out there who have our kid’s backs. There are tons of people from all walks of life who listen to all sorts of music, who play or don’t play all sorts of sports, who listen to, make, create, and are involved in all sorts of arts—who are just as normal (or not) as our kids…and all of them share the same label: vegan.
It’s important to have neighbors, friends, and acquaintances in your lives who are vegan—especially other kids—to show that it’s normal, healthy, fulfilling, and fun. These are the people who we encounter on a day-to-day basis, and letting our kids know that there are lots of others just like them can hopefully alleviate some of the fears of being labeled the outsider. I recently realized the power of being connected to a vegan community when I ran the Ragnar Cape Cod with Strong Hearts Vegan Power. Being surrounded by other vegans was empowering. We were all there to be ambassadors for animals and to show that while vegans are compassionate and caring, they can also be strong, fast, and kick-some-ass (our fastest team finished 3rd overall out of more than 500 runners!). Walking around the race, running next to hundreds of other people, and conversing with strangers all while garbed in “Vegan Power” shirts made for a powerful statement. The label “vegan” was worn proudly, and no doubt helped to change other’s minds over the course of the race.
At the end of her article, Robinson writes that “Your child is going into the world with the conviction that we don’t have to do things the way they’ve always been done; we can make conscious choices that affect the health of our bodies and our planet, and we can save lives. Your vegan child might be an ‘outsider,’ but he or she is also a hero.” I think this beautifully captures the sentiment that being labeled “vegan” does not have to be negative despite the hurtful way it might be used by others. We should strive to teach our kids that only they can make themselves into the people they want to be. They can decide to let the labels given to them be used to hurt, or they can decide to look around at all wonderful vegans out there and realize that being labeled “the vegan” isn’t so bad after all. As the novelist James Baldwin put it, “you’ve got to tell the world how to treat you [or else] you are in trouble”.
Posted in Family Life