Saturday, November 22, 2008

Privilege: The U.S. Vegan Movement, Whiteness, and Race Relations (part 1&2)

My aim in this series on privilege is to examine the (not so) invisible whiteness of the “vegan” movement. In the subsequential posts, I hope to educate fellow advocates who have not thought much, if at all, about white privilege and how it not only ostracizes vegans of color, but also alienates potential vegans and allies from joining the movement.

“Are Animals the New Slaves?”
In the summer 2005, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals [PeTA] began a traveling exhibit entitled “Are Animal the New Slaves?” in which photos of American slaves in chains and nooses (among other things) were juxtaposed to photos of nonhuman animal bodies in like contexts. After only a month on the road, the exhibit was suspended after major outrage ensued in New Haven, Connecticut.

Not only did students begin shouting at PETA’s staff that the exhibit was racist, but predominant Afro-American organizations joined in the outrage at the juxtapositions being made. For instance, Dr. Cameron, the founder of America’s Black holocaust Museum and the man being lynched in one of the photos, asserted that "there is no way we should be compared to animals today… You cannot compare the suffering… I experienced to the suffering of an animal." [
1] In response , Ingrid Newkirk, the president and cofounder of PETA, wrote that she can and should make such comparisons despite the outrage of millions of Afro-Americans “because it is right to do so and wrong to reject the concept. Please open your heart and your mind and do not take such offense” [2].

What went Wrong?
After the hurt caused by the exhibit, one must wonder if PETA ever considered the feelings of those who’s ancestors may have been in the photos. Did PETA ever consider surveying some Afro-Americans to have any input? Were there so few staff and friends of color who could have even given them feedback? Who exactly was PETA targeting with its exhibit: people of color, everyone, or mostly middle-class white people? What does this say not only about PETA, but about the larger animal defense movement?

Few have attempted to examine where PETA’s (and others’) good intentions to facilitate empathy went wrong beyond marking others as “speciesists” or “racists”. There is, however, common agreement among those whose voices are too often invisible that this juxtaposition went wrong is its appropriation of others.

Johanna over at the
Vegans of Color blog believes that “part of the resentment comes from a feeling that PETA (/AR in general, since so many people seem to see PETA as synonymous w/AR) ignores POCs until they want something from them.”[3] While PETA does not lock up Afro-Americans into cages (or does it?), it exploits them through appropriating their images and suffering. Such “innocent” comparisons by people who otherwise ignore the oppression of people of color are actually counterproductive in rallying more support for veganism because they unfortunately come to represent the entire vegan movement as white and exploitative.

The outrage incited by PETA’s exhibitionist tactics cannot be said to only be rooted in speciesism. A recent suit against PETA makes this very apparent. The person suing them is none other than Marjorie Spiegel, author of The Dreaded Comparison (
1997)—a book which does nothing less than juxtapose human and animal exploitation. According to Spiegel, readers will “be forced to view it through the distorted prism that PETA has created, rather than on its own merits." [5] PETA's exhibit did nothing less than to "degrade and impair public discourse." Spiegel plans to make her case by juxtaposing the generous reviews her book received and the negative reviews PETA’s exhibit received. Having no history of “pimping” people of color and women and presenting a more credible case for the juxtaposition, Spiegel’s book is more worthy of credibility than instantaneous condemnation. Such sensitive and important issues must be addressed through inviting people into dialog, not inciting people into an argument. This is especially true when people with privilege enter a space belonging to people with less privilege.

Racism, Speciesism, and Cross-racial Misunderstanding
My understanding of the outrage of many of my black peers came first from hearing Breeze Harper (aka
Sistah Vegan) discuss her research into this issue on my favorite podcast, Animal Voices. Upon learning about the outrage, Breeze Harper investigated how fellow Afro-Americans responded online. Nearly all the comments she read on message boards were negative, very few sympathized with PeTA’s intended message. She related their distress to what Dr. Joy Leary calls “post traumatic slave syndrome” [8].

In conversation with a loved one, Breeze was given a much more personalized account of the trauma catalyzed by the exhibit:

“[A]s a black female from Jim Crow era, she...recounted the traumatic experiences of being called "animal”, "dirty", and/or "nigger" by her teachers during her kindergarten through high school educational experience". [8]
Further, from her standpoint as a dehumanized black female, her concept of “animal” is radically different than that of most white animal advocates.

