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.