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Addressing racism and classism in animal rights activism

RacismClassismFocusing solely on one social justice campaign ignores the way multiple oppressions often intersect, and can result in certain groups of people feeling excluded or marginalised. Stephanie Lai discusses the intersectionality of racism and classism in animal rights activism and why we need to pay attention.

14 November 2010

Intersectionality in animal rights: the basics

I’m going to start with a bit of an introduction to intersectionality.

Intersectionality is about the confluence of ‘isms.’ From Wiki (not a great source, I know, but it’s a good definition), we get:

Intersectionality is a sociological theory suggesting that—and seeking to examine how—various socially and culturally constructed categories of discrimination interact on multiple and often simultaneous levels, contributing to systematic social inequality.

I know; that’s lots of big words. Think of it like this: at its most basic, intersectionality is about not being single-issue, and acknowledging that not everyone is the same.

Here are some examples to get you thinking. They are not necessarily animal rights related, but they are all real:

In 2009, Michelle Obama was serving food at a soup kitchen for homeless people, and a homeless man was spotted taking a photo of her using his mobile phone. There was a bit of a fuss over this, with statements to the effect of, if he had a mobile then clearly he doesn’t need to be homeless.

This ignores the fact that if he’s homeless, he can’t have a landline. How would a potential employer contact him, if not via mobile? Maybe it’s the only way he keeps in contact with loved ones.

Being poor here intersects with being homeless and what people think is a privilege and what people consider necessity.

After the 2004 tsunami, heaps of donations came in to aid organisations, and were sent up to the region. I know someone who was working for an aid agency at the time, and some of the sea-tainers included whole shipments of high-heeled shoes and jumpers – for South-East Asia following a tsunami.

Okay, I don’t have an actual occurrence for this next one, it’s a hypothetical:

You go vegan, and you replace all of the animal products in your wardrobe. As an aside, I’m glad that you are in a financial and life position to do that.

You replace your wool jumpers with cotton and acrylic jumpers from Target. That’s totally cool, I love the House of Target! But do you know where your jumpers have actually come from? Have they come from a sweatshop? Even if it’s Australian-made, that’s no guarantee, we have sweatshops here.

So you’ve swapped an agonised animal for an agonised person. Is the item from overseas? What was the environmental impact of bringing that jumper to Australia, or harvesting that cotton?

More on intersectionality

Intersectionality is not about ranking oppressions.

Giving you these examples, I am in no way saying that you should prioritise any one of those things over any of the others.

I’m not saying the environmental issues around cotton should trump the animal rights issues around wool. I’m saying intersectionality is about considering everything.

And it’s not an excuse to say: ‘I’m never going to get it right so why should I try.”

I want you to try.

The rest of this presentation will look at intersectionality within animal rights. While there are many intersections, including sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, sizeism, xenophobia, cultural appropriation or colonialism, to name just a few, I’m going to focus specifically on racism and classism.

Why are we looking at intersectionality in animal rights?

Historically, in Western animal rights activism, it’s been considered a very white, middle-class movement. There’s an assumption of a certain level of education, and of physical ability.

People who don’t fall in to this image have felt unwelcome or alienated from animal rights because of this. A failure to take into account intersections can also be very disempowering for the marginalised group/s.

Traditionally it has been ‘How do we get X minority group to come to us?’ which ignores the reality that often these groups are already part of animal rights activsm, or doing their own thing, and the mainstream just hasn’t noticed them.

Or the approaches taken have ignored the reality of what’s going on, and so have squandered an opportunity to get a certain group on board.

A lot of intersectionality issues have been ignored or dismissed by western animal rights activists because “We don’t have time for that” or “It’s not about the animals.” The term I use for that is ‘single issue vegan,’ and it’s not a nice term.

Being single issue is giving preference to a political party based on their animal rights promises and ignoring their history of environmental and racial issues, never mind their history of breaking promises.

Being single issue is buying the cheap cotton jumper from some shop, without considering its environmental impact and their abuse of labour and sweatshop laws.

Being single issue is choosing something vegan with no consideration for whether it’s heavily processed and packaged, and what that means.

The reason why I talk about intersectionality in animal rights is because I have often felt alienated from it.

I am bisexual and ethnically Chinese, and I grew up economically not that well-off (though I am now a middle-class hipster).

I come to animal rights from environmentalism.

All of these things intersect for me, because what it means is that I deviate from the “norm” within animal rights. In animal rights, and also within veganism, terms that are frequently used, as they are in many movements, are things like ‘normal,’ and ‘exotic,’ and I’m usually positioned outside of these terms.

