When Ri Turner first started her vegan journey in 2017, like many of us so often do, she turned to the internet for support. She was scrolling through YouTube, looking for inspiration, when to her relief, she found countless plant-based influencers. They were all pedaling out video after video on how to live a life without animal products, which was just what she was looking for. But, there was something glaringly obvious and uncomfortable to Turner about the content. Out of all these popular vegan influencers, not one of them looked like her. Not one of them was Black.
“When I was watching these videos, they were all white girls,” Turner says. “It was inspiring to see somebody eat the way they did. But it wasn’t enough. You want to see that representation.”
Now, Turner, who is originally from a small town in Missouri but now lives in Arkansas, is on a mission to be the person she needed four years ago. She has founded her own wellness magazine, called For The Healthy Hoes, and she runs her own blog: Plant-Based Princess.
Effortlessly relatable, and full of personality and energy, Turner really knows how to make the plant-based lifestyle seem appealing, even to those in smaller towns, who may not be surrounded by multiple vegan restaurant and cafe choices (as is the norm in some of the big cities, like New York and Los Angeles).
She is a contributor to LIVEKINDLY’s EATKINDLY With Me YouTube series, and her last episode, Vegan Grocery Haul 101 With Ri (In Small Town America), saw her take viewers along grocery shopping with her, and teach them the best, affordable whole food products to buy to make creative, healthy vegan dishes. Of course, her talent shines through on her own YouTube channel too, which currently has 20,000 subscribers. You can find everything from What I Eat In a Day content, to more vegan grocery hauls, mukbangs, and wellness routines.
We recently spoke with the YouTuber and blogger about the health struggles that motivated her to try plant-based living in the first place, as well as what veganism means to her now. We also discussed the major unresolved issues with the lack of Black representation in the wellness and vegan spaces, and why educating Black Americans about food history is so important in finding a connection with their heritage.
Why I Went Vegan: ‘I Feel Amazing!’
Turner has suffered with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) since she was a child, and her plant-based lifestyle helps to keep it in check. But finding veganism wasn’t an easy road, hindered by the fact that she didn’t know anyone close to her who followed the lifestyle.
“I remember it just coming to a point where I was in and out of the hospital,” she recalls. “I didn’t know what was wrong with me, I finally got a diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome, and I started doing a little research on that.”
“Where I come from, I’ve never heard of anyone not eating meat. That was just absurd to me,” she says. “But I looked more into it, I started watching a lot of YouTube videos, reading books, documentaries, and everything like that. And I was like, ‘ok i’m gonna try this.’ And I did, and I stuck with it, and honestly it’s the best decision I’ve ever made.”
While many may view veganism as restrictive, for Turner, the opposite is true. Being plant-based means that she can eat more of the foods she loves, because her stomach problems have subsided. “Eating plant-based, minimally-processed foods, really, I feel amazing,” she says.
For those who suffer with IBS, food triggers vary from person to person. But dairy and processed meat products are common culprits for many sufferers. For Turner, it was difficult to pinpoint these foods as the problem until she cut them out.
“There were certain things that I couldn’t eat [before] like, I couldn’t eat broccoli, tomatoes, and onions before I was vegan,” she recalls. “But then after about a year I finally worked up the courage to try it again, because those foods made my stomach hurt so bad. And I can eat all of that stuff now.”
“I tell everybody, you don’t have to be vegan or nothing. If you can eat one plant-based meal a day, it will have such a big impact.”
Since her initial diet change, Turner’s veganism has evolved. Prioritizing her health still drives her lifestyle, but there are more reasons behind her plant-based food choices now. She cares deeply about animals, and, for that reason, factory farming appalls her. She’s also passionate about tackling the climate crisis, which animal agriculture contributes to significantly. To Turner, being vegan means boycotting an exploitative, destructive food system.
“I don’t want to be a part of anything like that,” she says. “Spiritually, these animals go through so much. The pain and the emotion, and the negativity. When you eat that meat, the energy is still in that meat. And so, you’re gonna process that within you.”
“And obviously for environmental reasons, you know,” she adds. “I feel like a lot of people try to find a lot of different ways to better the earth and better our environment, they talk about gas emissions and driving less. If you stop eating meat, you can have a big impact on our environment.”
With her blog and her magazine, Turner wants to educate people about these issues. But the content creator is also about meeting people where they’re at. She’s not expecting her followers to cut out animal products overnight.
“I tell everybody, you don’t have to be vegan or nothing,” she says. “If you can eat one plant-based meal a day it will have such a huge impact.” (She’s right: Data suggests that eating one plant-based meal a day for one year could save around 11,400 showers worth of water. It could also reduce emissions equivalent to a drive from Los Angeles to New York City.)
Race and Vegan Culture: “I still don’t feel like there is enough representation”
Finding your home in a movement doesn’t mean you think it’s perfect. Now that Turner is immersed in all things veganism and wellness, she sees the movements close up, warts and all.
