Why I’m Giving Beyoncé’s Vegan Campaign a Chance

Beyoncé and Jay-Z shocked mainstream news and vegan activists alike when they announced that fans who pledge to go plant-based have a chance to win free tickets to their concerts for life.

Some vegans have not been so enthusiastic about the campaign, citing that veganism “for the health” is not the same as veganism “for the animals,” and that veganism is not something that can be “forced” on others.

Whose Veganism is It Anyway?

To this I would counter that, although some (myself included) may understand veganism to be a matter of anti-speciesism, vegans should hesitate to insist that the Eurocentric interpretation of veganism is the only valid approach.

As a practical matter, a “master frame” of veganism is not especially useful in the context of a diverse audience. Personally, I critique the hegemonic vegan frame which is highly bureaucratized and prioritizes capitalist interests over the interests of effective social change (which I argue inevitably undermines veganism). To be able to criticize hegemonic veganism from this angle, however, is a reflection of my white privilege.

As a white person, I have to concede that other ethnicities will have other priorities. These include the deadly consequences of food deserts and food insecurity as well as the role that “animality” as a social construct has played in the oppression of people of color. These are priorities which have been beautifully outlined by activist scholars such as Dr. Breeze Harper and Aph & Syl Ko.

I concede that “my” veganism will not be the veganism that other folk feel compelled to adopt.

The Vegan Society defines veganism as:

a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.

Beyoncé definitely does not count as a “vegan” according to this definition. She claims to eat animals’ flesh occasionally since it’s “all about moderation.” I assume her stage outfits make use of real birds’ feathers and cows’ skin as well. Her makeup is probably produced from slaughterhouse renderings and tested on other animals. She could exclude these things quite “possibly” and “practicably.”

But is The Vegan Society’s definition the only definition that matters? More specifically, is it the only definition which should apply to everyone? What about people of color living in a racialized society?

I suggest that the vegan identity is multifaceted and that the terms of engagement must be contextualized.

Cultural Force

In any case, I think it is a stretch to claim that Bey (who is not even a vegan herself) is “forcing” veganism on others. Fans who claim to go vegan (how can their veganism even be verified?) only have a chance to win free tickets, they are not guaranteed free tickets. Attending expensive music concerts is not a requirement, it is only recreational. Nor do Bey or Jay-Z require a complete transition since they also promote reducetarianism or “meatless Mondays.”

As I have uncovered in my research on flexitarian campaigns of this kind, many people already identify as someone who does not eat “that much” meat or dairy, since reducing animal product consumption is seen as a social good (unlike veganism which is interpreted as “extreme”). Importantly, the flexitarian identity does not often correlate with actual behavior change. In some cases, those who identify as flexitarian actually consume more animal products than their non-flexitarian-identifying counterparts.

That said, Bey is using her cultural clout to promote a social good. This is no different from the efforts of white celebrities like Moby, Morrissey, and, if you stretch it, Miley Cyrus. Morrissey reportedly bans all sale of animal flesh at his concerts–is he forcing his fans to be vegetarian?

True, celebrities are rarely trained in social justice activism, and their politics are not always perfect. I also find it uncomfortable that society should rely on celebrities to promote social goods since celebrities, given their extreme wealth, are the very embodiment of social inequality. Yet, Bey is putting her money where her mouth is–she is using her celebrity and privilege to make the world a better place through the channels available to her.

As this essay goes to print, Senator Cory Booker (also a person of color) has just announced his bid for presidency. He is a fierce social justice advocate and a longtime vegan. But he, too, promotes veganism for a wide variety of reasons which do not always center other animals. Would the movement be so quick (and foolhardy) to write off Cory Booker if he were to become our first vegan president? Need the vegan movement even have to wait for a vegan president? Beyoncé is practically American royalty, after all. Her clout arguably exceeds that of Booker’s.

Whether white activists like it or not, celebrity influencers shape the cultural landscape. The vegan identity (unlike the flexitarian identity) is a highly stigmatized one, and social movements will need to normalize its goals before they can be widely adopted. If Queen Bey makes vegan cool, it might not be “for the right reasons” (that is, it might not seek to advance the interests of Nonhuman Animals), but it can have a significant impact on the community she serves.

