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Racism versus speciesism: A moral battleground?


I’ll state upfront that I am a white-skinned (half-Persian by birth), queer, feminist vegan who advocates for animal rights and ethical veganism in my writing for both niche and mainstream media, and recognise that anything I say is coming from a position of white and class privilege and white racialised consciousness.

The purpose of this piece is to explore some of the arguments about race/racism, veganism, speciesism and animal rights that have come to the fore through my own engagement with various people, both in person and online, in recent months. And to open up the dialogue to a much broader range of voices, in what I hope will be passionate, yet respectful debate on the issues.

In addition to Breeze Harper’s extensive work on these issues (including her book, Sistah Vegan – an anthology of accounts by black female vegans in the US) which I have found to be eye-opening as well as accessible, I also cite a presentation by Nekeisha Alexis-Baker, another black female vegan from the US on racism, speciesism and sexism, and some comments from blogs and Facebook from other people of colour.

I have also interviewed a number of white animal rights advocates – some of them well-known, prolific authors such as Gary L. Francione, Carol Adams and Melanie Joy; others are bloggers and writers with an interest in the intersections of oppressions, including Kelly Garbato and Alex Melonas.

By no means are these to be considered exhaustive – they are but a small sample of perspectives and I hope in the comments section of this piece that links will be provided to other resources and points of view.

Racism v speciesism: Catering a feminist conference vegan

As mentioned above, Sydney hosted its first major feminist conference in 15 years in April 2010. Many of us attending believed the catering for such a conference should be vegan so as to avoid supporting an industry that relies on not only the killing of predominantly female animals (meat) but the control of the reproductive systems of female non-humans (dairy, eggs) – more on why animal rights are a feminist issue is set out in my article here.

The conference wasn’t catered vegan and at the end a motion was put forward that future feminist conferences should be catered entirely vegan.

Some people said that this would deter both Indigenous and other people of colour from attending and would show a lack of respect for many people of colour whose traditions and cultures involved eating meat. Some said that doing this was racist. Others, including me, countered with saying they were in turn being speciesist. This dialogue continued on the online forums along these lines.

Many women (majority white, but not all of them) approached me and other animal rights advocates after the conference to say they believed feminist and activist conferences should be catered vegan but were afraid to say so publicly lest they be labeled racist, and that arguments against this were speciesist.

Meanwhile the anti-racism and other social justice campaigners, both white and people of colour, were left with the impression that animal rights activists and vegans are a bunch of insensitive imperialists with little or no regard for marginalised people of colour.

Similar arguments are currently taking place on the Facebook page for a 2011 feminist conference, this time to be held in Melbourne and organised by a different collective.

Essentially, there seems to be a stand-off, with an ‘us’ and ‘them’ stance: if you promote veganism as the default, rather than just an ‘option’ and ‘lifestyle choice’, you’re racist. If you don’t support veganism as the default, you’re speciesist.

Although the two camps seem to be at polar opposites, they do have two things in common: compassion and a desire for justice and equality for all. Both sides are working hard in their own ways to create a fairer and just world, whether their focus is on women, people of colour, or animals, and I’d to think (idealistic as it may be) that instead of fighting among ourselves we can unite in the face of the real enemy: structural societal inequality in which food production has been hijacked by white, western corporations that utilise technologies and systems that oppress both humans (predominantly people of colour) and animals, as well as devastate the environment and keep in place a class system in which the rich get richer and have access to healthier foods and the poor get poorer and sicker and more marginalised.

And by ‘both sides’, I am not suggesting that these comprise people of colour who consume animal products on one hand versus white vegans who don’t. That attitude assumes that vegan = white and that animal rights activists are all white, which is completely untrue. There are many, many vegans of colour and people of colour working for animal rights and their efforts should not go unacknowledged or unrecognised simply because some large mainstream animal advocacy organisations are white-dominated.

Placing discussions in a racialised context

In her article ‘Race as a “Feeble Matter” in Veganism: Interrogating Whiteness, Geopolitical Privilege, and Consumption Philosophy of “Cruelty-Free” Products’ in the Journal for Critical Animal Studies (Vol. VIII, Issue III, Special Issue, Women of Color in Critical Animal Studies), author and researcher Breeze Harper notes that:

How human beings develop their knowledge base is directly connected to the embodied experiences of the places and spaces we navigate through.”

And that:

…whiteness as the norm is at center stage of the USA's production of knowledge, space, and power.

