Uh Oh… Your Vegan Panel is All White or Male

A few  years ago, I was considering attending Colorado VegFest 2014 until I read the program and changed my mind. Almost every single presenter appeared to be white and male. I wasn’t the only person to notice this. Several concerned activists raised the issue with the program organizers, and were, to my dismay, met with strong resistance. Because we were critical of the program’s male-centrism, we were curiously accused of being sexist ourselves. Moreover, we were told we were ruining activism “for the animals.”

Because these reactions are so common to feminist critique no matter how politely or compassionately that critique is offered, it is worth exploring why these responses are both inappropriate and oppressive.

Gender Inclusivity is Not Sexist

When feminists ask that more women be included in speaking events, it is not an insinuation that men are not capable of having good ideas and should be barred from participation. It is only asking that women be actively included with the understanding that women have been consciously and unconsciously excluded from participating in the public discourse for centuries.

This is not sexism against men because, under patriarchy (a system of male rule), men cannot be victims of sexism. “Reverse sexism” is a trope designed to protect male privilege and deflect criticism, but it lacks empirical support. The institutions of patriarchy are designed to privilege men, therefore, men cannot be the victims of sexism when women challenge this privilege.

Gender Inclusivity is Not Speciesist

Lamenting “the animals” who are presumably hurt by efforts to improve diversity is another distraction technique.  It takes the blame away from those responsible for the problem (almost always persons protecting their privilege) and puts it on those who are drawing attention to the problem (usually marginalized persons). “Won’t somebody please think of the animals!” rhetoric protects structures of inequality.

Emphasizing the urgency of Nonhuman Animal suffering (“RIGHT NOW!”) eliminates the potential for civil discourse and careful thought, both of which are necessary for effective activism. No time to think, animals are suffering! This trope exploits the torture and death of Nonhuman Animals to maintain privilege and inequality.

Failing to Assume Responsibility is Sexist

Most gatekeepers in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement are unwilling to accept responsibility for institutional discrimination. To a point, this is understandable. Very few persons today are explicitly sexist or racist; most engage in implicit or unconscious prejudice and stereotyping. You do not have to identify as sexist to be sexist. In fact, many people who believe themselves to be champions of women are actively engaged in sexist systems.

The majority of us theoretically support egalitarian ideals, which is good news, of course. Yet, this superficial support also makes challenging the many barriers that remain all the more difficult. Marginalized groups today are harmed by institutional discrimination far more than interpersonal prejudices and discriminations. Even if you personally do not feel you are sexist or racist, that does not mean sexism or racism doesn’t exist.

Sexism and racism are both structural, but most interpret these systems as individual. In this case, VegFest panel organizers were confronted with the presence of sexism and racism and interpreted our feminist critique to mean that they themselves (not the institution they represent) were being labeled sexist and racist. They reacted with more individual-level thinking, reversing the contention by insisting that it was we the complainants who were the truly sexist and racist persons. By this schoolyard logic, any acknowledgement of white male privilege is inherently sexist and racist. But acknowledging gender, race, and difference in representation and opportunity is not bigotry. Such a framework invisibilizes the very real systems that insure that this panel and most panels in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement have a race and gender problem.

Solutions of Responsibility

Blaming the complainants is only one tactic. Blaming the disenfranchised is another popular approach.

Ignoring systems invites a deflection to the most vulnerable. Too uncomfortable to consider that their own biases might somehow be responsible for the lack of diversity, organizers lazily insist that it is simply the case that no women or people of color were available or interested. Again, this response inappropriately individualizes a systemic problem. Institutions wield incredible privilege in normalizing agendas and discourse. They also wield incredible privilege in acting as gatekeepers and setting standards and values for their audiences.

Men and whites (and especially a combination of the two) must take responsibility for sexism and racism in the movement. Even if these persons do not feel they are racist or sexist, they nonetheless benefit from these systems and are thus morally obligated to acknowledge and resist them. Allies should, first, contact organizers and express their disappointment with the lack of diversity. They should, second, withhold their services or patronage until diversity is improved.

In a movement that is 80% female, there is no excuse for an all-male or nearly all-male group of speakers, contributors, or leaders. Race is more complicated. The overwhelming whiteness of the activist pool indicates that many people of color–who also care about other animals and practice veganism–rightfully avoid the movement and either abandon activism or create independent collectives. Those who remain are vulnerable to exploitation, over-extended to fulfill diversity quotas and often used as tokens.

