Friday, March 20, 2009

Privilege: The U.S. Vegan Movement, Whiteness, and Race Relations (part 4)

In part 1 of the Privilege series, I examined a particular case of when vegan outreach goes wrong (i.e. the public juxtaposition of images in which "animals" and people of color are being oppressed) and discussed how such tactics generally alienate people from the cause rather than welcoming them into it. In part 2, I delved into the issue of race relations a bit more by discussing how many white AR and vegan activists are oblivious to their white (and sometimes class) privilege and thus unintentionally oppress others through their rhetoric and discourse. In part 3, I documented how, despite the overall whiteness of the movements, people of color are active in vegetarian and animal advocacy around the world and how epistemologies of ignorance make it seem otherwise.

In each of the aforementioned parts, I concluded by emphasizing the importance of inclusiveness, empathy, and partnership. In part 4, these three criteria for effective and appropriate outreach/relationship with people of color come together and it becomes clear how white ARAs and vegans can alienate their allies. Racism comes in many forms. Here we will see it in the form of blaming, stereotyping, suppressing, marginalizing, fetishizing, and reversing victimization.

Killing Us Softly: Narratives of ALIENATION
First, let's examine a classic example of some white advocates/allies who just don't get white privilege, even when it is clearly laid out in front of them. Take for instance, Breeze Harper's very honest expression of her feeling of alienation and anxiety at events where she is one of the few people of color (i.e. most large AR events)

I constantly feel uncomfortable– not just in predominantly white bodied AR and vegan spaces- but in just about ALL predominantly white bodied spaces. But, I feel even more frustrated in instance when I’m participating in an experience that SHOULD be linked to radical ways of thinking about social justice. What hurts the most is that when I try to express it, I am made to feel like it’s “all in my head”. My experiences of emotional pain...are MY PROBLEM. It is “individual” and not a symptom of structural and institutional inequalities [51]
It couldn't be clearer that Breeze's "emotional pain" stems from other ARAs thinking that the racism she perceives is "all in [her] head" and is thus "[HER] PROBLEM" for reading too much into things. Breeze wants her readers to know that it isn't her, though; it's the institution of white privilege that not only creates the problems she is addressing, but also makes those very problems invisible to the people she is addressing.

Yet, still, some well-intentioned white vegans don't get it. Sue writes in response:

I don’t know what to think about that, except that you might feel less discomfort if you brought your friends along — or if you could find a way to connect with other people.[51]
Almost as if Sue had not read Breeze's words, she suggests that the problem is internal to her and not an institutional problem that would make Breeze feel that way to begin with. It becomes Breeze's responsibility to bring a person of color to share her experiences with or talk to the very people whom are alienating her. A Vegan About Town responds:
So the issue doesn’t have anything to do with the lack of inclusion in the vegan community to vegans of colour at all, it’s *our* responsibility to connect with other people? It’s that sort of attitude that precludes some vegans of colour from getting involved in AR/veg events, and completely supports breezeharper’s point.
As I discussed in the previous post, such blaming the victim for their own alienation only further alienates them. It is such treatment of vegans of color that turn them away from working with white ARAs. Again, this should not be framed as their own divisiveness, but a pre-existing divisiveness that is "colorblind" and does not acknowledge and appreciate the obstacles a person of color must overcome (without any assistance) to feel included in white communities within an institutionally racist society.

In 99 per cent of cases, however, advocates such as Sue do not have the courage and/or interest to pick up a book on racism or read a vegans of color blog. In most cases, advocates have to rely on common sense and minimal social etiquette to appropriately interact with vegans of color. Pathetically, even common decency is not always in place; sometimes advocates will ask obliviously racist comments in an attempt to be "friendly." Take for instance, Afronautical's account of interacting with fellow vegetarians:

When I told White folks that I was vegan or vegetarian soon after came some question about soul food, fried chicken, or chitlins (chitterlings to some). And soon after this question the person would reassess me– look at my Propagandhi cd, my tight jeans, my copy of Manifesta under my arm, and decide that either a) I was an uppity little negro, b) an oreo to be made fun of (in fact only White folks have ever called me an oreo), or c) one of the good ones (not really Black in their eyes is what they would say). These reactions came from both White veg*ns (usually option c)… .[7]
Basically, Afronautical was considered a "good"(read: white) Afro-American because they were vegan, not a fried chicken fanatic. I'm sure most veg*ns have better common sense than this, but regardless, here we see how some veg*ns may consciously associate white with morally good and black with, well, not so good--not a good idea if you want that person to be your ally.

