Animal Rights and the Language of Slavery

By Christopher Sebastian McJetters

For the past week, I have been following discussions in different spaces where white vegans are arguing about what I suppose is their inherent ‘right’ to appropriate slavery in order to further the narrative of animal rights. And yes, the vegans in question are almost ALWAYS white. That alone should tell us a lot. But unfortunately it doesn’t.

Let me share an experience from my own life that might explain why this is problematic. This past summer, I was with a very progressive white vegan and his family. An opportunity arose for him to bring up veganism again in front of his mother. I can’t remember what it was. A news story perhaps where she expressed some empathy for an individual animal or something like that.

Anyway, seizing upon that opportunity, the slavery comparison came out of his mouth. For a brief moment, nobody said anything. None of the three of us. We just sat there in his mother’s kitchen. And then she suddenly started falling all over herself. Handling objects, moving things around, cleaning furiously, with a worried frown on her face. She just kept muttering over and over about slavery. “What does slavery have to do with anything? Why would he even say that? What kind of a person does he think I am? I would never support slavery!”

And it eventually dawned on me that all of her fretfulness had to do with me. Me. As author Claudia Rankine would say, I was a black object immediately thrown against a stark white background. I was a prop in a discussion between two white people–one white person who was looking to use a history of blackness to make another white person understand a point he wanted to drive home and another white person who was deeply invested in not seeming racist.

In truth, this discussion stopped being about the animals. In fact, it might never have been about animals at all. It was about whiteness. Neo-liberal white guilt on the part of my friend. And white fears on the part of his mother. They had centered their white feelings to the detriment of the animal victims involved. And there, for all the world, sat me. With my own history laid bare and a voyeur to a scene where everyone was desperatey uncomfortable with my presence.

And this isn’t an isolated incident. This is what it often means to use slavery in the context of animal rights. His mother didn’t have his foundational comprehension of critical race theory. She didn’t share any knowledge of intersectional feminism or have a context of power, oppression, and privilege. She’s a homemaker. A woman who was raised in the bosom of capitalist patriarchy in the United States and who worshiped at the altar of American exceptionalism. She had no understanding about the reality of animal slavery whatsoever. All she knew in that moment was that she didn’t want to be racist. And in dealing with her white fragility, this conversation threatened her self perception.

Yes, there are times when the slavery discussion is productive. I don’t disagree with that. But overall, this is what we’re looking at. This is the reality of introducing slavery. It can help. It can be useful. But the dangers of letting the discussion center whiteness are very real. And don’t even get me started on how whiteness invokes slavery when having this discussion with black nonvegans. It’s nothing short of emotional blackmail. And emotional blackmail is one of “the master’s tools” as Audre Lorde is famously quoted as saying.

For the record, I also keep hearing white vegans say that the animal rights community is unfairly singled out when making comparisons to human rights. But that criticism is also untrue. In the past decade, we’ve watched queer activists fetishize American blackness to win human rights for the queer community. Some people here might even recall The Advocate magazine famously ran a cover with the headline “Gay Is The New Black?” and black Americans everywhere doubled over with laughter.

This isn’t to say that queer persons don’t experience discrimination or are not meaningfully oppressed. We are! But to compare queerness to blackness is (bluntly stated) insulting. And I say this AS a queer black U.S. American. The ways in which I am oppressed based on my queer identity compared to how I am oppressed based on my black identity aren’t even in the same ballpark. And as with animal rights issues, blackness was (and is) left once again worse off than before (see: police violence). Meanwhile, white (and largely male) gays are victoriously picking out China patterns for their weddings.

And we see this reproduced over and over again in white feminism when celebrities like Patricia Arquette and Nancy Lee Grahn behave as if black people either owe white women something or opportunities for black people are equal across racial lines.

Basically what we’re looking at is a pattern whereby blackness is used and commodified at different times and by different groups to further an agenda without offering any type of real solidarity on black issues. And if animal rights doesn’t address this, our activism will be no different.

I have said repeatedly (and still maintain) that I don’t think the language of slavery should be entirely abandoned or that certain people are forbidden to use it. Some resources like Marjorie Spiegel’s classic The Dreaded Comparison make these connections respectfully and forcefully without compounding racial aggressions. Three tips for how to be a good ally against racism and speciesism:

1.) Stop being too liberal with how we apply such incendiary language, and learn to employ better sensitivity and discernment when approaching these discussions.

