Afterwards, I exclusively focused on several ways in which well-intentioned vegans and ARAs alienate vegans of color: They may (obliviously) make blatantly racism comments, treat VOC as tokens to flag in front of the public rather than full-fledged allies, be ignorant of/indifferent to how their discourse and tactics are offensive to VOC, suppress criticism of/concerns about said discourse/tactics ("you're being divisive"), marginalize the emotional trauma/rage triggered by said events (b/c "some good will come of it"), and invalidate their feelings ("get over it"/"you didn't get the message"). [part 4] In this post I will also add the alienation that arises when VOC are "Othered" through discourse of "exoticism."
The remainder of the series, which I will conclude here, will cover additional areas in which white and middle-class privilege go ignored by the majority of the U.S. ARA and vegan movements. Specifically, I'll discuss the greater obstacles and consequences VOC encounter within direct action (i.e. open rescues) and freeganism (i.e. dumpster diving), and why vegans are not "oppressed." In addition, I will briefly discuss the classism present within the dominant discourse of animal activism and veganism. I will conclude by acknowledging the limits of how much privileged persons can understand the struggles those without it face, and the need for them to "liberate" themselves from ignorance before they can become allies in their liberation.
Eating the Other: "Exotic" Food Fetishes
As addressed in part 2, representations of vegetarians in the U.S. have been disproportionately white, thus constructing an "epistemology of ignorance" surrounding the racial diversity of animal advocates around the country and world, as was discussed in part 3. It is no surprise that many vegans of color feel marginal and alienated within the vegan community and particular communities of color. As Afronautical reports:
I realized that everyone thinks they know what a White vegan looks like– but no one seems to have a clue about what a... vegan [of color] looks like...What bothers me is being invisible to other folks of color... [there are] no veg*n folks of color in movies, even as an in-joke.Yet, vegans of color don't always feel marginal as I wrote extensively about in part 4. Sometimes vegans of color are inappropriately placed at the center of attention as objects on exhibit. Such is how some vegans report their experiences when around others categorizing their childhood and/or comfort food as "exotic." Johanna of the Vegans of Color blog expresses great discomfort from hearing other people call certain food "exotic" because one must always wonder to whom is this food "exotic:" "It assumes so much about the audience racially & culturally" Veganabouttown explains that "using words like that aren't just saying that I'm 'different,' they're saying that I'm 'other.'" The "exotic" is what is foreign, is what is Other-than-oneself. It is "interesting" and may even become fetishized as such. To be sure, the "exotic" is never "we" or "us," it is "them," it is "different," and it is kind of "weird."
Carolina begrudges having her food at vegan potlucks being "spoken about as if though it were a strange “exotic” treat, not an edible healthy vegan delicious part of a meal." She asks us to imagine a person commenting to a parent that their green-eyed, dark skinned child is so exotic (because you think by doing so, you are giving a complement). Many reasonable people would be offended if any one were to do this, immediately pointing out that doing so would be racist, labeling the child as "the Other." Yet, rarely do many people transfer this logic to labeling certain "ethnic" foods as "exotic." Labeling food as "exotic," Breeze indicates, "is a marker that [non-White/American]people are “The Other” while “whiteness” is the continued invisible norm." While British, American, and pretty much any western European cuisine is not ethnic, because it is "our" food, "our" heritage--"our" being here, of white/western European tradition. White people/cultures are just white, one does not think about their "ethnicity" because they are already the norm/default in the U.S. Ethnicity and race only become marked and visible within deviation from that norm.
Essentially, the hurtful consequences of labeling food (and people and their cultures!) as "exotic" or a synonym is not because labeling a person as "different" or "other" is necessarily bad, but because of the socio-historical context.
