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.
A very valid concern that arises among intersectional animal rights activists is how to be sensitive to the needs of multiple groups without dismissing or appropriating their struggles. How do we build communities by starting respectful dialogues that recognize analogous injustices? I don’t have all of the answers myself. Fortunately, I’ve spent many years being a poor ally so that you don’t have to!
Here are eight tips I learned about having discussions that draw provocative parallels:
1.) Do NOT compare two groups. Whether discussing sexism and racism or humans and animals, remember that you’re constructing similarities between LIKE SYSTEMS OF OPPRESSION. Stay in the right conversation. Comparing two groups isn’t even useful, because marginalized communities have dramatically different needs. So stick to the structural issues that are similar, and let people grow their empathy based on their understanding of how they’ve been impacted by the same type of discrimination as someone else.
2.) Present the information, but don’t argue the case. Sharing information is distinctly different from pushing an agenda. If you present information that has a clear, direct message, it speaks for itself without you really having to do the heavy lifting. There’s a difference between presenting connections that link systems of oppression and appropriating one struggle to further the goals of another.
3.) Restrict your role to being the messenger. The best way to avoid appropriating a group’s struggle is to not do it at all. Really, you don’t need to; instead, amplify the voices of people from that marginalized community who are raising awareness about speciesism themselves. Preaching from a place of privilege about things you don’t understand is wrong. Instead, share what you learned from discussions started by people who have had those experiences. For example, I’m not a woman; but I frequently research the voices of vegan feminists who recognize why issues like female reproductive rights make speciesism a feminist issue.
4.) Listen to objections with an open mind. If someone from another group tells you that something hurts them, acknowledge them. If you’ve made a mistake, seek to understand why this discussion is painful for them. Listen.
5.) Ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask questions when you share information. This is as much about you learning as it is about your audience learning. Get input from the communities involved. Hear them.
6.) Be authentic. It’s no secret that there are plenty of racists, homo antagonists, and sexist people in animal rights; but those agendas are obvious. For instance, many PETA campaigns clearly do not care about other marginalized communities because they employ fat shaming, sexism, and shockingly even speciesism to convey an ultimately incoherent message. Conversely, I see activists who discuss ALL oppression: police brutality against black and brown bodies, awareness of reproductive rights, eliminating homo antagonism, the need to call out racist slurs against Chinese communities. The sincere intersectional advocate is usually apparent—and if you’re an honest, authentic voice who speaks with conviction, it will be noticed.
7.) Stay focused. Direct the discussion to concentrate on how speciesism (or whatever compared injustice) hurts the people in that community. The funny thing about oppression is that it hurts everyone. Speciesism disenfranchises people of color, women, the homeless, people with disabilities, and more! Remember, your goal isn’t to fetishize the people from that community or to objectify them. So don’t speak for them or make yourself a martyr on their behalf. Your goal is to help everyone involved–human and nonhuman. Identifying how speciesism further marginalizes both groups gives us an opportunity to elevate everyone.
8.) Own mistakes. If you f*ck up, you f*ck up. We’ve all done it—and we’re all going to continue to do it. As much as I use my privilege to support women, I’m still a man who benefits from male privilege. As often as I speak up for people with disabilities, I still recognize that I regularly perpetuate ableism unconsciously. Just OWN it when you do. Accountability goes a long way to legitimizing your authenticity. Apologize. Learn from your mistake, and move on. You’re not perfect, and pretending to be will only get you into bigger trouble.
I don’t know if these come up in your timelines with any regularity. But they come up in mine. Occasionally, I have friends who share these hidden camera videos where a white (or white presenting) person commits an aggression against a black person (and occasionally other marginalized persons of color) to provoke what is perceived to be a comic reaction. This video in particular takes a look at ways in which the ‘prank’ backfires, which I guess is supposed to be comedy in and of itself.
But for me (and I suspect other black people), it’s actually very traumatizing. What is perceived as a joke actually ends up being a reminder of just how very much whiteness is privileged. To think that you can actually target a person of color, a complete stranger no less, solely for your amusement, use racially antagonistic language, reinforce patriarchy by ’emasculating’ them, and humiliate them for a cheap laugh is nothing less than terrifying in the 21st century.
So what am I asking you to do? Well, three things:
1.) If you’ve shared videos like this before, now you know. Please reconsider before sharing them again.
2.) Share this status. Raise awareness of how promoting violence for entertainment’s sake (or provoking it) normalizes violence similarly to the way that eating animals normalizes violence (see how that intersectionality business works for all you vegans out there who clown me about it?).
3.) If you see your friends share videos like this, talk to them about it. You don’t have to call them out publicly. Just send them a private message. Be an ally!
And yes, before you say it, I know prank videos target white people too. But in a society where black lives are disproportionately targeted by police brutality, continually disenfranchised economically and academically, and held to a different standard than our white peers, jokes like this are not a laughing matter. I guarantee the outcome would be different with a black antagonist.
