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Intersectionality is a concept that is often rejected in the Nonhuman Animal movement, a problem that is strategically calamitous. The movement is mostly white-identified, meaning that most leaders and rank-and-file activists fail to consider how anti-speciesist claimsmaking could offend or even oppress disenfranchised humans. Because privilege tends to be invisible to those who have it, this propensity to hurt others frustratingly does not register with many white vegans.
This is a pivotal problem because the Nonhuman Animal rights movement regularly targets the actions of marginalized groups as “low-hanging fruit.” While white vegans may not be conscious of this fact, the speciesist actions of minorities are easy for the movement to pick on because society at large already oppresses these populations. Campaigns that target minorities are more likely to garner support from a white supremacist public because suspicions of Nonhuman Animal cruelty become yet another reason to discriminate. Examples include dog fighting, cock fighting, bear baiting, fur wearing, the consumption of dogs and cats, whale hunting, poaching, and hoarding. These are all traditionally associated with marginalized demographics such as lower class persons, women, people of color, and non-Westerners. Vegan researchers have noted that it has typically been these forms of speciesism that the movement rallies behind, while the actions of society’s privileged go ignored or underresourced.
Racist campaigns resonate in a racist society.
Anti-racist vegans are sometimes charged with “moral relativism” when challenging the presumed race neutrality of anti-speciesist claimsmaking. Moral relativism is the idea that what is right or wrong is contextual, changing based on the social circumstance or culture. Anti-racist vegans insist that claimsmaking must be cognizant of cultural differences to be effective, while “color blind” vegans retort that pro-intersectional vegans must not care about Nonhuman Animal suffering. Nonhuman Animals, they argue, are left vulnerable to protect political correctness.
I strongly suspect, however, that this argument is disingenuous. The “moral relativism” defense is merely a deflection that seeks to protect the status quo and avoid critical examination. Nonhuman Animal suffering is thus exploited and objectified to protect the superiority of white veganism.
The argument is not that vegans should condone or ignore speciesist behaviors engaged by non-white or non-Western cultures. The argument is only that creating single-issue campaigns that sensationalize the behaviors of people of color is racist. These campaigns reflect white privilege in that they provide white vegans the power to judge others as lesser and protect the in-group sense of superiority. Such an approach is offensive to marginalized groups. It exactly explains why the Nonhuman Animal rights movement is overwhelmingly white and has historically had huge difficulties building links to other movements.
Western society has been violently constructed to benefit whites, and one of those benefits is the constant validation of white ideas and opinions. White vegans are simply not used to being criticized on cultural sensitivity because white culture is the default culture. A white supremacist society constantly reinforces the white vegan’s self-perception of goodness, righteousness, and moral superiority. This is not to blame or shame white vegans, of course, but only to insist that this bias be acknowledged.
A White Supremacist Origin
The Nonhuman Animal rights movement is white supremacist in origin (see M. Lundblad’s 2013 The Birth of a Jungle). The movement gained momentum in the late 19th century, coinciding with the abolition of slavery and the fight to increase basic civil liberties for Britons and Americans of African decent. Advocacy and racism often overlapped as Blacks were framed as brutish, unfeeling, cruel people who could never be so pure of heart as to care about the suffering of other animals. Nonhuman Animal advocacy was intentionally framed as a thing white people did, a thing only white people were capable of doing. At this time, narratives of Black men savagely raping white women were rampant, resulting in thousands of lynchings across the American South (see the work of Ida B. Wells). Blacks, Asians, Latinos, and Native Americans were also considered biologically subhuman and thus incapable of voting or receiving serious education. White society saw these groups as inherently evil and in need of control. Anti-speciesist narratives coincided with and supported these discriminatory ideologies. White activists understood that racist campaigns resonate in a racist society.
It is this history that continues to shape race relations today, and it cannot be erased from anti-speciesism efforts. People of color are institutionally oppressed by a racist criminal justice system which continues to believe that Brown and Black peoples are inherently cruel, evil, and in need of control. Should the vegan project be complicit with this dangerous stereotyping? Surely not, as the animalizing of people of color is not only an injustice to people of color, but also reinforces the cultural belief that the animal is bad. I have thus far argued that racist campaigns resonate in a racist society, but justice and compassion can also resonate. Racism is neither a stable nor progressive tactic. It only upholds the very violence the Nonhuman Animal rights movement seeks to dismantle.
Ignoring the past and present of Western racism will only disservice the movement in underscoring the stereotype of veganism as a “white thing” that whites use to feel superior and brag about their privileged consumption patterns. When white vegans insist on avoiding a racialized lens, they actually underscore veganism’s racialized nature. You see, white is a race, too, and protecting its supremacy in a social movement is a political act with consequences. Veganism is not, never was, and never will be “color blind.”
White vegans can advocate for other animals in ways that do not ostracize or alienate underprivileged people (see the work of Dr. Breeze Harper). This will involve self-reflection and awareness when planning. It also requires dialogue with those who have historically been denied participation in decision-making. This will entail a bit of extra effort, but it is worth it. Activists will not achieve real change for Nonhuman Animals by acting out of ignorance and disrespect for others.
Readers can learn more about racism in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement and its consequences for anti-speciesism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.
This essay was originally published on The Academic Activist Vegan on June 11, 2013.