When White Savior Complex Masquerades as Veganism

The following post is an excerpt from my presentation at VegFestUK Bristol 2017 “Savior Complex Veganism: You’re Probably Pretty Speciesist…and you could be racist too.”

Most of the time, my discussions center on western society as a whole and the ways in which violence against animals is a reflection and extension of violence against black and brown humans (and vice versa). But in this particular talk, we examine our own biases within the mainstream vegan community.

An article was posted by a friend on Facebook about a black male dog breeder. The piece states:

A 52-year old Detroit man and suspected dog fighting breeder was reportedly outside feeding his dogs when he was confronted by three armed men wearing masks to conceal their identities.

The masked men forced him into his home where they tied him up before brutally beating and torturing him before cutting off his ear and driving away in his van. “They tied him up (the dog fighting breeder); they beat him up pretty bad.

Broke ribs, broke fingers, stabbed him with ice picks, cut an ear off. It’s just messed up,” the victim’s cousin Marty Johnson said.

Police believe the man was targeted because of his Pit Bull breeding operation which may be tied to dog fighting.

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At the time of this writing, up to five gay white vegan men applauded this post.

Do I know with certainty that the masked attackers were white? No. No I do not. In fact, I’m pretty sure this wasn’t the work of vegans either. But I’ll tell you what I do know:

I know that the people who celebrated this post were gay white vegan men.

I know that lynchings between the years 1877 and 1950 numbered in the thousands.

I know that the perpetrators of this crime did not target a wealthy white breeder of golden retrievers.

I know that they did not seek out the home of a police officer who trained German shepherds to attack peaceful protestors or exploit victims of drug addiction.

I know they didn’t torture a military official for breeding dogs to fight in human wars.

I know that the victim of this violence was not a white person who breeds hounds to tear foxes apart for white entertainment during their hunting expeditions.

I know that this man was denied due process as is his right under the law. But of course, black people are never given due process. Not Freddie Grey. Not Eric Garner. Not Tamir Rice. Not Trayvon Martin. Not Rekia Boyd. Not Sandra Bland.

Mind you, this isn’t a defense of the despicable act of dog fighting. And I’ve argued repeatedly that breeding animals under ANY circumstances is nothing more than eugenics and theft of reproductive autonomy. Animal violence is a scourge in our society. But you cannot overlook the racial implications of targeting a poor BLACK breeder of animals.

This is a critique of how we look at justice in our society. Who we celebrate as victors and who we revile as villains. Black people who undertake acts of civil disobedience for racial justice are told that we are unlawful. Or heaven forbid we riot or destroy property in order to express our pain and frustration. Uncivilized!

If we block roads in peaceful protest, we are called violent extremists. If people cut off our ears and stab us with ice picks, they are canonized by white people.

But here’s where things become even more interesting. The piece goes on to say:

When police arrived at the man’s Detroit property, they found at least 16 Pit Bulls tied up outside, emaciated and living in filth in the backyard, and at least a dozen more in the same poor condition in the home’s basement.

A second property owned by the man was also housing dozens of unhealthy dogs.

Animal Control was called to the properties to remove the dogs, but family members insist the man was not involved in dog fighting, that he only breeds the dogs to sell them.

“No, he don’t fight dogs. He breed dogs. No, he don’t fight dogs,” the victim’s brother explained. “He has a lot of dogs; it’s been like that since we was kids.”

The men who tortured him have not yet been found and no arrests have been made.

You want to know how I know this celebration was about retribution for the crime of being black? Because they didn’t take the dogs. I’ll say that again. THE. COWARDS. DIDN’T. TAKE. THE. DOGS.

Anyone who is familiar with the plight of animal companions in the United States should be aware that when the state claims animals, the potential for execution (and yes I mean execution, because we don’t use euphemisms like ‘euthanizing’ to describe the fact that we execute animals after we criminalize them for homelessness) is extremely high, and even more so for dogs considered to be “bully breeds.”