Even more painfully poor examples of social etiquette are described by anti-racist Sheila Hamanaka:

Patrick Kwan...said, "At the first demonstration I went to someone asked me ‘Do you speak English?’—and that was in New York City!” He’s gotten these comments from white staffers of “pretty big AR organizations”: “I can’t believe how Asians treat animals” and “I don’t like Asians.”...Kris, an African American activist, describes how it feels to experience tokenism: “They haven’t done outreach to the community, but they call—‘Hey we need a black face at the protest.’ I go, but it’s not a unifying way, it’s a marginalizing way of organizing. You’re not one of us, but we need you.”[6]
Both Patrick and Kris experience alienation within the familiar company of their very allies. As Breeze expressed, these are spaces where they should feel included, not alienated as "the Other." Patrick, like Afronautical above, is one of the "good" Asians; and Kris, as with the "Engaging Ethnic Minorities" workshop at AR 2008, is an object to be worked, not a subject to work with. The comments cited above may sound shockingly inappropriate in the context of this post on racism in the movement, but it is actually not as uncommon as one might hope. Just remember that these comments came from staff members of large, influential animal organizations.

Of course, sometimes "common sense" may work against race-relations, since often what is common sense makes sense to the "common" people, who in a white society are white. Many advocates, again, well-intentioned people, don't really understand the institutionalization structure of racism--I admit I was pretty oblivious to it until the last year, and I still have much to learn. In another essay, Breeze courageously expresses her vulnerability and hurt

that so many white-identified people I have met do not understand why-- no matter how irrational it is-- so many blacks would support Vick, "because he is black"... There is a lack of compassion by so many white-identified well intentioned AR folk to learn about the socio-historical context of why a person of color would be fearful when a black man is arrested, period.[9]
Breeze notes that Michael Vick, like OJ and other black men put on trial, are often supported by the black community who see their arrests as racist, but who are considered guilty by many non-blacks because they see their arrest as racially-neutral.

Likewise, Jillian expresses feeling fed up with most white ARA activists after

the Michael Vick situation… it never even occurred to PETA and other white AR activists (and even semi-activists who post on forums but certainly don’t go to rallies) that there would be reason to avoid the appearance of a white lynch mob. It didn’t occur to them to reach out to POC and ask for our participation.[51]
As Jillian notes, the context of a bunch of angry white people yelling that this black man should go to jail triggers what Breeze discussed earlier as post-traumatic slave syndrome. The socio-historical context of the last hundred and fifty years of being abused and sentenced to death by police officers for simply being black overrides the particular context of dog abuse. But for the most part, white advocates have little access and knowledge of this phenomenon for they have not been institutionally targeted, raped, and killed by the police. Whether or not this history actually matters in Vick's case is less relevant than the fact that it matters to the black community, and to suggest otherwise would to be invalidate their concerns from a standpoint of privilege.

Some people, yet, are of the opinion that individuals are only accountable for their own private and deliberate actions, not at all of those actions performed by their associates and ancestors. In an otherwise lucid post, Dan over at Unpopular Vegan Essays explains

we don’t need to be an activist for every, or even any, given cause. As long as we’re blameless – which is to say as long as we’re not violating baselines or intentionally engaging in injustice or unnecessary harm ourselves... [such as] [a]voiding racism, sexism, and heterosexism by treating people...fairly and equally to our own...[54]
Recall what Breeze expressed earlier about blaming the individual (whether the "victim" or the oppressor)? Well, here Dan mistakenly considers racism an individual, irrational prejudice rather than an oppressive institution that an entire group of people (i.e. "whites") privilege from. In this sense, white people are never absolutely blameless. The blameful/blameless dichotomy is false; one does not have to be intentionally racist to be involved in racism. Further because racism is a system, as mentioned in part 3, the individual is not the sole locus of accountability when it comes to race issues. The only acceptable "baseline" in cases like Vick's is to be racially-sensitive and conscious and do as Jillian suggested and sincerely locate support within communities of color. [Of course, there is the whole debate over whether using the prison system violates a moral baseline, but more on that in part 5].