The genesis of this interview is a long and winding one, starting a few years back when a friend told me and my wife about this amazing vegan grad student named Syl. Fast forward a few years to where Syl is a good friend, and her sister, Aph Ko, publishes an article addressing reasons why animal rights is a feminist issue…
Little wormholes like these open up all the time in cyberspace, and where they lead can sometimes be both informative and important for oneself. As both a writer and participant in the world of online advocacy, I am both fascinated and appalled by so much of what goes on there. After reading Aph’s article and binge-watching season 1 of her web series Black Feminist Blogger, I went down the wormhole.
Aph’s is a crisply articulate critical voice, and her perspective on interconnected oppressions and the activist movements that counter them is wonderful in its wit and precision. I tossed a few dense questions at her to learn more about her work and some of her conclusions from her time in the blogosphere…
Can you talk about your process of going vegan? When was it, and what factors played into your decision to stop participating in the exploitation of animals?
I became a vegetarian when I was about 16 or 17 in high school after my friends showed me some PETA brochures (I wasn’t aware of their “sexy” campaigns at this point!). I worked at a vegan restaurant in Irvine, CA called “Veggie Grill” (it was the first one ever; now it’s a successful chain). At that point, though, I didn’t have an ideological connection to veganism. I didn’t take it seriously. My sister Syl introduced me to the concept of veganism as a political concept when I was about 20. She sent me the book Sistah Vegan, and I immediately saw how racism, sexism, and speciesism connected and I was hooked. (I am still obsessed with Dr. A. Breeze Harper!)
For a while, it was difficult for me to keep the vegan diet consistent, despite the fact that I understood the political ideology because I had been addicted to animal-bodies-as-consumptive-units for so long. I realized that un-learning scripts about food consumption was super difficult, but necessary and possible.
Your series Black Feminist Blogger is a hilarious and yet disturbing account of the realities faced by a black feminist writer in the blogosphere. I am curious to hear your feelings about the current state of feminist discussion in cyberspace and society at large. For example, I was struck by your fictional editor, Marie, in the series—especially her comment, “I took out inflammatory words like racism and white supremacy. … in this magazine we’re trying to talk about women’s issues.” Do you feel like actual progress (in terms of changing cultural mores and connecting movements) is being made on key feminist issues thanks to the web? What benefits and costs do you think come through engaging in online advocacy?
This is an awesome question. Yes- I do think a type of progress is being made online. It allows certain minoritized people access to platforms that they wouldn’t necessarily have access to if it weren’t for the internet. Most importantly, it allows us to connect with each other. Also, I have learned so much about social justice movements online. So in one instance, I would state that yes, progress is definitely being made because the internet offers a unique space for organizing and movement building.
Beyond that, though, I am skeptical of the idea that the internet alone will advance political issues. Part of my show Black Feminist Blogger exposes how blogging is a business based upon some of my own real experiences blogging online full time. Because people are making money off of their websites (which isn’t always a bad thing—especially if you’re doing good, important work), there’s a pressure to publish quickly and to regurgitate the same popular topics over and over (in the same ways) to achieve those clicks. Perhaps this is why you might see 300,000 articles about Iggy Azalea talking about cellulite on her ass…and whether or not her acceptance of her cellulite is a feminist stance…like what the fuck.
In fact, you will see the business side of blogging through freelance writing work. I’ve worked for feminist sites that hire a large amount of writers that they pay per article. In fact, some of these successful websites will send out emails to their freelance writers every week with “popular topic ideas” that they can choose from. Sometimes, you have to choose a topic from their list because they know they will achieve the most page clicks (which translates to money). Therefore, the focus is on PRODUCING articles, not necessarily writing awesome content that’s needed. I’ve even worked for spaces that tried to get writers from overseas because they could pay them less per article.
I think that’s the scariest part about the online space. The corporatization of online feminism is silencing radical, independent feminist voices that can’t compete with corporations, or websites that are making thousands of dollars. (Some feminist writers even have agents!) Because of this, certain feminist websites have the monopoly on feminist thought, and that annoys me. You can also expect that the same feminist spaces are going to be writing about the exact same popular cultural moments over and over again, not because they’re adding anything new to the conversation, but because they HAVE to write about it to stay relevant, and I don’t know how that translates to anything other than journalism.
Honestly, I think the internet is helping people become stronger business owners and journalists, but not necessarily better activists. The act of promoting oneself and one’s writing becomes conflated with activism.
As a black feminist, what are some of the main issues that you want to see getting more attention than they currently are? What has your experience been when trying to raise these issues in light of the narratives constructed by “mainstream” media?