Dogs who end up in the prison system (nee shelters) have approximately 3 to 5 days before they’re killed when facilities are full. And if these victims were in fact suffering from acute psychological or emotional trauma, they are virtually unadoptable. These perpetrators basically sentenced them to death.

It was never about the dog victims for you. On some level, you wish you could wear a mask and torture a black man without fear of being labeled a member of the KKK. Often when stories like this break, the common question asked of me by vegans who support this violence is “Well if it was YOU were being victimized, wouldn’t you want someone to intervene?”

Probably, yes. And when I have seen acts of animal cruelty being carried out, I have intervened in the past. But according to the story, the dogs were not being endangered at the moment of this attack. To the contrary, this man was attacked when he was in the act of feeding the dogs. This was not an intervention to prevent violence. Nor, since the dogs were sent to the prison system, was it an act of liberation.

In the online community, this was effectively a lynching.

This is a story of a man who got lynched.

It’s almost hilarious that I’m routinely told that I become what I hate because I don’t think I need to listen to the emotional violence of fascists under the guise of free and open dialogue…that I’m a nazi who stifles free speech…that I’m part of the ‘intolerant left.’ But white people high-fiving each other for torture is justice in our free society.

Being black and vegan means living with the twin traumas of racial violence and animal violence.

At all times.

Because it never stops.

A man was lynched. And white gay vegans laughed.

And believe it or not, people look at me daily and ask with confusion and indignation “what is this business of white veganism?”  I just sigh and go back to work.

But in my mind I’m haunted. And I always will be. Because you congratulate yourselves for someone beating up a black man. And they didn’t take the fucking dogs.

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Exploring Radical Veganism

When I wrote the post preceding this one, I thought I was committing social justice suicide. So I admit I didn’t put a lot of thought into describing what Radical Veganism is or what it should look like for anyone other than myself, except for writing up the brief list of recommendations to be radically vegan. But here are nine key ways in which I would further define radical veganism.

Animals are persons of a marginalized community.

The most foundational aspect of radical veganism is the one that I thought should have been the most obvious, but it is somehow the least agreed upon: not only are humans a species of animal…but animals are people. Why is this important? Well, in response to a recent action she was engaged in, vegan Mike Stone told black vegan activist Brittany Lynn,

“Maybe I should just bring my entire vegan family over to your protest on Thursday so I can explain to you how veganism actually works. It’s not a social justice issue. When you include veganism as a social justice issue, you throw it into a slosh pit of loud minority groups and the animal advocacy gets drowned out.”

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Jesus Christ, Mike. Tell us how you really feel about these uppity negroes.

Like, okay, holy fuck. Setting aside the fact that a white man issued a veiled threat against a woman (and man-oh-man that is HARD to set aside, so we might make a whole future post about that), this illustrates 1.) that many people DO NOT fundamentally understand that animals are themselves a disenfranchised minority group, 2.) white people on the whole are pretty contemptuous of ‘minority groups,’ and 3.) the pervasiveness of white savior complex in veganism is real.

This is why I use the language of de-personifying marginalized communities instead of de-humanizing them. Human is not a useful rubric by which to confer personhood. Animals have language, culture, society, and complex emotional relationships. And not recognizing them as a marginalized community of persons is itself an erasure.

Furthermore, seeking solidarity with a broad coalition of other minority groups is not only prudent, it’s necessary. Because on the other side of this, part of the reason why we have been so limited in our success as a movement is that other social justice groups don’t realize that animals are an oppressed minority! It would be much harder to dismiss veganism if we forced ourselves as marginalized people to stop looking at animals as food and acknowledge that we are committing atrocities against marginalized people of all species. Also, speaking of those loud minority groups…

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Painting by disability activist Sunaura Taylor that demonstrates how chickens are bred to be disabled for human consumption.

Radical veganism elevates the perspectives of marginalized persons who can speak authentically about our experiences of oppression as they relate to undoing speciesism.