With Us or against Us –or- “Sit Down and Shut Up, Little Brown Girl”
Not every white vegan and ARA, however, are racially insensitive and/or ignorant. In fact, many vegans are very race conscious; but because they are not fully empathetic and/or aware of their privilege they will sometimes tolerate or reluctantly promote racially insensitive campaigns and discourse and decry that people who criticize such campaigns are hurting the cause by being divisive. So when vegans of color experience hurt and alienation from things their allies are doing and they have the integrity and courage to stand up and correct them, most of the time they are told figuratively to "sit down and shut up." As Breeze mentioned earlier, Carolina writes that

During activist conversations I cannot bring up topics relating veganism to my own culture, POC and many times the queer community without getting vacant looks or shifty eyes. It seems to be a combination of fear, ignorance, and lack of understanding that causes most of vegan community to turn their heads and change the topic... I have no apologies for what I have to say because it is my experience. Yes, I may seem angry but there are reasons for it...Being marginalized is no f***** picnic in the park. [51]
Caroline, like many others, find it difficult to talk about their particular embodied experiences as vegans within their communities because few people take interest or care to recognize difference. No effort is made to be open and listen, and thus allies like Caroline are marginalized.

Often, fellow advocates can be just plain divisive and rude. Take one response to one of Breeze's podcasts on the intersections of oppression. The post was tited “90% racism, 10% veganism," and the commenter wrote

This is one bitter, whiney and non-constructive podcast. If you wanna focus on what “colonialism” has done to the black “diaspora” and never let go, you’ll LOVE this. If you wanna learn about veganism, or get inspired or get ideas about how to help animals, build a better world, or improve your health or environment, you’re wasting your time here.[57]
The commenter seems almost offended as if Breeze bring these topics up in a podcast about veganism, as if one should not be concerned about the health and exploitation of people of color and environmental racism. This person does not care to discuss or even debate Breeze, just be a sarcastic snob and shoot down a unique and thoughtful piece on veganism. He (I presume) does not care about being an ally who insists (wrongfully) to "agree to disagree," but to just shun a person of color from sharing her knowledge and feelings. This is not a matter of sharing feelings, but of displaying animosity.

One of the responses that I received to part 2 of the series also provides an example of a typical response to people who bring up concerns over racism and white privilege. mep writes:

Quite frankly, I find the whole premise of the vegan movement being "privileged" and "white" a way to turn the focus back to the black community's only real concern -- their own struggle...Put the focus back where it belongs -- on the suffering of the animals and stop trying to turn this into a race issue. If black people want to be help animals then help animals and stop whining about it.[48]
Here, for whatever reason, mep assumes I am a black person, and accuses me as well as all black people of turning the focus back onto themselves--after all black people only care about themselves, right? It's not as if white people are ever selfish, have racial solidarity, and want to turn the focus back on themselves (or away from "racy" topics)... right.

The token part of this response is not the blatant racism, but the final part about people of color "whining." One does not whine about rape or murder or theft; one "whines" about trivial, marginal things, like ordering a Pepsi and getting a Coke instead. Here, my non-confrontational, conversational post exploring race-relations to create a more healthy and diverse activist community is perceived as a waste of time. Who cares? We [i.e. white guys] don't! Do something useful, these last two commenters insist, not too differently than the old white men on the streets passing us by at demonstrations telling us to get jobs on a Sunday morning as they walk into Macy's. Essentially, these reactionaries are framing animal advocacy as fully with "us" [i.e. activists wit white privilege] -or- against "us" [and the animals] be selfishly focusing on your own little identity politics thingy... but remember, factory farming is like the holocaust and the KKK because all oppression is the same.