The Master Frame

Social movement scholars acknowledge that collectives strategically design frames which are hoped to resonate with their audiences. Multiple frames can be at work, but it is sometimes the case that a “master frame” will come to dominate in the movement’s repertoire. The utility of a master frame is its ability to present a strong, united front to the public and policy-makers. The downside is that a “one-size-fits-all” approach can be unrealistic given that audiences (and activists themselves) are not necessarily homogenous. Persuasion is a complicated matter and it sometimes takes many approaches to push a social justice agenda.

The Vegan Society, which formed in 1944 Britain and officially launched the political concept of “veganism” in the West following a protracted debate with The Vegetarian Society, may have prioritized veganism as a matter of anti-speciesism, but, from its very conception, it drew on a diverse framework relating to human health, poverty and famine, war, and individual autonomy. Indeed, The Vegan Society, today, continues a multipronged approach.

As the society moved into the 21st century, it continued to promote veganism, not necessarily as an endeavor to liberate other animals, but as something “normal” and achievable. Its vegan labeling scheme, for instance, was a major campaign in this effort. I have my issues with such an approach given its pro-capitalist leanings and its watering down of the anti-speciesist radical politic, but it is the case nonetheless that the expansion of commercially available vegan products has made veganism easier to perform.

Beyoncé has been dragged before for not meeting the expectations of white activist frames. White feminists, for instance, have criticized her brand of feminism as sexually objectifying and complicit with patriarchy, if not ignored it altogether. Black feminists have responded by reminding the community that there is no one “Feminism” (capital F) but rather many feminisms, and the failure to embrace Black women’s activism reflects white supremacy in the public space.

Because inequality does not stop at the door of social justice movements, activists must consider how inequality can sometimes shape strategy. Who is the “master” in developing the “master frame”? What I am suggesting is that the “master frame” is too frequently racialized in its construction.

Likewise, the need to control the vegan discourse and the very definition of veganism itself is rooted in colonial politics. As European countries pushed their culture onto “inferior” and “ignorant” subjects, they expected full assimilation. There was little patience for adaptation or nuance; it was simply presumed that European cultural values were universal and should be adopted unquestioningly. This is the very definition of cultural domination.

In this vein, it must be remembered that, while non-Western countries have their own histories of plant-based resistance, “Veganism” (capital V) as it is understood and politicized today, is a deeply European concept. White activists must tread carefully when attempting to impose “their” veganism on “others.” Indeed, the vegan movement, dominated as it is by white activists, has been less than welcoming to the veganisms of other cultures. This is problematic if the goal is to expand veganism beyond middle-class white spaces.

Most people go vegan and stay vegan because of their concern for other animals. Bey’s health-centric, flexitarian approach does not alter this research-supported fact. But Bey also has a wider cultural influence and represents a nonwhite consumer base that has been traditionally overlooked by the Nonhuman Animal rights movement. I am interested to see if her efforts will contribute to the larger discourse. I am also deeply supportive of women of color who have the “audacity” to be political in a white-dominated cultural landscape. Celebrity persuasion is far from perfect, but it can contribute to the destigmitization of veganism. This cultural normalcy was The Vegan Society’s aim all along.


Corey Lee WrennDr. Wrenn is Lecturer of Sociology. 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).

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Food Justice: A Primer

Food Justice: A Primer, edited by Saryta Rodríguez condenses a wide-angle view of ethical considerations surrounding the production and distribution of food into a concise collection of essays that is richly informative and thoroughly persuasive. This 239-page paperback covers a large range of topics, historical and contemporary. Each section is united by the common thread of undertaking the study “through a vegan praxis.” In other words, viewing non-human animals as deserving the same rights and dignity as people, when identifying the problematics of agriculture and proposing solutions. But this perspective should not be misunderstood as a narrowly defined scope through which to examine the topic. Rather, it is necessarily at the core of the issue and this book’s focus brings that reality to the forefront.