This has always been really alienating for me, because things that I think of as normal or everyday are actually considered odd, especially within vegan circles.

BI just wanted to flag this, because this is what intersectionality is about in animal rights: it’s about making sure that we’re not excluding, ignoring or dismissing people. And it can be about harnessing potential.

I could go on for hours, but I won’t: On racism

Here’s an example of racism within animal rights:

You may recall the Morrissey thing a few months ago. If you missed it, Morrissey, of The Smiths, said:

“Did you see the thing on the news about their treatment of animals and animal welfare? Absolutely horrific. You can’t help but feel that the Chinese are a subspecies.”

Generalising a whole ethnicity of people like that is racism. It just is. And comments like this are remarkably common in animal rights.

Unpacking Morrissey’s comment, here’s what you get:

-          The assumption that the practice of animal cruelty within a country or a geographic boundary means that everyone of that ethnicity or culture does it.

-          The refusal to check out your own back yard. I’m not saying that you can’t see what other people are doing and say they can’t do it. I’m saying, have you seen what happens here? It’s disgusting.

-          It gives white non-vegans something else to stand on. Someone I used to work with, who is the sort of person who would go to a puppy farm rally, whose dog and cat are members of the family and go on holiday with her, and who is an unrepentant meat eater, said to me once just after we met, and before she knew I was Chinese: “God, it’s so disgusting what hypocrites the Chinese are. They pretend they love animals by having the cute panda as their national animal, but then they go and eat horses!” Comments and attitudes like Morrissey’s perpetuate and support this attitude.

-          Statements like this perpetuate the stereotype that animal rights is only for white people.

-          It alienates us. Morrissey makes that comment, and I’m like, ‘How many other people in animal rights think that about my culture? Well, fuck them, I’m not going to have anything to do with them.’

-          It ignores the existing animal rights movement in China.

This is a really big obvious example of racism in animal rights, but sometimes it’s subtle too – a cultural cluelessness that still counts.

Racism in animal rights also makes it harder to connect with people, or make campaigns or arguments that fit with people.

Think of an ‘Easy ways to go vegan’ checklist, for example. What are some common things that might go on it?

‘Try substituting soymilk. Try out tofu. Eat veggie burgers instead of meat burgers.’

This advice is great, except it’s only relevant to a WASP audience. Do you know how hard it was for me to go vegan? It wasn’t. Before I went vegan, tofu and soy milk were already huge staples in my diet. I didn’t eat burgers and things that much, definitely not when I was a kid.

So this advice meant nothing to me, and I wondered what can vegans who are coming from different places to me have to offer me? And whether this is all they can offer.

When we in the animal rights movement assume a start from the same point – when we write our advice assuming that everyone is at the same place as us – we exclude and alienate people.

I don’t want to venture too much into vegan specifics since we’re talking about animal rights, but I’d like to briefly mention othering.

How many articles have you read in mainstream press about how vegan and vegetarian food takes a lot from exotic ethnic foods like, I don’t know, Indian or something?

If you say, for example, ethnic Indian food is naturally vegetarian, it ignores the conscious choice that people have made to be vegetarian. And using this sort of language in this way normalises othering.

This is more of an example of othering and is alienating. It assumes that it’s new for everyone, that the audience you’re writing for isn’t already in that group of people. It ignores that vegans are sometimes different from you.

Really super quickly: On classism

One of the things I really like about animal activism is the community ‘out and about’ elements. I love the rallies and protests, and things like going out to farm animal sanctuaries such as Edgar’s Mission.

And I love being able to back up my moral and ethical decision to do no harm to animals with the action of not doing any harm to animals. Daily this means being vegan, but I do it in other ways, too.

One of the things that out and about physical activism relies on, and even sometimes the activism of being vegan relies on, is a certain level of luxury.

I don’t mean boats and giant cars, though maybe you have that. I mean, you’re not a woman who works two jobs to make ends meet, so doesn’t have time to volunteer at the local sanctuary or to provide goodies for the vegan bake sale.

A lot of campaigns and discourse in animal activism relies on saying, ‘If you’re not doing this than you’re not good enough.’ One comment I heard recently was, ‘If you only go to the puppy rally then you’re not really trying.’

It doesn’t take into account that maybe some people only have time to go to one thing. They only have the money to go to one thing.

It gets like this with veganism too, sometimes. How can people eat that gross fast food? If we go back to the woman working two jobs to get by, maybe she doesn’t have time to cook. I went vegan when I was still living in Perth, and it was hard to get food that was vegan if it wasn’t specially prepared for me.

