Friday, November 14, 2008

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

My aim in this series on privilege is to examine the (not so) invisible whiteness of the “vegan” movement. In the subsequential posts, I hope to educate fellow advocates who have not thought much, if at all, about white privilege and how it not only ostracizes vegans of color, but also alienates potential vegans and allies from joining the movement. The first post in this series will focus on one of the most controversial (and obvious) demonstration of race-relations gone wrong, then the following ones will delve more into the dynamics in everyday vegan advocacy.

“Are Animals the New Slaves?”

In the summer 2005, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals [PeTA] began a traveling exhibit entitled "
The Animal Liberation Project" [NOTE: This is an updated version of the ALP. Also see the UK versions] in which it was asked, “Are Animal the New Slaves?” The original exhibit, composed of images from the Cambodian genocide, exploitative child labor practices, and enslaved and lynched American slaves to photos of nonhuman animal bodies in like contexts, attempted to manifest the conceptual connections between the oppression of human groups and the oppression of animals in the minds of its audience. However, after only a month on the road, the exhibit was suspended after major outrage ensued in New Haven, Connecticut.

Not only did students begin shouting at PeTA’s staff that the exhibit was racist, but predominant Afro-American organizations joined in the outrage at the juxtapositions being made. For instance, Scott X. Esdaile, the president of the regional NAACP, arrived at the exhibition in order to demand its removal. He declared that “[o]nce again, black people are being pimped. You used us. You have used us enough." [

Vakiya Courtney, executive director of America’s Black Holocaust Museum was particularly outraged, as Dr. James Cameron, the founder of the museum, was one of the men in a noose being juxtaposed to slaughtered steers. "How can you possibly compare the brutality that our ancestors... that people like Dr. Cameron had to overcome," she asked, "to animal cruelty?" [

Dr. Cameron, the only living survivor of a lynching in America, acknowledged that he was "treated like an animal" at the beginning of the century, but that "there is no way we should be compared to animals today… You cannot compare the suffering… I experienced to the suffering of an animal." [

In response to one person’s outrage, Ingrid Newkirk, the president and cofounder of PeTA, wrote that she can and should make such comparisons despite the outrage of millions of Afro-Americans “because it is right to do so and wrong to reject the concept. Please open your heart and your mind and do not take such offense” [
2]. While PeTA’s exhibit may have been created with good intentions, Newkirk’s remarks, on the contrary, were strikingly insensitive toward the Afro-American community whose ancestors were enslaved not 150 years ago and who still to this day struggle with dehumanization and subordination in America. Later, Newkirk went on to "unequivocally apologize for the hurt" after realizing that "old wounds can be slow to heal and for not helping them to heal, I am sorry." [1*] The NAACP spokesperson, John White, in response to Newkirk's decision to continue the project said simply, "I'm not surprised." [1*]

What went Wrong?
After the hurt caused by the exhibit, one must wonder if PeTA ever considered the feelings of those who’s ancestors may have been in the photos. Were Afro-Americans surveyed andallowed input into the exhibit? Who was PeTA's target audience: people of color, everyone, or mostly middle-class white people? What does this say not only about PeTA, but about the larger animal defense movement? Are animal rights activists generally oblivious to institutional racism, ignorant of white privilege?

The debate surrounding the acceptability of juxtaposing animal exploitation and suffering to human exploitation and suffering often has been between whites who are for it and whites who are not. Further, the argument generally stagnates on whether the juxtaposition is sound or fallacious—is it politically astute or politically incorrect. Few have attempted to examine where PeTA’s (and others’) good intentions to facilitate empathy went wrong beyond marking others as “speciesists” or “racists”. There is, however, common agreement among those whose voices are too often invisible that this juxtaposition went wrong is its appropriation of others.

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

These sensational shock tactics turn away any group whose images and marginality is appropriated by people who are mindfully single-issue. Lee Hall thoroughly lambastes appropriative tactics in one of her articles for Dissident Voice. Hall ponders why PeTA’s exhibits fail to cultivate sympathy for animals:

Could part of the reason be the group’s outright refusal to take positions against violence to humans?... its incessant pimping of people -- putting the T&A into PeTA, as they’ve called it… solely to attract and transfix passers-by, these images served as props. [4]
Hall agrees with PeTA that “interrogating the framework of domination itself is the important task,” but disagrees with its sensational method of “traveling exhibitions.”