As the arguments put forward in each of the pieces show, food justice is not just about food; it is interconnected with many areas of life, such as how we work, our attitudes toward others, and how we perceive the world around us and affect it with our actions (or inactions). An essay by Lilia Trenkova draws bold parallels between racism as a driving force behind colonialism and neo-colonialism and speciesism—the idea that humans are superior to other animals and by extension, all manner of cruelty may be excused—as the widely unchallenged belief responsible for the inhumane treatment of animals, including their use as food. These parallels follow through their resulting effects on inequitable food supply. Just as the mercantile practices of colonial and neo-colonial countries squeeze the economies and drain resources from less developed countries, the (mis)use of land for animal agriculture significantly reduces the maximum amount of food that can be produced, and applies upward pressure on prices, thereby artificially limiting resources and increasing food costs. In another essay, Saryta Rodríguez points to data that show that cows used for beef consume twenty-five times more food than they produce. Conditions for farm workers are also netted in this equation of systemic superiority, as Trenkova dissects how racist attitudes baked into the North American Free Trade Agreement created second tier system, where laborers in Mexico and immigrants in the U.S. are not afforded the same basic rights that many American workers take for granted.

Land use is also addressed in other contexts throughout. The book’s introduction briefly describes some notable land rights campaigns including the formation of Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) in 1984 and Palestine’s Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC) in 1986. The UAWC is referenced as an example of a group that fights for food sovereignty, which is under the umbrella of food justice and pertains to a peoples’ ability to choose how their food is produced, distributed, and consumed. The MST is a movement that settled people to work on unused land and was able to make legal claims on much of that land through a part of Brazil’s constitution enshrining land as serving a public function.

Among the essays, the book also includes an interview by Saryta Rodríguez with Gustavo Oliviera, a spokesperson for Occupy the Farm, which comprised of a couple hundred activist farmers who took over an unused plot of land belonging to the University of California, Berkeley that had been slated for commercial development. It is an inspiring story of grass-roots direct action that demonstrates that anyone can take part in effecting change.

Rodríguez aptly curates an enormous depth of information and perspective in this slim volume making for a well-paced read that is small enough to carry on the go. After reading this compelling compendium, one cannot ignore that achieving food justice depends on recognizing that animal agriculture is unsustainable. Therefore, the notion that a complete and internally consistent understanding of food justice has as much to do with issues of equitable supply and distribution as workers’ rights and animal rights should not be a revolutionary one.


Dale Classen is a Brooklyn-based musician and sound designer. Dale performs with the band Grim All Day and lives with two cats, Sonny and Toad. He graduated from Stony Brook University with a B.A. in psychology.

Someone Else’s (Vegan) Shoes: Review of ‘Veganism in an Oppressive World’

By Julia Feliz Brueck

Understanding comes easiest when it arrives from a place of having walked in the shoes of someone that we can fully empathize with. However, to truly embrace a stance across social justice issues that is respectful and aware in the quest to create true justice for all, including nonhuman animals, we must come to the realization that we do not always have the same lived experiences or understanding of others that have walked in shoes different to ours. It is imperative that, in our efforts as activists, we humbly remind ourselves that sometimes our role is simply to follow under the guidance of those that know and understand their own oppression first-hand.

As we understand the interconnectedness across oppressions and the need to work with one another to achieve our collective goals, we must accept that activism may mean taking a seat and supporting rather than taking center stage. It simply isn’t possible to have first-hand experience on every single oppression that affects individuals due to the various degrees of intersecting identities, which determine the level of oppression that one faces. These oppressions and their effects as real and impact the animal rights movement, as they follow vegans that are from other marginalized group even when advocating for nonhumans above themselves.

It wasn’t until recently that my own experiences led me to this understanding and helped me acknowledged that my perceptions or opinions on issues that do not affect me directly simply don’t hold any weight over those from communities affected directly. As a consistently anti-oppression vegan activist, my role outside the shoes that I have walked in is a supportive one. My AHA! moment came from a collection of experiences that one day just clicked on their own. Seeds that had been planted, one day gave root and flowered into the type of activism in which I partake in today. My role, outside my own community and issues that directly affect me, is to listen, learn, and raise the voices of those that do not have my same privileges due to hierarchical systems of oppression.