I realize it's just semantics but semantics are important, because they indicate attitudes - so really, it's not that I have a problem with the word 'exotic,' it's that I have a problem with the attitude that leads to its use, that the food I eat is 'not normal,' that it is other, that I am other.... I don't need to feel like some sort of foreign novelty whilst I'm doing it.Basically, constructing certain food as "exotic" objectifies it, casting it under a colonialist gaze of the dominant subject (i.e. white/european) which is assumed to be the subject--all others being objects to be consumed visually or nutritionally. "Exotic" food is
there purely to titillate your (white/Western/etc.) self (which also implies that white people have no culture — a convenient excuse used by people participating in cultural appropriation, but not actually true). It's a "safe" way to imagine you're experiencing other cultures without... actually engaging with the people whose cultures you're attempting to eat via their food.In short, by exotifying food as "ethnic" or as a novelty, vegans marginalize vegans of color by implying that they are "the Other" vegans because their cultural heritage is "foreign" and objectify them as if veggieburgers and soy ice cream could not also be considered "exotic" by other American vegans.
Are Vegans Oppressed?
Since the passing of specific legislation such as the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act [AETA], there have been many analogies made between the witch hunt for communist and socialist sympathizers during the McCarthy era and the witch hunt for animal liberationists, particularly those who participate in illegal, direct actions. Yet, even before it had been declared that "Green is the New Red," many veg*ns have had the feeling that not only their political and ideological orientations have been marginalized, but they themselves have been marginalized as a class of people, some advancing that veg*ns--like women, queers, and people of color--are themselves "oppressed" by flesh-eaters. According to this view, "The notion of veg*n pride isn’t about appropriation; it’s about cultivating a cultural identity for veg*ns, many of whom don’t know a single other veg*n in person."
While certainly veg*ns are often the targets of ridicule, framed as the pest or problem at family and occupational dining events, and generally trivialized or sneered at by "omnivores," this need not mean that veg*ns are "oppressed." Marilyn Frye responds insightfully to accusations that privileged groups of people are oppressed in her essay "Oppression" in her book The Politics of Reality (1983)
The statement that women are oppressed is frequently met with the claim that men are oppressed too...But this is nonsense. Human beings can be miserable without being oppressed, and it is perfectly consistent to deny that a person or group is oppressed without denying that they have feelings or that they suffer...The root of the word "oppression" is the element "press."...Presses are used to mold things or flatten them or reduce them in bulk...Something pressed is something caught between or among forces and barriers which are so related to each other that jointly they restrain, restrict or prevent the thing’s motion or mobility...The experience of oppressed people is that the living of one’s life is confined and shaped by forces and barriers which are not accidental or occasional and hence avoidable, but are systematically related to each other in such a way as to catch one between and among them and restrict or penalize motion in any direction. It is the experience of being caged in: all avenues, in every direction, are blocked or booby trapped...one can study the elements of an oppressive structure with great care and some good will without seeing the structure as a whole.While men, in this case, can be oppressed as queers or disabled people, they themselves cannot be oppressed as men/males. Oppression occurs at a macro/systemic level and is experienced as a caging in from all sides by interrelated, complex socio-political forces. At the macro-level, men are privileged and free as a group, so they cannot be oppressed as such, though individual men who belong to a marginalized group may be, though not as men. With veg*ns, the same holds true. Certain veg*ns may be oppressed as members of certain socially constructed groups, but as veg*ns they are not. While "omnivores" are privileged over veg*ns in North American culture, this rarely manifests itself into structural privilege in which veg*ns are a priori the targets of discrimination in which their freedom of actions are restricted from the outside (i.e. glass ceiling, restricted from membership at clubs, additional obstacles in purchasing homes, profiling by police, etc).
Perhaps more clearly, veg*ns do not internalize the animosity of those who hurt and discriminate against them. Those who are veg*n for ideological reasons are at the worst ambivalent about their commitment and at best, most commonly, proud of their political stance. Contrast this to many women, people of color, poor, disabled, and queers who are institutionally instructed of their inferiority. These groups are not instructed to feel guilt that their actions create inconveniences and disrupt social harmony, but shame toward their very identity which can be hidden, but never wholly erased. Rarely do veg*ns feel shame about their moral/political/spiritual convictions; in almost all cases their hurt emanates from the guilt of non-conformity and ill-convenience. In light of a recent AR PR event in New York City, the "Veggie Pride Parade," Pattrice explains why such an appropriation of queer culture is inappropriate.
