The Animal Rights activist Jordi Casamitjana explores the issue of racism within the Vegan and Animal Rights movements in the world.
I am white.
It’s not that I identify as white, but it seems that in the eyes of most people — and most genetic scientists — I should be classed as “white”. A few years ago I ordered one of those Ancestry DNA tests, and it turns out I am 60% from the Iberian Peninsula, 28% from France, 6% from Ireland, 3% from Wales, and 3% from Sardinia, which is quite a predictable spread for a Catalonian (especially the Sardinian bit, as it used to be part of the Catalan empire and there is still a city there, Alghero, where Catalan is still spoken). Most folks in all these places are what most people would describe as white.
In fact, during my childhood growing up in Barcelona in the 1960s, I don’t remember ever seeing in the flesh anybody who wasn’t white — except for a Black person playing Balthazar, my favourite of the three biblical Magi parading the city during the Christmas holidays. Funny enough, when I was a young adult, I played the role of a Magi once, but it was Melchior (known there as the White Magic King).
Being white is not an insignificant thing. It means I am not PGM (people of the global majority), BIPGM (Black, Indigenous, and people of the global majority), BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of colour), BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) or any other label used for marginalised racial groups in Europe and America. Instead, I belong to a European racial category that carries considerable social, political, and historical baggage. It means that, most likely, I did not have a disadvantage in the most important decisions regarding my life when I was somehow competing with people from other races. But it also means that I am probably more likely to say something not quite right when discussing racism. Why? Because although I may have experienced discrimination because of my ethnicity (growing up as a Catalan under a fascist Spanish regime) and my beliefs (having been fired for being an ethical vegan), I never have experienced prejudice, hatred, disdain, or even ownership entitlement due to the colour of my skin, the waviness of my hair, or the shape of my eyelids, nose or lips. And if I did not experience it (and the community I grew up with did not experience it either), the chances are that I may not totally get it.
Therefore, when in my current profession I have been writing about all the issues around veganism and animal rights, I have been putting off the task to write about racism. Not because I don’t think there isn’t any, but because I am white, and I am therefore a bit afraid of getting it wrong.
But I don’t think I can avoid it any longer.
I need to face the music, and write.
What is Racism?
I couldn’t possibly start talking about racism without defining what I think it is, so people reading don’t misinterpret what I mean. I have an idea about it from my education and conversations I had with people, but I did all that in a predominantly white environment, so in case I got it wrong I had a quick check with the experts best tasked to define things.
The Oxford Dictionary defines it as “Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.” Yes, this is what I thought it was, but this is the dictionary from Oxford, so I needed to double-check elsewhere. I learnt that this classic definition is a bit antiquated, and as such it could be labelled as definition 1.0. We have now moved on to a more modern definition, sometimes called 3.0. Since the 1960s racism has often been used in terms such as societal or institutional racism, not just as a prejudicial attitude of people. The Merriam-Webster definition recognised this (making it a 2.0 definition): “a belief that race is a fundamental determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race” or “a political or social system founded on racism and designed to execute its principles.”
The other aspect of the evolution of the definition is expanding the discriminative factor beyond the concept of “race” used by biological anthropology (which only looks at inherited physical attributes) into a wider “ethnicity” concept (that covers cultural traits). For instance, Navid Ghani defines it in his 2008 book Racism as “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against other people because they are of a different race or ethnicity.” As such, antisemitic incidents could be classed as racists regardless of whether or not it is accepted that the Jewish people belong to a distinctive race. As an adjective, I like the combined concept of “ethnoracial”.
However, the definition continued evolving. In 2020, editors from the Merriam-Webster dictionary announced that they were planning to revise this definition after Kennedy Mitchum, a Drake University graduate, wrote to them saying “Racism is not only prejudice against a certain race due to the color of a person’s skin, as it states in your dictionary. It is both prejudice combined with social and institutional power. It is a system of advantage based on skin color.” So, the new Merriam-Webster definition 3.0 has now this additional third meaning: “the systemic oppression of a racial group to the social, economic, and political advantage of another.”
