Lessons in Applied Speciesism

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By Justin Van Kleeck

i.

The memory of picking up Orion and Hikaru, our first rescued roosters, from the shelter is still vivid, albeit with the fuzzy edges of most past memories. In contrast with Hikaru’s vibrant reds and oranges and blacks, Orion was essentially white. His personality was a similar study in contrasts: whereas Hikaru was often ferociously forward and likely to peck you if you got too close, Orion was just scared. We could not get within ten feet of him for months.

Both of these roosters had their own medical issues that needed tending to: Hikaru had a horrid case of scaly leg mites, and Orion had a nasty bumblefoot on each foot. The foot issues never slowed Orion down as he ran, for many long minutes at a time, away from us as we tried to catch him to take him inside for bed every evening. (Getting him out for the day was a less-extended process, simply because his makeshift pen in the basement was smaller—making it easier to catch the flashing white roo.)

Memory is tricky not just for being fuzzy—especially fuzzy in places where you want it to be sharpest. It also tends to be infuriating for its proficiency in adding much later the proper emotional significance to moments, to events, to routines, that we would be all the better for if we could catch them in that moment of time when they are most relevant.

It was only after days of watching Orion nearly constantly as he weakened, sickened, showed his age, and eventually died that memory imbued those moments—now long gone, fading as quickly as they gained greater significance—with the sort of heart-breaking weight they suddenly had for me. And still have, now, several months since Orion died.

In my head, which is as damaged as my heart after losing too many dear companions, the year-plus that slowly-yet-quickly unfolded after my first ride home with Orion is not strictly linear. The X-axis has twists, crinkles, folds in upon itself. Early moments ripple forwards and touch upon later ones, yet always remaining past, further back along the unforgiving, unrelenting X. It becomes unbearable at times.

You see, no longer is Orion just the fleeing, fleeting white feathered biped who squawked and screamed if we got too close. As he learned to trust us, and as he took his rightful place as the great grand alpha rooster of our homeplace, he started to recognize us as belonging along with him here, in this place, with the other hens and roosters over whom he cast such a watchful eye.

I never really realized the impact of this evolution until the edges became far too fuzzy. I could not have known in the moment how much it would mean to me that, for weeks before he became too sick to walk steadily, or be on his own in his yard as normal, he would walk up to me when I came around to pick him up and carry him in for the evening. Perhaps I am just a failure at this whole chronology thing, but the evolution of our mutual trust over time seemed to be just a simple fact of the present. It simply was, alive in all its momentousness much as Orion was bigger than life in his roosterly presence.

His waning was too much. His death was impossible to process. His burial was more than enough to break me in places I did not know remained to be broken. His absence is a void that memory tries desperately, blindly and haphazardly, to fill with something approaching the reality of what he was.

Always, it fails.

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ii.

The death of Orion the rooster takes place within a larger matrix of chicken care, of course, that makes his experience (and ours) so much more tragic. This past summer, we lost a number of chickens over a period of a few weeks, in what were (are) without doubt the most difficult times of my life.

After thousands of years of domestication for food and entertainment purposes, chickens have only recently started to receive any sort of moderately adequate medical care. And after thousands of years of domestication for these human ends, much as with purebred dogs they are born with a whole host of inherited health problems. Modern hens breach their shells already “programmed” to lay 250-300 eggs each year, and the males who make it out of hatcheries alive are born from that same mutated, hijacked gene pool as hens. To put it bluntly: modern chickens are bred to live fast, lay lots, and die young.

This is all worth mentioning because it throws into relief the sickness, attempts at treatment, and death of Orion the rooster—and so many chickens like him who are fortunate (and rare) enough to receive some level of reliable veterinary care.

When you take your dog or cat into the vet’s office with some ailment, you assume that you will be given a reasonable diagnosis, a treatment plan, and a potential outcome. We take this as a given; we believe, with the sort of faith most gods would envy, that our medical caregivers will offer us something accurate to work with.

Not so with chickens. There is almost nothing like that with chickens.

iii.

Speciesism is the belief that humans have a primary universal significance giving them the right and power to dominate other species for their own ends. There are many ways in which speciesism dictates and shapes our everyday experience; human society as we know it would not exist without an unquestioned belief in the predominant glory of humankind. Even amongst those who fight for “the animals,” the ascendancy of humanity is a nauseating “of course” that is as impossible to challenge as it is to uproot—even rhetorically. It permeates us, and all we build, because it is at the foundations of everything we know. Even a glimpse at that foundation from above is enough to induce a vertigo that none of us can handle.

