Thursday, December 25, 2008

Privilege: The U.S. Vegan Movement, Whiteness, and Race Relations (part 3)

In the
last post, I described some of the reasons how and why the animal and veg*n movement(s) are alienating to people of color. In summary, U.S. vegans present themselves as middle-class, single-issue activists who think they have the one truth which all others should accept, yet, dismiss other humans’ struggle against their own oppression as marginal. Not only do they avoid race by promoting “color-blind” politics (which only makes race issues invisible), some may be explicitly racist and colonialist by targeting an entire country and/or culture for “cruel” practices with little effort or care to assist those within those cultures who are working on similar campaigns. I recommended that middle-class white American vegans need to engage in empathetic dialogue with people of color, the working class, and “foreign” countries/cultures as the first step for establishing better inter-racial relations, respect, and furthering veganism.

In part three and four of this series, I will discuss how, beyond alienating and offending people of color who are not (yet) vegans, “a lack of race-consciousness has [also] made invisible those people of color who are already vegans.” VOC, despite being indispensable fellow members in the AR and veg*n movement(s), are nonetheless persistently marginalized and deeply hurt by how they are identified by fellow vegans as exotic Others whose own everyday oppression must come second for the sake of liberating animals. If there were only one reason—and don’t get me wrong, there are a sh*t ton—many white vegans ought to become more conscious of their race privilege, it is to end the hurt and alienation their ignorance causes their partners and allies to experience.

A Colorful Movement: Debunking the White Lie of White Exceptionalism
While I may have thus far depicted the veg*n movement(s) as predominately composed of white individuals as many critics of the movements like to use as a point of attack, the veg*n movement(s) are a lot more racially diverse than represented in the realm of popular discourse.

If one does one’s research, one will discover that is an international vegetarian movement as is evident within the International Vegetarian Union’s [IVU] website. Vegetarian organizations, although not as large and common as in English-speaking countries, have been established in African countries such as Nigeria (1977), Botswana and Zambia (1990s)—which together held a West African Vegetarian Conference just last year. In Latin America, vegetarian societies have existed since 1891 (in Chile). Since then, Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay also have developed their own societies.

In terms of animal protection, Latin America has several organizations such as ProAnima (Brazil), Animal Naturalis (Ecuador) and Gente por la Defensa Animal [GEPDA](Mexico). In East Asia, there is the International Aid for Korean Animals (Korea) and Animals Asia. In the Middle East, there is Beirut for the Ethical Treatment of Animals [Beta] (Lebanon) and Evis Hayvanlari ve Dogayi Koruma Dernegi [EHDKD] (Turkey). Finally, there are international animal protection efforts by NGOs like World Society for the Protection of Animals [WSPA] and the International Fund for Animal Welfare [IFAW]. Of course, there are many more organizations that are not listed above. (For more, check out the excellent coverage of international issues on Animal Voices radio, in Animal People news, and Abolitionist-Online).

I think it is also valuable to mention the dialogue that has gone on between Indian and Anglo-American philosophy in the development of “animal rights” and social justice theory. Take for instance the most cited “animal rights” ethicist's, Tom Regan, decision to go vegetarian after reading about Mahatma Gandhi’s decision to go vegetarian in his autobiography (1940). Gandhi’s decision came in the wake of reading the first book to formally call for modern “animal rights,” Animals’ Rights: Considered in Relation to Social Progress (1892), by Henry Salt. Salt, like Gandhi, was born in India, a devout social justice activist, and was himself inspired by David Henry Thoreau, author of Walden (1854) and "Civil Disobedience" (1849). Many of Thoreau's ideas, of course, were deeply influenced by his readings of Vedic texts and Hindu philosophy.

There is also Indian-American H. Jay Dinshah who founded the American Vegan Society (AVS) and co-organized the 23rd World Vegetarian Conference in the United States whose philosophy was also rooted in Hinduism. Then there is The Beatles’, particularly Paul McCartney’s, influential role in the vegetarian movement in relation to Hinduism. During a retreat to India for several weeks to study transcendental meditation under Maharishi Mahesh, Lennon and McCartney were introduced to vegetarian living. Four decades later, McCartney is now one of the most popular and influential vegans in the world.

Not only are there non-white vegetarian and animal advocates all over the world—not just confined to the English-speaking countries as is presumed by many—, but there are also already many in the U.S. who just aren’t very visible. Contrary to popular perception, people of color have played a significant role in American vegetarian advocacy. Yet, their voices have been marginalized from the popular historical narrative. For instance, an article on the history of veg*nism in the July/August 2008 issue of the ever-popular VegNews did not explicitly mention one person of color who contributed to the movement. Fortunately, VegNews published a letter to the editor criticizing this blunder, noting influential (and best selling) books such as Dick Gregory’s Natural Diet for Folks Who Eat (1973), the 14 Soul Vegetarian restaurants around the world, the Black Vegetarian Society of Georgia, Texas, and raw foodists like Karyn Calabrese.[40]

According to the 2006 Vegetarian Resource Group poll, in the United States there is actually a higher percentage of vegetarians who identify as non-white than those that identify as white.[41] (However, NOTE that this includes a margin of error of +/-3%, meaning that this may not be the case; also, I find it odd that there are more vegetarians in the south than the east and west. Also see Catherine Plato’s article in the March/April 2008 issue of VegNews).