Her perception of "animal" is connected to being called or seen as "dirty" or a "nigger"... It is absolutely impossible for me to explain to her the concept of speciesism because she has been so thoroughly traumatized by racism and what it "means" for someone to suggest that "her suffering" is the same as an "animal"... For her, "animal" has a different "meaning" than it does for many people like myself… They are caught in "trauma and survival mode [9]
The inability for her (and perhaps other people of color) to appreciate the concept of “speciesism” is not the result of a superiority-complex, but rather the colonization of her psyche from the trauma she experienced in childhood.

In other words, the neutrality of the word and idea of “animal” for white middle-class animal advocates means something quite different to people of color who are always at risk of not being fully human in our racist society. Thus, when white vegans say that because they are not offended at being compared to animals neither should people of color, they equivocate between two grossly different contexts. One veg*n of color explicitly addresses this point on her blog:

Many white folks are perfectly happy to insist that *they* have no problems at *all* being compared to animals–but it is not white folks that are being killed on genocidal turkey shoots either... this comparison of brown human beings to animals/insects, is not something in the past that is occasionally drawn on to make a point. is something that exists in the very fabric of our current society and as such, carries very real repercussions [10]
Just as racism has not been defeated, neither has the collective trauma of the Afro-American community.

Breeze speculates that, perhaps because of the trauma whites have experiences witnessing non-human animal suffering, they too “are unable to ‘see’ past non-human suffering.” Surely, a part of the reason some white animal advocates subordinate other oppressions to animal oppression is because they perceive it being the most traumatic. On the other hand, this inability to see past non-human suffering is sometimes related to self-esteem. While we all need self-esteem and we all try to make the world a much simpler place, white middle-class animal advocates need to acknowledge their privilege and become more conscientious about how they approach people who, because of historical and geographic contingencies, are not quite as fortunate.

Towards an Inclusive Vegan Movement
“Are Animals the New Slaves?” ought to cast the vegan movement into dire reflection. The reaction the exhibit received signifies a severe shortcoming in the general movements tactics and social consciousness—even for those who do not generally like PETA.

Much of vegan discourse and tactics are engendered with implicit racism and classism. The racism and classism are not of the hateful type, but of the preferential kind that caters to a white middle-class audience. Such preferential treatment marginalizes the value and perspective people of color have to offer. It is assumed that only white, English-speaking middle-class people really care about animals; only they are the enlightened heroes. Not only is the construction of vegans as white middle-class English-speakers very uninviting to “Others,” like vegans of color, but it also makes invisible the voices and contributions of those “Others” to the vegan cause.

I can imagine some people still thinking “Wait! Most animal/vegan activists I know are not racist, don’t like PeTA, and would never use these tactics. The racist, sexist, and discursive practices of some vegans don’t represent the whole vegan movement!” Perhaps this is true, but I am more inclined to disagree. If anything the inverse is true. The general vegan movement is obliviously “white;” it has neither condemned the racism of demonizing and/or fetishizing foreign nations and cultures nor has it put forth significant effort into respectful vegan outreach in communities of color. The animal/vegan movement(s) systemically ostracize people of color (which is arguably a symptom of institutional racism)—most often without any consciousness of doing so.

Animal Rights or Animal Whites?
If anyone took the time to reflect upon race within the vegan movement(s), it would become pretty clear that the general movement is at best ambivalent and at worst indifferent to its own
whiteness. Whatever the general position on race in the movement may be, it is almost certainly not merely a case of naïve innocence. The veg*n movement(s) is so “blindingly white” that some outsiders and insiders suggest it could just as easily be called the “animal whites movement.” [15, 16, 17]

While the majority of the vegan movement(s) has been reluctant or indifferent to address the whiteness of the movement, vegans of color have been more outspoken. After all, they “don’t have the luxury of being single-issue.”[
19] Breeze Harper, most notably, has been asking relevant questions in regards to the constructed whiteness of the vegan movement(s) for several years. For instance, Breeze wonders why a "[v]egetarian festival is 95% white though the city is very ethnically diverse" and that “all the top selling books that have been written about veganism, 'ethical consumption' and animal rights have been by whites (mostly male)"?[20] These are statistics that (I assume) the majority of vegans take for granted, that is, unconscious of. The majority of vegans either never dwell upon these figures or the figures trigger little of their concern.