For a very long time,  the movement for animal liberation has relied heavily on the perspectives of cisgender straight white men as leaders, which is an unusual approach to liberation. It makes much more sense for people who come from oppressed backgrounds to be the architects of freedom. We tend to know what we’re talking about. And those architects aren’t limited to black voices. I’ve learned a great deal from activists like pattrice jones, Sunaura Taylor and Zarna Joshi. So there is a broad scope of female, queer, fat, Muslim (and more) voices to hear from.

Radical veganism supports intersectional feminism.

Intersectional feminist theory is an important aspect of radical veganism. But as I stated in the previous post, intersectional feminist theory rightfully belongs to and should center black and brown femmes. Black vegan women should do whatever they want with regard to their veganism and their feminism. But anybody else copy/pasting their framework into a dialogue of animal rights feels TO ME like an act of appropriating black female scholarship. Radical veganism seeks to center animals but necessarily supports intersectional feminism.

Radical veganism is political.

A lot of people (once again, usually white) think it’s prudent to de-politicize veganism because attaching veganism to politics makes it complicated and fussy. “Veganism should be simple. Veganism isn’t political. People from all political backgrounds can be vegan. I don’t even like to talk about politics.” But that’s probably the most unsophisticated thing I’ve ever heard.

Saying that we need to keep identity politics out of our veganism ignores the fact that other animal HAVE IDENTITIES. And it minimizes the effect that political discourse has on animals. Don’t see how? Well let’s just see what happens to animals if President Trump is successful in building his wall with Mexico.

Radical veganism is an extension of the current vegan philosophy that honors the history of veganism that pre-dates introduction of the word ‘vegan’ into western society.

When a lot of us reach for the definition of veganism, we head straight for the one provided by Donald Watson in the 1940s (possibly with updates by The Vegan Society in the 1970s). There’s nothing wrong with this definition. But identifying veganism in this singular context without any mention of previous cultural influences doesn’t resonate for me because it feels incomplete. Rastafarianism predates Watson. Shakahari predates Watson. And it’s important to decolonize our veganism by recognizing and exploring those influences.

Radical veganism embraces the broad spectrum of social, cultural, intellectual, and scientific advances we’ve made since the mid-twentieth century when European veganism was popularized.

Since Watson rolled onto the scene more than 70 years ago, a lot has changed. The scope of discoveries of animal sentience and intelligence has broadened immeasurably. Our cultural understandings of gender and sexuality have expanded. We’ve learned so much more about gender presentation in animal societies. Conversations about food justice…legal protections for agricultural workers…medical discoveries about health…climate change science has altered dramatically. It’s unproductive to exclude these shifts in our conversations around veganism.

Radical veganism necessitates that we deconstruct white supremacy.

Why? Because we have to deconstruct the institutions that create oppression in the first place. And white supremacy is itself one such institution because it was whiteness that politicized ‘human’ as an identity separate from and superior to ‘animal,’ a shift that allowed for the enslavement of black people because we were (and are) dehumanized, nee de-personified, in the eyes of whiteness.

Now there’s an important distinction to be made here. Notice that I did not say, radical veganism is anti-racist. Obviously, most of us already subscribe to the notion that racism is bad and that we should oppose it. But very few of us understand white supremacy or how we contribute to it every single day. When you mention white supremacy to the average white person, vegan or not, they think you’re talking about isolated cases of extreme racism committed by people who wear white hoods, and they think themselves far removed from personal culpability.

Below is a comment from a YouTube vegan activist in response to me explaining the pervasiveness of white supremacy.

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…jinkies! 0___________0

Of course I replied with very recent and blatant examples of white people holding institutional power in western society through housing, education, and policing (note: I used British examples because this person also subscribes to the poor assumption that extreme racism is limited to the United States). Still steadfastly unconvinced by factual documentation, I abandoned the conversation. You have to recognize when to cut your losses.

Radical veganism is the difference between emancipation and liberation.