Furthermore, to people of color, who are the victims of racism/white supremacy, race is a filter through which they see the world. Whites do not look at the world through this filter of racial awareness, even though they also comprise a race. This privilege to ignore their race gives whites a societal advantage distinct from any received from the existence of discriminatory racism.

While some authors use the term racism/white supremacy to emphasise the link between the privilege held by white people to ignore their own race and discriminatory racism, Harper prefers the term ‘racialised consciousness’ developed by African American philosopher Dr Arnold Farr to help understand why:

even the most well-intentioned white liberal who has participated in the struggle against racism may perpetuate a form of racism unintentionally.

In other words, white privilege is so ingrained in western societies that many of us are completely oblivious to it.

In her analysis of veganism and animal rights advocacy, Harper points to examples of how globalised racism sustains geopolitically racialised hierarchies of food and animal-free textile production and how the concept of ‘cruelty-free’ touted by animal rights activists pertaining to vegan items doesn’t take into account the human cruelty that may have been involved, such as non-fair-trade cocoa products manufactured under sweatshop conditions by people of colour in the global south.

People involved in vegan food activism encounter fear, denial, and defensiveness from people benefiting from institutionalized speciesism ‘as the norm’, all the time. In the same manner that such people cannot easily see why they should be concerned with speciesism, certain white AR/VEG activists cannot see how they benefit from institutionalized whiteness ‘as the norm’ or how this impacts their engagement with veganism.

The lack of non-white faces in vegan marketing campaigns is also noted by Harper as another example of the lack of racialised consciousness inherent in the western animal advocacy movement and perhaps a reason why some people of colour view animal rights and veganism as a ‘white thing’.

The ‘new slaves’: Comparisons of people to animals

In 2005 animal advocacy group PETA took a travelling exhibit on the road called ‘Are Animals the New Slaves?’ in which photos of African American slaves in chains and nooses were juxtaposed next to images of animals in similar contexts.

As blogger Adam (no surname provided) notes on the Animal Writes website, the exhibit was suspended after a month due to outrage from the black community in the US, with the exhibit labeled racist.

It’s not the first time that such comparisons have been made. Marjorie Spiegel’s 1989 book The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery (revised 1997, foreword by Alice Walker) examined the ways in which the treatment by white oppressors of black slaves was similar to the way they treated non-human animals, with no such outcry.

In a podcast, cited by Adam, Harper explained why many people of colour do not ‘get’ speciesism and why they react vehemently to any notion of being called an animal (something many white animal rights advocates have no problem with) or to any suggestion that the treatment of people of colour is similar to that of animals is because they are suffering from ‘post-traumatic slave syndrome’ and their idea of ‘animal’ is radically different from that of a white person.

This doesn’t mean that all people of colour shy away from making the connections between the oppression and exploitation of animals and certain humans. Showing images of black slaves in her 2009 presentation at Calvin College, Michigan, Nekeisha Alexis-Baker, an African American vegan writer and speaker, said:

The idea of animals for human use was transferred to humans deemed not human enough. Branding happened to cattle and to slaves, as well as whipping, beatings and putting a metal collar on them. Because you associate people with animals and have a low view of animals, [racism and speciesism] work together.

Racism in the animal rights movement

As well as a lack of racialised consciousness there is also blatant racism within some elements of the western animal rights movement. A prominent example was British singer Morrissey’s comment that the Chinese are a “sub-species” for their lack of animal protection laws.

Similar racist sentiments branding non-western countries and cultures ‘barbaric’ are not uncommon, the most recent being lambasting ‘Koreans’ for burying pigs alive. This act is of course ‘barbaric’, but so too are many practices in western countries and we would do well to speak out about what’s happening in our own back yards just as vehemently as we call out ethnic cultures.

And as Chinese-Australian blogger Stephanie Lai noted in her presentation at the 2010 Animal Activists Forum in Queensland, Australia (edited text version is here), lambasting a country or all its people assumes that the practice of animal cruelty within a country or a geographic boundary means that everyone of that ethnicity or culture does it, alienates those from that culture who may be opposed to the practice and ignores the existing animal rights movement in that country.

Universalism v moral relativism

Many western animal rights advocates promote ethical veganism (a rejection of all animal products on ethical grounds, as opposed to just dietary veganism) as a universal ideal. The argument goes that, as with sexism, racism and other forms of oppression, speciesism is the unacceptable and unjust exploitation and abuse of non-human animals by a dominant oppressor who justifies their actions by ‘othering’ those who they exploit as being inferior – in this case because of species membership. And ethical veganism – refusing to consume (as much as is realistically possible) animal products is the practical solution to avoid being speciesist.

