Animal Rights and the Language of Slavery

By Christopher Sebastian McJetters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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White Vegans Need Intersectionality

By Justin Van Kleeck

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.

Lessons in Comprehensive Intersectional Vegan Activism (Post One):

By Christopher-Sebastian McJetters

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.

‪#‎ComprehensiveIntersectionalVeganActivism‬

A White Man Informed By White Supremacy Murdered Three Muslim Students

In a Google search for news of the horrific shooting that took place yesterday in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the Muslim identity of the three victims is named many times, but the whiteness of the murderer is apparently not headline news.

It should be.

Whiteness must be made visible, and white people must be the ones to make it so. We have to learn the history – the real history, not the fictitious narrative – of whiteness: imperialism, colonialism, genocide, scientific and commodity racism, domination, assimilation. Anti-blackness is white supremacy. Islamantagonism is white supremacy. Each manifestation of this ideology is its own twisted system requiring specific address, but we have to stop placing the entire focus on the oppressed and start naming the oppressor. Yes, three Muslim students were killed. But this is only half the story, and it is framed in a way that erases the perpetrator. A white man killed three Muslim students. White supremacist thought manifested in an act of white power.

The Chapel Hill Police have a vested interest, conscious or not, to maintain the illusion that white supremacy no longer exists, and their story of a dispute over a parking space fits that narrative. I have heard white people hope aloud that this crime wasn’t racially motivated, a hope invested in keeping whiteness invisible. Of course this crime was racially motivated. It was motivated by white supremacy.

We have to acknowledge the reality that led a white man to execute three Muslim individuals, but white people don’t want to do the work of deconstructing a historical fiction of liberty and entrepreneurship that paints us as heroes. That story is comfortable for us, for obvious reasons. We like to leave out white supremacy entirely, but that was a foundational principle in the creation of the United States, and it has survived in silence and secret thanks to our unwillingness to name it as we benefit from the privilege it grants us.

In a town that claims to cherish diversity and liberal thinking, protests recently around the many memorials to white supremacists on the UNC campus, most notably Saunders Hall named for a former Grand Dragon of the KKK, have been met with indifference from administration. The murderous intent of whiteness is benign to white people who fancy themselves progressive, tolerant, loving, post-racial. Thus, when a white man murders a black man, his whiteness is not up for discussion. When a white man murders a Muslim, his whiteness isn’t an issue. No, instead the identities of the victims are the focus, and this only reinforces white supremacy.

Every time a white person engages in a terrorist act, an excuse is made. The rhetoric favors them. They are troubled or “mentally ill” (ableism is always a convenient crutch to support white supremacy), and we all see it time and again – loners. They do not speak for the white race, because there is no white race. This is the problem. This has been the problem.

The story may be framed in ways that tempt you to believe that the murderer’s motivations were not deeply rooted in white supremacy. He might not even see that himself. But we must see it. We must name it. We must stop wishing that this horrifying reality is non-existent. We must stop looking for a way to sweep it under the rug. We must expose the brutal reality of whiteness.

Breed Restrictions Apply

By Christopher Sebastian McJetters

whites-only

Few messages hurt my heart more than ‘Breed Restrictions Apply.’ Reminds me of a time in recent memory when such words applied to my grandparents. Oh, it was phrased differently. It probably read ‘Whites Only’ or ‘No Coloreds Allowed.’ But it meant the same thing.

“Only a certain aesthetic is welcome here. We will judge you based on stereotypes reinforced by years of institutionalized discrimination. We will fear you. We will enact ‘breed-specific legislation’ against you. In some cases, our law enforcement and judicial system will even seek to have you…put down. It’s not personal. It’s just the way you are.”

Am I an aggressive breed? Am I unwelcome because I don’t look pleasing to your eyes? Am I unappealing because of my large muzzle and pronounced features? Will you treat me differently if I promise not to harm your kids? If I explain to you that I’m not violent? That years of your systemic abuses have disenfranchised me?

I just want to live my life.

I don’t seek to threaten your way of being.

I know I look different. But I’m a good dog.

(Note: This post is dedicated to and in loving memory of Sally, founding dog of BadRap.org. Please read her eulogy here.)