This is the type of attitude and thinking that is truly divisive and why people are not just frustrated, but outraged when animal advocates use such analogies. If they really cared about racial oppression, they would not be squashing voices addressing racially insensitive tactics and language! The analogies, as was discussed in part 1, are made in a socio-historical vacuum as if slavery, the KKK, and other systems no longer existed and "now it's the animals' turn."

Many vegans and ARAs hold a consequentialist ethic in which an end (so long as the consequences are the best) justifies any reasonable means. Some advocates will thus condemn vegans and non-vegans alike for publicly criticizing a certain tactic (i.e. PETA dressing up as the KKK) intended to raise awareness, since doing so will not only distract further from the message (assuming it was being received in the first place) but also makes ARAs look bad. Johanna, as always at her best, paraphrases the thought process of many ARAs:

those of us concerned with anything else rather than the suffering of non-human animals are divisive, are weakening the vegan cause, are traitors... Such vegans divide the world into two parts: people who are vegan, & thus allies, & those who are not vegan[58]
For instance, one white blogger told a blogger of color that she had "NO right to criticize PeTA because she was not a vegan.[63] Although this blogger had in the past written on anti-racism, she nonetheless used her white privilege to barge in onto a woman of color's blog to tell her what she could and could not say. (I went over the problem with this in part 2). Her reasoning was that "no one was physically hurt...PETA deserves criticism, but it should stay in-house, from VEGANS, not anti-vegans."[64] Surely she acknowledged the (emotional) hurt this stunt had caused--otherwise she would not have qualified hurt with "physical" and condemned PETA--, but nonetheless she imagines that some utility can come out of it. More importantly, though, vegans of color should keep their criticism private because otherwise they'd only reduce the utility of the stunt that exploited their oppression. Further, non-vegans of color should not criticize, their voices don't count because, while they may be oppressed, they are the oppressors.

Angel H replied that she "totally invalidated [Womanist's] own anger and hurt as a Black woman - and mine, for that matter - by telling her that they should be concentrated more on the AKC, than at PETA."[64] Another blogger countered the criticisms, writing "PETA does amazing things for animals...Do you care about animals?...Wake up please! Your ignorance offends me," as if PETA and ARAs should be the one's upset! Instead of even acknowledging another's concern, one already dismisses it outright as blasphemous: since you're not with us you must be against us! Fortunately, Royce Drake quickly turned the table:

Do you care about racism? I want all people and all animals eliminated from systems of oppression. That doesn’t mean I turn a blind eye to PETA’s blatant racism and sexism. Perhaps you are the one who needs to wake up?[64]
Of course these critics of PETA "cared about animals!" Why else would they be participants on a vegan blog? The real question, as Royce put it, is whether these defenders cared at all about people of color. If they did, why were they so reluctant to validate the hurt? Again, racist tactics are what divide the movement, not the advocates who criticize such tactics.

As utilitarian animal advocates will say, anything you do to hurt the cause hurts animals; vegans are against hurting animals, so if you hurt the cause, you are "anti-vegan."[59] Advocates like Dan believe we ought to choose our causes as long as we don't personally violate the baseline of another cause, but such baselines are not always clear. For instance, would one violate the baseline of human rights if one recommended Taco bell as a place to get "vegan" food at a time when the Immokalee workers were on hunger strike against slave conditions? Matt Ball of Vegan Outreach either didn't think so or didn't care:

I do vegan outreach because I do believe it is the most important, most pressing issue... I will not ignore the importance of convenience just to avoid allegedly giving an anti-Taco Bell person an excuse to continue to eat animals... we must remain focused on the main issue: the immense suffering of the animals. I don't think that the animals are best served by spending an inordinate amount of our limited resources on trying to build certain bridges.[60]
Mr. Ball is essentially framing animal welfare/rights as "the main issue" and slavery as a marginal one. From his utilitarian calculation building coalitions to human rights campaigns is a waste. He answers the question ARAs hate to be asked: a human or a dog/pig? Ball chooses the animals because he believes it is "the most important, most pressing issue." People of color are morally subordinated. How fortunate Ball is not to have to worry about the oppression of white middle-class people, because perhaps then he'd have to consider which oppression is more pressing than the other.