Beyond blatant anthropocentrism, of course, is an extension of valuation based upon what is more or less worthwhile for humans. This can be most clearly seen in the (horribly arbitrary, yet indelibly pernicious) division between “companion” and “food” animals. Culturally, we value and accept certain species of non-human as members of our family, as outside the realm of consumable (though even they get “consumed” in various ways—but I digress). In contrast, a culture’s “food” animals remain forever beyond that horizon of simple companionship. They cannot shake the ascription of consumable, even for humans who choose not to consume them.

This is why you would think it pretty typical to adopt a dog or cat for your household; if you mention adopting a chicken for a new family member instead, you will surely encounter raised eyebrows, even amongst other vegans.

Through speciesism, our culture’s food animals remain consumables, others, inextricably intertwined with the notions of slaughter, disassembly, preparation, and consumption. A part of what defines our culture is what beings we consume—for example, we do eat cows, but we do not eat dogs. Doing the latter will reveal you to be as problematic a part of Western society as will not doing the former.

iv.

Thus the sheer paucity of reliable veterinary care and medical expertise for chickens (and other farmed/food animals). Imagine the horror of the rare vegan who rescues a farmed animal and finds that every book, veterinarian, and online forum is devoted to a level of care warranted only by the ends of exploitation.

This is what we faced in trying to treat Orion. Our vets could find and show us instances of his decline—failing kidneys, neurological problems, labored breathing—and point to whatever pathogens their diagnostics might show.

But because of a millennia-old, speciesist approach to chicken “care,” our context for treating Orion felt limited at best, medieval at worst. We had no fucking idea what was going on, what we could do, and how we could keep this dear member of our family alive. Indeed, attempting to get veterinary care may have done more harm than good, in Orion’s case and in the cases of others, thanks to the limitations in knowledge about chickens and the relative inexperience with extended treatments.

Needless to say, the irony of this situation never escaped our attention: one of the oldest domesticated species is still one of the most enigmatic, and most difficult to treat, precisely because of humanity’s pathological effort to create a bigger, better chicken.

v.

As hard as the limitations of medical care were, even more challenging and insulting were the regulated restrictions in potential care that we encountered while trying to treat our chicken family members.

Imagine going to your veterinarian when your cat is sick. The vet runs some tests, drawing blood and doing a fecal culture and possibly pursuing an ultrasound or radiograph, and discovers the cause of your companion’s ailments. Voilà—thanks to the tests, your vet gives a diagnosis for your cat and knows the specific medications that can successfully treat her.

Now imagine that your vet stops you short after the diagnosis, explaining that while there is a medication available to treat your cat’s condition, federal and/or state regulations prohibit her prescribing that medication for your cat. Essentially, the well-being and SURVIVAL of your cat must defer to a mandate on what drugs can be administered for X, Y, and Z reason.

Surely you would be whipped into a frothing fury over such utterly absurd nonsense. When your companion, your family member, is sick, the only thing that matters is getting them well.

Unfortunately, applied speciesism carries the companion animal/food animal divide into the realm of what drugs are available for treatment. The “Food Animal Residue Avoidance Databank,” or FARAD (not linked here because FUCK YOU), is the Food & Drug Administration’s effort to protect human consumers from possibly harmful chemicals entering the sacred human food supply.

Or, put in slightly less speciesist terms, the FARAD exemplifies how U.S. consumers prioritize their own health concerns over the well-being of the animals they pay others to needlessly breed, raise, fatten up, slaughter, process, and serve by withholding certain drugs (chemicals) that could possibly impact human health.

The frenzy over drugs in animal products does mean something: antibiotic-resistant organisms are not things you want to fuck around with, and in large part we have the agricultural industry to thank for an ever-increasing resistance in bacteria and viruses. You might as well see most modern animal farms as infernal cauldrons from which Orcs are born…because they ARE.

However, applied speciesism relegates forever certain species such as chickens to the “food animal” category, thus dumping them into the buckets that FARAD (i.e., the FDA and USDA) determines cannot receive certain drugs. No matter what.

The problems with speciesism’s influences on available medical treatment arise when those of us who rescue chickens, take them out of the food chain, and refuse to use them or any of their parts for human benefit run headlong into the wall of FARAD. Even if we know what particular pathogen or condition a particular chicken has, and we know what particular medication would successfully treat it, we very well might not be able to administer said drug because some humans somewhere are eating others like our particular family member.

Because of speciesism, because of human consumption habits, every member of a particular species is condemned to “food animal” status and the correspondingly circumscribed options for care we give to beings we intend to ingest.

