Animal rights, human rights: Interlocking oppressions and finding allies
- Published: 14 May 2011
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The oppression and exploitation of animals and humans are interlinked. Discrimination and abuse occurs through a process of ‘othering’ by a dominant group to an ‘inferior’ group, whether on the basis of race, gender or species. Katrina Fox looks at how privilege and oppression manifest in social justice movements, and how the more aware we become of our own privilege and oppression, the more we may be able to build alliances and gain allies.
15 May 20111
When I talk about interlocking oppressions, this is based on the theory of intersectionality which, at its most basic, is the realisation that nothing is single-issue.
Animal rights is not just about animal rights. Feminism is not just about ‘women’s rights’. Anti-racism work is not single issue. Queer rights campaigning is not single issue.
The reason why none of these social justice areas are ‘single issue’ is because cutting across all them are a range of issues that involve privilege and oppression.
When we talk about feminism as ‘equality for women’ and that women must not to be discriminated against, we have to ask, ‘Which women?’ My experiences as a white, middle-class woman are very different to a black, working-class or migrant woman.
I may experience oppression as a woman and as a lesbian, but I benefit from white and class privilege.
While we may be conscious of ways in which we are disadvantaged and experience oppression, many of us are unaware of privileges we benefit from.
Take white privilege. One of the key articles in this area is Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh, who says “I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious.”
In other words being born with white skin confers a number of privileges that are so automatically assumed that we don’t even recognise them or consider them. Unexamined privilege such as this results in white people often being oppressive unconsciously ie without realising it.
McIntosh has created a useful checklist of conditions that white people – because of their skin privilege generally benefit from, for example:
I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
Of course it’s not as simple or straightforward as that. Other aspects also impact on a person’s ability to assimilate into society and have access to equal opportunities. These include: class, sex, gender identity or expression, able-bodiedness, sexual orientation, body size and of course species membership.
Considering all the aspects
Intersectionality is not about ranking oppressions and making a rush to the bottom to declare who has it worst. All that does is sanction the hierarchies of power that maintain the marginalisation of certain groups of people as well as non-human animals.
It’s about considering all the different aspects tied up with an issue. For example, if you get rid of your leather shoes after becoming vegan and replace them with a pair of synthetic shoes from Kmart, those shoes may be the product of sweatshops and slave labour.
As my friend Stephanie Lai put it in her article and presentation on addressing racism and classism in animal rights activism: “You’re swapping an agonised animal for an agonised person.”
Similarly Breeze Harper, author of Sistah Vegan, an anthology of real-life stories by black, African-American female vegans in the US, points out the problematic use of the term ‘cruelty-free’ to describe vegan products, which although they may be animal-free, may have involved cruelty to humans – in most cases, financially-disadvantaged non-white people who already suffer from systemic racism.
The Ivory Coast, for example, is the leading exporter of cocoa beans to the world market. Yet there are thousands of people who work as slaves, including children, who are subject to extreme abuse and horrific conditions to produce chocolate treats – including vegan ones – for the West.
As Breeze notes 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): “Unless it’s marked in a way that indicates it was harvested through fair and sweatshop-free practices, then how can one know that it is human-cruelty free?”
This is not an attempt to demonise vegan chocolate – I love my brownies as much as the next person, nor to suggest you don’t buy non-leather shoes from Kmart. It’s about critically examining other aspects of an issue in addition to our concerns about animal cruelty; to see what common ground there is between oppression and exploitation of animals and humans, and how to create allies we can collaborate with to attempt to break down the hierarchial power structures that exist rather than reinforce them.
Talking of hierarchies of power, there’s no clear-cut order in the middle, but broadly speaking at the top of the ladder are white, western, middle-class, cis (ie non-trans), able-bodied men, and at the bottom are non-human animals.
These structures are kept in place by a process called ‘othering’ – that is, a dominant group positioning itself as the ‘norm’ and as morally, intellectually and physically superior than ‘others’ who are ‘not like us’ who are ‘only’ X, Y, Z, who are inferior and therefore not deserving of the same rights, equal treatment and privileges afforded to the dominant group.
While all marginalised groups experience of oppression is unique to them and direct comparisons can be problematic, the one thing they have in common with each other is this process of othering which enables covert and blatant discrimination and exploitation, as well as torture, genocide, slavery, slaughter, abuse and cruelty – whether it’s not considering gay, lesbian, queer or sex and/or gender diverse people worthy enough to be able to get married, or sanctioning the atrocities of factory farming or vivisection.
Finding common ground, building alliances and coalitions
Building alliances isn’t easy: it means acknowledging our privileges and making major changes to our behaviour, actions and lifestyles.
As Harper notes: Two things tend to happen when one person goes to another and says, “Your actions (whether they be sexist, racist, homo/transphobic or speciesist) are hurting me, I find them problematic – can we talk about it?”