The unfortunate (but not wholly undeserved) perception of vegans as self-righteous whites infers upon them a colonial or even a white supremacist identity. The implication of this combination is that a vegan—like GW—“
doesn’t care about black people” (or any other people of color). An example of this perception was expressed in the comments following a passionate post attacking the weak rhetoric of “white privilege.”[27] After several vegans accused the author of “speciesism” (because he had made an analogy between distribution of privilege and fried chicken), a person (presumably of color) charged the vegans (who were “undoubtedly white or white-identified”) as distracting people from discussing the original topic of white privilege:

Whitey gets on a forum challenging their white privilege and therefore they have to distract it with some other "superior" ideal… This is a discussion about white privilege, whitey! This ain't about animals whom you consider above people of color, and yes, I mean that like it sounds and I am saying it because it is true. It's not white people you think of as being beneath animals. You don't discuss white privilege on forums about racism and white privilege, you discuss speciesism you RACIST bastards… Get off of your high white privileged horse and get to really discussing your white privilege because your white privilege IS KILLING PEOPLE! (my emphasis) [28]
Privilege has to do with the (often) invisible unearned power one caries (over others) simply by being a member of a ruling class. In this instance, white “vegans” entered a space and interrupted, thus obstructing, a conversation on white privilege. To the poster, this was an act of silencing people of color (and whites) from discussing the taboo subject of privilege. Not only were the vegans perceived as interfering with a constructive dialogue, they also dismissed the relevance of their privilege (over people of color) by coming in as an outsider to tell black people that they were just as much oppressors as whites.

Vegan Colonialism
Just as (presumably) white vegans had been ignorant or indifferent to the untactfulness of their posts, so to are vegans (even some vegans of color) untactful in some of their efforts to challenge animal uses in “foreign” cultures. For instance, most vegans are at least somewhat aware of the sensitivities surrounding the Canadian seal hunt every year—they know it is primarily done by indigenous peoples who have historically used furs for survival and culture as well as have been oppressed by colonialists. [
29] Still, one often hears words being thrown around like “barbaric,” “savage,” “inhumane,” etc. All of these words are adjectives that describe people as sub-human.

Instead of sending an anti-oppression message, which used to be inherent in the definition of veganism before its appropriation [
31], many vegans come across as the enlightened colonialist exercising his/her privilege over Other cultures. Johanna at Vegans of Color describes how animal activists come across to many people of color allover the world through the methodologies employed in anti-whaling campaigns:

[W]e in the West feel it's our high-and-mighty duty to go & tell other countries, with which we have had an adversarial & racist relationship, what to do. Instead of listening to local activists & supporting them if & when they request it (& in the manner they request), US activists love to barge in, without thought to cultural ontext or self-determination & autonomy for folks in the countries they're horning in on… There's a difference between not entering "the international debate" & doing so in a way that is helpful, respectful of other cultures & people [32]
Just as vegans had barged into the comments of the post on white privilege, so to does the general animal protection movement(s) barge into other countries telling them how to run things. Instead of respectful, empathetic, and constructive dialogue with people in the communities they are attempting to change, activists instead get on their “high horse” and condemn foreign Others from a standpoint of Authority and privilege. Thus, the issue of institutional racism is not confined to a few white vegan bloggers or PETA members, but is widespread throughout the movement.

Some animal advocates may be quick to respond that nations such as Japan and China should criticize the U.S. when they commit egregious acts against people and animals. Yet, this response perfectly encompasses advocates’ obliviousness to white-American privilege. White cultures not only have a history of trampling all over people of color, they also have the power and privilege of living in the North (aka the ‘First World,’ ‘Post-industrial/Developed Nations’) which dominates over
the South with its markets and technologies. As is evident from the war in Iraq, the U.S. can get away with imperialist wars and state sanctioned “terrorism”; this is would not be true of countries in the South if they were ever to do the same to the U.S. Such a belief ignores history and power-relations.

