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.

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*]