The first is the person challenged goes on the defensive and refuses to acknowledge that what they are doing is impacting negatively on others. For example if someone tells you you’re being sexist, racist or ableist and you react with ‘No way am I!’ Or if a vegan points out the cruelty farmed animals suffer to a meat-eater, the latter will often react angrily at being confronted with this information.
The second is that person may have an epiphany and then be consumed with shame or guilt at their lack of awareness and for having contributed to the suffering of others.
Either way, it’s important to be kind. We are all on a journey of discovery and enlightenment (or disillusionment! – depending on whether you’re a glass half full or empty person!). We are all impacted by societal power structures and none of us is perfect. Every meat-eater is a potential vegan – or as I saw on Facebook recently, a ‘pre-vegan’.
Suggestions for building alliances: Do’s and don’ts
So, how do we go about finding allies in other social justice movements who we can collaborate with to work for the liberation of both non-human animals and humans?
The following are some suggestions pulled together from my own experience, and others’ tips and suggestions. I want to particularly acknowledge Pattrice Jones, longtime queer, feminist and animal rights activist from the US for her useful advice she wrote in her article Of Brides and Bridges: Linking Feminist, Queer and Animal Liberation Movements in Satya magazine, which is incorporated into this list:
Don’t be racist
It may sound obvious, but many animal rights activists can be both covertly and overtly racist. One obvious example is British singer Morrissey who, when commenting on a news item about the treatment of animals in China, said: “You can’t help but feel that the Chinese are a subspecies.”
Stephanie Lai, who I mentioned earlier is a Chinese-Australian blogger, explains why statements like these don’t help animals in the slightest:
- It assumes that the practice of animal cruelty within a country or a geographic boundary means that everyone of that ethnicity or culture does it.
- There is a refusal to check out your own back yard. Which is not to say that you can’t see what other people are doing and say they can’t do it. It’s acknowledging what happens here and noting that it’s disgusting.
- Statements like this perpetuate the stereotype that animal rights is only for white people.
- It alienates non-white people. 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.
Make your promotional material for animal rights or veganism campaigns culturally diverse
Following on from the above: The majority of promotional material by mainstream animal rights and/or welfare organisations features predominantly – if not exclusively – white faces. This perpetuates the stereotype that the animal rights and vegan movements are synonymous with elitist, white, rich people, and invisibilises and disavows the work of non-white vegans and animal rights activists.
This also goes for the majority of vegan ‘diet’ and ‘lifestyle’ books which perpetuate the stereotype of vegan = white, skinny body.
Be wary of referring to people as animals and directly comparing oppressions
For many of us in the room today, it’s tempting to use throwaway comments such as ‘We’re all animals’. Technically we are, but while some of us take that statement at face value as a statement of fact and not insulting or offensive, it’s emotionally loaded for others.
Breeze Harper explained why many people of colour in the US do not ‘get’ speciesism and why they react vehemently to any notion of being called an animal 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’ (a condition that exists as a consequence of multigenerational oppression of Africans and their descendants resulting from centuries of chattel slavery), 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, made the connections with animal slavery and how racism and speciesism work together.
And Harper notes in her v-blog that it is the same mentality that made it okay to conduct cruel experiments on black women by the ‘father of gynecology’ in the 19th century is the same mentality that continues to allow nonhuman animals to suffer heinous atrocities today
But as white activists we need to be wary due to the historical, colonialist silencing of people of colour’s voices and experiences.
Don’t be classist or ableist
Lai reminds us to recognise that some people can do more than others in activism. Speaking specifically about animal rights activism, she points out that not everyone can come to a rally or action or fundraiser, either due to lack of finances or because of a disability (physical or mental) or both.
And while veganism can certainly be done on a budget, it’s also true that it may be cheaper to buy a McDonald’s so-called Happy Meal than it is to buy organic, fair-trade healthy food items. It’s better to make helpful suggestions on how someone can buy and/or make healthy vegan food cheaply, than to make judgemental assumptions about why they are eating certain foods if you don’t know their personal circumstances.
Don’t be sexist, homophobic, transphobic, fatphobic, ageist or whorephobic
Back in the ’70s and ’80s there was a much stronger link between white, western feminism and animal rights and an acknowledgement of the links between the two. However, some of the eco-feminist theory of that time was associated with radical feminist rhetoric, which was often anti-porn, anti-sex work and transphobic.
Blanket generalisations that all porn is bad, all sex workers are victims whether they know it or not, and undergoing surgical and hormonal treatment to transform your sex or gender is unnatural have alienated many feminists, especially queer feminists and young liberal feminists and feminist sex worker rights advocates. The unfortunate result has been the relegation of animal rights and feminism into the ‘old-school’ basket and a focus on more ‘hip’ and ‘trendy’ topics like raunch culture and body image.