This is where the classism comes in to our movement, and the thing to take away from it is: sometimes there’s a reason why people can’t do things. Just because you can doesn’t mean that you get to disenfranchise her, or take away maybe the only decision she’s able to make.

A positive example of intersectionality taken into account in animal rights

I want to finish up with an example of something that I think was done well, and I want to point out how it could have gone poorly.

Every other article I’ve read about this was in fact written in a way that ignored intersectionality.

Following Hurricane Katrina, there were a number of pets that were abandoned. This was particularly horrible, as animals were left behind to drown or starve to death when their owners were floated off to safety.

Some of these articles looked at the culture of disposable pets, which is a perfectly valid reading, And many articles wrote about it in just this way. But looking at it this way ignores a lot of factors.

Author and animal rights activist Karen Dawn wrote a piece for the Washington Post in 2005 called ‘Best Friends Need Shelter, Too.’ In it, she talks about people who were ‘refusing to be evacuated simply because they [wouldn’t] “leave their pets.”’

She addresses the fact that shelter organisations such as the Red Cross have ‘no pets’ policies, and that this was primarily a problem for lower-income people who couldn’t afford to pay for their own evacuation.

She acknowledged that an animal rights issue (pets not being evacuated or effectively being discarded), had a direct correlation to another issue: the position of people of a lower class and lower incomes.

Here’s how she could have made the intersectionality even better: the article could have talked about the race issue. In New Orleans, many people of lower incomes are non-white. And there’s a correlation there.

Further reading: Go and educate yourself

I’d like to close out by recommending the following three websites as excellent starting points to read more about intersectionality as it pertains to animal rights activism:

Sistah Vegan – Breeze Harper

Vegans of Color

Animal rights and Anti-Oppression

The sites are about learning stuff. If you want to do stuff, that’s the first thing I recommend. Learn about it. And listen.

And, look, if someone, or a group – a marginalised group – comes up to you and says, “I saw your campaign / I read your petition / I heard what you have to say, this is why it hurt me,” don’t answer, “That wasn’t what I meant,” or, “That isn’t what I intended.”

Stephanie Lai is a professional hippy (working in environmental behaviour change and education), social justice blogger, and occasional science fiction writer based in Melbourne, Australia. Stephanie has a love of penguins, likes talking about the queer subtext in Gotham City, and vegan food, and her favourite colour is red.

You can find Stephanie reconciling her ethnicity and her veganism at Vegan About Town, talking about social justice issues at ??????, and at her tumblr you can find an assortment of social justice and science fiction things.

This article is an edited version of Stephanie’s presentation at the 2010 Animal Activists Forum, organised by Animals Australia, 23-24 October at the Gold Coast, Queensland.

Image courtesy of Smiteme via Flickr, issued under a Creative Commons licence.


-2 #36 Alex Melonas 2010-12-04 14:48

You wrote, "If you believe harming an animal is bad, and animals are harmed in nature all the time, and nature cannot function without doing this--- then, you must believe that nature is bad, or at least, a very prominent aspect of nature is bad."

That's the fallacy in your "argument." "Nature" is neither good nor bad. It just is. This conclusion is the necessary logical corollary of evolution by natural selection. It is from this premise that I *disprove* your so-called "environmental ethics." You, like all "land ethicists" proceed from an initial premise that is demonstrably refutable. Moreover, "land ethicists" belie their own arguments about human actors when they implicitly concede that (some) human beings are moral agents, which, by definition, means you cannot revert back to "nature" to justify an action. Your move to "culture" and the "social contract" concedes this point. Your "environmental ethics," then, besides being logically problematic, are neither here nor there. The open question is: What are your arguments against veganism, for example?

Furthermore, there are many, many human beings who are *not* actors in culture. By your standard, that is, these human beings are "artifacts" in culture, substantively playing the same role in culture as nonhuman non-actors. Indeed, it strains credulity to claim that dogs and cats, for example, are only artifacts in culture, or farmed animals whom we exploit as a foundation for much of society are only artifacts, while *all* human beings are actors. Culture is inseparable from the nonhuman animals that we exploit.
-1 #35 Russell 2010-11-26 00:23

Every person who is not a strict vegan must, ipso facto, believe that it is not wrong to unnecessarily harm an animal.

Unless you are happy with calling 99% of the public sociopaths, I suggest you think it over a bit! Sociopathy is irrelevant because nonhuman animals are not actors in human society.

Throwing your cat on the fire might bring you pleasure and personal value, but this value is not an environmental value nor an agreed cultural value. On the other hand, predation by a species that has evolved as a predator has environmental value.

As for "straw man" argument, I'm not following you. It's very straightforward . If you believe harming an animal is bad, and animals are harmed in nature all the time, and nature cannot function without doing this--- then, you must believe that nature is bad, or at least, a very prominent aspect of nature is bad.