Overall, I think we’re experiencing a giant theoretical rut today. Most of the conversations that are occurring in the mainstream take critical subjects and distill them. We refuse to talk about women and sexuality in a dynamic way because MALE GAZE/RAPE CULTURE. Light-skinned and dark-skinned black women can’t talk together today because COLORISM. Every minute there’s a new article about a celebrity “celebrating” their curves, or embracing their make-up free face, and at this point, the basic-ness of these events are profound. I feel fatigued with how uncritical and boring our discussions are today. The discussions in the mainstream are very safe and sanitized. We need a new framework for talking about these issues because currently they’re unproductive and produce sloppy, uninspiring, predictable conversations that don’t go anywhere.
For one, I wish that we could stop focusing so much on celebrities. I think our culture has a sick fixation with what celebrities are doing. I think feminism has been so unpalatable and unfavorable for so long that we are now trying to re-brand it in a way where it’s not threatening, and in doing that, I think we’re distilling it and unfairly slapping the feminist label onto any celebrity who denounces Photoshopping.
I think the huge focus on celebrity culture in feminism has something to do with the fact that a lot of feminism online is turning into sell-out journalism. Because of this journalistic turn in feminism, more and more feminists are “reporting” cultural events and giving their analyses.
As a black feminist, I wish we could start talking more about animal rights and veganism in our feminist circles without viewing animal rights as a “separate” field. Our social justice movements are so compartmentalized despite the fact that “intersectionality” is the trendiest word of our generation. I also wish that feminists focused more on indie digital media, indie music, art, etc. I love the grassroots feeling of the indie space and I think there’s power in the grungy, indie circuit. The act of creating is revolutionary, so I think we need to start talking some more about that. Overall, I think we need some new theory to account for the different political, racial, sexual landscape today.
Your recent article for Everyday Feminism discussed some of the reasons why animal rights is a feminist issue. Why do you think this argument still needs to be made in feminist circles (i.e., what do you think lies behind the disconnect between human feminists and other animals)?
I think many social justice movements today thrive on empty buzzwords and mantras, rather than actual praxis. So, it’s trendier to learn the language of the movement so that you “look” like you get it, rather than actually getting it. If you actually understood the movements you’ve been participating in, your behavior would start changing, not just the phrases written on your shirt.
You have some people screaming #blacklivesmatter for Mike Brown, but they can’t name one black author, black philosopher, black indie media product, black artist, etc. It’s empty.
Ironically, you have feminists screaming “the personal is political” but they don’t think about the food they consume which is wrapped up in giant systems of oppression.
Intersectionality falls flat today in many circles because it’s attached to empty praxis.
I think some feminists’ inability to fight for animal rights demonstrates how ingrained problematic hierarchies are, even in oppressed subjects’ psyches. Some oppressed folks have a hard time accepting that they might be oppressive agents to others. Unfortunately, when some groups are oppressed, they are incapable of understanding that they’re not the only bodies being oppressed, and any attention that goes to another group is immediately met with anger and frustration. This reaction is proof for my assertion that people don’t really GET intersectionality…or maybe haven’t really read about it.
I also think that because of the online space where everyone can have their own blog, and write their own critiques, everyone thinks they’re an expert at feminism. People want to critique, but they aren’t necessarily as inclined to learn (I was quite a stubborn asshole as well when I started blogging). As I said in my Daily Beast interview, I think people are experts at critiquing and pointing out problems in everything, but they don’t want to be reflexive because it means they might actually have to change, and since our culture thrives on comfort, “change” merely becomes a tie-dye colored word on a John Lennon poster that might be hanging from your wall, not a politic that you live your life by.
Along with the WHY, can you talk about the HOW? How does feminism start to take the oppression of other animals more seriously and create a comprehensive, intersectional strategy for fighting oppression?
Ironically we have the theory there that supports animal rights and veganism; we just need to practice it. Every feminist knows “intersectionality,” but they have to apply it to bodies that don’t necessarily look like their own.
I think it’s about just doing it. Oftentimes, in social justice circles, we fetishize activism, or assume it’s about changing someone else. However, it can start with you. Feminists (especially in the mainstream) definitely understand the body as a political entity, so there’s no excuse. I mean—we exist in a culture where everyone and their sister is talking about “body-positivity,” so it seems like some feminists are willing to talk about their bodies as long as it’s attached to a superficial beauty rhetoric; however, when it’s attached to changing their diets to accommodate animal bodies, suddenly they start to have a problem with that. (They will often shout scripts like “well….some people can’t go vegan because they live in poverty or because of cultural reasons,” and I’m like “okay…some people don’t have the option to go vegan…but don’t you?” Silence and crickets.)
(I just want to make a note that I’m aware that not every community has the option to go vegan. However, I’m predominantly talking to the thousands of people who *do* have the option to go vegan, but don’t .)
I mean, after my article about animal rights in Everyday Feminism, I can’t tell you how many feminists were pissed off with me and sent me really mean messages telling me that I was a joke or that I wasn’t a real feminist because animal lives weren’t as important as women’s lives. Some people were so hostile that I started re-reading my article to see if I said anything that extreme. I had no idea animal rights (within a feminist context) was this controversial. The automatic assumption that animal bodies are just “less than” reifies the exact same hierarchical systems that feminists are trying to fight to get their own rights. It’s the epitome of irony and while frustrating, it’s great fodder for another comedy web-series, LOL. This negative response reveals how misguided some attempts are in feminism to reach “liberation.”
