Thursday, November 20, 2008

Privilege: The U.S. Vegan Movement, Whiteness, and Race Relations (part 2)

In the first part in this series on privilege and veganism, I analyzed the poor reception of PeTA’s “Are Animals the New Slaves?” exhibit and the general use of human and non-human oppression analogies. [14] I concluded that outreach efforts like these

ought to cast the vegan movement into dire reflection. The reaction the exhibit received signifies a severe shortcoming in the general movements tactics and social consciousness—even for those who do not generally like PETA. Much of vegan discourse and tactics are engendered with implicit racism and classism… of the preferential kind that caters to a white middle-class audience… It is assumed that only white, English-speaking middle-class people really care about animals; only they are the enlightened heroes. [14]
I can imagine some people still thinking “Wait! Most animal/vegan activists I know are not racist, don’t like PeTA, and would never use these tactics. The racist, sexist, and discursive practices of some vegans don’t represent the whole vegan movement!” Perhaps this is true, but I am more inclined to disagree. If anything the inverse is true. The general vegan movement is obliviously “white;” it has neither condemned the racism of demonizing and/or fetishizing foreign nations and cultures nor has it put forth significant effort into respectful vegan outreach in communities of color.

In the following sections I will explore how the animal/vegan movement(s) systemically ostracize people of color (which is arguably a symptom of institutional racism)—most often without any consciousness of doing so.

Animal Rights or Animal Whites?
If anyone took the time to reflect upon race within the vegan movement(s), it would become pretty clear that the general movement is at best ambivalent and at worst indifferent to its own whiteness. Whatever the general position on race in the movement may be, it is almost certainly not merely a case of naïve innocence. The veg*n movement(s) is so “blindingly white” that some outsiders and insiders suggest it could just as easily be called the “animal whites movement.” [15, 16, 17] Heck, there was even an American Comparative Literature Association conference called in response to Tim Wise’s article “Animal Whites” in order to address the historical intersections of human and white exceptionalism in America. [18]

While the majority of the vegan movement(s) has been reluctant or indifferent to address the whiteness of the movement, vegans of color have been more outspoken. After all, they must deal with their own personal oppression in addition to animal oppression. They “don’t have the luxury of being single-issue.”[19] Breeze Harper, most notably, has been asking relevant questions in regards to the constructed whiteness of the vegan movement(s) for several years. For instance, Breeze wonders why a "[v]egetarian festival is 95% white though the city is very ethnically diverse" and that “all the top selling books that have been written about veganism, 'ethical consumption' and animal rights have been by whites (mostly male)"?[20] These are statistics that (I assume) the majority of vegans take for granted, that is, unconscious of. The majority of vegans either never dwell upon these figures or the figures trigger little of their concern.

Some advocates will immediately respond: people of color don’t participate in the movement(s) because they must confront their own oppression, something whites don’t have to worry about (especially if they are straight and middle-class). This is just one of Tim Wise’s arguments in his infamous article. He believes

the movement is perhaps the whitest of all progressive or radical movements on the planet, for reasons owing to the privilege one must possess in order to focus on animal rights as opposed to, say, surviving oneself from institutional oppression. [15]
Its not that they don’t care or that whites necessarily marginalize them, it’s just that they have more important people to worry about: themselves.

Wise’s belief parallels a similar claim made by James Turner in Reckoning of the Beast (1980). According to Turner, the animal protection movement emerged as a result of the suffering and deprivation of the working class in the disorderly coming-of-age industrial cities of which threatened the middle-class with guilt and anxiety about the nature of humanity (25). Middle-class (males) did not have to be concerned with oppression or making ends meet, but they did have to reckon with the ugly byproducts of their entrepenurial success. Lawrence and Susan Finsen paraphrase Turner in their book The Animal Rights Movement in America (1994):

[R]esponse to [working-class] suffering was difficult for middle- and upper-class people, as their own economic status was tied up with these changes. As a result, they needed ways that would express the growing sentiment of compassion that would not undermine their own position: animals provided just such a safe object of concern. (28)
Although the authors go on to disagree with Turner’s “Displacement Theory” in favor of an “Extensionist Theory” for the origins of the animal protection movement, it seems to me Turner’s position has some validity. The general animal protection movement(s) has generally been lead by a priviliged class of middle-class white (wo)men and most critical of working-class and non-Anglo Saxon Christians--though, Coral Lansbury [21] and JamesHribal [22] have argues that the working-class alsdo played a rolein the movement. The evangelical roots of SPCAs and its will to biopower is well documented [23], as are there attempts at passing laws that criminalized working-class citizens for “cruelty” but accepting “noble” sports like fox hunting.[24, 25] As history sometimes repeats itself, animal advocates in the 21st century ought to be cautious as to whether they, like their predecessors, displace their compassion onto animals because they lack compassion for human Others, or are at least reluctant to renounce their privilege over them.