Others argue in support of the concept of moral relativism. Wikipedia offers a good explanation of this, but essentially it’s the position that the:

truth or falsity of moral judgments, or their justification, is not objective or universal but instead relative to the traditions, convictions, or practices of a group of people

And that:

as there is no universal moral standard by which to judge others, we ought to tolerate the behavior of others even when it runs counter to our personal or cultural moral standards.

This is the argument that is often invoked by those who reject speciesism.

An anonymous blogger commenting at The View from My Brain asks:

Have you considered that many religious views assign souls and/or spirits to plants, too? Some also assign souls and/or spirits to inanimate objects like rocks and drops of water … believing plants are a suitable replacement for meat is a very Westernized way of ranking living creatures in which animals rank above plants. Do we really want to push such a Westernized agenda to cultures where plants in some cases rank as just as important creatures as animals do? I say no.

On the Facebook wall of the upcoming Melbourne feminist conference in 2011 as part of the discussions on whether the event should be catered vegan, Tiara the Merchgirl writes in support of halal slaughter:

There's a sense of reverence, respect, and sacrifice that's missing from conventional slaughter. They know it's traumatic to some degree, can't avoid that, but you do the best you can and you thank the animal and God for their contribution.

She adds:

not everyone sees eating meat as somehow being anti-animal, and to assume that of people is bigoted and ignorant of other cultural values … Have a CHOICE. Don't go imposing your values on others who don't share them or can't for whatever reason.

Tiara also points to culturally-specific scenarios in which universal veganism (and anti-speciesism) is unlikely to be feasible, in her comments at a post on Come on up to the house:

In Muslim culture there are quite a few events that involve some sort of animal sacrifice, with the meat distributed far and wide as food. Eid ul Hajj, the celebration of the Hajj pilgrimage, is one of the bigger examples of this – and in Bangladesh it’s an especially big deal.

For weeks you’ll see cows and goats roaming the streets of Dhaka, having right of way over the cars and rickshaws, and then on Eid lines and lines of beggars and street folk would form outside mosques and homes of the middle-class who are hosting sacrifice slaughters.

The meat is then divvied up between the poor, family members, some to be kept later, and some to be cooked that day and feasted on. For the poor lining up that day, it’s probably the most food they’ll get in a while.

I’d like to see any of those militant vegan activists try to tell a Bangladeshi to go vegan, to care for animal rights - not when there’s hardly any space for vegetables (or anything else that can take care of the nutritional needs taken care of by meat) and not when they themselves are struggling to eat!

Responses from some anti-speciesist vegans

There now follows some responses to some of the arguments raised above. They are from white animal rights advocates and vegans. This is *not* because there are no people of colour who are anti-speciesist and ethical vegans, but because I’ve been called out before on appropriating people of colour’s words to push my own agenda of animal rights. So, I refer you to the earlier links to the work of Breeze Harper, Neikeisha Alexis-Baker and also the Vegans of Color blog for extensive insights into this topic as well as further reading resources.

I’d like to briefly address the idea of “choice” that Tiara calls for at the feminist conference catering, in which she implores us not to impose our values on others who don’t or can’t share them.

The thing is, we do this consciously all the time, especially for niche gatherings in order to try to create a safe and respectful space, whether it be feminist or queer. There’s generally a statement laying out what behaviours are unacceptable (transphobia, racism for example). That’s applying values on others. But there’s little outcry over these, only, it seems, when it comes to people who object to supporting the brutality of humans to animals.

American blogger Kelly Garbato argues that vegan catering is the least offensive to everyone:

While meat may play an important role in certain cultures and diets, we all eat and enjoy vegan foods to some extent. That is to say, fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, etc. are not morally offensive to cultures xyz (xyz being the meat-centric cultures) – and  in fact, cultures xyz probably consume a fair amount of each.

In contrast, meat, dairy, and eggs are morally offensive to many feminists, including some feminists of color – the idea that veganism is necessarily "white" or "elitist" seems to be at play here as well. Taking the beliefs and feelings of each side into account, vegan catering may very well be the least offensive choice.

Also, implicit in the anti-vegan argument seems to be the assumption that the cultural significance of meat is unique to these communities of color – and thus asking everyone to abstain from eating meat at the conference places an undue burden on feminists of color, or otherwise discriminates against these cultures.