You have to actually ACT to be an activist. It’s a struggle. So, giving up your meat and cheese might seem like the end of the world, but that feeling of personal struggle is necessary for the movement. People know animals are being tortured and slaughtered, but they can’t give up meat because it “tastes good.” How committed are you to social justice if your taste buds rank higher than another being’s existence
Activism isn’t necessarily supposed to be comfortable. We need empathy in our social justice movements. To have the expectation that dominant groups should understand your plight, while you have another being’s flesh stuck in your teeth, just feels awkward, LOL.
To focus on veganism/animal rights more specifically, what in your opinion are some of the biggest failings of the movement(s) in reaching non-white, non-affluent individuals? What concrete steps need to be taken to make veganism more inclusive—both in terms of rhetoric but also in terms of outreach and support?
I think there’s a foundational issue with inclusivity rhetoric. In fact, many folks argue (myself included) that diversity and inclusivity rhetoric serves to reify and empower white supremacy.
Your question presupposes that there aren’t people of color in the movement already, so the question discursively excludes us (brown people) which must be noted. What “animal rights movement” are you talking about? Your question naturalizes whiteness as the norm which I think is problematic, LOL. I’m going to assume that you’re referring to animal rights organizations that are predominantly made up of white people considering “whiteness” is commonly implied, but rarely called out. By using the white-centered, ambiguous term “animal rights movement,” you’re ironically erasing brown people and our work, but I will however answer the question I think you’re asking.
I don’t view the white animal rights movement as “failing” to include brown folks because that would presuppose that they set out to accommodate brown people in the first place, which they haven’t. I don’t view my exclusion as accidental.
We can look to the ways that black feminists recently called out “white feminism” as a thing, to solve some of these issues in “mainstream” animal rights spaces because I think this is more of a rhetorical issue.
For too long, “mainstream feminism” seemed to only focus on white women, and completely ignored the ways in which women of color were impacted by patriarchy differently. Mainstream feminism also seemed to ignore the activist efforts of non-white women. Therefore, when black feminist Mikki Kendall came out with hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen, she brilliantly pointed to the ways that these “mainstream” movements only recognized white activism, while excluding and ignoring the struggles and labor of people of color. In other words, “mainstream” seemed to have a color attached to it: white.
Dr. Brittney Cooper wrote a BRILLIANT article titled, “Feminism’s Ugly Internal Clash: Why Its Future Isn’t Up to White Women,” to clearly draw the lines between white and black feminism, and to make a point that black women don’t need white feminism in order to validate their activism. Before this, “white” feminism was felt, but was never actually called out. This was a significant rhetorical move. Dr. Cooper noted how white feminism (or mainstream feminism) centered on equality, and black feminism centered on justice. These are two different projects and they need two different names or else all of the work black feminists are doing will unfairly be erased or eclipsed by white women’s organizing efforts.
I think we need a similar rhetorical strategy for the current “mainstream” animal rights movement that excludes non-white activists. Part of the activism is labeling the current “mainstream” animal rights movement a white movement so that the rest of us can move on and continue doing our own activism without fighting for a seat at the white table. Fighting for animal rights and then fighting for representation in a white space are two very different projects.
If minoritized people aren’t joining your movements, it could be that we already have our own movement that you just don’t know about, OR, your space is exclusionary. The activism shouldn’t center on how to reach out to non-white people… you should use that energy to look to the foundation of your movement or project because your answers might be there. We pathologize minoritized people by questioning their motives for not joining movements and organizations that purposefully exclude them. Instead of spotlighting the activist efforts of non-white people (because there’s a lot of us), the attention gets turned to why these folks aren’t joining white organizations.
If the white folks actually understood the issues they were so passionately fighting for, they would already be inclusive, so their exclusion is quite intentional.
Just because the white animal rights movement doesn’t recognize us, doesn’t mean that we don’t exist. We’ve been organizing for a while.
There are many black/brown vegans who are doing awesome projects and we need to allow these organic movements to thrive as they are. Perhaps white folks can help by providing resources and financial assistance to some minoritized vegan activist movements that don’t get as much exposure as white organizations, rather than trying to get these minoritized folks to join their organizations. That feels like a completely different, appropriative project.
Just remember that there are vegans of color who are doing work, and that’s the animal rights movement that I know and focus on.
Wow…so many important points there. Thanks for making the best of my poorly worded question! 🙂 So, what projects will you be working on in the near future, and what issues do you see being (continuing or immediate) priorities for you?
I’m currently working on season 2 of Black Feminist Blogger, and I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to film another episode of my web-series “Tales from the Kraka Tower.” For me, right now, self-care is the most important thing. In order to continue my activism, I need to re-charge, which is what I’m doing now. J
I want to keep championing for independent smart media, and I’m trying to finish an EP with my band!