The idea that someone might have ever eaten Orion or one of our other companion chickens is enough to induce a fugue state. The inescapable fact that we are forced to treat chickens like Orion as if they were to/could be eaten is only insult piled on to injury.

vi.

The perniciousness of speciesism becomes clearer when we see some of the (many) ways in which it grinds up the bodies of individual beings within the cogs of human culture. Abuse, murder, and consumption are only the more obvious ways in which speciesism gets applied through, and onto, the bodies of non-human animals.

We likely will never know what exactly happened, biologically and pathologically, with Orion the rooster. But it is still painfully clear that the ignorance we encountered, and the restricted care options we were forced to navigate, had their roots in the sickened soil of our speciesist culture.

And perhaps even more painful is my recognition that, cast in this light, the many months during which Orion came to shape me, teach me, and trust me are nearly meaningless because he was little more than a throwaway and a commodity to so many other humans.

With my last breath, I will refuse, resist, and refute this self-serving sickness of the human species. Orion’s life was worth more than that, as is the life of every “farmed” animal we selfish humans have forced into existence.

Their worth shall not be measured by the paltry marks of human myopia.

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Aph’s Guide to the Revolutionary, Decolonizing Praxis of “Moving Over”

[This post was originally published at Aphro-ism]

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I was recently quoted in a Mic.com piece about white feminism. The fascination with the term “white feminism” has happened, in large part, because white folks are not regularly racialized. Racialization normally happens to people like me, so of course, white women are now trying to grapple with it. Since they have access to a global stage, all of us are unfortunately forced to talk about it as well. In the article, I said, “I don’t think we can make white mainstream feminism inclusive because it’s not designed to be inclusive…Our exclusion as women of color isn’t accidental. Diversity can’t help White feminism. [White feminists] just need to move over.”

In other words, in order for folks of color to move forward, we need privileged folks to move over.

I’ve come to a realization after being an activist for almost 10 years that white people are severely misguided when it comes to what their role is in social justice activism.

White people in the U.S. are obsessed with activism and how they fit into social justice movements. Whether it’s “checking their privileges” or “becoming more intersectional” (whatever that means), activism has almost become a sort of racial identity for white folks who, for generations, haven’t been able to articulate what it means to be white.

Since whiteness has pretty much been a vacuous space surrounded by a vast landscape of absence and emptiness, white folks all throughout history have tried to fill that void by stealing other cultures, stealing musical traditions and styles, stealing experiences, and now, even stealing theories and perspectives written by and for folks of color. I don’t know…maybe it makes them feel alive or something to constantly align themselves with struggles that they have, in large part, caused.

Though Gazi Kodzo was specifically talking about white women in this video, I think it’s safe to say that white people are the “xerox machines of the world.”

The obsession white folks have with intersectionality feels like a comedy movie mixed with a twilight zone episode where they don’t realize how they are centering themselves in movements that are specifically designed to de-center whiteness.

However, I suggest that one way they can help is by: moving over.

Now, moving over might seem dismissive and rude, but, I’m here to tell you that moving over as a white person is actually one of the most revolutionary things you can do today in a white supremacist patriarchy.

1.Stop Trying to Lead Movements That Are Designed to De-Center People Like You:

I love that Martin Luther King, Jr. quote where he says, “Silence is acquiescence”; however, I highly doubt he was saying that white activists should create a global stage to whine about how privileged they are. Sometimes, silence can be revolutionary, especially if you’re a white person who wants to learn about social justice.

The idea that white people can “check” their privileges is a colossal joke. Do I think white people (as an oppressive class) can change? Yes. Do I think they want to give up white supremacy as an oppressive system? Hell no.

Honestly, white people (yes white women, that includes you too) have pretty much ruined every single social justice movement because they want to be the leaders.

After white folks take over movements that aren’t designed for them, they enter into a space of confusion asking, “Why aren’t our movements intersectional or diverse?” They usually end up getting depressed and start bothering black and brown folks, asking us what they can do to be more “inclusive” meaning: how in the hell do I get some negroes up in my organization? How do I look like I give a shit about you and your struggles?

Liberal white people in activist spaces are basically “New Whites” to me. We’ve all heard of New Blacks, but what are New Whites?

Birth of the “New Whites”:

New Whites are basically the white people who have tattoos, probably play guitar or some “exotic” thing like a sitar, own a bike, have black friends, know the language of the movement, yet resemble oppressive white people of past generations because they want their voices to be louder than everyone else. They always want to create something or be the leader of “progressive” organizations, magazines, websites, etc. They do this under the guise of using their white privilege to bring attention to folks of color.