Some of the greatest social justice advocates of the 20th Century were (and still are) veg*ns of color--though, they are not given as much of a shout out as white celebrities like Pamela Anderson and Moby. For instance, Dexter Scott King, president of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change, has been vegan since reading Gregory's Natural Diet.[42] His living example later persuaded his mother, Coretta Scott King--who was a human rights and GBLT activist as well--to adopt veganism as a natural extension of MLK's philosophy of non-violence (a philosophy that goes back to Thoreau and Gandhi).[43] A better known vegan and social justice advocate of color is the Pulitzer Prize winner Alice Walker. No list of social justice vegetarian advocates would be complete without mentioning Cesar Chavez, founder of the United Farm Workers, who followed in the non-violence tradition of King and Gandhi.[44].

In my not-so-humble-opinion, these figures [Gandhi, King, Chavez, Walker, and Gregory] of non-violence, racial, gender, sexual, and class justice are the most emblematic of veganism, more so than the most committed single-issue, self-identified vegans who know the Animal Ingredients A to Z as if it were "the bible for vegetarians, vegans, and caring consumers." Further, I believe emblemizing the images of these great figures of social justice will reframe veganism as a social justice movement (not solely as an "animal movement") in addition to challenging the accusation that veganism is only "stuff [that] white people like." [26]

Making us Invisible: The Epistemology of Ignorance
That the veg*n and animal movement(s) have been "whitewashed" is no accident. Because racism is no longer as explicit as it once was, many people assume that there must be no implicit and/or subconscious racism. This presumption, however, has been consistently proven false in implicit association tests.[45] Though we may think of ourselves as free of racial prejudice (and/or an inferiority complex), affectively, we might be staunch racists.(If you are curious of whether you are subconsciously associate whites with virtue and blacks with vice, you can take the 10-minute test here.)

Of course, some people are not subconsciously racist and may thus sincerely state that “the color of his skin shouldn’t matter,” “I don’t see race." Yet, racism is systemic, which means that racism is not merely the irrational prejudice of individuals, but rather that

major institutions have been thoroughly pervaded by racial stereotypes, ideas, images, emotions, and practices...racial oppression is not just a surface-level feature of this society, but rather pervades, permeates, and interconnects all major social groups, networks, and institutions across the society.[46]
Since racism is more than prejudice, so-called "color-blindness" is really just playing into the epistemology of ignorance--an epistemic gap whereby “a lack of knowledge or an unlearning of something previously known often is actively produced for the purpose of domination and exploitation” or just for the comfort of ignoring white privilege which results from institutional racism.[47]

One comment I have received regarding the last post in the series I think sums up the attitude (and ignorance) of a number of AR/vegan people (as well as non-AR people) in regards to the low numbers of (visible) activists of color in the movements(s).

Black people have EVERY opportunity to go out and protest animal cruelty just like white people do. No one is stopping them. Yet when you look it is always white people on the line. Where are the black people?...If black people want to help animals then help animals [48]
I really hope this individual was too brash and impatient to have read through the entire post to respond as such. Clearly, this individual presumes that "black people" 1) do not generally participate in the movement, 2) are not (and will not be) receptive to AR philosophy because 3) of something intrinsic to them, not "our" approach, and 4) that perhaps that "they" should be assimilated into the single-issue politics of white advocates or participate as a separate group. I've already addressed (1), so I will quickly address (2) and discuss (3) and (4) more thoroughly in the next section (part 4).

Unfortunately, as a result of epistemologies of ignorance, there are many people like mep who think that people of color just don't care as much about animals because they have their own oppression to worry about or that they come from less animal-sensitive cultures. These presumptions, however, are not only incorrect, they are self-defeating. Patrick Kwan, founder of the Student Animal Rights Alliance [SARA], says people of color are often more receptive to animal rights messages in public spaces than white males and others with privilege:

surveys have shown that African Americans are actually more likely to consider vegetarianism than whites after being informed about the plight of farmed animals. Surveys of Latinos and Asians also show positive attitudes toward animal protection... Olivia, who grew up in the projects and lives in Spanish Harlem, reports that people eagerly take her flyers. Another African American activist found people snapped up samples of vegan cooking. A young white woman active in the PETA KFC campaign noticed that “older white men never take our flyers. The people who show the most interest in talking to us are African American men and women and Latino men and women, and young white people.” [49]
So its not that people of color are not interested in vegetarianism and animal rights--and I can attest from my own experiences that what Patrick says is generally true. More than likely, people of color are not present because they feel marginalized and uncomfortable among other advocates who lack racial consciousness and etiquette. Only an epistemology of ignorance could make anyone confidently assume otherwise.