In essence, the three meanings play the same concept at three different levels: the attitudes of individuals (racial prejudice), the policies of institutions (institutional racism), and the differential disadvantages of society (systemic racism). It could even be that many institutions and the system remain racist once most people are not racist anymore, as they have inherited a racist culture and architecture that is not questioned.
I agree with this. These three levels make sense to me, because they are interconnected. If enough racist people run enough racist institutions the system as a whole becomes racist (even if it contains non-racist institutions run by non-racist people). And I agree with including ethnicity in addition to biological race to describe the phenomenon, as the belief in the supremacy of the racist could be based both on biological factors as cultural factors (it would not make sense to me to call a white person racist for thinking that whites are superior to Black people, but not to call him racist for thinking that British Christians are superior to Kosovan Muslims).
I am pretty sure I am not a racist. Especially because I grew up under a fascist regime that oppressed my community, I am a progressive lefty, and I am an ethical vegan with strong anti-speciesist views. And I am sure that I am more than just non-racist, as I also have participated in several anti-racist demonstrations. But I may have been part of institutions, organisations or groups that could be seen as racists, and I may be living in a racist society, so I cannot just ignore the issue of racism as if it has nothing to do with me. And because I am not immune to unconscious bias, the assumption that, by being a progressive well-educated animal rights vegan, I cannot be part of the racism problem, may be premature and naïve.
But the questions I want to look into in this article are the following: if we see the animal rights movement and the vegan movement as socio-political institutions, are they racist institutions? Or, if not, could they become racist institutions if there are enough unchallenged racist people or behaviours in them?
To answer this, we need to find a way to study racism in these movements.
The Voice of the Movement Report
Luckily for me, some people have already been looking into this. People who are far better qualified than I with the right perspective and cultural background. Encompass is a non-profit organisation aiming “to make the farmed animal protection movement (FAPM) more effective by fostering racial diversity, equity, and inclusion so that everyone can bring 100% of their brilliance to work for animals.” Their mission is to increase the effectiveness of the animal protection movement by cultivating racial representation, equity, and interdependence while empowering advocates of the global majority. Very much what I was looking for as a source of information about whether there is institutionalised racism in the animal rights movement.
Encompass was founded in 2017 by Aryenish Birdie, who runs it with Désirée Acholla, Brialle Ringer, and Amy Luebbert (one of these is white). Its Board of Directors is composed of Shayna Rowbotham, PJ Nyman, Stien van der Ploeg, and Unny Nambudiripad (two of these are white). Its Advisory Council is composed of Lisa Feria, William Rivas-Rivas, Leah Garcés, Paul Gorski, Jasmin Singer, Doris Quintanilla, Christopher Sebastian, Christopher “Soul” Eubanks, Jamie Berger, Gunita Singh, Michelle Rojas-Soto, and Stefanie Wilson (as far as I can tell from their photos, about half of them may be white). On its website, it also mentions two consultants, Joshua V. Barr and Kwok Lee (none of them white). Why do I mention how many people running this organisation are white? Because if it was the majority, I would have my doubts about whether I should trust them to provide the sort of information I am after (an honest study of racism untainted by any subtle denying bias from those unlikely to have personally experienced racism against them — and thus being less likely to identify it). Therefore, I am satisfied that, whatever conclusions this organisation arrives at, they will not come from a mostly-white point of view.
As Encompass has been around for five years now, they should have had enough time to study the issue. Indeed they have, as in 2021 they wrote the conclusions of their study in a report titled Voices of the Movement: toward an equitable farm animal protection movement. It was commissioned by Encompass to Equity Based Dialogue for Inclusion (EBDI) a Black- and Latinx-owned consultancy offering a range of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ) services, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In the report, they asked the question: how do members of the farmed animal protection movement (FAPM) experience equity, particularly in relation to ethnoracial identity?
