Creating Revolution: Interview with Aph Ko

The genesis of this interview is a long and winding one, starting a few years back when a friend told me and my wife about this amazing vegan grad student named Syl. Fast forward a few years to where Syl is a good friend, and her sister, Aph Ko, publishes an article addressing reasons why animal rights is a feminist issue…

Little wormholes like these open up all the time in cyberspace, and where they lead can sometimes be both informative and important for oneself. As both a writer and participant in the world of online advocacy, I am both fascinated and appalled by so much of what goes on there. After reading Aph’s article and binge-watching season 1 of her web series Black Feminist Blogger, I went down the wormhole. 

Aph’s is a crisply articulate critical voice, and her perspective on interconnected oppressions and the activist movements that counter them is wonderful in its wit and precision. I tossed a few dense questions at her to learn more about her work and some of her conclusions from her time in the blogosphere…

Aph Ko PictureCan you talk about your process of going vegan? When was it, and what factors played into your decision to stop participating in the exploitation of animals?

I became a vegetarian when I was about 16 or 17 in high school after my friends showed me some PETA brochures (I wasn’t aware of their “sexy” campaigns at this point!). I worked at a vegan restaurant in Irvine, CA called “Veggie Grill” (it was the first one ever; now it’s a successful chain). At that point, though, I didn’t have an ideological connection to veganism. I didn’t take it seriously. My sister Syl introduced me to the concept of veganism as a political concept when I was about 20. She sent me the book Sistah Vegan, and I immediately saw how racism, sexism, and speciesism connected and I was hooked. (I am still obsessed with Dr. A. Breeze Harper!)

For a while, it was difficult for me to keep the vegan diet consistent, despite the fact that I understood the political ideology because I had been addicted to animal-bodies-as-consumptive-units for so long. I realized that un-learning scripts about food consumption was super difficult, but necessary and possible.

Your series Black Feminist Blogger is a hilarious and yet disturbing account of the realities faced by a black feminist writer in the blogosphere. I am curious to hear your feelings about the current state of feminist discussion in cyberspace and society at large. For example, I was struck by your fictional editor, Marie, in the series—especially her comment, “I took out inflammatory words like racism and white supremacy. … in this magazine we’re trying to talk about women’s issues.” Do you feel like actual progress (in terms of changing cultural mores and connecting movements) is being made on key feminist issues thanks to the web? What benefits and costs do you think come through engaging in online advocacy?

This is an awesome question. Yes- I do think a type of progress is being made online. It allows certain minoritized people access to platforms that they wouldn’t necessarily have access to if it weren’t for the internet. Most importantly, it allows us to connect with each other. Also, I have learned so much about social justice movements online. So in one instance, I would state that yes, progress is definitely being made because the internet offers a unique space for organizing and movement building.

Beyond that, though, I am skeptical of the idea that the internet alone will advance political issues. Part of my show Black Feminist Blogger exposes how blogging is a business based upon some of my own real experiences blogging online full time. Because people are making money off of their websites (which isn’t always a bad thing—especially if you’re doing good, important work), there’s a pressure to publish quickly and to regurgitate the same popular topics over and over (in the same ways) to achieve those clicks. Perhaps this is why you might see 300,000 articles about Iggy Azalea talking about cellulite on her ass…and whether or not her acceptance of her cellulite is a feminist stance…like what the fuck.

In fact, you will see the business side of blogging through freelance writing work. I’ve worked for feminist sites that hire a large amount of writers that they pay per article. In fact, some of these successful websites will send out emails to their freelance writers every week with “popular topic ideas” that they can choose from. Sometimes, you have to choose a topic from their list because they know they will achieve the most page clicks (which translates to money). Therefore, the focus is on PRODUCING articles, not necessarily writing awesome content that’s needed. I’ve even worked for spaces that tried to get writers from overseas because they could pay them less per article.

I think that’s the scariest part about the online space. The corporatization of online feminism is silencing radical, independent feminist voices that can’t compete with corporations, or websites that are making thousands of dollars. (Some feminist writers even have agents!) Because of this, certain feminist websites have the monopoly on feminist thought, and that annoys me. You can also expect that the same feminist spaces are going to be writing about the exact same popular cultural moments over and over again, not because they’re adding anything new to the conversation, but because they HAVE to write about it to stay relevant, and I don’t know how that translates to anything other than journalism.

Honestly, I think the internet is helping people become stronger business owners and journalists, but not necessarily better activists. The act of promoting oneself and one’s writing becomes conflated with activism.

