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.

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.

15 thoughts on “White Vegans Need Intersectionality”

  1. Thanks for writing this. The white male backlash against vegans and AR activists daring to care about oppressed human animals is truly distressing (though also utterly predictable).

  2. How do you feel about those Black activists who decapitated an innocent pig and used him or her to mock the police? Where do you think Intersectionality fits in with them? Usually when people attack animal advocacy they have a curious double standard-they expect nonhuman activists to embrace this concept of total liberation but the same is not demanded of human rights activists.

    Total liberation/Intersectionality didnt get very far during the days of slavery (Tappan brothers discriminated by class and didnt support women advocates…Fredric Douglas abandoned the women vote to give black men their vote first..anti-slavery supporters were seen as elitist wealthy whites…etc etc). Worse, the use of the term “corporate animal advocacy groups” sounds very much like Rep. Andy Holt, a Tennessee industrial pig farmer and politician who tabled ag-gag legislation, and sent an email to HSUS Public Policy Coordinator Kayci McLeod saying that “propagandist groups of radical animal activists, like your fraudulent and reprehensibly disgusting organization of maligned animal abuse profiteering corporatists … are intent on using animals the same way human-traffickers use 17 year old women,” and referred to HSUS methods as “tape and rape.”

    Shouldnt be using the lingo of exploiters if you about nonhuman exploitation.

    Fact is, many animal advocates are women. The real issue in intersectional politics isnt so much race as gender. Check the countries with the absence of welfare concern for nonhuman animals and chances are they do not care about women’s rights, children’s rights, LGBT etc.

    I keep hearing that “animal activists are racist” but the problem is, it is the exploiters-the people who make money off their exploitation of nonhuman animals from birth to death who have been saying it. My police as a 25 year vegan is not to agree with the type of nonsense that exploiters say. There is a difference between veganism and fifth column veganism–the later claims to be interested in nonhuman lives but really seeks to distract-divide-and demoralize activists.

    Now, please get together with those black activists who mutilated that pig and explain to them your message of total liberation. Thanks.

    1. So you are saying basically that it is important to include emphases on the rights of women, children, and LGBT communities, but race is really not the issue? Or that race is somehow less of an issue? You are cherry-picking oppressions.

      The problem here is that your argument relies upon the exact problem I pointed out in my article: refusing to recognize that intersectionality reflects the lived experiences of those suffering oppression who are fighting to end ALL oppression. That de-contextualization makes it convenient for you to criticize (not without grounds, of course) the actions of some activists on race for exploitation of a dead pig and therefore derail the underlying point of intersectionality, all the while ignoring the racial injustices that created the context for those actions. It is easy to downplay the decades of widescale murders of black individuals by police, and the mass incarceration of many more, and ghettoizing of communities because of racist “urban planning” regimes that have persisted for generations. (One example of this came to light with the history of the Newtown neighborhood in Harrisonburg, Va., where I used to live: http://www.jmu.edu/stories/2013/remembering-place-jmuse-discussions.shtml). You also seem to think that any example of black activism is going to be intersectional by default. Obviously it might not be, so your argument relies on a false assumption.

      It seems like the proper response should be to EMPHASIZE this context in those actions you are so quick to use as evidence for dismissing intersectional approaches. Instead you can conveniently forget it because, well, you have the privilege to do so. And society is not going to force you too; it is much more convenient for you not to. So everything you are saying makes it clearer why non-human activism has to be aware of contexts for reaching humans engaged in human activism: we all have crucial things to learn from each other, because oppressions are indeed connected. I have no idea why you think intersectionality is demoralizing for activists working for non-humans. I can say from my personal experience it is the opposite; many others are living proof that is the case. Just because you disagree does not make it truth, and you are not providing evidence to the contrary.

      Lastly, own your criticism. This is a serious discussion, and anonymous comments from an anonymous blogger are distastefully trollish.

      1. Thank you for writing this reply. We need more allies like yourself to stand up against the micro-aggressions people of color face daily from white vegans and animal rights activists.

      2. I would also be remiss if I did not raise the fact that the AR/vegan movement has a HORRIBLE track record of mistreating women. Besides the disproportionate under-representation of women in leadership positions, there are far too many instances of outright violence against women perpetrated by men (including “leaders”). Nick Cooney is a good example of the unrepentant vegan man with a disturbing legacy of sexual predation/misconduct: http://paxblueribbon.tumblr.com/post/48330687042/lies-of-the-patriarchy-violent-vegan-men. Yet far too few in our movement take this seriously, or create sufficiently safe spaces.

        Beyond that is the question of rampant speciesism that is perfectly acceptable. Somehow black activists failing to include non-humans in an outpouring of rage and protest at systemic, murderous racism deserves heaped scorn, yet the deadly violence of welfarist advocacy is shrugged off–violent because advocating for “nicer” forms of exploitation and murder of non-humans is a promotion of violence against those non-humans. (Aph Ko’s article on this blog responding to Akilah’s “Intersectionality Pizza” is a good instance in which incomplete/flawed intersectionality can be addressed.)