Conversely, arguably animal rights groups such as PETA have also played a part in the disengagement of feminism and animal rights due to their adverts and campaigns that are viewed by many to be sexist and fatphobic, featuring only white, skinny, conventionally attractive young women.
In both camps there are passionate animal rights activists and vegans, but both groups are in agreement about females’ right to reproductive autonomy and to be protected against non-consensual bodily violation, so these are areas where there is potential for mutual understanding between feminists and animal rights advocates.
We can highlight practices in which female farmed animals suffer through forcible insemination and perpetual pregnancy, such as that suffered by dairy cows, pigs in sow stalls and battery hens (in addition to all the other horrific conditions they are forced to endure), as well as drawing attention to footage taken by animal rights activists showing the sexual abuse of female farmed animals by abbatoir workers.
Do your homework
Before approaching potential allies, make sure you know who they are. Make it your business to learn about the history and current status of their social movement, how they analyse and respond to the problems they seek to solve, and what words they use to talk about the world as they see it.
See it as an exchange, not just about us getting them on board with our cause. If you want people to come on board with and learn about animal issues, you have to be prepared to do the same with their issues.
The easiest way to initiate a coalition is to show up to support the efforts of your potential partner on some issue about which you agree (whether or not this issue is directly relevant to animals or veganism). That way, you’re not a stranger when you initiate a coalition.
So, for example, members of a local animal rights group might make contact with a local queer rights organisation by putting up posters for marriage equality rallies or similar activities. One great way for animal advocacy organisations to make friends quickly and easily is to supply vegan food for such community activities.
The next step is proposing shared work on some issue about which you and your potential coalition partner already agree. While you are working together on something that is not a source of conflict, trust grows and cross-fertilisation of ideas naturally occurs. Then (and only then) you can begin to talk about the things about which you disagree.
In so doing, you must be as open to what they want you to learn as you hope they will be about what you want them to learn.
• Do refer to your own veganism as an expression of your commitment to peace and freedom for everyone.
• Don’t expect people to immediately see the connection and change their diets overnight.
• Do remember how much work you needed to do to unlearn the things you were taught about animals.
• Don’t forget that you will need to do at least as much work to unlearn the things you’ve been taught about sex, gender, race, ability, class, sexual orientation and so on, as others will have to in relation to animals.
• Don’t try to build coalitions and work with other movements if you are currently so angry at humanity that you can’t work harmoniously with people who have not (yet) embraced animal liberation as a goal.
• Do understand that working in coalition means you will not agree on every point.
This last point is particularly pertinent and I would refer you to an excellent post by blogger Beppie on feminist website Hoyden About town called Intersectionality: Addressing the Squishy Bits.
The squishy bits, according to Beppie, are:
“the areas where we have to acknowledge that there is no “perfect” response to every situation. That some, or maybe all, of the solutions we adopt to address some forms of privilege will inevitably reinforce other types of privilege. That sometimes people can end up feeling more marginalised as a result of these solutions”.
Recognise the ‘squishy bits’ but keep trying
I’ve come up against some squishy bits recently in regards to a feminist conference that was held in Sydney last year and an upcoming one at the end of this month in Melbourne in which me and some other animal rights advocates have been arguing for the conferences to be catered entirely vegan.
We’ve been speaking up for the animals, and some women of colour have raised issues about how that may be disrespectful towards some people of colour and prevent them from attending; it raised issues around different cultures’ views of animals and of white people imposing restrictions (in this case dietary) on people of colour. I wrote about these issues here.
But, as Beppie rightly notes, that doesn’t mean we stop trying and stop having these conversations because while we may not agree, we may learn things we may otherwise have not.
It’s risky making the effort to make new friends and allies – we may be rejected from the outset, we may form bonds then fall out over our differences, we may experience disappointment, anger, frustration, betrayal.
But we may also experience joy, trust, love, contentment, excitement, passion and connection.
Ultimately we’re up against monolithic cultural and societal systems that are invested in maintaining the status quo in which the elite benefit from the oppression of others – both human and nonhuman animals. Collective voices are louder than a lone few. So take a risk and reach out.
Suggested further reading:
Intersectionality 101: Sexism, racism, speciesism and more by Kelly Garbato
Addressing racism and classism in animal rights activism by Stephanie Lai
Why animal rights are (still) a feminist issue by Katrina Fox
Stop using nature as a rationale to oppress animals and disabled people by Sunaura Taylor
Racism versus speciesism: A moral battleground? By Katrina Fox
Take your anti-racist animal rights activism some place else by Breeze Harper (video)
Specieism, sexism and racism: The intertwining oppressions by Nekeisha Alexis-Baker (video)
The Gay Animal by Nathan Runkle & Our Hen House (video)
Katrina Fox is the editor-in-chief of The Scavenger.
This article is an edited version of Katrina’s presentation at the Sydney Vegan Expo 2011 on 1 May.