Being queer was something you were supposed to hide. Even supportive straight folks urged us not to be too "flamboyant."... In that context, a "pride parade" makes sense, as both an antidote to shaming and an assertion of the right to walk down the street being yourself... They *appropriated* the pride motif as a catchy way to get attention. Since vegans are (mis)characterized as monolithically white and since white folks are known for misappropriating the symbols of other groups, I didn't think that was a wise tactical choice.While veg*ns are often embarrassed to "come out" about their diet/beliefs, the animosity/hatred of their identity/acts are not internalized, and thus need not be sublimated in a public ritual. Since many privileged animal activists already appropriate the images and discourses of multiple human oppressions, the "pride" motif was another instance in a series of events in which the oppression/empowerment of others was trivialized by a weak analogy.
Noah ruminates on the reasons some vegans (often white males) may identify themselves as oppressed persons:
In my experience, it's very hard for white, middle class men who don't experience any other sort of oppression to fully comprehend how oppression (in general) works... Vegans are oppressors struggling to be allies to animals... But this is really a much broader problem in the mainstream animals rights movements generally–speaking "on behalf of" animals, being a voice for the "voiceless" and so on, so it's not surprising that some humans confuse themselves with the oppressed animals.Since animal advocates often deploy the discourse of "being a voice for the 'voiceless,'" they may at times feel that when their voices are marginalized, not only are animal others being oppressed, but so are they, since their voice is "the voice" of "the animals." But the truth is that they are no more oppressed as a group than white anti-racists or straight queer activists when their voices are squashed; they are simply allies of the oppressed.
Further, it is no longer very difficult for most animal advocates to keep a vegan diet, nor is it obvious that there is a single, unified vegan movement. As Lagusta writes, the veg*ns who claim they are oppressed are "almost always [privileged] dudes... who are secretly so incredibly happy to be oppressed in some way that they act like the typical dudes that they are underneath the veganism--boring mainstream non-feminist dude dudes."
Again, it is often those who are not familiar with being oppressed themselves who do not necessarily support other liberation causes that identify as the oppressed. Stentor speculates that "many white (and otherwise privileged) men have a secret desire to be oppressed, because we feel like that would give us one corner of life where we don't have to feel guilty and can focus on attacking someone else." By categorizing themselves as "oppressed," many veg*ns with white, male, and heterosexual privilege can cast-out some of the collective guilt they have over being given unearned privilege that comes at the subordination of others (see part 2). At times, wrongfully identifying as "oppressed" allows these advocates to evade acknowledging such privilege and subordination as well as to silence those who raise concerns over actual oppressive discourse deployed by fellow advocates (see part 4).
The Police & White Privilege
Since the passing of the AETA, animal and environmental activists have insisted on parallels between the federal framing of animal/earth liberationists as "terrorists" and liberals and socialists from the McCarthy era as "communists" who must be blacklisted and arrested. Certainly a parallel exists, however, some animal advocates have wrongly (and offensively) asserted they are now significant victims of police and FBI surveillance and misconduct simply because the Animal Liberation Front [ALF] (among other groups) is regarded as the "top domestic terrorist threat" in the U.S.