The wellness industry is worth $4.2 trillion. And, there is no doubt, the face of that enormous market is white. The YouTuber isn’t the only one to call this out; a quick Google search on this topic shows article upon article of critics claiming that there is not enough Black representation in the wellness industry, nor the plant-based movement.
While she believes diversity has improved slightly in online veganism since she first went plant-based, Turner is skeptical of how much progress can really be made in this area.“Honestly, I don’t feel like there ever will be [enough representation],” she says.
The problem is not that Black Americans are not vegan. A 2020 study found that more Black Americans are vegan than white Americans. The problem is the systemic racism that spans across industries. Ultimately, people of color are still not handed the same opportunities and platforms as white people.
For example, on Instagram, white influencers have more financial support from brands than influencers of color. In 2019, white influencers received 61 percent of sponsorship opportunities, Vogue Business reports. It’s down from five years ago, when they received 73 percent of deals, but it’s not even close to being enough progress.
Black people are also far less likely to own businesses than white people. In the U.S., Black Americans make up more than 13 percent of the population, but according to Black Business, they only own 7 percent of businesses. This is due to a number of systemic issues, including a lack of economic and business opportunities in Black communities as well as discrimination in the lending system. (A report from 2020 found that Black-owned firms are twice as likely to have their loan applications rejected than white business owners.)
All of the above considered, it is of no surprise that these issues also show up in the vegan and wellness movements. Everything is interlinked; the playing fields of social media and the business world are not, and never have been, level.
And, when it comes to food, which is, of course, central to the plant-based movement, there are huge issues with accessibility too.
America’s current system is riddled with inequality. Around 23 million people live in food deserts in the country. These are large geographic areas where affordable, healthy, fresh, culturally relevant foods are difficult to access, but fast food chains, selling processed foods like cheap burgers and fries, are in overabundance. A disproportionate amount of Americans living in food deserts are low-income and people of color.
So it is of no surprise that Turner wants to help people of all colors with her content, but primarily, she’s looking to offer a space where Black Americans can find information about veganism and wellness from someone who looks like them. From someone they can relate to.
And so far, the response to her content has been hugely positive. “I even had somebody comment like, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen a Black person eat like this.’ And I’m like, ‘That’s the reason I’m doing this,’” she recalls. “This is why. Because we do. There are Black people, there are people of color, who are vegan. Who eat healthy.”
Vegan History Is Black History: “My Ancestors Ate Like Me”
Turner’s newly launched magazine encompasses her mission to take up more space in wellness. The first issue covers everything from cooking tips to manifestation, and there’s even a suggested playlist too. The idea is to create an immersive, engaging experience for the reader; one that is thought-provoking and inspires you to take care of all parts of yourself, but also one that is educational too.
The second issue, called The Black Effect, has a big focus on food history. It’s not out yet, but Turner’s aim is to educate readers about where plant-based eating came from. Before the diet was whitewashed by people of European descent, many people across Africa ate predominantly plant-based for centuries. “My ancestors ate like me,” she says.
During slavery, meat-heavy soul food originated, and the ingredients used during that time were scraps (often animal innards) given to enslaved Africans by their white European enslavers. But Black history didn’t start with the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and there is a lack of education around this in many U.S. schools.
“All we knew is slavery happened, Martin Luther King had a dream, the end,” says Turner. “[The magazine is] gonna talk about the way Africans ate before we got here, which was plant-based. And kind of talk about how we got to where we were, you know. My ancestors were literally given the scraps on plantations, so they made do with what they had. So those same traditions carried on to where we are now. I’m gonna talk about the way we eat. There are a lot of health issues because of the way we eat.”
The Health Gap
It’s a fact that Black Americans suffer the most from diet-related health issues. They are around 60 percent more likely to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes than non-Hispanic white Americans, for example. This, without a doubt, links back to the deeper issues of inequality in the food system mentioned earlier.
And it’s not just physical health, there are gaps in mental health too. According to the Columbia University Department of Psychiatry, Black American adults are 20 percent more likely to experience serious mental health problems. But further research suggests those aged 18 to 25 use mental health services less than white adults of the same age. The department notes this could be down to a lack of trust in the medical system, based on “historical abuses of Black people,” reduced access to adequate insurance, financial concerns, and past history of discrimination.
Turner’s work is helping to lay the groundwork for more people who look like her to get involved within the vegan and wellness movements. “For me, it’s about my legacy,” she says. “I want this to be passed down to my children, to my children’s children.”
With hope, deep systemic inequalities will lessen with every generation. But for Black Americans now, who may feel uninspired searching for themselves in the wellness space, Turner’s message is: if you look to the past, you’re already there. “Finding out that my ancestors were vegan really motivated me,” she says. “This originated with my ancestors. So it’s kind of like taking my power back.”