Conclusion

I am of the position that most of these events are wastes of precious few resources. I recognize that creating community is essential to retaining vegans, but conferences and fests are not explicitly “for the animals.” The majority of event goers, I suspect, are not uninitiated persons, but rather persons who are already vegan or vegetarian. These events are predominantly sites of fundraising, career advancement, personal entertainment, and celebrity worship. They are not “about the animals” so much as they are about humans.

Diversity disrupts the historical use of conferences as spaces to engage in and enjoy privilege. If these conferences were truly in the business of spreading vegan ideals, they would embrace diversity rather than accuse women and other disenfranchised groups of being discriminatory themselves simply for requesting representation. A movement that belittles and trivializes the marginalization of human groups will be unwelcoming and ineffective for other animals. If the community believes that conferences matter, then they must become relevant and inclusive.

 


Corey Lee WrennDr. Wrenn is the founder of Vegan Feminist Network. She is a Lecturer of Sociology and Director of Gender Studies with a New Jersey liberal arts college, council member with the Animals & Society Section of the American Sociological Association, and an advisory board member with the International Network for Social Studies on Vegetarianism and Veganism with the University of Vienna. She was awarded Exemplary Diversity Scholar 2016 by the University of Michigan’s National Center for Institutional Diversity. She is the author of A Rational Approach to Animal Rights: Extensions in Abolitionist Theory.

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Why Can’t Men Be Feminists?

Hanging wall sign the shape of a mustache that reads, "No Boys Allowed"

Can men be feminists? Certainly, this question is a contentious one, and there is little consensus on the matter. As a scholar of gender studies and an activist of fifteen years, it is my position that, no, cis-men* cannot be feminists. And there’s a good reason or two. However, these reasons are complex and there are many points to consider, so bear with me.

Female protester holding cardboard sign that reads: "Smash the Patriarchy!"

While I acknowledge that many disagree with this position, it is hardly a radical one.  Quite a few feminists insist that men can’t be feminists (and the National Organization for Men against Sexism agrees).  To be feminist is to be a self-identified woman fighting for female equality; to be a feminist requires a direct experience of gender oppression. Why? Because it is this unique experience as a member of a targeted group that will inform one’s activism.

Male Territorial Claims

Men who become disgruntled with this definition and demand inclusion only underscore the ubiquitousness of male privilege.  When men reassert their entitlement, they are demonstrating their need to be in control and they are pulling on their patriarchal capital.

But wait! This doesn’t mean that men should hit the road, all men are scum, etc. Men, of course, have a role to play, too. Although cis-men can never fully remove themselves from the privileges of their gender, men can and should absolutely be allies! We should be wary of any man who insists on being included and insults those feminists who deny him inclusion. Individuals who engage this kind of behavior are demonstrating an inability to recognize their male entitlement. These are the very types of people who should never be considered a feminist in the first place, regardless of your position on the debate.

I think it’s a waste of energy to concern ourselves with those men who are irritable at the thought of being excluded.  Truth be told, cis-men have full entitlement to 99% of the world’s social spaces.  They also enjoy the infinite benefits of being male (like better jobs, better pay, more prestige, perceived credibility and authority, etc.). I know in my heart of hearts that men will do just fine without access to feminist spaces.

Insisting that Men Can’t be Feminist is Not Sexist

50's comic of a white man in a suit and hat saying to a woman: "Look kitten, I don't give a damn what YOU THINK, If I SAY I'm a feminist then BY GOD I AM ONE!"When men consider it “sexist” to be excluded, it illustrates how little they understand the meaning of sexism. Women–who are an oppressed group living under a patriarchy that privileges men–cannot, by the very nature of their social status, wield sexism against men. Calling a woman sexist, a man-hater, or a misandrist is a counter-tactic that is intended to redirect attention from men–a privileged group that typically goes completely unexamined–back to women where it normally lies. In other words, it is a conscious attempt to divert focus from the oppressor to the oppressed. It is a tactic intended to silence and maintain male entitlement and privilege. Men cannot be oppressed by women under a patriarchy that is structurally designed to benefit men.