The Vegan Ideal passionately refutes the misguided belief that animal liberationists are particularly mistreated by law enforcement in a response to a "call for papers" for an anthology linking the oppression of queers, animal others, and (to some degree) animal advocates:
First, "animal activists" do not "bear the brunt of police suppression" in the U.S. This is so ridiculous that it would funny if not for the fact that it is such a deadly serious issue...Applying this term [political prisoner] to "animal activists" implicitly claims that their [sic] are nonpolitical prisoners. It ignores how the prison-industrial complex is a political system, and how all people within it are in fact political prisoners.Indeed, it is almost laughable that (the poorly worded assertion that) animal advocates have it particularly bad when one closely monitors the anecdotes and statistics such as that "blacks [are] almost three times more likely than Hispanics and five times more likely than whites to be in jail", that blacks and Latinos may be stopped by police on highways many times more often than whites [71a, b], and institutionally racist policies that result in greater punishments and arrests for black men than for white men.[72a, b, c]
Noah explains that
one of the reasons why we even "notice" that (a handful of) animal activists go to jail is because it's like, what a minute! Educated, middle class white men aren't supposed to prison--what's going on here!? Whereas the millions of other people in prison are "supposed" to be there.Whereas a man of color "could end up being killed by the cops for engaging in such crazy behavior as driving or walking down the street," it is as if "the only reason we [middle-class white people] would ever go to prison is for engaging in animal activism."
To add to Noah and the Vegan Ideal's analysis, racial "minorities" and "the poor" are expected to be police targets, to be incarcerated, but college-educated, middle-class white people are not expected to be such targets; thus, their imprisonment is much more visible because it is out of the ordinary. Further, because of unsatisfactory inter-racial relations between white advocates and advocates of color, many white advocates may have little exposure to understanding the (racial) injustices built into criminal law enforcement and American society in general.
The disparities between the treatment of middle-class, cisexual white people and low-income, trans, and racial "minorities" by law enforcement ought to be taken into consideration when animal advocates intend to engage in illegal direct action.[73a, b] Since a white activist may face a substantially less severe sentence and treatment than a person of color, it is reasonable that a person of color has much more to take into consideration than someone with white privilege.
When animal liberationist celebrities like Peter Young advocate jail time as a reasonable sacrifice activists should make for animal others, this is truer for white activists than others. Young's learning experience of "how insignificant jail really is" because "it's absolutely worth" going to jail to liberate animals since animal advocates don't have to give their lives as people in other movements sometimes must do, is of course coming from his experience within a cissexual white male body. Imaginably, Young may have (or would have) different words of wisdom if he were not already privileged within a racist and cissexual society. [So while I personally find Young's words--"There's a tremendous freedom that comes from not being afraid of prison. And it's one of the most liberating experiences you'll ever feel"--very inspirational, I take note that this feeling may not apply to all people equally].
Freeganism: A Privilege to Free Food?
Another example of white and class privilege taken for granted is within the subculture of freeganism, particularly the act of dumpster diving. For instance, in a story covered by CNN, Adaora Udoji reports that most of the freegans in New York she followed were "not exactly the people you would expect to find rummaging trough mounds of trash," including an executive at a Fortune 500 company, a high school teacher, and college students. The implicit suggestion is that one would "expect to find" people out of works, out of home, and out of school--and perhaps also, more people of color.[75a]
In another news story, Peter Thorno reports that the freegans he follows in New York are "not homeless, they're not broke...they're New York's garbage gourmets," rummaging through the trash of upscale Eastern New York grocery stores [75b]. Noteworthy is that most of the freegans within this group are financially secure and white. One must wonder whether these people have greater access to this particular trash because they live in these upscale neighborhoods and/or because they are not harassed by police.
Several months ago, I was speaking with an Afro-American co-worker who attended a liberal arts college in New York and asked her if she was into dumpster diving; she immediately responded that she was not. She expressed that most of the students she knew who would dumpster dive believed that they could perform "class-suicide" by picking items out of the trash. Having been brought up in a very poor neighborhood on the West side of Chicago, she had known many people who had to do such as a matter of meeting their daily needs for food; the dumpster diving she saw her peers doing felt as though it trivialized the situation of some people felt who do not have a choice between purchasing food and foraging for it.