2.) Amplify the voices of marginalized people who talk about these issues themselves instead of appropriating their histories or experiences to further our agendas. Noble though your intentions may be, what does it say about your activism if you need to say incendiary things when you don’t have those experiences?

3.) Make an attempt to understand how layered oppressions impact different groups to maximize our impact and build a broader, more inclusive community.

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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.

15 thoughts on “Animal Rights and the Language of Slavery”

  1. From a fellow queer black vegan activist, thanks for writing this. If there were ever a great time for Black Vegans Rock, it’s now!

  2. You correctly acknowledge that Marjorie Speigel makes the comparison respectfully. Of course that is the only way it should be made, but that does not mean that it should not be made at all, which your article also seems to be saying.

    Suggesting that it’s a form of cultural appropriation to compare forms of historical violence is not that sounds of an argument. All of human culture, including the Arabic alphabet and Roman numerals you are using daily is “appropriated.” Should we not eat pizza or ice-cream (vegan, of course) because they too are appropriated? You may be on the right side of a political correct worldview, but you are on the wrong side of rational thought on that point.

    The African slave trade is not being “appropriated.” It is being discussed as an historical instance of mass violence, and shown to be wrong, and compared to another example of mass violence, which is also wrong. This in no way diminishes the experience of African-Americans. It serves to show that both instances of mass violence are wrong, and it serves to show that we are all Earthlings, and all equals in terms of our capacity to suffer. We could also compare it to the modern slave trade, which is equally egregious and is certainly not limited to one racial group: eastern European women, for instance are made into sex slaves, which is a horrendous crime.

    It is not wrong to say that the fear and terror they experience is something also felt by many non-human animals when they are abducted and tortured. This is not about race. This is about suffering and the desire for freedom, which we all have in common, because ALL humans ARE animals of a kind, not higher or lower than other animals, and all sentient animals persons. These are facts. For this reason it is not wrong to say that all slavery of all sentient beings is wrong, and to compare historical instances of these wrongs, if is of value in helping to liberate those who currently are still slaves (and it is).

    Those who take offense are generally — though not always — speciesist: they devalue animals’ lives, and thus thing the comparison demeaning — but then it is important for those who know the truth to speak up: nonhuman animals are not inferiors, so this offense is based on a mistaken notion that they are. We are all equals, and we can all suffer. It reminds me of the debate over the term ‘Holocaust’, with Zionists claiming that Armenians don’t have a right to use the term, that they appropriated it, that the Holocaust is essentially Jewish-only — and also denying the non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust (LGTB, Communists, socialists, some Catholics) the fact that they too were victims of the Nazis.

    In the same way, animals are slaves too, so this attempt to ban on using the comparison in the name of not offending those who misunderstand the comparison (usually because they devalue the lives of nonhuman animals) diminishes the very real reality that animals face daily. Since I wrote these words, a million or more have died under conditions of slavery that beggar the imagination. If you want to talk about commodification, their very bodies are being commodified en masse, but people are concerned about comparisons with historical slavery? To have such a tunnel vision is very speciesist, and speciesism = racism.

    And if we want to talk about privilege, what about the human privilege to deny a basic fact about what is happening to billions of nonhuman animals? They are suffering from slavery right now. That doesn’t matter? Comparing that to other instances of slavery is not wrong; it’s just the truth. Orwell said freedom, if it means anything at all, is the freedom to say that 2 plus 2 equals 4. If we have to say that it equals 5 — that is, if we have to say that animals are not slaves (when in fact they are), and that their slavery does not resemble other historical instances of slavery (which it does), then we are denying the truth. But somehow I suspect that truth is not high on the list of priorities of those who want to reign in and limit thought and impose a kind of totalitarian group-think, and for whom public shaming is considered an appropriate response to being challenged.