Food is a complicated affair. As vegans know, getting other humans to examine their food choices and (more importantly) change them can feel like trying to pick up the Earth and move it a few planets farther out.
Part of the urgency we feel with food arises from the reality that it has so many ramifications on our planet, beyond whether or not we are eating other animals. This means every choice counts…and that achieving justice involves much more than going vegan. Factors ranging from treatment of workers, to environmental impact, to access to food, and much more are all crucial considerations we have to make if we truly care about just food.
Far too few vegans and “animal rights” activists venture outside of the ethics of eating (and otherwise using) animal products, but lauren Ornelas, founder of Food Empowerment Project, is an outspoken advocate for true food justice and against exploitation in all its forms. I first corresponded with lauren after writing about the influence growing up poor had on me as a vegan, and I have been awed by her work and Food Empowerment Project’s growing presence since then…
Can you talk about your process of going vegan? When was it, and what factors played into your decision to stop participating in the exploitation of animals?
I went vegetarian when I was about five years old when my mom told me that the chicken I was eating was, well, a chicken. It wasn’t until I was 16 that I was able to stick with that decision (for a variety of reasons), but I had already stopping buying leather products. However, when I was 17 I was connected with an animal rights group in my area and learned about factory farming—it was then that I went vegan. I think, overall, the biggest factor for me when I was five was not wanting to break up families or being responsible for their separation. This April will be my 27-year vegan anniversary.
What motivated you to start Food Empowerment Project, and how did you build it up into the organization it is today?
One of my motivations for starting Food Empowerment Project was my frustration with animal rights activists who did not like me talking about the suffering of human animals in various industries, including chocolate, when I was asked by interviewers if animal rights people only cared about the suffering of non-human animals.
My passions were also stirred when I went to speak at the World Social Forum in Caracas, Venezuela, and realized so many issues that I also cared about, such as workers, the environment, indigenous rights, immigration, etc., were all related to food.
I wanted to have an organization that strove for justice in all of these areas.
What have been some of your biggest victories so far? What issues are a priority for you moving forward?
To me the biggest victory has been the evolution of people understanding our work. Not that all vegans understand it, but many seem to be understanding (or at least being less hostile) to our desire to connect these issues. Food Empowerment Project has been around since 2007, but only recently does it seem as if our work is being sincerely recognized.
Getting people to understand the connections of oppression and our ability to work together (and not be separated by specific focus or being an expert) is a huge victory in my eyes. Although in a more tangible form, our work over several years to get Clif Bar to disclose the country of origin for their chocolate was a big victory.
Our priorities continue to be hindered by our slow rate of growth in funding (an area which shows that people are only just now starting to understand the importance of our work, but funding is not pouring in).
Fortunately, with a great group of volunteers we will continue to work promoting the issues of ethical veganism, fight for justice for farm workers, discourage people from buying chocolate from areas where the worst forms of child labor are taking place and get companies to be transparent on their sourcing, and continue our work with communities on the lack of access to healthy foods.
There is some criticism in the vegan movement of “single-issue campaigns.” Would you consider FEP’s actions—e.g., targeting Clif Bar for their chocolate sourcing—to be single-issue campaigns? How do you respond to that sort of criticism, if you encounter it?
Campaigns have to be single issue in a sense if you want concrete change versus general outreach. For example, you can have a long-term goal to get all animals out of marine parks, to abolish marine parks, but perhaps your smaller goal is to shut one of them down. I am a campaigner, and I like concrete goals in order to know if I am having an impact versus just hoping or assuming I am.
When it comes to Clif Bar, I don’t find it to be a single issue as we were targeting a company that makes primarily vegan products. Our goal was to get them to be transparent. We want all companies that make vegan products to be transparent, but we can’t just tell them all that and think we can get somewhere. In an ideal world, sure. But the reality is that corporations aren’t going to make changes for the good unless we demand it from them and we’re specific about what we are asking of them.
Along with your work with FEP, you do a lot of speaking about activism and intersectionality. What are some of your priorities as an activist?
Yes, I do talk about how issues are connected. My priorities as an activist change and they evolve. Currently, I would say they are in a constant struggle to block out the noise of those who are not doing strategic work and to make sure that F.E.P. works in a way that is consistent with our ethics. It is tough to juggle, but we do our best. And also as an individual I want to be sure to keep active with strategic campaigns and outreach efforts for both animal liberation and human justice.
More importantly, what do you feel the vegan movement needs to do in the context of other social justice movements? What have we done well, and what do we need to do better?
I think the vegan movement should not sell out other social justice issues that are also advocating for those who are being exploited, marginalized, abused, and killed. I don’t ask for vegans to give up their good, just, and necessary fight for non-human animals, but to work to be consistent by not supporting chocolate that comes from child labor and to be educated about using incorrect statements such as, “Anyone can be vegan if they really want to be.”