As a black feminist, what are some of the main issues that you want to see getting more attention than they currently are? What has your experience been when trying to raise these issues in light of the narratives constructed by “mainstream” media?

Overall, I think we’re experiencing a giant theoretical rut today. Most of the conversations that are occurring in the mainstream take critical subjects and distill them. We refuse to talk about women and sexuality in a dynamic way because MALE GAZE/RAPE CULTURE. Light-skinned and dark-skinned black women can’t talk together today because COLORISM. Every minute there’s a new article about a celebrity “celebrating” their curves, or embracing their make-up free face, and at this point, the basic-ness of these events are profound. I feel fatigued with how uncritical and boring our discussions are today. The discussions in the mainstream are very safe and sanitized. We need a new framework for talking about these issues because currently they’re unproductive and produce sloppy, uninspiring, predictable conversations that don’t go anywhere.

For one, I wish that we could stop focusing so much on celebrities. I think our culture has a sick fixation with what celebrities are doing. I think feminism has been so unpalatable and unfavorable for so long that we are now trying to re-brand it in a way where it’s not threatening, and in doing that, I think we’re distilling it and unfairly slapping the feminist label onto any celebrity who denounces Photoshopping.

I think the huge focus on celebrity culture in feminism has something to do with the fact that a lot of feminism online is turning into sell-out journalism. Because of this journalistic turn in feminism, more and more feminists are “reporting” cultural events and giving their analyses.

As a black feminist, I wish we could start talking more about animal rights and veganism in our feminist circles without viewing animal rights as a “separate” field. Our social justice movements are so compartmentalized despite the fact that “intersectionality” is the trendiest word of our generation. I also wish that feminists focused more on indie digital media, indie music, art, etc. I love the grassroots feeling of the indie space and I think there’s power in the grungy, indie circuit. The act of creating is revolutionary, so I think we need to start talking some more about that. Overall, I think we need some new theory to account for the different political, racial, sexual landscape today.

Your recent article for Everyday Feminism discussed some of the reasons why animal rights is a feminist issue. Why do you think this argument still needs to be made in feminist circles (i.e., what do you think lies behind the disconnect between human feminists and other animals)?

I think many social justice movements today thrive on empty buzzwords and mantras, rather than actual praxis. So, it’s trendier to learn the language of the movement so that you “look” like you get it, rather than actually getting it. If you actually understood the movements you’ve been participating in, your behavior would start changing, not just the phrases written on your shirt.

You have some people screaming #blacklivesmatter for Mike Brown, but they can’t name one black author, black philosopher, black indie media product, black artist, etc. It’s empty.

Ironically, you have feminists screaming “the personal is political” but they don’t think about the food they consume which is wrapped up in giant systems of oppression.

Intersectionality falls flat today in many circles because it’s attached to empty praxis.

I think some feminists’ inability to fight for animal rights demonstrates how ingrained problematic hierarchies are, even in oppressed subjects’ psyches. Some oppressed folks have a hard time accepting that they might be oppressive agents to others. Unfortunately, when some groups are oppressed, they are incapable of understanding that they’re not the only bodies being oppressed, and any attention that goes to another group is immediately met with anger and frustration. This reaction is proof for my assertion that people don’t really GET intersectionality…or maybe haven’t really read about it.

I also think that because of the online space where everyone can have their own blog, and write their own critiques, everyone thinks they’re an expert at feminism. People want to critique, but they aren’t necessarily as inclined to learn (I was quite a stubborn asshole as well when I started blogging). As I said in my Daily Beast interview, I think people are experts at critiquing and pointing out problems in everything, but they don’t want to be reflexive because it means they might actually have to change, and since our culture thrives on comfort, “change” merely becomes a tie-dye colored word on a John Lennon poster that might be hanging from your wall, not a politic that you live your life by.

Along with the WHY, can you talk about the HOW? How does feminism start to take the oppression of other animals more seriously and create a comprehensive, intersectional strategy for fighting oppression?

Ironically we have the theory there that supports animal rights and veganism; we just need to practice it. Every feminist knows “intersectionality,” but they have to apply it to bodies that don’t necessarily look like their own.

I think it’s about just doing it. Oftentimes, in social justice circles, we fetishize activism, or assume it’s about changing someone else. However, it can start with you. Feminists (especially in the mainstream) definitely understand the body as a political entity, so there’s no excuse. I mean—we exist in a culture where everyone and their sister is talking about “body-positivity,” so it seems like some feminists are willing to talk about their bodies as long as it’s attached to a superficial beauty rhetoric; however, when it’s attached to changing their diets to accommodate animal bodies, suddenly they start to have a problem with that. (They will often shout scripts like “well….some people can’t go vegan because they live in poverty or because of cultural reasons,” and I’m like “okay…some people don’t have the option to go vegan…but don’t you?” Silence and crickets.)