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

Yet, PeTA--an organization often criticized both by pro- and anti-animal rights advocates--interestingly enough, has been one of the few organizations to make any efforts to gain inroads into communities of color. In a
Satya article entitled “Racism in the Animal Rights Movement,” the authors note that PETA

is the only major group doing active outreach into communities of color. A PETA employee concurs… [and] PETA assigns several staff members to this work and has two separate websites, one in Spanish and another, [which has apparently been taken down!], geared toward African Americans" [6]
One vegan of color notes "the only times I had even seen vegans of color mentioned outside of blogs, was PETA'S celebrity list" [7]. PeTA also has a number of people of color in its higher operational ranks, including its original ALP, Sangeeta Kumar. PeTA has also worked with celebrities of color such as Benjamin Zephania in many of its campaigns. So despite any of the organization's shortcomings, PeTA at the very least has been one of the few major animal defense organizations to even address the taboo topic of race and make some inroads into non-white communities. Or course, this is not to say PeTA has done enough or done well. But then again, neither have many other AR organizations.

Even if PeTA had consistently been challenging the intersectionality of oppression for years, its exhibition may still have been inappropriate because of its context. Such sensitive and important issues must be addressed through inviting people into dialog, not inciting people into an argument (which is what apparently happened in New Haven, CT). This is especially true when people with privilege enter a space belonging to people with less privilege.

Racism, Speciesism, and Cross-racial Misunderstanding
Admittedly, I was originally excited to see PeTA drawing the human-animal analogies in an attempt to create solidarity between the “black liberation” and the “animal liberation” movements. Although I would never have responded with such insensitivity as others did, I was confused as to why more Afro-Americans could not empathize with “animals”, who like their ancestors, were oppressed. I sincerely thought the exhibit would build empathy toward animals and awareness of the intersectionality of civil rights and animal rights; but then again, I was (color)blind to institutional racism and the existential experiences of those of the African diasporas in my country.

My understanding of the outrage of many of my black peers came from hearing Breeze Harper (aka
Sistah Vegan) discuss her research into this issue on my favorite podcast, Animal Voices. Upon learning about the outrage, Breeze Harper, who’s many interests include critical race theory and veganism, investigated how fellow Afro-Americans responded online. Nearly all the comments she read on message boards were negative, very few sympathized with PeTA’s intended message. Although much of the comments revolved around the on-comparison between human beings and non-human animals, Breeze interpreted the outrage as a result of understanding that “PETA's tactics [were] entrenched in white racism and cultural appropriation of ethnic suffering to promote PETA's animal rights agenda.” She related their distress to what Dr. Joy Leary calls “post traumatic slave syndrome” [8].

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

“[A]s a black female from Jim Crow era, she felt offended by the advertisement. During our dialogue, she recounted the traumatic experiences of being called "animal”, "dirty", and/or "nigger" by her teachers during her kindergarten through high school educational experience". [8]
Further, from her standpoint as a dehumanized black female from the Jim Crow era, her concept of “animal” is inexorably associated with her concepts of “dirt” and “nigger.”

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

This difference in the meaning of "animal" between whites and blacks and the failure to understand that Afro-Americans still are oppressed by being compared to animals was strikingly clear when PeTA spokeswoman Dawn Carr told the press as they rebooted the ALP:

What we kept seeing is that the complaints always boiled down to not wanting to be compared to animals - which is the very bias we're trying to challenge [1*]
Carr, however much she attempts to empathize, ultimately does/cannot empathize with the trauma of the community being marked as "animals". The neutrality of the word and idea of “animal” for white middle-class animal advocates means something quite different to people of color who are always at risk of not being fully human in our racist society. Thus, when white vegans say that because they are not offended at being compared to animals neither should people of color, they equivocate between two grossly different contexts. One veg*n of color explicitly addresses this point on her blog:

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

Unfortunately, many vegans and ARAs don't (appear) to understand that prejudice and oppression still linger today. One vegan advocate, Noah, notes how the discourse surrounding these analogies is often "the narrative of 'progress'--now it's the animals' turn (since we solved all those other problems)." [2*] Likewise, Royce Drake expresses his amazement at the outrageousness of a recent PeTA protest of the American Kennel Club in which white activists dressed up as the Klu Klux Klan:

PETA and it’s defenders seem to have ahistorical knowledge of oppression, and seem to think we actual live in a post-race, post-sexism [world]... I wonder if participants in that demonstration understand that the KKK still exists. That the KKK is still terrifying as fuck for a lot of us.[3*]
As these three bloggers note, the liberation of blacks and women hasn't been achieved yet; their struggles are not over, and are in fact maintained by white privilege, which makes their institutional subordination invisible. That Afro-Americans understand that there is nothing wrong with being an "animal", will not ultimately end their ongoing oppression and trauma in America as subhumans unless PeTA (and other groups) move beyond single-issue politics. It's not that "We are all animals," but that "None of us are subhuman." Until AR groups incorporate this anti-oppression stance into their philosophy and/or mission statement, these organizations and philosophies only superficially address "liberation" and "oppression" since it is institutional privilege--be it white or human--that is at the root of subordination, not simply bigotry.