Animal White Supremacists?
The accusation that vegans are not only essentially privileged, white middle-class zealots, of course, is not something of the past. Just several months ago a post on the blog Stuff White People Like was written that not only marked vegans as white, but also as self-righteous: “As with many white people activities, being vegan/vegetarian enables them to feel as though they are helping the environment AND it gives them a sweet way to feel superior to others.” [26] . This post might be funny if it did not infer a rather scary popular perception of vegans. The scary consequence is the result of the awful combination of two vegan stereotypes: whiteness and self-righteousness, or worse, misanthropy. The implication of this combination is that a vegan—like GW—“doesn’t care about black people” (or any other people of color).

The perception of vegans as self-righteous whites infers upon them a colonial or even a white supremacist identity—they think they are better than the unenlightened, colored carnivore. An example of this perception was expressed in the comments following a passionate post attacking the weak rhetoric of “white privilege.”[27] After several vegans accused the author of “speciesism” (because he had made an analogy between distribution of privilege and fried chicken), a person (presumably of color) charged the vegans (who were “undoubtedly white or white-identified”) as distracting people from discussing the original topic of white privilege:

Whitey gets on a forum challenging their white privilege and therefore they have to distract it with some other "superior" ideal… This is a discussion about white privilege, whitey! This ain't about animals whom you consider above people of color, and yes, I mean that like it sounds and I am saying it because it is true. It's not white people you think of as being beneath animals. You don't discuss white privilege on forums about racism and white privilege, you discuss speciesism you RACIST bastards… Get off of your high white privileged horse and get to really discussing your white privilege because your white privilege IS KILLING PEOPLE! (my emphasis) [28]
While I personally think this poster went over-the-top in his criticism of vegans, I do not believe that his criticism is invalid. Privilege has to do with the (often) invisible unearned power one caries (over others) simply by being a member of a ruling class. In this instance, white “vegans” entered a space and interrupted, thus obstructing, a conversation on white privilege. To the poster, this was an act of silencing people of color (and whites) from discussing the taboo subject of privilege. Not only were the vegans perceived as interfering with a constructive dialogue, they also dismissed the relevance of their privilege (over people of color) by coming in as an outsider to tell black people that they were just as much oppressors as whites.

Vegan Colonialism
Just as (presumably) white vegans had been ignorant or indifferent to the untactfulness of their posts, so to are vegans (even some vegans of color) untactful in some of their efforts to challenge animal uses in “foreign” cultures. For instance, most vegans are at least somewhat aware of the sensitivities surrounding the Canadian seal hunt every year—they know it is primarily done by indigenous peoples who have historically used furs for survival and culture as well as have been oppressed by colonialists. [29] Still, one often hears words being thrown around like “barbaric,” “savage,” “inhumane,” etc. All of these words are adjectives that describe people as sub-human.

“Barbarian” has its roots in ancient Greece, originally as away of categorizing foreigners who did not speak the local language, and later it was to become associated with evil and stupidity. [30] “Savage” was deemed to justify colonial projects, the white man’s burden, to tame and improve the savage man. And of course “inhumane” infers one has lost his/her human qualities, has abandoned the “good” human community, to join the “bad” animalistic/demonic community—a speceisist word that is quite ironically used by people opposing human exceptionalism. The rhetoric of inhuman adjectives, thus serves the colonial project of projecting the colonizers’ worst traits onto the colonized, so as to dominate and control them. Whether or not vegans have good intentions, this is how their actions and words are perceived by people all over the world.

Instead of sending an anti-oppression message, which used to be inherent in the definition of veganism before itsappropriation [31], many vegans come across as the enlightened colonialist exercising his/her privilege over Other cultures. Johanna at Vegans of Color describes how animal activists come across to many people of color allover the world through the methodologies employed in anti-whaling campaigns:

[W]e in the West feel it's our high-and-mighty duty to go & tell other countries, with which we have had an adversarial & racist relationship, what to do. Instead of listening to local activists & supporting them if & when they request it (& in the manner they request), US activists love to barge in, without thought to cultural ontext or self-determination & autonomy for folks in the countries they're horning in on… There's a difference between not entering "the international debate" & doing so in a way that is helpful, respectful of other cultures & people [32]
Just as vegans had barged into the comments of the post on white privilege, so to does the general animal protection movement(s) barge into other countries telling them how to run things. Instead of respectful, empathetic, and constructive dialogue with people in the communities they are attempting to change, activists instead get on their “high horse” and condemn foreign Others from a standpoint of Authority and privilege. Thus, the issue of institutional racism is not confined to a few white vegan bloggers or PETA members, but is widespread throughout the movement.