My friend's response did not come all that surprising after reading Royce Drake's post on Vegans of Color only weeks before as I was preparing for this series on privilege. Royce wrote that though he has met quite a few freegans, he has encountered very few, if any at all, freegans of color. "Where are these freegans of color?" he asks:
Freeganism is a largely white middle-class movement (that seems to forget that poor folks have been eating garbage forever). And when I'm dumpster-diving I seem to have a few more issues to deal with, as a Black male, than my white comrades. They aren't nearly as afraid of the police (or security), or threats of calling the police (or security), nor do they get harassed by law enforcement while diving to the degree that I do. I got harassed by security several times while diving on my own campus.As mentioned above, freegans of color are not to be seen in the videos, which may very well have to do with the Royce's concern over police harassment and brutality as a black male. Amalgamated adds
I have noticed that many of my white friends have completely different attitudes towards the police than I do...I still have to deal with being the only brown person in these situations without them understanding my increased paranoia. They are more violently anti-police in general, I suppose, and I'm more afraid of them, yet, they don't get it.In short, dumpster diving may serve as a rebellious and public-service performance by some white anti-consumerists and anarchists in which the police represent the oppressive State, but for dumpster divers of color, the police aren't so much a symbol for the hated enemy as they are a real force to be feared.
Royce, like my friend, also touches on another point: tokenism and representation: "I'm also extremely embarassed[sic] for people to see me diving, because I can tell that I'm not just me, I'm also a representation of Black people in general." A white freegan need not worry about being a token representation of his or her people during dumpster diving, but a person of color does because 1) they are most often a racial minority, 2) they are already popularly depicted as poor and dirty, and 3) they are marked as people of color in contrast to "whites" whose race is most often invisible (to other white people that is). Similarly, those like my friend who came from low/no-income households also experience a double consciousness and shame. Meep writes: "I've gotten things from around the dumpsters, but I don't tell my family because it's sort of shameful." But then again, perhaps there are many freegans of color, but as Johanna ponders, "there are other freegans of color but they just would never name themselves as such because the term is so white-identified."
Classism & Consumer Advocacy
Middle-class freegans are not really performing "class-suicide" as they can usually return home to their financial security after a disappointing night of dumpster diving. While many, if not most, of these freegans are very socially conscious and sympathetic allies to the under-privileged, other socially-conscious people (and perhaps some freegans as well) take for granted their privilege their discourse. For instance, the metaphor of advocacy = voting with $ is substantially popular among many socially-conscious animal advocates.
Yet, this discourse is offensive and discriminatory against people with less money; after all, if you have less money, that means less voting power, which means you are not helping as much as you could do otherwise. As The Vegan Ideal observes, "This would mean that the more disposable income a person has the more potential that person has of being a "real activist." It sure explains the class bias in what passes as the dominant form of nonhuman animal advocacy these days" [i.e. memberships to non-profit organizations]. Also implicit within this discourse is that social change can be bought through the market, and that each of us can do our own little individual part so that our small actions all "add up."
Many middle-class vegans also ought to appreciate that fresh produce is unfortunately a "privilege" and not a "right" or a "security" in this country, and that while it may be cheaper at times to buy whole produce, people in tighter financial and family situations may not afford the time it takes to prepare the food.. In a brave and stirring narrative, Noemi writes about her original reluctance to label herself as "vegan" because she was so unlike the token vegan who was neither poor, Mexican, nor "a single parent with no time ever ever to eat veg*n." As a child
growing up meat was a luxury. Meat was for special occasions...My mom would buy those 5 pound tubes of ground beef and would work that baby for two weeks for a family of six, using smallest possible amount and still have meat for dinner because it was a status-we have meat to eat for dinner, we are not starving...If lunch or dinner was rice and beans, it was because we couldn't afford meat, because it was all we had.For those who struggled to put "meat" on the table for much of their lives, not having may be a source of shame. Because of this, it is best not to frame veganism as a consumer movement, a movement of consumer activists. Instead, we can re-frame "meat" as a privilege of excess and oppressors that catalyzes shame, as well as the right to affordable wholesome produce for everybody.[80a, b] To frame veganism as a boycott or consumerism would be to alienate much of the world and country from participating as it will be perceived primarily as an elitist, privileged movement rather one about social justice and anti-oppression.