To answer this question, EBDI worked with Encompass and the research organisation Faunalytics to identify non-profit organizations in the FAPM on which to focus their data collection. They identified 165 groups worldwide and contacted 69 US-headquartered organizations. Between April and June of 2021, they collected data from responding organizations, their staff and volunteers, and other current and former members of the FAPM. Their data include surveys (149 respondents), interviews with leaders (23) and founders (11), interviews with staff and volunteers (11), and demographic surveys of 18 organisations.
These are some of the key findings they listed:
- Many respondents report a movement culture that draws heavily on value judgments about the “right” approaches to activism, while dismissing approaches that incorporate other causes.
- Many respondents — BIPGM and white alike — report a pattern of BIPGM-led approaches being overlooked by the largest organizations in the movement.
- Respondents believe that multi-issue approaches are associated with both racial equity and success in protecting farmed animals.
- Members of the FAPM — BIPGM and white alike — perceive the movement, particularly the well-funded groups, as predominantly white.
- Participants in BIPGM grassroots groups, such as Black vegan organizations, have expressed feeling unseen or alienated by mainstream FAPM organizations.
- Experiences of exclusion and hostility (both overt and subtle) toward BIPGM movement members were widely reported in our survey and interviews. In addition to the first-hand accounts of this exclusion by BIPGM, many white activists reported witnessing it, too.
- Several respondents identified animal agriculture as part of a larger system of oppression that disproportionately harms and exploits BIPGM.
- Organizations in the FAPM don’t consistently track the racial identity of their staff, volunteers, job applicants, or donors.
- The demographic data reported to us suggest that the perception that the mainstream movement is primarily white is correct. However, this finding is only directional and not conclusive. More accurate tracking is needed.
- Many respondents perceive that major sources of funding in the animal protection space are from effective altruism (EA)-aligned foundations or individuals. Because EA donors tend to focus their impact evaluations on the most quantifiable and comparable metric — the number of non-human lives affected by an intervention — groups focusing on the intersection of animal justice and social justice in Black and brown communities may be overlooked for funding.
Therefore, the results have found some evidence of systemic oppression of BIPGM to the social, economic, and political advantage of whites. Evidence regarding approaches, perceptions, leadership, alienation, exclusion, hostility, and funding. This means evidence of racism, within the meaning of current definitions. To be honest, I am not surprised. After all, any inquiry into institutional racism I remember, found some — that’s what happens if the whole system is still racist.
Whether this is caused by racist individuals, or by the organisations becoming racist because of the way they were created and evolved, the fact is that there is not enough racial and ethnic diversity, equity, and inclusion to be sure that the farm animal rights movement in the US is not racist at this moment.
Based on this study, at least in the US there seem to be a problem of racism in the FAPM. And if there is one there, I don’t have any reason to believe that there would not be in the wider Animal Rights Movement (covering all animals, not only farm animals), the vegan movement, and in other countries where white people are the majority in the population and government. I should try to find a way to confirm this assumption, though.
Racism in Our Movements
For decades, I have worked in many animal protection organisations and participated in vegan outreach with several groups, all in Europe and America. I never thought about it then, but looking back, I realise that these groups were composed mostly by white people — and were also mostly run by white people. Could it just be because of the demography of the countries where they were based? Possibly, but I don’t’ have any official data to quantify whether the proportion of BIPGM was smaller than it should be. However, I could do a mini-study based on six different vegan outreach groups in London I used to volunteer with, that used the Cube of Truth as a method of outreach. As, traditionally, after these events finish someone takes a group photo to be posted on social media, I thought I could try to find such photos and count the average percentage of white outreachers I could see.