We need to do better about truly connecting the issues. Connecting issues does not mean you only talk about other social justice issues as a pretext for getting others to go vegan. It means truly understanding how these issues are connected and work with others to stop them. It’s important to remind yourself that you might be an expert when it comes to animal issues, but perhaps you’re not with other issues, so there is a time to lead and a time to follow.
I am particularly interested to get your perspective on how to make (ethical) veganism less of a phenomenon of the privileged—despite the historic associations between animal rights and white supremacy—and more about enabling everyone be able to make healthy, sustainable, just food and lifestyle choices. What can individual vegans do, and what has to be changed on a larger socio-economic scale?
I think vegans can and need to be honest. If they are creating recipes, let’s not pretend that anyone can make it because it is made from scratch and from whole foods. That is great for many, many people, but not everyone. Be honest and acknowledge that your meal ideas and recipes are very important and can help people go vegan, but let’s not kid ourselves into thinking it is easy for everyone. It won’t work for people who only have access to tomato sauce, and for whom fresh produce is a potato and onion on an irregular basis, or for people who live in shelters or motels. They might care, but they might not have an option right now.
We all need to work for living wages. Living wages for everyone will mean they will have more access to healthy foods—including fruits and vegetables.
Are you optimistic that the vegan movement can grow out of its largely consumerist phase and actually make a difference in the lives of humans and non-humans everywhere? Why or why not? Do you have any suggestions for making veganism a real force for social justice?
I do think we can as long as we keep the issue at heart as the focal point. Look, unfortunately, capitalism is to blame for much of the ills in the world. And by using consumer campaigns we have to work to force corporations to make changes. But if we are dishonest about our goals, I believe we lose credibility. It’s important to keep the focus on the animals, and the reason why many of us do the work we do is because we do not want non-human animals to suffer, be abused, exploited, and killed. This way we keep the heart of the matter front and center and do not allow the dollar to be the focus.
It is important to remember that with a diet based primarily of fruits and vegetables, what we eat (and encourage others to eat) also comes from an abusive and exploitative industry. Farm workers in the US face some of the worst abuses in the food industry. They are not paid living wages (many get paid based on how much they pick), do not get benefits, they work in extreme environments (some collapse from heat exhaustion and die in the fields), are exposed to hazardous chemicals, and many of the women are victims of sexual abuse. These are issues vegans need to address.
Eating a cruelty-free diet will require that the rights of the farm workers are also met.
One of my driving interests as an ethical vegan activist over the past few months has been exploring the intersection of ethical veganism and other social justice movements. Having been one to indulge in the myopia of “animal rights” for many years, I have experienced quite the eye-opening (to put it mildly) since pursuing a broader stance of resistance, leading me to take seriously the interconnections of forms of oppression. And to take seriously the necessity and importance of solidarity with other activists across movements.
As I explained in a previous post, I am co-editing a collection of letters from current vegans called Letters to a New Vegan. Through that project, I got connected with Jacqueline Morr, a writer and activist currently living in Los Angeles who is doing a range of academic and activist work on issues surrounding intersectionality, ecofeminism, and animal/total liberation. She recently founded Project Intersect, a zine that I hope will become a nucleus for intersectionality that brings together academics, activists, and a broader population…
Can you talk about your process of going vegan? When was it, and what factors played into your decision to stop participating in the exploitation of animals? In January of 2011 I moved to Chicago. Nick, a longtime friend of mine, had contacted me about an extra room in his new apartment in Roscoe Village for only four hundred dollars per month; I did not hesitate to accept his offer. This was immediately after I finished with student teaching in my hometown (Mansfield, Ohio), which solidified my desire to teach—and to finally move out of state.
Nick left Ohio immediately following high school graduation, having earned a film degree from the School of Visual Arts in New York City in addition to working toward a Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Arts Studies from Columbia College (Chicago) by the time I arrived in that city on the lake. He’d already been vegan for a year, whereas I was one of those self-proclaimed “vegetarians” who still ate canned tuna and never even gave cow’s milk or chicken’s eggs an iota of critical thought. I had also spent six weeks in an eating disorders treatment facility in Philadelphia in February and March of 2010—of my own volition, I still feel the need to mention—and was still recalibrating my relationship to food and hunger and also to the post-traumatic self, the multiply-fractured consciousness left in the wake of recovery.
When Nick found the skim milk, “organic, free range” eggs, and “100% real” butter I’d put in his fridge he indicated his discomfort. If I could name the sense of shame I felt for introducing animal products into his cruelty-free kitchen it might sound something like denial. This prompted serious conversations regarding his veganism, during which he recommended I read Eating Animals. I plucked that book from his shelf and read it in a little more than a day. I cried when I finished. Not only for the enormity of the other animals’ suffering but also for my own willful ignorance and, strangely enough, a recovered memory: an undercover video from a fur farm in China I’d seen years before, thousands of minks ineffectively bludgeoned and stripped of their skin while still alive and thrown into pink and steaming piles of others in various stages of dying and decomposition. Writhing ever so slightly. Lidless eyes filled up with the horror of that violent human indifference.