Clearly, this is false: diets heavy in meat, eggs and dairy are the norm in most Western/industrialized nations, and various animal-based foodstuffs hold special meanings in assorted, predominantly "white" cultures.

So to me, this is less an issue of white privilege than it is human privilege.

Eco-feminist writer Carol Adams, author of The Sexual Politics of Meat, says:

In terms of wanting to respect Indigenous people by providing meat at urban events, we need to consider that their traditional customs did not involve eating factory-farmed meat – and that comment is not meant to set Indigenous cultures as `other' or `primitive' or `less than', it's a critique of the western system of farming animals in the most barbaric way.

Indeed taking animals out of the equation in discussions of interlocking oppressions is based on a colonialist model ie to deal with humans first, then animals. To only have the lens on humans shows how imperialism has succeeded because most cultures are not structured that way and it's a very white thing to do to take animals out of the discussion.

Veganism is far from being a `white diet' or a lifestyle choice, although because of the ways the white animal rights movement has failed to engage in a respectful way with people of color it's no surprise that veganism is viewed in this way.

My veganism is a boycott of an unjust system. My veganism is about rejecting the white diet of the western world, one which has the suffering and murder of billions of animals, and the oppression of people of color at its core.

On universal ethical veganism

One of the major proponents of the concept of universal ethical veganism is Gary L. Francione, professor of law at Rutgers University, New Jersey, and author of several seminal books on animal rights including Animals as Persons: Essays on the Abolition of Animal Exploitation, Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog?, Rain Without Thunder: The Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement, and the recently released The Animal Rights Debate: Abolition or Regulation? (with Robert Garner).

Francione promotes abolitionism – the idea that the legal ownership of nonhuman animals is unjust, and that it must be abolished before animal suffering can be substantially reduced and that the moral baseline of the abolitionist approach is veganism, the rejection of the use of all animal products.

When I asked Francione how westerners can argue for animal rights and veganism in a way that is sensitive to people of non-western cultures, he said:

Issues of justice are issues of justice and, as a matter of fundamental justice, we cannot morally justify animal use, however "humane”. We ought, of course, always to endeavor to present issues of justice in a way that is culturally sensitive and not racist. But there are some who think that promoting the position that we cannot justify any animal use is inherently racist or culturally insensitive.

Those in this group beg the question and assume that speciesism is justified. That is, their position amounts to the view that it is racist or culturally insensitive to seek to protect the interests of another marginalized and particularly vulnerable group, nonhuman animals.

I would imagine that most of those who have this view would not object if the marginalized beings were other humans. But this is just another way of asserting human supremacy and exceptionalism. I find that as objectionable as asserting racial supremacy.

We can try to educate people who have this view, and we should do so. But in the end, if the choice is between maintaining an abolitionist position or not doing so in order to appease speciesism and human exceptionalism presented as cultural sensitivity or non-racism, I refuse to appease. I am sincerely sorry if my views offend anyone but throughout human history, there has not been an idea that has not offended someone.

Francione also rejects the charge of racism leveled at those who promote universal ethical veganism:

Racism is failing to include people as full members of the moral/legal community on the basis of race. How is taking the reasoned position that exploiting nonhumans cannot be morally justified racist? The *only* way that it can be racist is if the concept of a "person" in "person of color" includes a protected interest in exploiting nonhumans. As I said earlier, that begs the fundamental moral question in favor of human exceptionalism.

And on the presumption that veganism is elitist, he says:

I find the notion that a diet that rejects violence is elitist is bizarre. There is *nothing* more elitist – and I mean *nothing* – than the notion that it is morally acceptable to impose suffering and death on a sentient being because you like the taste.

It is true that there is a market for expensive, processed vegan foods. But so what? That does not make a vegan diet inherently elitist any more than a market for people who can buy designer clothes makes wearing clothes inherently elitist.

PhD student and writer Alex Melonas concurs:

Challenging those who eat animals can be viewed as disrespectful to those whose identities are bound-up with the traditions that are associated with eating animals in some way. But we must disentangle using "tradition" and "culture" as premises, which vegan discourses do, and respecting those who are embedded in the traditions themselves. In other words, we aren't challenging the tradition as cultural imperialists, but as reasonable observers.

By parity of reasoning, racists (and sexists) clearly ground much of their discourses in "tradition" and "culture". It stands to reason that the racist is equally constituted by his traditions; he is equally embedded in the mores, cultures, and so on, of his upbringing.