Ball is by no means alone. Dan [sorry, if it seems I'm picking on you. Really, it's only because I liked your blog enough to read it] expresses a similar opinion: "Our current use and treatment of simply the worst atrocity humanity has ever engaged in as a species."[54] Hold on there: what about rape? mass genocide? child prostitution? the torture of untrialed prisoners of war? Who's to say which is worse, and exactly how does one generalize the last few decades of the treatment of animals to a three million year history of the human species?

Brownfemipower responds to these prioritization of oppressions by asking why many vegans are so concerned about animal welfare but not brown person welfare.

Why is it so easy to prioritize cruelty inflicted on animals over cruelty inflicted on brown people? Why can people list a whole litany of wrongs committed against animals by the food industry–but at the same time those people "never really thought" about what happens to the workers?[10]
Do you think this has anything to do with white privilege and the racial contract in which people of color are never fully considered equal citizens/people? Breeze also notices an indifference amongst some consumers of "green" and "vegan" products about the labor conditions in which they were made and the people who live next to where they are dumped after use; these sell "to many vegans who only seem to solely be focused on the fact that the "cruelty free" because it has been labeled as "vegan""[61] On the other hand, if we are to think of veganism as a social justice philosophy and include social justice advocates (i.e. Walker, Chavez, Gandhi, Greggory, the Kings) as our primary models rather than philosophers and celebrity artists, clearly veganism is no longer solely an "animal issue" just as feminism is not a position reserved exclusively for women.

In the end, Johanna writes,

We're being asked to identify as vegans over any other aspect of our identities...Some of us don't have the luxury of seeing things that simply. Some of us will never, ever have the privilege of ignoring, if we want to, the rest of who we are in favor of focusing solely on our diets[58]
In other words, asking a vegan of color to ignore their biographical identity is like being told to ignore apart of one's self, something only those without privilege must do. In some ways this is the role many Afro-American women are expected to play when it comes to (not) reporting sexual assault and rape because so many black men are already imprisoned jail, many unjustly. But one should not be forced to choose between one part of one's identity and another (i.e. vegan/korean, black/woman). Each part is crucial and valuable to one's existence and neither should be marginalized, especially by those with the privilege of not having to make such a choice.

Carolina adds that "Ignoring POC and other issues within the vegan community is what will hurt the cause of veganism...You have millions of POC who could be possible vegans but if vegan events are not seen as welcoming" well, there goes your base.[51] Dan explains the situation well from a philosophical standpoint:

Because of this common ground, anytime a “progressive” person or group espousing one such cause... trivializes or intentionally ignores another cause... that person or group undermines the underlying substance of his or her own cause by arbitrarily (and often unwittingly) endorsing exploitation or oppression which is merely in different form.[59]
One cannot consistently advocate for the rights of animals without advocating for basic human/civil rights. To arbitrarily marginalize another's cause is to logically legitimize the arbitrary marginalization of one's own by another. If some vegans and ARAs will not support anti-racism and human rights causes, they should not expect those advocates to accept their own cause, nor do they have the entitlement to criticize others for ignoring their cause when they trivialize the causes of others.

To be continued
Wow, what can I say? Actually, there is way too much to say. And to think I was going to originally cover all this in two parts! Writing these posts has really been a learning experience for me. I really do hope, though, that other white advocates can get some use out of these. Don't worry, I'm not through yet. There's still enough material for another one or two parts. Hopefully, I'll cover all the rest of the material in part 5 so I can do a roundup review for part 6. Anyway, look forward to a discussion on whether vegans are an oppressed group as well as issues such as class, "exoticism," and prison. Peace.

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