That's fine. That doesn't invalidate your position. But it does make your position anti-ecological .
0 #34 Niilo John Van Steinburg 2010-11-25 16:30
"If you attach negative value to a process that is a fundamental part of the functioning of natural ecosystems, then your position is anti-ecological . Very straightforward."

You keep jumping to this straw-man argument with no logical basis. I see no point in addressing your huge oversights any further.

"Do I think it's wrong to unnecessarily harm an animal? Obviously not"

Wow, you are the first person I've ever met to state that they feel it is okay to unnecessarily harm an animal. If this is actually true, and you are not simply being contrary to support your indefensible position, then this puts you in the class of sociopath. Following your philosophy, it would not be wrong for me to throw one of my cats in a fire if I thought I'd get some enjoyment out of the process. I am relieved that I, and most people in the world, do not agree with you on this matter.

It is interesting, though, that you freely admit that to "eat meat, wear leather, ... hunt and ... fish" all involve unnecessary harm. That is the basis of veganism: that we should not cause unnecessary harm to others, and all use of non-human animals is both unnecessary and inherently harmful.

"Now, clearly the interests of the individual also have value, but they cannot be given greater weight than the ecological values without adopting an anti-ecological ethics."

Do you apply this principle to humans? Human overpopulation is one of the gravest threats to the environment. Following your logic, if one does not believe that humans must be culled to protect the environment, then that is "anti-ecological".

This will be my last message to you. I have no interest in debating with someone who does not converse in good-faith and also claims to follow sociopathic behaviour.
0 #33 Russell 2010-11-25 01:48
That's right Alex, I have only made an assertion. As have you. All moral philosophies come back to assertions. The difference is, I place mine on the table whereas you try to brush yours under the carpet to give an illusion of absolute truth with prescriptive power.

Assignment of inherent value of nature, its systems, processes and organisms is an explicit axiom from which environmental ethics flows. If you read J. Baird Callicott Holmes Rolston III, or even Paul Taylor (who values only organisms, not systems or processes) you will find they are quite open about this. Probably Singer and Regan would be, too... I will have to dust off my copies and refresh my memory but if I recall Singer begins by asserting that suffering has negative value (probably aping Bentham in so doing). And Regan, if I recall, begins with the assertion that all "subjects-of-a- life" have inherent value.

I use it not to "disprove" your own claims, but merely to contrast your own position with environmentalis m. As I have already said, I doubt you would disagree with me on this point. I don't think you can disprove an ethical framework except by finding internal consistencies. Two sets of ethics can be self-consistent but conflicting simply by starting with different axioms.

As for animals existing in culture -- their presence in culture is only as an artifact, not as an actor.
0 #32 Alex Melonas 2010-11-24 19:08
@Russell, you wrote, "Animals are of ecosystems, not of culture, so they are not subject to moral consideration. Humans are of nature and of culture." That begs yet another question: Given our thorough reliance on the exploitation of nonhuman animals, as an empirical matter, at least *some* animals are "of culture," so on what grounds can you plausibly claim that "animals are of ecosystems"? All you've done is asserted that we should separate the domains, which conveniently leaves *all* nonhuman animals, and thus, all their suffering and death, outside the realm of moral philosophy or ethics.

Moreover, you have to presume the goodness of "nature" to support your contention that those who logically extend their principled criticism of the badness of causing harm and death to "nature." "Nature" has no inherent value, unless you can defend the contrary argument. That presumption is a logical fallacy. A fallacy you have never responded to.

"Nature" is neither good nor bad; it just is. Therefore, it follows that any presumption of the goodness of "nature" or ecosystems must necessarily include the corollary argument about how you are grounding that presumption. Accordingly, your "environmental ethics" are clearly fallacious. To merely by fiat exclude "nature" from ethics, proclaiming that it just is, begs the essential question. Seriously, if you still can't see this fallacy, you can't be helped.
0 #31 Russell 2010-11-22 23:24
Niilo, why would you regret something if you don't think it's bad? To pick a random dictionary definition, regret is "a sense of loss, disappointment, dissatisfaction ". All of these imply negative value, for which "bad" is a kind of shorthand.

If you attach negative value to a process that is a fundamental part of the functioning of natural ecosystems, then your position is anti-ecological . Very straightforward.

Do I think it's wrong to unnecessarily harm an animal? Obviously not -- I eat meat, wear leather, I hunt and I fish, and I made a conscious decision to do all of these things because I do not think they are morally wrong. As an environmentalis t, I value predation, and I recognise that humans participate in ecosystems. Harm to an individual organism in an ecological context (such as predation) does not have negative value overall and so cannot be morally wrong.

