Addressing racism and classism in animal rights activism
- Published: 13 November 2010
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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
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.