His identity, in other words, is a constructed thing, and challenging those traditions is, to extend the logic used to challenge those who call for vegan catering at a feminist conference for being racist, "disrespectful". But challenge those traditions we must because they result in oppression (harm and death.)

On the hierarchy of what is worthy to stay alive (the preferencing of animal life over plant life or rocks), Melonas says:

X must be sentient for us to reasonably say that X can be oppressed. Rocks cannot be oppressed because rocks do not have a welfare or interests or "life," properly speaking. What's interesting on this last point is how the author of the post elides the difference between sentience as an empirical claim, which it is and the scientific principle of parsimony helps us understand that, and sentience as a metaphysical claim, which it isn't.

Hence, religions that posit that plants, which it would be unparsimoneous to claim are sentient, have "souls"( and so do rocks perhaps), as a metaphysical claim, are free to do so, but those claims are easily challenged on empirical grounds.

And, responding to Tiara’s scenario of beggars in Bangladesh and the festival of Eid al-Adha, he says:

As I understand it, the majority of our exploitation of animals would end post-speciesism, as it were; however, in some instances, necessity would require some exploitation. But the onus is on the exploiter to prove necessity.

For example, if it were true that I lived in an area absolutely lacking in any other source of sustenance, I would probably exploit animals (likewise if I was on a deserted island with a human animal). But it doesn't follow that in India, say, we should be eating goats.

Moving forward

Dr Melanie Joy, author of Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism, believes the most important thing that white animal rights activists can do is develop a race consciousness.

We would be far more likely to garner people of color’s support if we had an explicit commitment to examining white privilege and to building a racially diverse movement. Such diversity would strengthen our movement and would help us to become more integrated in our values and practices as we applied our core values of justice, compassion, and inclusion to all groups. I asked Joy whether talking about veganism in animal rights terms lent credence to some people of colour’s derisory claims that white animal rights activists have the luxury of fighting for animals while they themselves are dealing with systemic racism and its ensuing disadvantages. Her response was:

First off, there are many people of color—vegan and not vegan—who do not feel derisive toward those of us who are working to abolish a form of exploitation that isn’t racism.

This frame suggests that there is a hierarchy of oppressions, which is, in my opinion, problematic. It also assumes that those of us working to abolish speciesism aren’t also working to abolish racism—which many of us are, in fact, doing.

And finally, it assumes that one must be free from systemic racism in order not to support speciesism. Many people of color, who are struggling daily with structuralized racism, choose to engage in that struggle without eating animals in the process.

And many white-skinned people, who are working toward animal rights, are also dealing with systemic oppressions such as genderism or ableism.

I believe that advocating veganism from an animal rights position does not preclude doing so from an intersectional position. We can, and should, do both: raise awareness about the experience and oppression of nonhuman beings in their own right, and demonstrate the imperialist, classist, racist system that enables and is enabled by the exploitation of other animals.

Oppressive ideologies rely on structural and institutionalized mechanisms that distort both privileged and oppressed persons’ perceptions of themselves and others. Structuralized oppression cultivates a social mentality that is remarkably consistent among both oppressed and—more importantly for the purpose of this argument—privileged groups. Joy calls for respectful, healthy discussions around the issues so that each side can gain a better understanding of each other’s perspectives. On the catering question, she says:

If I were an organizer, and time permitted, I would request a meeting, or a series of meetings, among organizers who wish to fully understand and process the issue—ideally with a trained facilitator.

I would request that those requesting vegan catering commit to learning about racism, white privilege, and the cultures of those who might be deterred from attending the conference.

I would also request that those who are opposed to vegan catering learn about speciesism and carnism, and appreciate that veganism is not simply a diet, but a way of life—a deeply held philosophy and tradition.

Just as it is offensive for some non-vegans to be asked to participate in a vegan-catered event, it is offensive for vegans to be forced to conform to the dominant, carnistic culture to which they are strongly opposed.

As mentioned earlier, this article is not intended to be an exhaustive authority on the topic of racism and speciesism, but rather to bring together some of the different viewpoints and to provide a space for further conversation.­­­

This article was previously published on The Scavenger website

Katrina Fox

Katrina Fox is a freelance writer and editor, originally from London and based in Sydney, Australia since 2001. Katrina is the editor-in-chief of the online portal The Scavenger and is the editor of several books on topics as diverse as sex and gender identity, hypnosis and self-help, plus she is a human rights and animal rights advocate. Read more about Katrina here.

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