In the June 2018 issue of Women’s Health UK, I was interviewed on the prevailing stereotype of angry vegans that has dominated British media in recent months. In the article, I clarify that, although most animal rights activists and vegans are women, patriarchal norms endemic to society and social movements push men (especially hegemonic ones) to the spotlight. It’s not an especially fair portrayal and neither is it representative:
Whereas women, who are well aware that their emotionality will be framed as “hysterical,” tend to focus more on mediation, education and community-building. It’s tragic that long-standing peaceful leaders in the vegan movement are suddenly being held accountable for the actions of an extreme few.
Dr. Wrenn is the founder of Vegan Feminist Network. She is a Lecturer of Sociology and served as Director of Gender Studies with a New Jersey liberal arts college 2016-2018. She also served as council member with the Animals & Society Section of the American Sociological Association and was elected chair in 2018. 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.
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.
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.
Mainstream theories of social inequality frequently compartmentalize experiences, but inequality rarely works that way in real life. Instead, individuals are comprised of many different identities at once, and these identities will interact with one another in unique ways.
Furthermore, multiple systems and institutions are simultaneously at work in a given society. So, for instance, simply focusing on race as an identity and white supremacy as an institution ignores the fact that race will be experienced differently by people with different genders, ages, sexualities, abilities, and nationalities.
This schema is known as intersectionality, and it is a concept that emerges out of Black feminist thought.
In animal studies, vegan feminists employ this framework to argue that one’s life chances will be shaped, not just by one’s race, class, or gender, but also by their species. Vegan feminists also recognize the influence of an additional system….human supremacy.
For animals, we want to be thinking about how historical constructions of race, class, gender, and other identities shape how animals are thought about and how they are treated. Female-bodied animals, for example, are more likely to be exploited in the food industry given their ability to produce breastmilk, eggs, and babies. In another example, some animals that are associated with communities of color, like pit bulls, are more susceptible to punitive and often lethal breed restriction policies.
Meanwhile, for human justice theorists, it will be important to recognize how human oppression is always shaped by processes of species inequality. For instance, women and people of color have historically been animalized, and this animalization is inseparable from the oppression they face today.
Given that species, class, race, gender, and other identity categories are all historically constructed using similar mechanisms (such as animalization, objectification, sexualization, depersonalization, denaming, and so on), it is important to apply an intersectional perspective to achieve a more accurate understanding of oppression for nonhuman animals and humans alike.
Dr. 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.
By Lilia Trenkova, Co-Founder of Collectively Free
Intersectionality theory was created by Kimberlé Crenshaw and other black feminists in the 1960s and 70s as a form of resistance to the predominantly white (read: racist) feminist movement and the predominantly male (read: sexist) civil rights movement at the time. It introduced the idea that 1. People who experience multiple – layered – forms of oppression (e.g. racism and sexism) face more struggle than people who experience less forms (say who only experience sexism) because 2. These oppressions feed into and support one another with the help of both institutions and social prejudices. So the term “pro-intersectional” means applying and developing this analysis further in order to affirm and empower people who exist in non-dominant (unprivileged) layers of society.
1. Because it’s important to know the truth
Pause and think about a moment when you realized that your whole life you had been lied to about something you believed in deeply. Remember the feeling of confusion, indignation, sadness or anger.
For example, regardless of which country you grew up in, you were likely taught in school that Columbus “discovered” America. You learned it, you repeated it in your quizzes and essays, and unless you were told otherwise by say your parents, you accepted it. Until one day you realized how deeply wrong it was. Columbus didn’t “discover” the continent; he launched its colonization, paving the way for Western Europeans to commit centuries of atrocities against the humans and nonhumans who already inhabited the lands and waters. How messed up is it that you were fed a totally different story?
Or for example, perhaps you realized one day that there were things in your life you had taken for granted but that someone else in your life had never had access to those things. Maybe you were walking on the street one day and suddenly became aware of all the potholes, tall curbs and steps leading into buildings that make it difficult, if not impossible, to navigate for a person using a wheelchair. Or you woke up one morning and figured out that each bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwich requires the bodily harm of three different species of animals… and that they would have much preferred to continue living unharmed.
If you’ve experienced such a bubble-bursting, life-changing realization, you know the mix of feelings that evokes. You can feel scared and confused (“How could I have been lied to about all of this?”) while at the same time feeling exhilarated and inspired (“F*** this, I’m going to do something about it!”) Which brings us to reason #2:
2. Because it’s important to do something about it
If you learn the truth about something and you don’t let anyone know about it, did you really learn it? And more importantly, did anything change?