As I previously mentioned, veganism needs to move into a more revolutionary space than we know it to exist based on our twentieth century understanding of it. We need to move past the point of asking ourselves if animals are worthy of moral consideration because that question is outdated. The existence of animal welfare laws and protections demonstrates that we already do think animals are worthy of moral consideration. The concept of moral consideration still meaningfully objectifies them. We need to stop talking about them in a philosophical and conceptual way and describe them accurately as political prisoners because THAT IS WHAT THEY ARE.

Twentieth century veganism focuses heavily on emancipation. Emptying the cages is a familiar battle cry. But empty cages is only one aspect of liberation, and one that has proven to be a poor way forward for any marginalized group. As has been historically demonstrated, emancipating individuals from enslavement does not produce freedom from oppression. The system only finds new ways of enslaving us. In the United States, that includes everything from sharecropping to the prison industrial complex to wage slavery of any kind. Which means that…

Radical veganism is DEFINITIVELY anti-capitalist.

As I mentioned previously, the mainstream understanding of veganism is at best a consumer boycott and at worst a dietary fad. A lot of this has to do with the effect of capitalism. Many of us think capitalism is perfectly okay. That if we simply create a demand for vegan products and abandon animal products en masse, then all of the cages will be empty and animals will live happily ever after.

Agribusiness does not give a fuck about animals. Nor does it give a fuck about you. Agribusiness only cares about money. If torturing animals and chopping them up into little pieces isn’t immediately profitable, that doesn’t mean they will not still be exploited. It does not mean that we will not still colonize their lands. It does not mean chickens’ reproductive organs will magically stop killing them prematurely because decades of eugenics have turned them into egg-laying machines. And it does not mean that we have learned to provide healthcare and housing for animals whose lives and families have been destroyed by aggressive industrialization.

I’ve said this before and I will say it again here. Please enjoy your vegan products. I am not telling you that you’re a bad person if you don’t eat a whole foods plant-based diet. Personally, I’m very glad that we have now developed vegan cheeses that tastes as good as dairy. But if we do not curate our movement, capitalism is going to swoop in and pretend to save the day when it was capitalism that got us looking fucked up in the first goddamn place. Capitalism will only find different ways to exploit them and us. It is neither revolutionary nor radical.

And speaking of radical, some final words on radical veganism. Usually I am not one to attach qualifiers to veganism because qualifiers can create factions instead of more solidarity. However, sometimes more clearly defining ideas provides us with greater understanding of ourselves and our goals.

Furthermore, qualifying our veganism as radical reclaims ‘radical’ itself. Western society has taught us to fear radicalization by attaching it to things that are bad, e.g., radical Islam. But the core meaning of radical is to get to the root. And that is what we want in our veganism. To get to the root of oppression and become liberated from it.

Where this goes from here, I don’t really know. I’m literally making this up as I go along. And yes, there’s a lot I left out. There are plenty of places where I could expand on much of this. But this is a blog entry, not a book. If you made it this far, I’m surprised. I just wanted to provide the basics for people to get a better understanding of where I’m coming from and why. In the future, I want to discuss tools and strategies for the radical vegan activist. So maybe we’ll pick up there.

Yes to Intersectionality, Boo to Intersectional Vegans

Almost two years ago, I recall a conversation in the Facebook group Intersectional Vegans of the World where a white female vegan was mulling over whether or not it was offensive to use the word speciesism.

I decided to bite my tongue and watch while that dialogue unfolded. Apparently because a black female vegan made a series of YouTube videos talking about how the notion of speciesism was absurd and racist, it was enough to cast doubt on the idea of other animals being a marginalized community.

Just let that sit with you for a second.

Because of the existence of systemic racism, other animals who are literally tortured and killed by the millions could not be a marginalized community.

Mind you, this YouTube vegan (her videos have since been taken down and she deleted her account) drew from zero academic theory to make such a claim. And she held this position despite feminist academics like Carol Adams, Corey Wrenn, Breeze Harper, and pattrice jones building phenomenal bodies of work that directly contradict it.