New Whites are kind of like the tripped-out, guitar-playing grandchildren of KKK members who are getting high on the sheets their families wore to burn black people in.

What’s horrible about the New Whites is that they seriously have no clue how they perpetuate white supremacy (they’re actually not all that invested in learning about it either) but they want to keep organizing and pointing out how “other” white people are fucking up.

As I always say, white folks with tattoos and a hipster aesthetic scare me more than white folks in white sheets. Sure, you might not want to lynch a black person, or light a cross in their front yard, but your willingness to carry on the torch of white supremacy through leadership, visibility, and power is just as threatening and destructive.

New Whites are folks who are not like their post-racial parents. They “see” race (not trying to be ableist here—trying to reference post-racial ‘color-blindness’), they might even be in relationships with people of color or have brown family members, they follow all the latest black blogs and they re-post work by people of color on their websites. They talk about people like Dr. Breeze Harper any chance they get (because that’s the only black vegan feminist they know).

New whites are post-post-racial. Get it? They love the idea of checking their privileges, and they would run in front of a bus to proclaim their love for intersectionality.

New Whites quote brown folks in their articles but have never grappled with why the brown folks they quote and associate themselves with always get less attention for their own activism.

New Whites assume their voices are the vehicles that are needed to make black and brown voices heard. They have “no clue” why they get so much attention for their activism or why people regard them as “experts” so they chalk it up to their creativity and brilliance.

Always be suspicious of someone who admits to not knowing much about a movement, but what’s to be the leader of it. #shady

2.Stop Trying to Build an Audience

I get it—sometimes you just want to create a website because you feel like your voice isn’t being heard, or that a perspective that you just thought of last night hasn’t been said at all in the movement. Never mind the fact that you’ve never checked to see if someone else has already said what you’re about to say. Never mind the fact that a person of color may have been writing about the same topic for years. They don’t count-right?

White people have a colonialist reflex to lead and to “fill in the gaps” when the gaps have already been filled by people of color they don’t even know exist.

Yeah…this happens all of the time. White folks create digital platforms or magazines that basically rely on perspectives and theories created by and for people of color. Then, they try to recruit brown people to write a guest article (of course it will be unpaid!) just to reassure themselves that they’re going in the right direction. “Okay, black people are participating…I must be doing something right!”

Moving over sounds super harsh and cruel, but when you think about it, it’s actually pretty revolutionary.

If you’re a white person and you’re THAT obsessed with intersectionality, then perhaps you should move over because there are probably 10 other people of color writing about it in better ways who aren’t getting the same attention you are, so you might actually be blocking the progress that you claim to be advocating for.

Your activism is meaningless if you don’t seriously grapple with the reality that your actual presence in the space is destructive.

If you’re trying to be a better social justice advocate, but you need a facebook following and tons of twitter fans in order to do the work, then you might need to see if your allegiance is to social justice, or to yourself.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t still write articles and engage people with your ideas. Just make sure that you’re not talking over folks of color, or getting attention for theories and thoughts that you know you didn’t create.

Make sure you’re not getting financial donations or grants for creating “intersectional” work if you’re a white person. Try to find a different way to make yourself useful. Maybe you can start raising money for some of your favorite activists of color because hell, it’s never too late for some reparations, and if we’re being honest, you’re getting money for essentially re-stating what people of color have been saying forever.

3.Stop Trying to Get Minoritized People to Join Your Organizations

I can’t tell you how many white people (in the past two weeks) have contacted me and asked me to join their organizations, or asked for a random statement of support from my skin color me, or asked me to write a guest post for their website for free.

When you ask a person of color to contribute anything that’s actually going to help your image of looking “diverse” or “progressive”, you’re centering yourself again. You see, power is insidious. You might not even know it’s happening, especially if you’re a New White. You might actually convince yourself that you only want to prop up and amplify these voices from people of color because they live in a world where they won’t be recognized for their brilliance.

However, if you want to prop up my voice but your name has to be attached, then you might need to sip on your white juice detox a little harder

Folks like me (you know, people of color) are pretty smart—it’s just that we live in a society where our voices will never get us the same amount of traction as a white person or man. Knowing this reality, I have no clue why you would ask me to join your space or ask me to contribute something on your site! It means that you should support my site, tell all of your fans and followers to support activists of color every chance you get, or, if you want to be really bold, delete your pages that are basically regurgitating everything brown people are saying.

Part of the reason why people aren’t checking out work created by ground-breaking activists of color is because they’re busy checking out your work simply because your whiteness marks you as an “expert.”