I found on Facebook 32 group photos of Cube of Truth’s events where I was tagged, covering 2018 and 2019. The average number of outreachers per event was 17.72 (ranging from 9 to 35), and the average number of BIPGM in them was 1.7 (ranging from 0 to 6). This means an average of 9.6% of activists in these events were BIPGM. The proportion of BIPGM in London is 40%, so vegan outreach groups had four times fewer BIPGM than they should have if it represented the demographics of the local population. In fact, looking back now, I am certain that, as a vegan outreacher in London, the proportion of passers-by I spoke to that were BIPGM was much higher than the proportion of BIPGM colleagues in the groups I volunteered with. Not until now have I realised about this. Being white, I somehow was blind to this phenomenon (which I am sure I would have detected if I wasn’t). And also, finding photos of myself talking to BIPGM for this article, I am now wondering if I might have been part of the problem, by contributing to a monochromatic message that may have put some people off.
This inequality could be caused by different factors. It could be because white people may be more interested in animal rights or activism, or because BIPGM may not feel welcomed in these groups, or because BIPGM may be too busy campaigning against the oppression of their communities, or because veganism may clash with some cultures more than others, or because veganism may be perceived as “a white thing”, or because white leaders of these groups may tend to recruit white volunteers, or because the organisations were founded at a time where there was a greater racial inequality, or because bad experiences with the wording of particular campaigns of particular organisations, or because many other reasons that BIPGM would be in a better position than I to list.
Many of these reasons, though, would suggest some institutional racism. And the ones that do not, may not be true. For instance, the idea that BIPGM are not interested in animal rights or veganism is not supported by all available evidence. A 2016 study conducted by Pew Research Center showed that 8% of African Americans identified as vegan or vegetarian, while only 3% of the general population did. That was consistent with a 2015 poll by the Vegetarian Resource Group that found 8% of Black people were vegetarian, compared to 3% of Hispanics and 3.4% overall. And it seems this fast-growing trend has not slowed down in recent years. A 2020 Gallup Survey of changes in meat-eating habits showed that 23% of Americans reported eating less meat in the past year than they had previously, but 19% of white people reported eating less meat compared with 31% of Black people.
Besides, there have been several new animal rights groups created by BIPGM for BIPGM as they did not feel the existing organisations were good for them. For instance, APEX Advocacy is a new intersectional animal rights organization founded in Atlanta by activist Soul Eubanks which focuses on BIPGM communities. In an interview with UnchainedTV he said “I began doing activism and organizing in my community. And a lot of times, I discovered that there wasn’t a lot of diversity, or as much as I would have liked. I saw that there was a need to connect the animal rights movement with other groups of people. I tended to see a lot of the same type of people at animal rights events. It didn’t crossover into what I feel is the global majority of the population of the world. I started to speak out about this, and this led me to develop my own animal rights organization: APEX advocacy.”
Some prominent vegan activists and scholars are BIPGM — although not all operating in what could be considered the mainstream part of the movement. For instance, Angela Davis, author of the 1981 book Women, Race & Class; Aph Ko, anti-racist activist and founder of Black Vegans Rock; Dr Breeze Harper, author of the 2010 anthology Sistah Vegan: Black Female Vegans Speak on Food, Identity, Health and Society; Christopher-Sebastian McJetters, director of social media for Peace Advocacy Network; Liz Ross, founder of Coalition of Vegan Activists of Color; Tabitha Brown, American actress and social media personality; Genesis Butler, young environmental and animal rights activist; Wayne Hsiung, co-founder of Direct Action Everywhere (DxE); and Benjamin Zephaniah, UK vegan poet.
And the issue of veganism clashing more with BIPGM cultures than with white cultures does not hold water either. Firstly, vegetarianism is much wider spread in the Indian sub-continent than in the West, and concepts such as ahimsa (do no harm) which is the most important philosophical principle of veganism, have been used in India for millennia and are followed much more strictly by many people there (such as Jains) than in the west.
Secondly, there is a vegan tradition in Africa as well. Not only in countries such as Ethiopia (Ethiopian vegan restaurants are becoming popular in the west now) but also in populations of African descent. Tracye McQuirter, an award-winning public health nutritionist and best-selling author started the 10 Million Black Vegan Women Movement. She said the following in an interview with the vegan broadcaster Jane Velez-Mitchell: “One fact that most people don’t know is that up until the 1960s, African Americans, as a demographic, were the most likely to be eating fresh fruits and vegetables. We were the most likely to be meeting the recommended daily allowance for fruits and vegetables of any demographic in the country…There’s always been this big mighty river of African Americans who have been vegetarians since the beginning in this country brought alongside this wider ocean of folks who are omnivores.”