Yet when pressed about why it was so easy to dismiss the combined writings of ALL these women, this vegan basically stated that she still wasn’t comfortable talking about speciesism because the truly intersectional thing to do was defer to a black woman (even though one of the academics I cited was herself a black vegan feminist, and even though what this woman said made absolutely zero sense).

So, um, yeah.

It was around that time that I decided I was no longer going to self identify as an intersectional vegan. If this is what intersectionality meant, I didn’t want any part of it.

A few people noticed that I dropped the label. Most didn’t. In fact, although two years have passed since I even mentioned the word intersectionality, people still insert my name into conversations about it.

Not that the label  matters to me anyway. I hold myself accountable for staying consistent with the goals of intersectional feminist theory, and I read up on it inside and outside of a vegan context because it has so much value.

But although I strongly and very enthusiastically endorse intersectional feminism, I don’t think it’s necessary to claim a mantle of it for myself. After all, I’m not a black woman. Besides, I strongly draw from the influence of anarcho-communism as a theory as well, but I never labeled myself as an anarcho-communist.

Some days I adhere to intersectional feminist principles successfully, most days I don’t. Fact is, activism is messy. It’s imperfect. We’re all shit. We’re just trying to be LESS shit.

Once again, let me reiterate—this is not an attack on intersectional feminism or a rejection of it. This is not a critique of intersectionality or black women. And this is not an instruction on what you (dear reader) or any other activist should do. My journey into intersectional feminism is mine alone. And frankly, it became a pretty lonely one. As the months passed, I found myself engaging less frequently in online spaces that I once embraced. I couldn’t identify with a community that was becoming increasingly toxic to me. Instead of trying to foster meaningful dialogues, a lot of us were obsessing over language and looking for opportunities to score points by outing someone as being less woke. This activism feels very performative, and I felt isolated and alienated.

I moved my conversations to my own space and only interacted with the people who interacted with me. In the meantime, I was (and am) enjoying the education I was receiving. Most of the people who come to my space and to Striving with Systems bring with them links, advice, insight, and knowledge that have contributed to making me a much better activist and person. So a year later, here’s where I’ve landed:

Intersectional feminism belongs to black and brown femmes.

I have had countless interviews over the past year where people would ask me to define intersectionality, sometimes even after I repeatedly requested that they would not put me in that position. Not only is it hard to define something so complex in a 30-second elevator speech, I AM NOT THE RIGHT PERSON TO DO THAT. Intersectional feminism was conceptualized and developed BY a black woman to give black and brown women language by which they can discuss the multiple layers of oppression they experience from their own perspectives. Making the argument as a man is deeply uncomfortable for me.

I read an interview from Kimberle Crenshaw recently where she was discussing how it has been growing in popularity in recent years. Don’t ask me to link it because a.) I’m too lazy and b.)  WHY DON’T YOU JUST GO EDUCATE YOURSELF (just kidding, I’ll find it later and update this post because I’m not an asshole). Crenshaw expressed that although she was happy to see her theory taking off in new and exciting ways, she was keenly aware that the very people for whom the work was developed were still experiencing the same outcomes that they were having THIRTY YEARS AGO.

This tells me three things. First, white people are not applying intersectional feminist theory. They are appropriating intersectional feminist theory and marketing it as a new and hip thing. Second, the white people who were NOT capitalizing on it are hopelessly lost on what role they have (if any) in decentering whiteness. And third, if black and brown femmes are still being left behind, then they are desperately in need of a movement that centers THEM.

And you know what? That’s okay. Intersectionality should center black women. They deserve it. But if that’s the case, then…

Animals need a movement that centers them, as well.

I personally thought a lot about what a movement would look like that centered animals but was committed to being inclusive of marginalized human communities as well (and not just claiming to). It certainly isn’t happening in mainstream vegan spaces. But it desperately needs to happen because marginalized human communities are often shut out of the discussions that occur there.