Another good example of epistemologies of ignorance in the animal defense movement is when the People of Color caucus was denied time to speak at the AR 2008 conference, the oldest and largest “animal rights conference” in the USA. Debra at Rainforest Action Network’s blog, Understory, writes how

the People of Color caucus that met earlier today asked to read a statement – calling for anti-oppression and anti-racist workshops at future AR conferences – and was denied the opportunity to speak. If we can’t allow space for people of color to be heard within our own movement, how can we expect movements representing people of color to collaborate with us? [50]
Although this was in part because permission to speak very late into the program, a race-conscious and anti-oppressive movement would have understood and made time to give these marginalized allies an opportunity to have their voices made visible.[51] Because the animal rights movement is, like U.S. American society, systemically racist, these opportunities to gain greater recognition are denied so that things can continue to run as scheduled. Thus, the epistemology of ignorance about rac(ism) is ultimately maintained.

As RAN has “realized that it’s much more important to work with these communities in a mutually respectful way that builds trust,” so must animal defense advocates.[50] Though Debra notes that RAN will accommodate other cultures with non-vegetarian meals as a matter of inclusiveness, it would be inappropriate to even consider such an option at an AR and vegan conference. Still, I think she is correct that “at a minimum, the AR movement needs to come to terms with its own whiteness and start to build more of an anti-oppressive lens where other people are concerned.”[50] This is not only because the AR movement(s) would be even larger and stronger with people of color, but also so as to treat marginalized people with greater respect and dignity, especially those already within the ranks of the movement(s).

The White Activist's Burden: Engaging the "Other"
Implicit in a lot of discourse over "recruiting" or "engaging" more people of color is the idea that people of color just don't know the issues as well or have larger things to be concerned about, such as their own oppression, than confronting the oppression of nonhuman others. It is thus believed that it is either the animal activist's burden to engage people of color since they are not themselves interested, not because they are or were once interested but turned-off by feelings of alienation.

At the aforementioned conference, AR 2008, there were two workshops specifically addressing the race: Engaging Ethnic Minorities, and The Commonalities of Oppression. First, let me just say that it's great to see that these workshops were even conceptualized and carried through to begin with. It is so critical to address multiple oppressions simultaneously in order to 1) build stronger solidarity across movements, 2) make the causes more relevant and inclusive to "Others," and 3) holistically analyze/challenge the intertwining and mutually reinforcing systems of oppression. Without doing so, the movement(s) will remain small, exclusive (and marginalizing), and inept at permanently dismantling speciesism and other oppressions. This is not to say, however, that the workshops could not have been conceptualized better.

Incognerga writes:

In my opinion, the use of the word "engage" indicates that they've failed to acknowledge the ways in which the AR movement has been limiting and unwelcoming to people of color... and further enforces the AR movement's status as a solely White, middle class venture[52]
The Vegan Ideal insightfully notes, as did Incognegra, that the title implicitly assumes "universal whiteness... Rather than addressing oppression with POC, "engage" seem to suggest further exploiting is still about doing to POC, rather than working with them."[53] Likewise, Johanna wonders
who will be speaking & who it is geared towards...The separate listing for a discussion of other oppressions makes me feel more like... [it's] not out of a genuine desire to ally alongside us & work with us on other issues that affect us. I mean, that's for the other workshop, right?[52]
Despite the good intentions of the workshops, the general messages communicated to many vegans of color is that specifically white activists need to engage people of color, not necessarily collaboratewith people of color as allies. Not only do they feel marginalized by their Othering but also that vegan outreach is sufficient without acknowledging the struggle of human others who are being "engaged."

Claire kindly gives some advice to her white allies on the proper way of performing outreach among people of color:

Basically, if the question one asks is just, “How can I get more people of color to participate in our (white) events?” then I think you’re bound to be pretty unsuccessful. If you seriously want to be an ally to people of color, a better way to ask this would be, “How are POC addressing on AR in my area, and what can I do to support them?” or maybe thinking about food-related activism led by POC, and how that could incorporate (if its not already) a vegan perspective.
In other words, white ARAs should themselves do a little searching to see what activists of color are concerned about and doing in regards to veganism and animal activism instead of coming down on top of their heads with a message they already agree with but in a way that will alienate them.

In the next post, part 4, I'll document accounts given by VOC's on the frustrations and hurt emerging from their interactions with white allies in the AR and veg*n movement(s). This may be the most important part in the privilege series because it shows exactly where inter-racial relations go wrong among people who are already allies and how assumptions of universal whiteness and invalidation of another's experiences are really what is dividing the movement, not criticisms of racist discourse.

Here I think it is appropriate to conclude with a profound reframing of engaging people of color during vegan outreach by Breeze Harper:

I’m starting to reformulate this question that I get thrown at me all the time: “How do we (assumed white people) get POC involved in our movement?” to, “How do we get white identified people to want to engage in and critically reflect on what it means to be racialized as ‘white’ in the movement?” The first questions seems to target POC as the central “problem”, and I’m simply not comfortable with this binary. [51]

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