Whenever you first learn the truth about a social injustice, it’s natural to feel compelled to do something about it, especially if it has to do with your values. Obviously you’re more likely to do something if it affects you directly; it feels like it’s your duty! But what if the realization you’ve just had has to do with the lives of others and not so directly yours? Well, it’s still important that you do something about it – precisely because you’ll be in a position where you could potentially have leverage.
What you do can come in many forms. It can mean speaking with people: on a small scale with your family and friends or addressing larger groups of people that you have access to (say if you’re a teacher or in a leadership position). It can mean launching an organization or joining one that already exists. It can mean confronting the problem physically via direct action, or non-physically through writing, art, political campaigns or any other means that combines raising awareness with creating a solution.
Regardless of what type of action you choose, it’s important to continue to learn (and unlearn, as the case may be). Just because a realization made you spark into action doesn’t mean you fully grasp the issue yet or how it relates to other issues and the bigger picture. As you learn, you begin to realize for instance that you can no longer speak about economic justice without also talking about race, gender, age, ability or nationality. You begin to realize that what’s happening in, say, Flint, MI, is not isolated from what’s happening at Standing Rock or at Smithfield Foods. And eventually you find out where exactly you fit into this whole big mess…and that’s when it all becomes a full circle and it all makes sense.
This video shows animal liberationists who struggle against many different “-isms” in their daily lives. Yet their fight to exist (queers, single mothers, Latinx, indigenous, disabled, Muslims, trans, working class, students, anarchists, black, immigrants, Asians….) is not separate from, nor does it compete with, their fight as activists for nonhumans; it’s not a matter of either/or but rather it’s both/and. For them, viewing social issues in isolation doesn’t work because they can’t stop being queer or disabled, etc. when they speak out for nonhuman animals or for immigration rights, etc.
Could the notion that we must always choose one thing to focus on also be a story you’ve been fed unquestionably?
Learning about and questioning social issues and how they affect one another is an indispensable part of being an activist. The good news? Your learning gears and your action gears are perfectly capable in working together. In fact, each makes the other stronger! Even better is when you do this learning with others around you, which brings us to point #3:
3. Because it’s important to do that something with others
Why is it important to work with others? Because doing activism and learning about social issues can be an emotional (and physical!) rollercoaster, so it helps to share the experience with others who understand what you’re going through. It also helps to know that you won’t be alone and that others in your group will have your back if something happens. Stronger communities mean you gain stronger control over your own life.
Why is it important to work with and listen to others who have different backgrounds from yours? Because social issues too don’t all have the same background – so why should we use cookie-cutter solutions? In other words, not everyone in your community will experience the same struggle in the same way. For example, a queer immigrant from Latin America will experience homophobia in a different way than a queer U.S.-born citizen. A cow at a dairy farm will experience speciesism in a different way than a fox trapped for their fur. So when a community values the distinct perspective within itself is when we can start coming up with solutions that will benefit everyone affected.
Community is both the means and the ends in the fight for social justice – it both leads to action and results from action. Community isn’t just a group of people sharing the same space; it requires action from all members for all members. In a community we all teach and motivate one another, as well as hold one another accountable when we mess up so that we can become not only better activists but better people.
Lilia Trenkova was born and raised in Bulgaria during the final years of communism before embarking on the long journey (recently completed) that is U.S. immigration. She holds an MFA in Scenic Design, a BA in Theater and Studio Art, and is a certified permaculture designer. In addition to activism, Lili works as an environmental designer, scenic artist and fabricator. She’s a co-founder of Collectively Free where she gets to combine her organizing and creative skills to fight for justice.
Donald Trump’s campaign built on hate and fear-mongering is a tactic all to familiar to vegan mobilization. This essay identifies the dangers to social justice and social movement stability that Trump veganism presents.
Reading by Dr. Corey Lee Wrenn; music by Lucas Hayes.
This is an installment of Vegan Feminist Network’s podcast series, making popular essays more accessible through audio recording. You can access the original essay by clicking here.
In this podcast, Corey examines the personal and community grief associated with the 2016 American election. This episode also identifies a number of important parallels between Trumpism and veganism. Aggravating human inequalities in a hasty and desperate push for change is an ethical concern.