(I just want to make a note that I’m aware that not every community has the option to go vegan. However, I’m predominantly talking to the thousands of people who *do* have the option to go vegan, but don’t .)

I mean, after my article about animal rights in Everyday Feminism, I can’t tell you how many feminists were pissed off with me and sent me really mean messages telling me that I was a joke or that I wasn’t a real feminist because animal lives weren’t as important as women’s lives. Some people were so hostile that I started re-reading my article to see if I said anything that extreme. I had no idea animal rights (within a feminist context) was this controversial. The automatic assumption that animal bodies are just “less than” reifies the exact same hierarchical systems that feminists are trying to fight to get their own rights. It’s the epitome of irony and while frustrating, it’s great fodder for another comedy web-series, LOL. This negative response reveals how misguided some attempts are in feminism to reach “liberation.”

You have to actually ACT to be an activist. It’s a struggle. So, giving up your meat and cheese might seem like the end of the world, but that feeling of personal struggle is necessary for the movement. People know animals are being tortured and slaughtered, but they can’t give up meat because it “tastes good.” How committed are you to social justice if your taste buds rank higher than another being’s existence

Activism isn’t necessarily supposed to be comfortable. We need empathy in our social justice movements. To have the expectation that dominant groups should understand your plight, while you have another being’s flesh stuck in your teeth, just feels awkward, LOL.

To focus on veganism/animal rights more specifically, what in your opinion are some of the biggest failings of the movement(s) in reaching non-white, non-affluent individuals? What concrete steps need to be taken to make veganism more inclusive—both in terms of rhetoric but also in terms of outreach and support?

I think there’s a foundational issue with inclusivity rhetoric. In fact, many folks argue (myself included) that diversity and inclusivity rhetoric serves to reify and empower white supremacy.

Your question presupposes that there aren’t people of color in the movement already, so the question discursively excludes us (brown people) which must be noted. What “animal rights movement” are you talking about?  Your question naturalizes whiteness as the norm which I think is problematic, LOL. I’m going to assume that you’re referring to animal rights organizations that are predominantly made up of white people considering “whiteness” is commonly implied, but rarely called out. By using the white-centered, ambiguous term “animal rights movement,” you’re ironically erasing brown people and our work, but I will however answer the question I think you’re asking.

I don’t view the white animal rights movement as “failing” to include brown folks because that would presuppose that they set out to accommodate brown people in the first place, which they haven’t. I don’t view my exclusion as accidental.

We can look to the ways that black feminists recently called out “white feminism” as a thing, to solve some of these issues in “mainstream” animal rights spaces because I think this is more of a rhetorical issue.

For too long, “mainstream feminism” seemed to only focus on white women, and completely ignored the ways in which women of color were impacted by patriarchy differently. Mainstream feminism also seemed to ignore the activist efforts of non-white women. Therefore, when black feminist Mikki Kendall came out with hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen, she brilliantly pointed to the ways that these “mainstream” movements only recognized white activism, while excluding and ignoring the struggles and labor of people of color. In other words, “mainstream” seemed to have a color attached to it: white.

Dr. Brittney Cooper wrote a BRILLIANT article titled, “Feminism’s Ugly Internal Clash: Why Its Future Isn’t Up to White Women,” to clearly draw the lines between white and black feminism, and to make a point that black women don’t need white feminism in order to validate their activism. Before this, “white” feminism was felt, but was never actually called out. This was a significant rhetorical move. Dr. Cooper noted how white feminism (or mainstream feminism) centered on equality, and black feminism centered on justice. These are two different projects and they need two different names or else all of the work black feminists are doing will unfairly be erased or eclipsed by white women’s organizing efforts.

I think we need a similar rhetorical strategy for the current “mainstream” animal rights movement that excludes non-white activists. Part of the activism is labeling the current “mainstream” animal rights movement a white movement so that the rest of us can move on and continue doing our own activism without fighting for a seat at the white table. Fighting for animal rights and then fighting for representation in a white space are two very different projects.