The next morning I held ceremony at my last non-vegan meal, which consisted of diner buckwheat pancakes and a milkshake.
Your academic experience is in trauma studies. How has that research and scholarship affected your work as an activist? Have you found it useful for yourself (and others) who are striving to end the suffering of others?
Trauma and the traumatic subject fascinate me. More than that—I feel indebted to the language and physiology of trauma. The hard work of my Master’s thesis, which culminated in an extended research paper (a history of eating disorders and female [writerly] resistance), an artist’s statement (on the inherent “madness” and “feminine” aspect of writing), and a conceptual nonfiction novel called sick girl (regarding my personal experience as a clinically “disordered” female), revolutionized my experience and understanding of research and writing and critical thought. Specifically: I had begun to more rigorously connect my desire for and aptitude toward knowledge to my increasing unrest as an advocate of critical pedagogy and feminism, amongst many other things (animal and earth liberation not the least of them). A further result was that I more clearly understood the urgency of action around the issues that were closest to my heart and mind—in addition to discovering their utter interconnectedness. During this time I made explicit the previously implicit connections between my feminism, atheism, ethical veganism, earth activism, anarcho-syndicalism, and so forth. Proclaiming it from the rooftops, as it were…sounding “barbaric” yawps from the Manhattan Bridge or the fountain at the center of Washington Square Park.
While my time in the Trauma Studies Department at NYU contributed positively and so thoroughly to my increasingly intersectional mode of praxis around my ethical and political self, it also clarified the extent to which my idea(l)s are “radical,” even (and oftentimes especially) in the context of disparate academic and activist circles. Where I sought allies I found willful resistance, oftentimes hatred and bigotry: “feminists” rejecting the equation of the exploitation of their reproductive systems to that of other female animals; polyglots and Ph.D. candidates in Literary Criticism arguing against boycotts and direct activism on the basis that “choice cannot truly exist;” LGBTQIA activists employing ableist, sexist, and speciesist language to discuss the history of their own oppression.
I could prattle on forever here, but perhaps I should end by noting that knowing itself can be traumatic. In the case of animal/earth liberationists and radical eco-feminists this strikes me as especially true. Those things we cannot unsee will often wash over us in a wave of cold desperation. Of panic, really, with an intensity that would bowl us over. You know the sort: undercover videos from factory farms implant themselves as memories in the Nightmares Section of our brain’s memory warehouse. This cathexis then connects to an intense urgency, hatred, fear around the gestation crate, the bull hook, the anti-nursing bullring, the captive bolt pistol, the puppy mill, the free-range shithouse.
What are some of your primary issues of focus these days as an activist and advocate? What do you feel ought to be some priorities of the vegan/animal-rights movement(s) in general?
Intersectionality remains a central focus of mine. How to cultivate safe and productive spaces for radical eco-feminists and (gender, ability, intellectual, or otherwise) nonconforming persons in animal liberationist spaces; how to successfully critique welfarist incrementalism and cognitive moral dissonance by modeling engaged, intersectional, abolitionist ethics and politics; and, perhaps most importantly, how to model intersectionality through the language I use and the tactics I employ.
There is, I feel, a startling lack of definitional rigor that encapsulates the contemporary movement for “animal rights” (I would instead use the term liberation or defense, for deploying rights-based language to advance any radical social justice movement mires us in legal jargon and a certain capitalist economy of subjectivity—very limiting and counter-productive. This is aligned with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s shunning of the concept of “tolerance” during the U.S. Civil Rights Movement: “True peace is not merely the absence of tension. It’s the presence of justice.”) Amongst the fractured sects of this movement there are no real working—read: widely-accepted and applied—definitions of violence, personhood, accountability, effective activism, and yes—even veganism. I am in no way advocating that diversity, nuance, multi-vocality, and anarchistic values be swallowed up by some equalizing structure or language. Each of us must retain access to the fullest range of significations without fear of subjugation or silencing. But if we are to organize we must ourselves be organized and intentional. Not slaves to any structure or forms but certainly willing pupils, always read to learn and humbly accepting our ill-fated (human) grandiosity: our gross lack of perspective.
You founded Project Intersect, which is an exciting effort to bring together different activists and scholars in order to create a space and vehicle for dialogue on various (but related) social justice issues. Can you explain, briefly, what intersectionality is, and talk some about why it is such a crucial component of ongoing justice advocacy and how you feel it can change the way we approach the ending of exploitation?
I feel I’ve talked about this a bit earlier in this interview, so I’ll keep it brief here: intersectionality, in my understanding, considers all oppressions as interlocking and mutually-reinforcing. Its foundation is built upon the recognition and acceptance of empathy as the driving force behind all ethical concerns—with some caveats around white (male) privilege, colonial histories, indigenous practices, geography, and so forth.
