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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“The AK47 I Have Sitting Conveniently Beside My Coffee Machine”: Benevolent Sexism and Veganism

Content Warning: Contains sexist and ableist language in addition to threats of violence.

Photo of owner from White Moose Cafe Facebook page. Caption reads, "If you do happen to see Paul in the café, it is strongly advised that you do not approach him with any complaints. This is in the interest of your own safety, as well as the safety of others around you."

Photo of owner from White Moose Cafe Facebook page, Paul Stenson. Caption reads, “If you do happen to see Paul in the café, it is strongly advised that you do not approach him with any complaints. This is in the interest of your own safety, as well as the safety of others around you.”

What happens when a seemingly “vegan-friendly” restaurant gets a reaction it doesn’t want?

Apparently vegans can’t take a joke. Or at least that’s what the owner of Dublin-based restaurant Paul Stenson envisions as he grapples with a torrent of customer backlash.

The cafe reportedly published some snarky comments about vegans, only to experience a retaliation in bad reviews. From there, things escalated quickly.

An anti-cafe page emerged, then and anti-anti page emerged. Online networks were activated, and vegans came in droves to drive down the review rating of the restaurant. Stenson then began monitoring reviews and posting increasingly hostile public announcements on the Facebook page.

The show that has ensued makes for an amazing example of what can happen when male privilege is challenged by feminine forces.

First, presumably male customers are invited to bond (and become aroused) over the domination of feminized bodies:

Facebook post from WMC: "A warm welcome to everyone joining us from the Chef Memes page. You are guaranteed a good time here on our page. There are lots of psychotic vegans to make fun of, and lots of mouth-watering meat dish pics to become aroused by. I wish you a very pleasant stay at The White Moose Café."

Another response (likely due to his suspicion that many of the fake reviewers were American) was to fabricate “joking” threats to assault vegans with a high powered rifle. For Americans, mass shootings are a reality, and the owner intentionally draws on this trauma to demean and intimidate.

Facebook post by WMC in response to a visitor who was sharing advice on how to report the owner's threats to the police "For any vegans worried about the mass shooting I am going to commit with the AK47 I have sitting conveniently beside my coffee machine, please see this advice from Ciara Norton. When you call the station and the Garda laughs at you, please remember that it's not because you are a vegan, it's because you are a fucking sap with the intelligence of a hot dog."

WMC Facebook post: **SPECIAL OFFER ON FULL IRISH BREAKFAST - ONE DAY ONLY** Seeing as we have had so many vegans trying to 'turn' us over the past day or two, it's now our turn to try to 'turn' them! For one day only, our delicious, meat-rich, Full Irish breakfast is ONLY €5 (usually €11.95). We guarantee that any vegans who try this will never look back! P.S. Don't forget your bullet-proof vests!

Not surprisingly, ableism is at the root of most interactions, as is misogyny:

WMC Facebook post: "**FOR THE ATTENTION OF THE VEGANS PROTESTING OUTSIDE THE CAFE** Please be advised that our café operates during day time hours only. Our opening hours are clearly visible on both our Facebook page and our website. You might want to familiarise yourself with these before you turn up at the café door looking like complete and utter twats."

Apparently White Moose Cafe also has some serious issues with ethnocentrism and racism, having caught fire in the past for unapologetically  hiring “Irish Only.” The restaurant is also openly hostile to poor and/or homeless persons, discouraging unworthy clientele from visiting its establishment. Owner Stenson writes:

Look we’re not a charity, if you want charity then go to a homeless shelter or sleep with a dog at the DSPCA [Dublin’s SPCA], you have to be firm with this otherwise people will walk all over you.

It is not uncommon for men and patriarchal spaces to react in this way. This is because male power is protected and replicated by 1. Dominating feminized bodies; 2. Denigrating all that is feminine; and 3. Using force and violence.

But, wait, what happened? Wasn’t this restaurant supposed to be vegan-friendly?

Feminists are often critical of benevolent sexism, that seemingly positive “special treatment” given to women that is generally rooted in discrimination and wields the potential for violence. “Cat-calling,” for instance, is supposedly just well-meaning guys “complimenting” women they don’t know on the street. In reality, it’s a show of male power over the public space and a not-so-subtle reminder to women that their existence in that space is conditional and vulnerable. If the men cat-calling do not get the response they want, women know all too well that things can become extremely threatening very quickly as men seek to establish dominance and exert male entitlement.

I see a similar pattern in the vegan/nonvegan interactions. In the case of White Moose Cafe, apparently some vegan options are offered on the menu, but if vegans step out of their place in the hierarchy (pushing back against anti-vegan “jokes”), patriarchal dominance will be enacted. White Moose Cafe does this by 1. Dominating feminized bodies (reminding the audience that the real heart of the business is hurting Nonhuman Animals; offering specials for Nonhuman Animal corpses); 2. Denigrating all that is feminine (using speciesist, misogynist, and ableist insults); and 3: Using force and violence (posting aggressive announcements and threatening a mass shooting).

Beware of benevolent sexism. When the male entitlement to feminized bodies is challenged, violence is often the next recourse to maintain dominance and power.

 

Note: While Irish gun control is quite strong and the possibility of Stenson committing a mass shooting is rather small, it is also important to consider the considerable white privilege he is able to engage by repeatedly making public threats without fear of police intervention.


Corey Lee WrennMs. Wrenn is the founder of Vegan Feminist Network and also operates The Academic Abolitionist Vegan. She is a Lecturer of Sociology with Monmouth University, a part-time Instructor of Sociology and Ph.D. candidate with Colorado State University, 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 the 2016 Exemplary Diversity Scholar 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 (2015, Palgrave Macmillan).