While I am an AfroBoricua, as a Puerto Rican born and raised with Brown skin and African as well as Indigenous roots, I will never understand first-hand the experiences of Black women, who experience anti-blackness across all cultures. My lighter skin privilege means that I don’t directly experience this type of oppression even though I understand what it is to experience colorism and racism. Something as mundane as a conversation with a Black person about their hair, flipped a switch. While I was able to draw parallels in which the ways my own “frizzy” and wavy hair is looked down upon under a culture heavily influenced by white supremacist standards, I stopped and listened. I learned that Black people are unable to freely wear their natural hair and may be even fired or denied a job for wearing protective hairstyles, such as locks. This brief interaction with an online stranger helped me understand that, individually, we simply experience different realities in the way our bodies are policed and even in the accessibility to basic resources that we have access to, including healthy foods and even clean water despite being oppressed by the same institution.

There have also been instances in which I was forced to walk into shoes that I had not imagine I would be forced to walk in. Being born and raised on an island and then moving to the mainland US in an area populated by communities that looked like me afforded me safety. Therefore, it wasn’t until I moved to Europe that my inability to blend in catapulted me into the blatant xenophobia that communities face around the world. Most Europeans cannot even point where Puerto Rico is located on a map, and most have never met a “Latinx” person. This means that, as a Brown-skinned person, I am ambiguous enough to them to erroneously assume that I am either a refugeed African, a refugee from Syria, or even a Romani – or someone from any other country where the local assume Brown people must come from. Most often, I am assumed to be from all marginalized communities of color (or at least considered “tanned”) commonly found here. Despite also having Spanish (European colonizer) roots due to the colonialism that plagued my island, I am automatically recognized as an outsider. I’ve been shunned and excluded in my attempts to become part of the local community, so I have learned what it truly feels like to experience xenophobia simply for looking different based on the color of my skin and my non-European features. Being fluent in two languages (English and Spanish) hasn’t been enough to keep me safe either. Having a thick accent in French has made me realize the extent of xenophobia awarded to those even trying to fit in by learning the local language and customs. Interestingly, refugees have been the most welcoming, never delving into incessant questions about my ethnic or racial background. Seven years on, and I still do not have any personal relationships with the locals. Being unwelcomed has meant that I am often left out from mundane events, as well as community resources and access to services that I do not even know how to reach. This has made me stop to consider what it must be like for those with even less privileges, resources, and support than my family and I have – within Europe and even back in the US.

This all directly affects how I am able to advocate for nonhumans. For vegans of color (like myself), safety becomes a real issue when the local vegans do not recognize their racial biases either, and thus, do not provide a safe environment where I can freely advocate for nonhumans without having to worry about experiencing racism, xenophobia, and other forms of discrimination from group members themselves. Unfortunately, the reality is that white vegans are not immune to their own racial biases.

There have been many more moments and life experiences that have forced me to think beyond my own shoes and my own struggles with oppression. I began thinking about all the experiences from childhood to present time that I have not had and those that I am not even aware are a possibility because they are simply not how I experienced the world based on my intersecting oppressions and whatever privileges I do have. This led me to resolve that, especially in my activism, I need to be aware and admit that I will never be privy to the experiences of all people that I truly want to find justice for, and no matter how well-meaning I may be in my activism, I could end up silencing those I am trying to help.

I believe when someone from a marginalized group that I am not part of tells me about their experiences with oppression. To question them on something I do not experience and to disregard their experiences would be to invalidate them and add to their oppression. Thus, at this point in time, addressing root issues, including actual accessibility to veganism, and focusing on how to solve these issues within my own community has taken priority in my work. I have also made a commitment to raise the voices of those whose experiences are truly foreign to my understanding of how injustices affect them.

And what about nonhumans? The same understanding should, of course, be applied to an oppressed nonhuman group whose shoes we will never be able to walk in. We don’t speak their languages nor understand what it is like to experience life as they do. However, we can all agree that at the very minimum, differences in life form and in our abilities to communicate are not justifiable factors (and never were) to continue upholding supremacist-fueled abuses and oppression upon nonhuman animals. This is what unites us as vegans. However, the acknowledgement that supremacy is still an issue even within humans and within the animal rights/vegan movement is vital. The acceptance of this knowledge is imperative for nonhuman justice. Why? Because human oppression is tied-in to nonhuman animal oppression. ALL Supremacist mentalities must be abolished if we are going to move towards true liberation for all.