However, American vegan activism sometimes does not just border on nationalism/colonialism, it is often particularly bordering on all-out racism. For instance, Doris notes that

they always focus on Japan when they talk about whaling. Why do they so rarely mention that Iceland and Norway are also still whaling? Because it's so much easier to demonize people of color. [32]
Doris of course is over-generalizing, and a following commenter politely points this out, but her point is still clear: the majority of international campaigns are directed at people of color. Then again, perhaps there is less criticism of Caucasian nations because they have better animal protection laws than the U.S. If we attacked them, we’d more clearly be hypocrites. And again, much of the rhetoric is concentrated on blaming the workers who kill the animals rather than the institutions like the State and modern global capitalism which drives such activities. On an episode of Animal Voices, for instance, Lauren Corman points out some of the nuances in the moral culpability of people who are popularly faulted for the fur industry: women and people of color—groups whose minds’ have been colonized by white patriarchal capitalism. [33]

Some animal advocates may be quick to respond that nations such as Japan and China should criticize the U.S. when they commit egregious acts against people and animals. Yet, this response perfectly encompasses advocates’ obliviousness to white-American privilege. After one commenter makes exactly this point, Johanna responded that "the fact that you suggest that it would be exactly analogous to have someone outside the US critique the US implies to me that you know very little [about colonialism, racism, and imperialism]..." [32] White cultures not only have a history of trampling all over people of color, they also have the power and privilege of living in the North (aka the ‘First World,’ ‘Post-industrial/Developed Nations’) which dominates over the South with its markets and technologies. As is evident from the war in Iraq, the U.S. can get away with imperialist wars and state sanctioned “terrorism”; this is would not be true of countries in the South if they were ever to do the same to the U.S. Such a belief ignores history and power-relations.

But not only do white vegans target “foreign” people outside of American borders, they also target “foreign” people within its borders. For example, I was working on an animal sanctuary over this summer giving tours. Although many of the tourists were “vegans”, at least half of them were not even vegetarian. Those with more “welfarist” positions would usually shake their heads at animal stories where someone was explicitly “cruel” or “inhumane.” Although many of the dairy cows had undergone tremendous neglect, many tourists were most explicit in their outrage after I told them the story of a goat who was going to be ritually slaughtered. The fact that an animal was to be used for an “irrational” religious purpose by a “foreign” culture was much more horrifying than an animal who was to be used for the “rational” utilitarian purpose of food for Thanksgiving. This was a position held even by “abolitionist” vegans. The nationalism/orientalism of these critiques is most emphatical when surrounding Jewish and Muslim slaughter, and has historically ben usedto push anti-semitic/nationalist agendas. [34, 35, 36]

One Word: Empathy
The point of this critique on popular animal defense rhetoric, discourse, and tactics is not to suggest that we be either silent or moral relativists. Single-issue politics and an (uncritical) utilitarian mode of thought are what drive the wedge between vegans and their potential allies. Many vegans, in their efforts to hurry the process along often resort to bullying and coercing people with less institutional power and opportunities. Understanding that veganism is not only a goal, but a process of living with others (as is Health) means that we must remain patient and work it through with Others. Otherwise we seem to be suggesting that oppressive means are justified by an anti-oppression end, which is kind of like “fucking for virginity.”

We must not barge into other conversations anymore than we should barge into the biology departments of universities and yell, “YOU ANIMAL TORTURING ASS HOLE!” One, because it is ineffective because, two, it is disrespectful and obnoxious. In order to cultivate change in other communities, we must sit down and have an empathetic dialogue. Collectively, people will never be permanently persuaded by either attempts to shame, discipline, or reason-through the facts. Cross cultural communication involves empathy and understanding. This can only be achieved through respectful dialogue and race-consciousness.

In the next post, I will turn to how a lack of race-consciousness has made invisible those people of color who are already vegans. Far from the perception that veg*ns are white, the reality is that there are many veg*ns of color. Part of the reason this isn’t obvious is that white vegans don’t make an effort (or care) to talk and listen to them.

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