Now, clearly the interests of the individual also have value, but they cannot be given greater weight than the ecological values without adopting an anti-ecological ethics. However, if the same ecological value can be derived two different ways and one also serves individual interests to a greater degree, then it should be preferred. So, if I can put meat on the table and obtain the satisfaction of authentic ecosystem participation while minimising the level of suffering of the prey animal, I will do so--this is why I pick my shots, I use enough gun, I practice Iki Jime when fishing, etc. (It is also why I purchase meat and eggs from free-range animals in preference to that produced with more intensive farming methods.) I could also avoid killing the animal but then I would eliminate the positive value of the encounter along with the negative.
0 #30 Niilo John Van Steinburg 2010-11-22 19:59
Russell, it appears you are finding hidden meaning in words that no one else (that I know of) also sees. One can 'regret' that something is a fact without thinking it is inherently bad. I agree that it is regrettable that one life must die in order for another to live, but that is the way nature works. It is not bad.

I'm interested in debating semantics with you, or the finer points of philosophy posited by people who are not truly animal rights advocates (and I don't know who Alex Melonas is).

However, for you to state that abolitionism is anti-ecological has no basis. Abolitionism is about not treating non-human animals like property or, in other words, leaving them the hell alone to live their lives as naturally as possible. How is that anti-ecological?

You skipped over my previous question. Do you think it is wrong to unnecessarily harm animals?
0 #29 Russell 2010-11-22 15:06
@Niilo John Van Steinburg,

You can't refute something by just by denying it. Singer says "we may regret that this is the way the world is", in other words, we regret that predation exists, because we think it is bad.

If you don't like that quote then how about Alex Melonas on this very site. He has asserted numerous times that natural predation is bad. For example, here:

"causing harm and death is bad, generally, as a principle"

or more explicitly, on the same page

"because there isn't an intrinsic value to "nature" ("nature" is merely an "is", a claim I have defended ad nauseam to refute your assertion of “nature’s” self-evident value), if we could, if it were possible, to tinker, as it were, with "nature" so as to reduce the amount of harm and death caused, that would be a good thing, all things considered. So again, I am assigning negative value to harm and death, generally, as an impartial matter, and then reasoning to a conclusion. "

It starts out with an explicitly rejecting environmental values, and then goes on to conclude that harm and death have negative value.

As I said in my earlier post, to which you are replying, I don't think Alex would disagree with what I am saying in stating that the abolitionist position is anti-ecological . I wasn't trying to say anything controversial. If you think it is, maybe you need to look more deeply at the philosophical underpinnings of veganism.
0 #28 Niilo John Van Steinburg 2010-11-21 23:56
"Niilo John Van Steinburg, then you haven't read Singer's Animal Liberation?"

Russell, I have read that book, and your quoted passage does not support the statement you made earlier and I refuted.

By the way, Singer does not support rights for animals. He is incorrectly labelled the "father of the AR movement", mostly by the likes of PETA, who themselves are not truly an AR organization. Regan also has shown that he is speciesist with his actions in recent years - plus his argument for animal rights is flawed.

Do you think it is wrong to cause unnecessary suffering to animals?
0 #27 Russell 2010-11-21 23:41
Niilo John Van Steinburg, then you haven't read Singer's Animal Liberation?

Nonhuman animals are not capable of considering the alternatives, or of reflecting morally on the rights and wrongs of killing for food; they just do it. We may regret that this is the way the world is, but it makes no sense to hold nonhuman animals morally responsible.

(emphasis added)

Singer's popular position conflicts with your own opposition to unnecessary harm. Singer is a consequentialis t-- to him it is the consequences that matter, not the thoughts that led to them.

Tom Regan, like you, takes a deontological position, whereby animals are absolved of guilt for predation because they know not what they do. A number of authors have put forth fairly good arguments though that Regan's own arguments lead inexorably toward a duty to humans to interfere in natural predation, ergo Regan's position also devalues predation. See for example, this essay by Dale Jamieson:

As for your list of antisocial behaviours, when I am alone in the forest, yes I will defecate freely, defend myself against animal attack, copulate in the open given a willing partner, etc. As human beings we inhabit ecosystems and society. When in Rome... it is not quite as simple as that though, because as intelligent beings we are able to act in the interests of natural ecosystems in ways that other organisms cannot be expected to work out for themselves -- this is where eco-stewardship comes in. Neither ecological stewardship nor socialisation, though, ought to extricate us from nature or deny us our place as ecosystem participants.

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