How do we do this? We can start this process by recognizing that advocating for nonhumans is not the same as advocating for human groups. While nonhumans are not currently able to guide us, marginalized people, whose shoes we will never walk in ourselves, are able to lead us on their own issues. By educating ourselves, taking a step back, and letting vegans from their own communities lead on issues that affect them directly, including the forms of nonhuman oppression that their cultures partake in. The book Veganism in an Oppressive World: A Vegans-of- Color Community Project edited by Julia Feliz Brueck was published to help vegans understand what this means and how to implement this understanding into helping the mainstream vegan movement evolve into one that is actually aware and most importantly, effective.

Get a copy via Sanctuary Publishers or on Amazon.

 


Julia Feliz Brueck is the founder of Sanctuary Publishers, a vegan of color owned and run vegan book publisher with the aim of giving back with every book and supporting marginalized communities. Julia is also the author of Baby and Toddler Vegan Feeding Guide and Libby Finds Vegan Sanctuary. She also works as a published illustrator and recently launched veganismofcolor.com in an effort to connect people of color to vegans of color. Connect with Julia via Facebook or juliafeliz.com.

Renouncing Vegan Birthright

By Julia Tanenbaum

The new Vegan Birthright program sponsored by Jewish Veg and Mayanot Birthright exemplifies how Zionists so often exploit the struggle for animal rights in the service of colonialism. Since 1999 Birthright Israel has handed 500,000 young Jews worldwide a free trip to Israel at the hidden cost of the dispossession of millions of Palestinians. As both Vegans and Jews we have a moral duty to renounce this program that supports Israel’s ongoing colonization of Palestine and apartheid policies. Over 5 million Palestinian refugees are to this day excluded from their own land while any Jew born and raised in the U.S is encouraged to claim their “birthright” to it. Jewish Veg’s rhetoric of compassion and repairing the world cloaks deep hypocrisy. Vegan birthright advertises a chance to meet “world leaders” in the Jewish vegan community in a “world leading vegan city”, but in reality this narrative is part of an Israeli propaganda strategy to use Israel’s supposed status as a liberal home for first queers, now vegans, to obscure the brutal violence of the occupation. Endorsing Birthright means supporting Israeli apartheid, denying millions of innocent Palestinians access to basic human rights like clean water, electricity, education, freedom of movement, and medical care. This immeasurable violence is fundamentally incompatible with the nonviolent ethos of veganism. Jewish Veg must show us which side they are on; do they support ethnic cleansing and colonialism or will they stand in solidarity with all sentient beings, Palestinians included? We call on Jewish Veg to stop the vegan Birthright program and renounce the racist ideology of Zionism if they share our values as Jewish vegans.

The Israeli animal rights movement vegan Birthright venerates is not only complicit in but directly encourages the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestine through “vegan-washing” the occupation. Every year or so another article circulates about how the Israeli Armed Forces provides vegan food and boots to soldiers, upholding the absurd myth of the IDF as the “most moral army in the world”. Palestinian animal rights organizers have termed this narrative of Israeli vegan exceptionalism “vegan washing”. Vegan washing works by falsely juxtaposing “enlightened Israeli vegans” with “backwards” Palestinians, and by creating a form of militarized veganism which bears little resemblance to the radical nonviolent vision of animal liberation.

Mainstream Israeli veganism falls in line with this strategy. Israel’s leading animal rights group 269 Life attracts significant attention for its violent demonstrations, which perpetuate racism and sexism, but less for its pernicious “non-humans first” stance which unequivocally defines human oppressions, such as racism, sexism, capitalism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, etc., as irrelevant to fighting for animal rights. Leaders of the group like Santiago Gomez support the occupation using the logic of vegan washing, because of “how the ‘Arabs’ treat animals”. Gomez goes to the lengths of supporting Israeli massacres of Palestinian fishermen, whose lives he clearly values far less than those of the fish. Vegan Jewish “messiah” Gary Yourofsky is blatantly racist against Palestinians, calling them “the most insane people on the planet”. He even spoke at the Ariel Settlement, where illegal settlers were caught torturing Palestinian children, sparking a boycott.