Breeze speculates that, perhaps because of the trauma whites have experiences witnessing non-human animal suffering, they too “are unable to ‘see’ past non-human suffering.” Surely, a part of the reason some white animal advocates subordinate other oppressions to animal oppression is because they perceive it being the most traumatic: it happens at an unprecedented rate on an unprecedented scale, with an unprecedented detachment and comfort.

On the other hand, I think that this inability to see past non-human suffering is sometimes related to self-esteem. Adding too many extra players into one’s heroic narrative reduces the self-satisfaction one can derive from defending others. If there is not just one lifeboat tipped over in a single ocean, but hundreds tipped over all over the world as a result of that persons heroic acts, the efficacy of one’s heroics is put into question. One is not simply the hero, one is also an “oppressor,” a benefactor of an institution that throws people off of life rafts so that others may have more space.

While we all need self-esteem and we all try to make the world a much simpler place, white middle-class animal advocates need to acknowledge their privilege and become more conscientious about how they approach people who, because of historical and geographic contingencies, are not quite as fortunate.

Are human-animal juxtapositions reductionistic?
Interestingly, one can interpret the dismissal of being an oppressor both ways. Not only are some white animal advocates oblivious, or even in denial, of their privilege over people of color, but one may argue that so too are some people of color in denial that they, like whites, are privileged over another class still—non-human animals. Gary writes: “I think that some of the negative reaction toward PETA is a result of PETA pointing out uncomfortable truths… People - especially if they have been the victims of oppression - don't like being reminded that they themselves are oppressors” [
11]. I think this statement has some merit because few people are comfortable acknowledging that they too are capable of the same evil they condemn.

There is at last some anecdotal evidence supporting Gary’s claim. For instance, a vegan of color at The Free Slave blog admits that s/he once dreaded the human-animal comparison:

Whenever animal rights activists compared the treatment of blacks to the abuse suffered by animals, I balked... It feels reductive to compare people to animals because… we are more than that. We can think. We can speak. We have feelings.... This is not territory that I envisioned trodding [12]
Eventually, thefreeslave came to appreciate the intersectionality of oppression and changed his/her ways. This goes to show that however unpleasant the experience of being compared to an animal is for some Afro-Americans, the revulsion is by no means impossible to overcome.

At the same time, I think this phenomenon has more to do with making up for lost time once one is tolerated or accepted into the privileged class. In other words, the once-oppressed comes to identify with oppressor rather than those who are still oppressed. This is exactly why privilege itself (and its shadow—the logic of domination) needs to be challenged if we are ever to achieve Health.

Some veg*ns of color, though, are not opposed to being compared to animals because animals are “inferior,” but because non-human animals supposedly lack agency. On one message board, Futurebird writes:

[T]here is a fundamental difference in *agency* in the civil rights movements vs. the animal rights movements. We humans advocate for the rights of animals on their behalf because they can't do it themselves. But, when an oppressed group of people seeks rights they speak for themselves. The comparison is insulting because it denies human agency. [13]
Dehumanization is wrong not because humans ought to exploit all of “nature,” but because it reduces one to an individual without agency who is “at the mercy of humans—which…sucks.”

But do non-human animals really lack agency? Citing James Hribal, author of the article “
Animals are Part of the Working Class,” Noah notes that “If animals didn't resist, we wouldn't need to use so many physical ways to restrain them” [13] with fences, leashes, etc. Indeed, cows such as Queenie and Maxine and pigs like Winnie all escaped from their slaughter. On the other hand, there is a difference between individual agency and class or species agency. Non-human animals have yet to be seen organizing a resistance and escape from captivity outside of animated films like Chicken Run. So there does seem to be some legitimacy to Futurebird’s argument as well. Nonetheless, the juxtaposition between human and animal exploitation is not intended to equivocate the particular differences, but elucidate the structural similarities that "justify" such treatment.

Towards an Inclusive Vegan Movement
The original “Animal Liberation Project” ought to cast the vegan movement into dire reflection. The reaction the exhibit received signifies a severe shortcoming in the general movements outreach tactics and social consciousness—even for those who do not generally agree with PeTA's tactics.

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

Please note, that my intentions in this post (and the following) posts are not to scapegoat or margenalize any specific animal activists or organizations such as PeTA--if anything, I'm proud to see that they are at least attempting to play-off intersectional oppression. My real aim here has been to display and pinpoint the failures in cross-cultural communication and suggest alternative methods of approaching those with less privilege. I hope these posts will foster more dialogue and understanding than debate and backlash.

UPDATED: Nov. 24, 2008 (clarified some information about PeTA's ALP and analyzed a couple more comments [*])

1 comment:

The Vegan Ideal said...
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