If minoritized people aren’t joining your movements, it could be that we already have our own movement that you just don’t know about, OR, your space is exclusionary. The activism shouldn’t center on how to reach out to non-white people… you should use that energy to look to the foundation of your movement or project because your answers might be there. We pathologize minoritized people by questioning their motives for not joining movements and organizations that purposefully exclude them.  Instead of spotlighting the activist efforts of non-white people (because there’s a lot of us), the attention gets turned to why these folks aren’t joining white organizations.

If the white folks actually understood the issues they were so passionately fighting for, they would already be inclusive, so their exclusion is quite intentional.

Just because the white animal rights movement doesn’t recognize us, doesn’t mean that we don’t exist. We’ve been organizing for a while.

There are many black/brown vegans who are doing awesome projects and we need to allow these organic movements to thrive as they are. Perhaps white folks can help by providing resources and financial assistance to some minoritized vegan activist movements that don’t get as much exposure as white organizations, rather than trying to get these minoritized folks to join their organizations. That feels like a completely different, appropriative project.

Just remember that there are vegans of color who are doing work, and that’s the animal rights movement that I know and focus on.

Wow…so many important points there. Thanks for making the best of my poorly worded question! 🙂 So, what projects will you be working on in the near future, and what issues do you see being (continuing or immediate) priorities for you?

I’m currently working on season 2 of Black Feminist Blogger, and I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to film another episode of my web-series “Tales from the Kraka Tower.” For me, right now, self-care is the most important thing. In order to continue my activism, I need to re-charge, which is what I’m doing now. J

I want to keep championing for independent smart media, and I’m trying to finish an EP with my band!

Thanks so much for speaking with me!

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Published by

Justin Van Kleeck

I am a vegan (since 1999), a curious skeptic, a bookworm, a nature lover, and your garden-variety neurotic. My wrestling with chaos manifests as writing and, with my wife, tending our friends the plants and spending quality time with our rescued furry kids. I am fun at parties (because I am never there) and so unique that I am easy to forget. So take that, modernity.

5 thoughts on “Creating Revolution: Interview with Aph Ko”

  1. can you provide some good resources about intersectionality, as it’s being used in this interview? i don’t understand it.

    also, i think the heart of your last question was lost. i felt the important question was: how do different racial groups respond to the plight of non human animals differently? how can activists use these differences?

    is that inherently appropriative? i’m not wondering how to get latinas involed with PETA. i’m wondering how being latina affects one’s relationship with animal consumption, and how can we connect with that? i mean “We” to refer to anyone who wants to abolish animal cruelty. does that assume too much? if so, i’m confused.

  2. i mean, if latinas, or koreans, or gay people, or whatever group has its own animal advocacy, that’s great. but there are latinas, koreans, and gay people that are not helping. if their gayness or koreaness means PETA doesn’t relate to them, then why isn’t that of interest to all? what kind of strategies speak to these people?

    i’m glad some movements represent them, but what about me? how can i relate to minorities i meet? how can different movements relate to each other? i know these are big questions, but i feel that Aph Ko doesn’t speak to them in the interview. i only belabor this, because i actually would really like to hear her opinion. here, i’m just getting the feeling that black people have their way, and white people theirs. but that’s not really speaking seriously about how to communicate through those differences, or even in virtue of those differences.

    you know? this response feels defensive, instead of sincere. what about coaltions, blahblahblah?

    1. I can see where you are coming from, but Aph’s response to my question was actually more snarky and sarcastic than defensive…but also rightly critical. I think what Aph is getting at is that we tend to frame the AR movement as a mostly white movement that needs to reach out to non-whites, which argues from the premise that AR & veganism are white movements. To frame it as a need for inclusion, rather than as contextualizing the mainstream movements in a way that gives equal (and justified) attention to those outside of the mainstream, is a problematic and fairly condescending way to approach the issue. I do not want to answer for her, but I think having these discussions and building alliances involves humility in how we (white folks) position ourselves in trying to engage. There is a big difference between tokenization and honest intersectionality; what I see from most mainstreamers is tokenization. This is an interesting talk by A. Breeze Harper and lauren Ornelas on that last issue: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ndJ314WTEU.

      There is a lot of intersectional discussion being had on The Academic Abolitionist Vegan and Vegan Feminist Network sites (from an abolitionist perspective); also definitely check out Sistah Vegan and Everyday Feminism. If Aph sees this comment, she may also have some other places to point to.

      Your comments come across as rather defensive and dismissive of what is an absolutely serious task for everyone in the animal rights/liberation community. Why the hostility? There is a lot more to be discussed here than what Aph addressed, and I think her points are spot on at addressing the mentality underlying what I asked and how I asked it.

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