At its best, animal liberation organizing shakes the foundations of our social order by rejecting human domination over nature and all of it’s inhabitants. The entrenched racism of our movement obscures how the simple idea that all sentient beings hold innate rights to life and liberty and exist for their own sake is fundamentally revolutionary.  If we reject the idea that humans have the “right” to animal bodies and lives we must also reject the much larger colonial project which relies on the same ideology.

We must reject the vegan washing model and instead follow the example of anti-Zionist vegans like the members of the Palestinian Animal League or Anarchists Against the Wall, which began as the pro-intersectional human and animal rights organisation ‘One Struggle’. We must follow the example of vegans like Haggai Matar, who spent two years in prison for refusing the draft in 2002. Organizations from 269 Life to PETA think they will attract people to veganism through racism and sexism, but there are no shortcuts to liberation, especially when they harm other oppressed communities. Decolonizing Veganism is the only way for non-human animals to become free because history teaches us that solidarity is the strongest weapon in the face of injustice. Vegans must choose whether to continue our community’s endorsement of colonial violence and white supremacy or stand for the lives and liberty of all sentient beings.

 


Julia Tanenbaum is a member of the Philadelphia chapters of Jewish Voice for Peace and If Not Now. She has organized as a student and in local environmental and racial justice movements. She previously published her research on the history of anarcha-feminism in Perspectives on Anarchist Theory. She deeply believes that animal liberation must be conceptualized as a part of a larger struggle for social revolution.

The Other “Other”

By Vinamarata “Winnie” Kaur

I see people around me,
Trying to define race as white or Black,
And I look at myself…
Lurking in between the color codes of what’s deemed “normal.”
I turn to feminism,
To find the Western mainstream feminist movement still plagued with racism and speciesism.
I feel like an insider-outsider.
I get asked, “What are you?”
Am I white, or am I Black?
“Maybe neither, or maybe both; it’s none of your business,” I say.
Who am I, and what social justice movement(s) should I turn to?
Will the Others ever learn to look beyond my Brown flesh
And channel their chakras away from my external appearances?

I see people around me,
Smoking and drinking their health and lives away.
They socialize in the ecstasy of hallucinating drugs
And take pride in the grilling of their steaks at summer BBQs while shaming vegetarians and vegans for not sharing their carnal pleasures.
And I look at myself…
A decolonizing, teetotalling, fat, hairy, vegan feminist secluded and excluded from those circles,
Isolated in the company of my books.
I turn to TV and films,
And they still ridicule me with their colorblind eyes and their body-shaming ads…
Who am I, if not the Other “Other” in this United-yet-divided land of opportunities?

With liminal spaces to call “home”
I continue to be oppressed
By the layered shackles of binarisms entrenched in white cis-male heteropatriarchy,
Without a recognizable identity of my own…
And whom the Department of Homeland Security once called a non-resident alien
And now calls a permanent resident,
Still stripped of that full status assigned to its human citizenry.
I carry with me the spirit of the Brown subaltern,
And a body fueled by plants,
Spreading the word that…
I am different and disidentified,
I am both vegan and a non-Western feminist,
And that’s OK.

I occupy the in-betweenness and the Brownness of this flesh- and color- obsessed society,
Not just because of my culinary choices or the invisible purdah I wear on my skin,
But because of my subjectivity and lived experiences.
What gives anyone then the privilege to exclude me from bounds of “normalcy,”
And to force me to classify myself as either white or Black / feminist or vegan?
I refuse to pass as one or the Other…
Because #BlackLivesMatter, #BrownLivesMatter, #TransLivesMatter, #IntersexLivesMatter, #NativeLivesMatter, and #NonHumanLivesMatter.
And whiteness, colonialism, and speciesism should not be allowed to define our relations to our marginalized bodies anymore;
I am an intersectional, Brown, South Asian vegan feminist,
For these are inherent parts of my multivalent identity
That I will continue fighting for,

Until my last breath.

 


Winnie was raised in a small city in northern India and is currently a PhD candidate in English and Comparative Literature at the University of Cincinnati, Ohio, United States. Her current research and teaching interests include South Asian studies, environmental literatures, critical animal studies, digital humanities, Sikh studies, queer thea/ologies, and feminisms in popular/counter cultures. She has always been passionate about social justice through expressivity and creativity.

