White Vegans Need Intersectionality

By Justin Van Kleeck

The vegan and animal rights movements have failed at many, many things. Despite what large corporate organizations are saying, the evidence that “we are winning” is pretty damn sparse. Veganism is slipping more and more quickly down a slope of consumerism, while the many ethics-based activists try desperately to cling to principles and strategies that are part of an actual ethical framework rather than on (slightly) altering consumption habits.

“The movement” has also done an outrageously horrible job of ridding itself of most of the privilege-based biases that allow oppression(s) to persist in human culture: racism, sexism, nationalism/xenophobia, anti-gay and anti-trans heteronormativity, sizeism, ageism, ableism, and a disturbing amount of speciesism as well.

This is all quite evident in most online vegan/AR discussion forums, as well as in mainstream vegan marketing. The appeal is almost always to an audience that is presumed to be fully capable of accessing and purchasing an endless array of “cruelty-free” consumables. In the activism and advocacy arenas, the expectation is that “anything for the animals” is available to everyone equally.

I am a perfect example of how problematic these biased assumptions can be. I went for twelve years as a white male vegan before I encountered, purely by chance and my own curiosity in researching, any real challenge to my assumptions as a privileged person in society and in veganism.

That challenge was intersectionality, and its emphasis on the interconnected nature of oppressions made instant sense. “Intersectionality” as a term had been around since Kimberlé Crenshaw coined it back in 1989, but it (and the associated awareness of other experiences and perspective than my own that it required) had played no part in my conceptions or advocacy as a vegan.

My experience also reflects well the general arc of theory and praxis in mainstream veganism. You see the effects in a variety of ways, from tokenizing of non-whites in marketing materials and prototypical “progressive” liberal efforts to be “inclusive” that reek of corporatized diversity plans, to outright racist (et al.) microaggressions that either downplay or overlook the truly remarkable work being done outside of the mainstream by activists of all makes and models.

Thankfully, intersectionality is gaining traction in veganism and animal rights, and more and more powerful voices are speaking up about the need for intersectional discussion and activism. Of course, and not surprisingly, there is an equally vigorous backlash burgeoning amongst many vegans–predominantly white, male vegans, I should add.

Two recent examples: Aph Ko’s groundbreaking article “#BlackVegansRock: 100 Black Vegans to Check Out” suddenly became an occasion for beating of the racist vegan bushes when The Vegan Society shared it on their Facebook page. The chants of “we are all vegan” and “it’s all about the animals” and “why you being so RACIST?” had that dreadful echo of “All Lives Matter” that exemplifies the failure of vegans to understand why intersectionality is so essential for actual long-term gains for the non-human AND the human animals.

Another recent article likens intersectionality to a “cult” because, well…cults do not have acceptable editorial standards among other things. While the rise of intersectionality is also a good occasion for all of us to remain extremely intentional and reflective in how we do theory and practice, there are some real persistent problems with (white) (male) vegan privilege being used to respond to intersectionality with any number of conversation-ending laments and tears.

Generally speaking, whatever points are being made in these and other similar criticisms about pro-intersectional advocates forgetting the non-humans rely not just on privilege. They also function by de-contextualizing what intersectionality is and addressing it as if it is like a camp of the movement. Doing so is a fundamental failure because of the impact that a pro-intersectional approach has on the real lives of non-white, non-male activists. Even if lip service is paid to the interconnection of oppressions, it is damn touchy as a classically privileged person/activist to wag your finger and mutter, “Animals tho.”

The movement has done a pretty shitty job for the animals in general, but it has perhaps done even worse for non-white non-males. I personally find intersectionality to be a powerful and long-overdue corrective, and it offers what is a truly revolutionary imperative, all because it challenges the hegemonic privilege of most of the vegans who currently hog the mainstream’s spotlight.
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