In a similar tactic meant to undermine women, some men will insist that these “sexist” or “misandrist” women who exclude men aren’t really feminist themselves because they are discriminating based on sex/gender. The problematic nature of this reaction is put into sharp relief when we consider other identity-based movements like the disabled people’s movement or the Native American self-determination movement. Is it really a right for non-disabled persons or white-identified persons to claim entitlement to inclusion in those movements?  There is a reason why some social justice spaces are semi-exclusive. It has to do, firstly, with the tendency for privileged persons to dominate and create hurt (even if doing so is not intended). It also has to do with a shared experience with oppression.  It is a history that people with privilege cannot fully experience or understand, even if they give it their best effort and best intentions (which is admirable!).

It’s About Gender, Not Biology

Another retort is that a women’s only feminist space relies on biological determinism to maintain boundaries. But this response falsely conflates biology with social construction. Feminism is based on gender, not sex. Gender implies socially constructed roles, expectations, and treatments.  Gender is about experience.  Chromosomal makeup will have only a limited and arbitrary impact on how the social environment will shape one’s gender.  For example, many people are born with penises or with intersex traits, identify as female, and share the female experience.  These people are female (if they identify as such).

Gender is fluid and adaptable. This is what is meant by the feminist emphasis on “experience”; gender distinction relates to socialization processes, social interactions, and cultural meanings.  Gender is not about genitalia, but, rather, it is concerned with the ways in which the world treats people according to the gender they have been assigned or identify with.  In fact, many social identities are ascribed, such as race or species.  Identification with a particular gender, race, or species means differential treatment and differential perceptions of the world. Again, the fluidity of gender means that some people who are ascribed one gender can resist and identify how they feel is most appropriate (and some will choose to reject the gender binary altogether).

It is cis-masculinity in particular that acts as an ideological barrier, and that is what this essay is intended to examine. In an ideal world, gender would be abolished and no one would feel bound by its restrictive and often harmful effects. But we do not live in a gender-neutral, gender-absent world. Differences still exist, and they still matter.

Consider Jane Goodall who studied chimpanzees for 45 years.  She is a human, but she knows chimps well.  She probably knows more about chimps than any other human on Earth.  But does she know what it’s like to be a chimp as well as a chimp would?  No, of course not, because she is a human.  She experiences the world differently.  She has her own history, her own social conventions, her own culture, and her own knowledges that obscure the possibility of ever fully knowing the chimpanzee experience.   She may be an important ally to chimpanzees, but her human privilege will bias how she advocates for them.  Her human privilege also means she can advocate for them when she wants to, if she wants to.  Clearly, chimpanzees are not a direct correlation to human women, as chimpanzees, for the most part, lack the ability to mobilize and advocate for themselves, but the point is that social identity and privilege can impose a barrier that is difficult to overcome.

I argue that genders, too, represent distinct cultures.  Many men will have women in their lives and feel that they know women well.  They might study feminism, attend rallies, and read extensively on gender-based social justice.  But do they ever really know the female experience?  For cis-men, this is unlikely.  They can develop a good understanding of course, but, ultimately, their socialization and personal history with privilege prevents them from ever fully being immersed in womanhood.  This leads us to the crux of the argument: without really knowing the female experience, it quickly gets dangerous when a privileged group of people begin to advocate on behalf of a vulnerable group. This isn’t about putting men down and turning men away. This argument only reflects a desire that men acknowledge and respect that women will be the best positioned to advocate for women. It’s a desire for space and autonomy.

Jane Goodall with Chimpanzee

Caring About It Part-time vs. Living It Full-time

Even the most committed male ally to feminism can walk away at  any time.  He might spend a few days a week advocating for feminist causes, but he will always have the privilege to support or not support women at his whim.  Women, on the other hand, will always be exposed to sexual harassment, sexual abuse, violence, rape, sexism, second class citizenship, etc.  Men can critically examine patriarchy when it is convenient to them, but women have no choice but to endure the consequences of patriarchy at all times.

This is the crucial difference between a feminist and a male ally.  A feminist lives that oppression, but an ally doesn’t have his neck out.  He will always be protected and supported by patriarchy. He has male privilege as a safety net. So many times I’ve seen the most committed of “feminist” men turn their backs on women in need in order to protect their male buddies, to avoid drawing negative attention to themselves, or to escape some other consequence as is convenient to them. And really, men don’t have to walk in women’s shoes to help. That is, there need not be any urgency to experience the female experience. Men don’t need to worry so much about understanding women’s oppression so much as their privilege. Men can help by working on themselves rather than working on women.