It’d be a true exploitation of my own privilege to claim that all persons should adhere to intersectional ethics as I must, and do. How do I honor the history of the term itself, which was coined by black radical feminist Kimberlé Crenshaw in “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” without coopting or claiming the experiences of persons whose lives, in so many ways, are distinct from my own? Me, born to middle-class white folks in Ohio exurbia, sent to Catholic school where I accessed a truly college-preparatory education, possessive of my BA and MA, never having wanted for food or shelter or, really, friendship. Of course, as a female-bodied, young, atheist, body-modified, anti-capitalist, earth liberationist, ethical vegan person, I can find multiple intersections between my experience (of oppression) and that of others, especially female-bodied persons. Never claiming their experience as my own; never speaking for or at or artificially “with” them; but in solidarity and humility to the greatest extent possible.
Identifying and illuminating these intersections is key to collaboration and solidarity across multiple movements for social justice and liberation (power in numbers). This means posing to feminist-identified persons that the exploitation of the female body, regardless of species, must be recognized as intolerable. It means speaking with labor organizers and those who campaign for the rights of working-class laborers and immigrant workers about the exploitation of workers (both adults and children) in slaughterhouses, tanneries, the ivory trade, and so on.
What are some of your goals with Project Intersect, in the near future and further down the road?
Well, of course, to distribute the zine more effectively and widely—to put the publication in the hands of as many unawares passers-by as possible! It’d be lovely to have the zine come out bi-annually, but I’m a High School English teacher and find that I don’t even have time to read for myself anymore, let alone write. Bitter about all of that (teaching is wonderful and awful and uplifting and miring all at once.) But! The first issue of the zine is currently available online (e-mail email@example.com to request a copy) and in some brick-and-mortar stores: The Pop-Hop bookshop in Highland Park; Skylight Books in Los Feliz; and Stories Books & Café in Echo Park. All in Los Angeles, currently, but my collaborators on the project—Ashley Maier (a good friend and fellow activist) and Nick Morr (my spouse, and another radical liberationist)—are working to improve distribution and promotion of the zine. If anyone would like to help, please, contact us!
As a post-script I should mention that the theme for the next issue, whenever it DOES come out, will be On Violence.
Another of your interests is Ecofeminism. How would you define ecofeminism and its relationship to the larger feminist movement? Why is ecofeminism not always also a vegan movement?
These questions! Eco-feminism has a particularly interesting history, which I won’t recount here; instead I’ll point readers in the direction of Marti Kheel, Lori Gruen, Josephine Donovan, pattrice jones, and so forth. Eco-feminism itself represents that marriage I discussed earlier: a sort of praxis of ethics, experience, and care that fuses (without coopting or whitewashing or undifferentiating) multiple ethical, socio-political, economic, environmental, and ontological concerns. I fear I’m sounding too wordy but I hope my high-flung language is appropriate enough for this context. I care very deeply about the accessibility of these concepts and lifestyles, which must be moldable enough to fit the needs and desires of innumerable persons and communities.
As I’m finding myself a bit overwhelmed by this question, and in the interest of our time, I’ll be as direct as possible: vegan eco-feminism is a “radical” stance in that it establishes and aspires toward rigorous moral baselines. It’s polemical because many feminists identify strongly with one cause or another. Many self-identified feminists I’ve interacted with that are NOT vegan perhaps have never heard of eco-feminism, or feminist arguments for veganism. Or, if they are aware of such arguments, they’re resistant—perhaps they feel they cannot relate, or they have adopted a humanist stance, or they are simply disgusted at the comparison between their reproductive systems and those of female animals of other species. These run the gamut. Melanie Joy’s concept of cognitive moral dissonance resonates well here.
I am in no way asserting that feminists who have not yet made the connection between the oppression of “women” and the multiple other oppressions tended to by eco-feminists and ethical vegan feminists are “bad feminists”—nor are they bad people, necessarily (yet these things always must go forward case-by-case, as we know). As a white, cisgender, educated, able-bodied person I must accept the skewed perceptions that such privilege can and does promote. However, I feel no remorse in proposing that embodying ideals of non-violence, anti-capitalism, solidarity across social justice movements, and the opposition to all forms of bigotry (including speciesism, racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, classism, nationalism, and so forth) should rightfully be at the heart of all efforts to end oppression/the oppressors.
Besides all of these projects and interests, you have also contributed articles to a few publications and do your own writing. Where can we read some of your previous work?
I have forthcoming pieces in Letters to a New Vegan and an as-yet-unnamed project by professor, author, and activist Laura Wright on the intersections of ethical veganism, femininity, and eating disorders.
Also, I’ve written a conceptual non-fiction book, titled sick girl, that sits gathering encrypted dusk on my hard-drive. It was written for partial fulfillment of my Master’s thesis. I love it and miss it, and intend to get through that final round of edits some day soon, and re-submit to literary agents. Hopefully. Hopefully.
Thanks so much for speaking with me about your work!