The same applies for the purchasing of animal and ecologically-friendly products. Breeze writes insightfully on the class-privilege implicit within eco-consumerism:
Rarely do I see mainstream ads, workshops, and lectures about looking at "green" in terms of environmental racism...It just feels like "green" is all about making money from a very class privileged USA view of "ecosustainability"... why should someone need to be "economically privileged" to guarantee that they can afford clean water...[and non-toxic materials]? And if they can't afford it, why are they looked down upon as "contributing to the global warming problem" or "not caring about their health"?[??]So often such labels as "green" and "veganism" are marketed as "health" products (meaning they are only "healthy" for the individuals who can afford them) or "environmental" (so they can appease the romantic spirit the consumer has toward the more-than-human-world). Less commonly, these products emphasize, or even embody, fair trade and environmental justice principles. And even when they do, there is always the feeling that people who do not have the privilege to purchase these products are not doing enough or are powerlessly contributing to the problem.
However, the implicit classism within the consumer advocacy framing of the movement(s) would change if, as The Vegan Ideal beautifully writes "people understood veganism as anti-oppression, which it really is. In this case, a session on "How Vegan is Enough?" would not focus on consumer habits, but rather on the need to re-center POC and low-income people... ignoring the power structure of white supremacy and the structured subjugation of people of color is obviously not vegan enough."[??]
Towards a Mutual Trust: Veganism as a Safe Place
First, I am not intending to upset anyone here, so please, everybody keep an open mind here...then criticize later...if I don’t see many POC, I naturally assume those POC that I dont see ( as groups not individuals ) arent interested in the subject matter enough to participate... if I were to ever be called out on terms of “white guilt” or “colonialist” or othet terms for trying to go to events that are more inclusive of POC or run/by or sponsored by POC, then I will not be inclined to participate in those events. --kram
It’s quite confusing and little surprising that in a “safer” space that is VOCs, my specific questions looking for a specific type of experience is met with what I see is resistance to… to emotionally connecting with the visceral experiences of VOCs --breeze
Kram's comments, as you should realize by now, are classic examples of the indifferent attitude and privileged subjectivity of too many white advocates in the movement(s). First, he acknowledges he is going to hurt people's feelings with his comment, then has the nerve not to criticize his ideas when he is the one violating their safe place and criticizing them! Second, he "naturalizes" his racist assumption that people of color "as groups" don't care about animals. And third, he justifies his lack of participation with people of color because he does not want to be uncomfortable (although it is perfectly acceptable for them to feel uncomfortable at his events). Further, kram frames the power dynamics as reverse; that is, he frames people of color as the problem and perhaps the oppressors, himself being the innocent white guy. In each instance, he totally ignores the subject of the post which focuses on the marginalized subjectivity of vegans of color at white AR events.
One cannot expect white advocates to simply know about white privilege and how it feels to be a person of color in our society, but this does not let-off white advocates from making an effort to understand and empathize. Just as most of us vegans and animal advocates learned about speciesism from readings and conversations, white advocates must learn about white privilege and how to improve interracial-relations through similar means. Of course, the problem/privilege is, as Breeze speculate, "you can simply never FEEL (versus intellectually know) this emotional pain (yes, it’s painful. I’m not sure how else to describe it).
A more hopeful orientation than attempting to really know how a person of color feels might be what Noah calls "liberating ourselves from being oppressors." Rather than attempting to identify with the oppressed by claiming oneself is oppressed, in a sense, choosing "oppression," vegans ought to consider themselves as allies of the oppressed whomever they may be. This means following Lagusta and neither prioritizing one oppression over another nor framing ourselves as victims of oppression. After all, "[n]o need to play the victim - we're the winners." If, as the Vegan Ideal says, "[v]eganism is a type of anti-oppression that can lead to learned helpfulness," white vegans should engage with people of color and patiently listen to their concerns rather than being dissonant or indifferent.