Animal Whites and Wrongs

animal whites

For a movement built on racism and white-dominated in leadership, theory, and rhetoric, it is all too common for Nonhuman Animal rights activists in the age of “colorblindness” and Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaigning to fall back on white fragility and open hostility to people of color and their allies when challenged on their complacency with racism. I think it is fair to say that most animal whites activists are happy enough to identify as “anti-racist,” but when pressed into action, most will find themselves on the defensive, worried about their identity as a “good” person, and positioning themselves as uncompromising saviors to other (seemingly more deserving) animals.

This is most glaring when racism-apologists shut down Black Lives Matter activism in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement with “ALL LIVES MATTER” or “Black Lives Matter, too.” Indeed, the rhetoric and ill-conceived rationalizations used to justify this intentional misappropriation often read eerily just like that of America’s conservatives. How very strange given the Nonhuman Animal rights movement’s claim to liberal, inclusive values.

The “color-blind” “all lives matter” approach is racist. It intentionally and consciously ignores difference. More than ignoring it, it aggressively seeks to stomp it out. White activists do not like to be reminded of their privilege. Being an activist “for the animals” allows them to take on a sense of heroism, goodness, and superiority. Acknowledging racism in the ranks challenges that self-image.

But, white vegans, this isn’t about you. Ignoring difference (and violently rejecting its existence or importance) is one of the main reasons why the Nonhuman Animal rights movement struggles with diversity. It is one of the main reasons why the movement is not taken seriously. The exclusionary actions and “All lives matter” rhetoric of “colorblind” activists and organizations demonstrates beautifully how and why people of color are actively marginalized in the  movement, even to the point of squeezing them out of leadership roles. What choice do people of color really have? A white-dominated space that can’t even say “Black Lives Matter” without adding conditions or making alterations makes for a hostile work environment. Especially for grassroots coalitions, the institutional channels for addressing racially antagonistic behavior are frequently non-existent. Aggravating this is the general failure for the Nonhuman Animal rights movement to adopt an intersectional understanding of oppression, choosing instead to support a single-issue approach. White protectionism thus prevails and contributes to the destruction of “the other.” How very antithetical to the liberatory message the movement espouses.

We have a moral duty to support justice where ever it is needed. The promotion of racism in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement divides in the most deplorable way. Bizarrely, racism-apologists insist that marginalized persons who push back against sexism and racism are responsible for this division, but that logic only makes sense if the Nonhuman Animal rights movement were a movement in support of social inequality, not one opposed to it.  Making the world a better, more safe and just place is not now and nor was it ever a single-issue endeavor.

I have also seen racism-apologists accusing activists of slander for the “crime” of identifying racism present in the words and actions associated with single-issue, “colorblind” organizations. This baffles me completely, as speciesists regularly engage this exact same pro-oppression tactic to silence Nonhuman Animal rights activists. There is no desire whatsoever to learn from others, only a prioritization of the ego. To be fair, this is a common enough psychological reaction, but activists are in the business of persuasion and behavior change, and should be more sensitive to the dangerous consequences of cognitive dissonance once aggravated.

I want to be clear that this is not a matter of “bad apple” activists organizations, but this is instead systemic to a movement that formulated its identity out of Jim Crow white supremacist ideologies, prioritizes a single-issue approach to activism, and tokenizes people of color. It is a movement that appropriates non-white experiences when convenient while simultaneously celebrating white leadership and white-centric, often racist tactics.

These are sad and scary times, and my condolences go out to all those who have been hurt by unfortunate (and unnecessary) diversity failures in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement. It is demoralizing, but I ask readers to keep up the fight. We are on the side of righteousness. And, as they say: if you aren’t making white people uncomfortable with your anti-racism activism, you aren’t doing it right.

Cheers to the allies, who are doing what is right and taking the burden off of people of color who are too often unfairly expected to defend themselves, explain themselves, and dismantle the system that whites created. More importantly, cheers to activists of color who do not have to, but nonetheless go out of their way to explain racism to an audience that has already ignored so many opportunities to learn.

We can do better, and we must do better. For those privileged to do so, keep going. Let’s not give up.

 

 


Corey Lee WrennDr. Wrenn is Lecturer of Sociology. 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).

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