Moving over IS work because you will be confronting the colonized parts of yourself that want to lead the movements.

4.Reflect on why you might cringe when you think about not being in the activist spotlight:

This one is key. Oftentimes, when you’re colonized, you might not know that you’re acting within the interests of yourself and white supremacy. This is why a lot of minoritized folks will never trust privileged folks, no matter how close our friendships might be. If your automatic reflex is to lead, create social media platforms, and create organizations where you’re positioned at the top, you might have to ask yourself: does the activist community actually need my voice?

This is especially true for white women who can so easily pinpoint white male violence, but struggle in understanding how they too perpetuate violence. White women have inherited the label of “oppressed” simply because they’re women, but they don’t want to talk about the ways they have also inherited white privilege.

So, think really hard: does the community actually need your voice, or are there more minoritized people who are basically saying the same things as you who aren’t getting as much traction because they’re brown, and well, you’re white?

For example, you might be a white woman who experiences gender-based oppression. But, don’t women of color experience that too, in addition to racialized gender oppression? Do you really think you’re going to say something that she’s not going to cover? Mia McKenzie writes:

“Women of color feminisms being inherently more complex, and therefore more useful to feminist goals, means that when women of color fight patriarchy, in all the ways that we do, white women also benefit. White supremacy puts white women higher up on the ladder of privilege. So, whatever rights women of color get, white women get times a hundred.”

If, as a white woman, you really think you’re going to contribute a different perspective, cool. You should share it—but don’t do it because you want an audience or traction. Do it so that you’re actually contributing to the overall literature that’s already out there. If you find that you’re struggling to say something new, question why you feel a compulsion to even put anything out there!

You see, moving over as a privileged person actually makes the space a bit more safe and diverse, simply because you’ve left. You get how that works? You literally get out of the space and stop inserting your opinions.

The hardest part of activism is learning how you should act based upon your social location in the system.

Your activism has to match who you are—so, if you’re a part of the dominant group and you get benefits from the system, you might need to be an activist by learning to be quiet. Rather than checking your privileges loudly in a space, the real activism might be learning to take a back seat and checking your colonialist reflex to dominate every conversation. Conversely, if you’re a person of color and you’re used to being silent, part of your activism might be learning how to speak up and unapologetically claim space.

Get it?

Activism is hard because you sometimes have to do and say things that conflict with how you’ve been colonized to feel. Moving over as a white person is difficult because you’ve been colonized to want to lead the movement and recognizing THAT conflict within yourself is exactly where more white people’s activism should be.

Confronting your colonized self will help more people of color than leading our movements.

5.Imagine What Activist Spaces Would Look Like If More White People Moved Over:

Afropunk, For Harriet, Black Girl Dangerous, Crunk Feminist Collective, Aphro-ism, Sistah Vegan Project, Racialicious, Fusion, etc.

Have you noticed that some of the most ground-breaking work is done by folks of color?

If the “new whites” who claim to care so much about intersectionality, privilege, and oppression actually cared about these topics, they would do anything in their power to make sure that that oppressed folks get what they need. If we are asking you to move over, and you refuse to do that, you might need to question if you’re really invested in “the struggle.”

The reason why radical black and brown spaces are so powerful is because white folks aren’t bringing these spaces down. They are not centered. This means that they can still participate, but they are not leading the movement.

Minoritized people are actually able to engage in movement building because they can finally put the focus on the groups that need the help, rather than white folks. There’s nothing more privileged than being a member of a dominant group and taking up social justice space to understand how you are privileged.

So, instead of having to take time to answer questions like, “how can we make white spaces more inclusive?” we can actually make intersectional, diverse spaces with people of color.

While people of color certainly are not a monolith, and while we may disagree on multiple subjects, we are at least able to grapple with topics in a way that feels as though we’re speaking to one another—not just white folks.

The thing is, the mainstream will automatically be more diverse and intersectional when white people realize that they are stopping the progress, regardless of how radical or progressive they claim to be.

I’m concluding with a super powerful quote from an amazing essay on the Struggling To Be Heard Tumblr page:

“When you’re white saying your an intersectional feminist, you are wrong. you are the white boy singing sad songs to a blues twang claiming to be a Blues artist… it is erasure, it is warping, it is the continual narrative of whiteness as a dominant force, in opposing the creators and destroying the creators while then attempting to re-create those creations with whiteness firmly installed inside of it. which is false, warped, fake and without heart and soul. it is a lifeless imitation. and mostly, it isn’t REAL.”