One Word: Empathy
The point of this critique on popular animal defense rhetoric, discourse, and tactics is not to suggest that we be either silent or moral relativists. Single-issue politics and an (uncritical) utilitarian mode of thought are what drive the wedge between vegans and their potential allies. Many vegans, in their efforts to hurry the process along often resort to bullying and coercing people with less institutional power and opportunities. Understanding that veganism is not only a goal, but a process of living with others (as is Health) means that we must remain patient and work it through with Others. Otherwise we seem to be suggesting that oppressive means are justified by an anti-oppression end, which is kind of like “
fucking for virginity.”

We must not barge into other conversations anymore than we should barge into the biology departments of universities and yell, “YOU ANIMAL TORTURING ASS HOLE!” One, because it is ineffective because, two, it is disrespectful and obnoxious. In order to cultivate change in other communities, we must sit down and have an empathetic dialogue. Collectively, people will never be permanently persuaded by either attempts to shame, discipline, or reason-through the facts. Cross-cultural communication involves empathy and understanding. This can only be achieved through respectful dialogue and race-consciousness.

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  1. Aren't Jews considered white? The Holocaust is compared in the AR movement all the time to the plight of the animals. Yet, you didn't mention that. Quite frankly, I find the whole premise of the vegan movement being "privileged" and "white" a way to turn the focus back to the black community's only real concern -- their own struggle. Black people have EVERY opportunity to go out and protest animal cruelty just like white people do. No one is stopping them. Yet when you look it is always white people on the line. Where are the black people? Put the focus back where it belongs -- on the suffering of the animals and stop trying to turn this into a race issue. If black people want to be help animals then help animals and stop whining about it.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Very Late ResponseMarch 4, 2009 at 11:41 AM

    Hello! I'm not entirely sure how or why I stumbled upon this blog post, but I'm glad Breeze Harper wrote this. Like her, I believe that all oppressions - racism, sexism, homophobia, animal cruelty, etc. - are interconnected in some way. In turn, if we want to a create a truly just and progressive society, everyone - feminists, AR activists, advocates for ethnic and racial minorities, gay rights activists, etc. - needs to check their privilege. I think this is a pretty reasonable demand, yet I'm not surprised that the commenter above me completely missed the point of the blog post and immediately resorted to defensive babble about how black people only care about "their own struggle" and should "stop whining" about racism within progressive movements.

    Seriously? Last time I checked the author of this blog post is a vegan activist herself, so I doubt she only cares about "her own struggle." As for the claim that "it is always white people on the line," please. There are a good number of vegans and vegetarians of color who are doing laudable work when it comes to AR activism. But hey, it's nice to know that their contributions don't matter since, as far as you're concerned, only white people care about animal cruelty.

    You know, it's funny that you complain of myopia of the part of the black community, and yet you have no problem telling a black vegan activist to "stop whining" about racism in the AR community and "stop trying to turn this into a race issue." Personally, I think it's pretty myopic to suggest that black vegans must only care about racial issues OR animal rights ones. I think it's even more myopic to suggest that by ignoring the issue of race in the movement, we're "putting the focus back where it belongs." What makes you think that black vegans are any less "focused" on animal cruelty than their white counterparts?

  3. This is just more bullshit from a stupid, borderline retarded nigger whore. This stupid bitch shitskin needs to get back in the toilet with the rest of the turds and leave intellectualizing to those with intellectual powers greater than those of a kumquat.

  4. Thank you so much for writing this! I am newly interested in the AR movement and very unfamiliar with the AR activist scene. I hope to enter into it in the least shitty was possible as a privileged white person, and this gave me a lot of good examples of what bullshit I should avoid and call-out when I see it. Much appreciation to you!

  5. Thank you for making that great post OP about the vegan movement, and its severe problems with racism.

    (Also Anonymous, the one who sent a message on Octoboer 4, 2010 at 1:44 AM, go fuck yourself, and way to be a coward with the anonymous hate messages).

  6. Hi there,I enjoy reading through your article post, I wanted to write a little comment to support you and wish you a good continuationAll the best for all your blogging efforts.

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