        All social justice movements have ways they need to be doing better, and intersectionality is part of that solution. Dismissing it as a cult is the absolute worst possible way to address these problems.

      3. Your argument just shows that you dont think industrial exploitation of nonhumans is a big deal. You consider it equal or less than equal with police violence. That is unfortunate but shows why animal advocacy will continue to focus on its objectives and ignore the advice of bloggers. Fortunately for the victims of industrial exploitation. My recommendation is to step outside and walk down a street with businesses and see how long it takes before you encounter anti-vegan cultural messaging. I.e. a McDonalds or Burger King. It will not take long. That is the mountain that nonhuman animal activists have to climb and police violence cases are not even remotely comparable to that industrial systemic exploitation. What is shown is that there is a human supremacy bias–people claim to care about nonhumans but actually still put human interests on a pedestal. Double standards. But as I said the real advocates know where to place their priorities and dont treat it as a thought game. Good luck on the road to enlightenment.

      4. I have debated replying to this comment because this conversation is exhausting and seemingly pointless. But I must say this: you go up to the family of Mike Brown, or Tamir Rice, or Aiyana Jones, and you tell them police brutality against persons of color and their entire communities is trivial compared to non-human suffering. You whine the same whine of the reactionaries who complain that doing anything on behalf of animals means we do not care about humans. You are making two grave mistakes: 1) presenting a false idea that intersectionality prioritizes humans (sometimes it does, but not always and not essentially), and 2) depicting that whole conversation as monolithic and uncritical (if you read Aph Ko’s article responding to Akilah on this blog, you will see one example of how it is neither; Breeze Harper’s work is another).

      5. Because humans can be irrational–if I did as you suggested I may be attacked. Pigs and chickens wouldnt be so hostile when their suffering is trivialized by the same people–which is also my point. The most vulnerable suffer the most. They are enduring systemic exploitation from birth to death for an unnecessary diet–being confined to a box, starved, tortured, branded, maimed, isolated.
        Just as we would say LGBT issues are their own concern, or children’s issues, or women’s issues, then so too are nonhuman issues. But often–there seems to be a tendency to only require activists for nonhuman concerns be intersectional. As I said–what about the people who mutilated a pig? Have you talked to them about their violent discrimination? I assume not.

        The exploitation of nonhumans is its own issue– so big and catastrophic (indeed-climate change is fueled by it as well as zoonotic disease among other things). It is difficult enough to get people to pay attention to a single issue-let alone all of them-but this is obvious to those who care. Too often humans who claim to represent nonhuman interests (and we must remember they cannot represent themselves) will act as if they are the real victim. It is all too human a trait. Besides, the Intersectional movement has been used by industrial exploiters for the purpose of changing the conversation since they know how difficult it is to get the public to pay attention to any issue in the media–they want it diluted and broadened so people will ignore it. PETA and HSUS and MFA are smarter than that however. I appreciate the responses.

  3. “As I said–what about the people who mutilated a pig? Have you talked to them about their violent discrimination? I assume not.”

    The entire POINT of Creative, Non-Oppressive Vegan Education, which was pioneered by the very people you keep villifying (Gary Francione chief among them) is to educate non-Vegans on Veganism being the non-negotiable moral baseline. ALL Abolitionist Vegans who educate (of whom there are a growing number, but unfortunately, nowhere near enough), do so primarily to those who are non-Vegan such as the pig-mutilators you mention. Educating Vegans on intersectionality is always a (important) secondary task. You just keep ignoring that. But then, you’ve ALWAYS ignored rational arguments that contravene your existing biases.

    Your attempts to somehow dismantle the Abolitionist Vegan movement (which is not really possible) would be laughable, if they weren’t just another stumbling block on the road to actually doing anything meaningful for nonhumans. If every “animal person” would release their ridiculous irrational death grip on fallacies and appeals to anything but rationality and simply start educating all non-Vegans using the groundwork laid down by GLF and others, we’d see a Vegan humanity within only a few years. All you’re succeeding in doing is stalling that. Great job.

    1. This is such a tiresome conversation. You seem deaf to the countless non-white (and non-male) vegans who are addressing the tremendously problematic privileges and prejudices built in to the vast majority of mainstream and even abolitionist vegan activism and messaging. You can scream about abolition all you want, but stop pretending that we are all working in equivalent contexts that make rampant systems of human oppression negligible in the field of vegan activism.

      Or put another way, part of the problem of the mutilated pig is a foundational failure of veganism to reach and take seriously folks like those protesters with the pig’s head. Feel free to send Gary L. Francione himself down to their neighborhood and give it a shot. I am sure he is well-prepared with his six-figure professor’s salary and inherited wealth to make that happen.

      1. I don’t think you’re aware that I was not replying to your comments at all, but those of “SupremacyMyth.”

        Either way, I’m not interested in addressing your above reply, since you seem unable to refrain from attacking someone who was obviously on your side to begin with. In fact, I’m no longer following your comments or blog.

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