Oppressed groups need a safe space where they can have leadership over their own struggles.  There needs to be at least one space where male privilege does not usurp, control, and marginalize women.  This is not a war on men, this is simply working to protect women’s spaces from male co-optation. That doesn’t mean there is no room for men in the feminist movement, it simply means that men will not be granted the full leadership and control they enjoy elsewhere. When we’ve got patriarchy under control, then we can talk about gender neutrality in collective action. But, until then, men should mind the boundaries.

Enacting Male Authority to Define and Police Oppression

Another reason we should be hesitant to include men as feminists is the tendency for men to take it upon themselves to define what feminism is.  For instance, one male-identified Nonhuman Animal rights theorist in particular repeatedly argues that only vegans can be feminists.  However, this person has not (and probably would not) insist that African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, gays, lesbians, trans persons, disabled persons, etc. have a flawed sense of social justice or that they “aren’t real activists” because they are not vegan.

I suspect that men pick on women because women are an at-risk group, and this group still endures horrific levels of discrimination and violence that most people still consider completely normal.  It’s easy to push women around.  We would find it ridiculous if these same men made a similar argument to the Black Power movement:  “African Americans cannot be Black nationalists if they are not vegan!”  It is, if not laughable, then insulting.

Brad Paisley Accidental RacistMen should not enjoy the privilege of defining what feminism is. There is something fundamentally wrong with men attempting to invoke their authority in this matter. Remember Brad Paisley’s “Accidental Racist” song?  Paisley wrote  about how he was rebuffed for wearing a confederate flag t-shirt by a man of color who was serving him at Starbucks.  Paisley didn’t take too kindly to this. In his eyes, it was his hurt feelings that should take center stage; he was the one being discriminated against. What gives him the authority as a white-identified man to define racism? Likewise, what gives men the authority to define feminism?

The Role of Allies

Many movements rely heavily on allies, like the anti-slavery movement of the 18th and 19th centuries and the Civil Rights movement of the 20th century. The difference between being an ally and being a full-fledged activist who gets to share in the identity of the movement is simple: knowing your place and being respectful.

Consider, for instance, the Freedom Buses of the Civil Rights movement.  African Americans and whites rode those buses through the South in the face of life-threatening danger. The white activists in this example were allies. They were very important allies to be sure, but they could not claim for themselves the same space in social justice that African Americans had carved out for themselves. What if the Freedom Bus organizers had asked white activists to stand aside, and white activists responded by berating the African American riders with insults? What if the whites demanded to be included, and accused the riders  of color of racism? It would be difficult to consider these people activists or allies, right?

Men as Feminists Freedom Bus

The Sexual Politics of Supporting Men

Sometimes men will draw on other women to support their entitlement the female space.  Men may commission women to write essays or blog posts in support of their patriarchal position. Or, they may claim, “My girlfriend/wife/female friend/female administrator/etc. agrees and she’s a woman.”   Women supporting these men will often call women “sexist” for asking men to keep their respectful distance.

These types of “reverse sexism” comments are sexist.  Yes, even if coming from a woman.  Any person that utilizes the framework of patriarchy to  oppress women is engaging sexism, regardless of gender.  Women are people, too, and they are also indoctrinated with the normalcy of sexism in our society.  Women are taught to think less of themselves, celebrate masculinity, obey men, doubt their own experiences and voices, and basically cater to men as a strategy of survival.  Women are expected to support men; that’s a primary duty of the female gender role.  So, it should not be surprising in the least when men exploit this socialized obligation and encourage women to speak out in the defense of male authority.

What are Some Solutions?

In this essay, I have argued that men’s role in the social movement space is most respectfully that of an ally. The reasons for this position are many, but mostly relate to men’s limited understanding of women’s experiences and their tendency to dominate and abuse power given that we live in a patriarchy. The importance of this position is evidence in men’s aggressive reactions that rely on sexism to shame, insult, coerce, threaten, intimidate, or gas-light women into complying with male authority and male entitlement.

Again, men certainly can participate in their own way. Being an ally takes careful consideration and careful treading, however. Men who want to see an egalitarian future can help the cause by listening, learning, and working on their own attitudes and behavior (and that of the other men). Really, it’s as simple as that. Overcoming oppressive gender privilege is not an easy task, so it will necessitate a conscious effort to appreciate and accommodate the experiences of oppressed persons. It’s also important to be actively involved in making spaces safe for women. Women need support, not co-optation.

 


* This article takes “men” to mean cis-men and “women” to mean cis and trans women.  This article also takes “men” to mean the cis-male perspective.  This could also include women who identify with and support that position. It should also be acknowledged that not all men are cis.