And it’s patently absurd to think that we should keep our movements separate or that we shouldn’t observe the commonality of racial injustice, poverty, gender, class, ability, bigotry against animals, and more. If you recognize the influence of animal agriculture on issues like climate change, indigenous people, reproductive autonomy, or human health, you clearly know that our fates are hopelessly intertwined and you already believe in intersectional justice.

So cue what I have come to call radical veganism. Perhaps veganism alone was a radical concept 70+ years ago without having a qualifier. But it’s been reduced to a consumer boycott at best and a dietary fad at worst. Furthermore, we’ve learned so much more since the days of Donald Watson that it’s almost passé. Adhering to an outdated understanding of veganism shows a dogmatic resistance to shifts in society and culture.

So what is radical veganism and what does it mean to me?

Radical veganism isn’t a departure from our existing understanding of veganism. Nor is it an exclusion of intersectional feminist theory (sorry anti-intersectional bigots, go fuck yourselves). Instead, radical veganism should be about building upon those frameworks. It should incorporate all that we’ve learned in the decades since the word vegan became popularized. Likewise, it should honor and curate the history of animal rights which pre-dates that popularization.

Radical veganism is for people who go hard for racism and sexism, but go equally hard if not more so, for speciesism. Radical veganism doesn’t just talk about being anti-oppression, it demonstrates anti-oppression. Radical veganism isn’t about being the most woke vegan in the room and singling out those who ain’t woke like you are. Radical veganism is about building communities instead of cannibalizing our own.  Radical veganism is solutions-oriented.

If this sounds like it’s for you, then here are ways that I embrace it:

  • Discern the difference between people who genuinely want to learn about systemic oppression of marginalized human communities and the sea lion who is wasting your time.
  • If you don’t have the spoons to educate, then don’t. Sit this one out and let someone else do the heavy lifting.
  • Remember if you do tell someone to educate themselves, your mileage may vary. Google is sometimes an evil genie who gives you EXACTLY what you look for. And assuming that everyone is clever enough to do a minimally biased google search can be ableist.
  • Talk to people about the impact of systemic oppression against human animals and other animal communities.
  • If you screen shot a conversation, ask yourself what your motive is. I GUARANTEE that at least 50% of the time, your intention is not to “warn” people or educate them. And if the goal is educating, consider redacting names to keep the focus on what was said and why it was wrong instead of creating a lynch mob.
  • Minimize your use of the word ‘trigger.’ Triggers can be any goddamn thing. ANYTHING. And making triggers about feeling discomfort or taking offense trivializes the experiences of people who actually suffer from emotional trauma.
  • And while we’re on the topic of buzzwords, try ditching ‘problematic.’ Bottom line, everything is problematic. And when everything is problematic, NOTHING is problematic.
  • Whenever you can, go into your own spaces and advocate against speciesism. DO NOT let people get away with speciesist aggressions. Period. I understand that we can’t always do that in all situations (when we are disempowered due to social or economic disenfranchisement in relationships or workplaces). But for god’s sake, you can call it out in vegan groups at the VERY least.
  • Last, do not use speciesism to pivot and talk about race. Learn to hold conversations about how speciesism and racism interact and how we can dismantle oppression for ourselves and each other.

At the end of the day, my whole thing is this—if your activism is intersectional, people will see it. If your activism is performative, people will see that too. You don’t have to wear your intersectionality on your sleeve in order for it to be real. I fully embrace intersectional feminism in theory and in practice, but I’m veeeeery through with intersectional vegans.

Author’s note: This post only reflects my own views, Christopher Sebastian, and where I’m currently at in my journey. It does not reflect the views of the whole SwS collaborative team, nor will I necessarily feel this way in the future. Activism is alive and organic. It changes and should be discussed authentically as you move through different stages. Even as I write this, I know it will impact relationships I have with specific people and organizations that I partner with. For those of you who continue to support me, don’t worry…I’ll be right back to dragging white people next week for being completely awful. For those who feel like we can no longer work together, I’ll muddle through.