    The larger context of this debate (or actually non-debate, since there can be no real debate where one side just hysterically screams “racist!” and “white privilege!” when challenged) is the attack on DXE organizers, and to understand that you really have to read this very appropriate comparison (link below) of this “politics of punishment” by the young zealots doing this, who greatly resemble the Red Guard in their tactics. The Red Guard suspended reason and decency and compassion in favour of orchestrating displays of public humiliation of those deemed “counter-revolutionaries.” And of course anyone who objected to these tactics risked being publicly shamed and de-humanized.

    The tactics used against DXE for daring to stand up to animal slavery is really not that different. And no, that is not culturally appropriating and commodifying the victims of the Red Guard to say that (the piece was written by someone whose family was their victim). That is just drawing an historical comparison based on facts, evidence, and reason. Luckily, facts, evidence, and reason are universal, so it is not a “white privilege” to be able to use them. Anyone can avail themselves of them. Perhaps the only people who cannot are those who have closed off their minds, blinded by ideology to think that 2 plus 2 equals 5.

    http://directactioneverywhere.com/theliberationist/2015/12/27/how-the-red-guards-destroyed-my-family

  3. The comparison between slavery and animal rights is apt, no matter when and how it is made, or in front of whom. Oppression is oppression. It is also an apt comparison between animal rights (slaughter) and the holocaust. Just ask Gary Yourofsky, who refuses to mince words. If a white homemaker is uncomfortable with reference to slavery when a black is in her presence, she is just as uncomfortable with reference to animal rights when dead flesh is on her plate. She knows she is wrong, but to be wrong is to be required to change her whole world. Well, that is, indeed, the consequence of being wrong. She must change or forever be uncomfortable.

  4. Going back far enough in history, it will be seen that whoever was powerful enough to enslave another group of people – regardless of race, religion, or ethnic group – did so. Egyptians enslaved sub-Saharan Africans and Hebrews, who later enslaved other desert-dwellers; skipping forward by centuries, Greeks conquered and enslaved people from Egypt and the Near East to Persia; the Romans enslaved Greeks, Britons, northern European barbarians, and many others; the dominant castes of India enslaved the lower castes; the oldest civilization of all, the Chinese, enslaved other Asians and also had a slave class consisting of their own people; the Ottomans enslaved many Africans, Eurasians, and “orientals.” Centuries before the trans-Atlantic African slave trade, there was an organized slave trade in boys, girls, and young women kidnapped in Finland and sold in Ottoman and Far Eastern markets. Today there is a thriving slave trade in south Asia, and young eastern European women are frequently abducted into sex slavery. African Americans are extremely sensitive to references to slavery, because the legacy of its injustice lives on in America, but for them to claim cultural ownership of the concept is false and counterproductive. Entire categories of animals are enslaved, such as beasts of burden and other working animals. Animals raised for food are treated worse than slaves, as it was never normal to carve slaves up to eat or pump out their fluids to drink.

  5. As a white person, I most definitely acknowledge that I cannot comprehend what it’s like to be discriminated against on the basis of race. However, as a vegan, I will say that whenever I’ve used the slavery example, I used it literally, NOT as an analogy. Oppression is oppression, regardless of race or species. Blacks were horribly oppressed, and although there is still racism, there is No longer legal slavery in the US. Right now, it is the animals who are still legally oppressed. They are now the victims of slavery, rape, torture and slaughter – all legal. May I respectfully suggest that you take us at our word, that when we use that example, we are doing so out of utmost compassion and indignation at how blacks were treated, as well as how animals are NOW treated. It is the same horror. It is never intended to demean or insult blacks in any way! Just as we never intend to demean or insult Jews either, when we mention the animal holocaust. To suggest that it is somehow demeaning to blacks, actually sounds very speciesist to me. May I suggest that it is you who have made it ‘about blacks’ and turned it into a racist issue. I’m certain that I speak for many other vegans also, when I assure you that we don’t draw any distinction between white, black, Jew, cow or pig. If ANY sentient being is being oppressed, we speak up. The reason we use these comparisons is to get people to THINK. We use an example of something they KNOW is wrong – like human slavery – and then show them that it is exactly the same when done to other sentient beings too.

  6. Thank you for writing this Christopher Sebastian McJetters. I especially appreciate the guidance offered by your three ending points. Hopefully the obliviousness exhibited by some of the commenters will also serve to expand my consciousness.

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