One could say that living in a European or American country where not that long ago still allowed slavery, and just a few decades ago still had indisputable racist laws and policies, racism must still be present in many aspects of modern society. Therefore, this is not a problem of the animal rights and vegan movements themselves, but of society in general where these movements reside. However, these movements should be, by definition, anti-speciesists (avoiding discrimination because of species membership). For an ethical vegan, a white supremacist should not be that different from a mammal supremacist, a primate supremacist, or a human supremacist. They are all supremacist speciesists. Therefore, this view should grant ethical vegans some sort of “immunity” against systemic racism. They should be an exemption, as they predicate their existence on the notion that no species is superior to any other. And if we still find evidence that racism has not disappeared in this movement yet, this may be a problem.
Why a problem? On one side, if the system somehow prevents any demographic from joining the movement in any way, that is a problem for a movement that is trying to grow and reach more people and cultures. On the other side, if we are aiming for a vegan world, we cannot leave anyone behind, let alone the demographics that represent the majority of the human population on Earth (hence the last three letters of BIPGM, “People of the Global Majority”).
I do believe there is racism in the movement. But I don’t know how much racism is there, how serious it is, and whether it varies from country to country. I don’t think it is a bigger problem than the racism in other institutions and communities (such as the police, sport, universities, the arm forces, some professions, political parties, governments, etc.) but nevertheless, it is a problem for the movement that needs solving. But to solve it, we first should find out about the nature of the problem. We should be asking the question of whether there is anything “intrinsically” racist in the movement, as opposed to “extrinsically” racist because of living in a racist system where racism is still part of many institutions and mindsets. There may be a way to find out, though.
Who Really Matters?
What would happen if some anti-racist policies were to be implemented in racist institutions? Those racist members in them would react — perhaps defensively, perhaps offensively. Rather than everyone embracing the new policies with open arms, we probably would detect some “resistance”. We cannot really “implement” any policy in the movement as it’s an ungoverned social movement that evolves organically without structure or leadership, but we can observe what it does when anti-racist voices are raised in it. For instance, the simple slogan “Black Lives Matter” (BLM), which spread worldwide in 2020 from the growing social movement galvanised by a white police officer in Minneapolis murdering the African American George Floyd.
Inspired by the public outcry about the murder, many animal rights and vegan organisations added the BLM slogan in some of their social media posts. After all, that was totally in line with their anti-speciesist values, which interprets as “species” anyone else who it is different (the “other”). This was a perfect opportunity to show how our movements were anti-racists too. However, there was a reaction by some members of our movements who betrayed the presence of racism in them. In the general population, you could detect it when people felt compelled to reply or comment to the BLM slogan saying “all lives matter”. Outside the animal rights movement, they meant “all races matter” (and its more extreme “white’s lives matter” has become a symbol of white supremacists), while in the movement they meant “all species matter”. Although they might have thought this was an “inclusive” statement, it showed up their racism — unintended or otherwise.
Why? Because written as a reply to the statement “Black Lives Matter” it can only be interpreted as a disagreement with this statement, as meaning “no, you are wrong to say Black lives matter, because all lives matter, not Black lives”. If you don’t see it, let’s give you a couple of analogies. Imagine a demonstration of suffragettes in the 19th century in front of the UK Parliament shouting the slogan “women’s lives matter!”, and then a man passing by and shouting at them “All human lives matter!”. Or imagine a demonstration of anti-vivisection activists in front of a beagle breeding facility shouting “Beagles’ lives matter!”, and someone walking with a poodle on a lead shouting back saying “All dogs’ lives matter!”. Do you need another one? Ok, imagine an anti-war demonstration in front of a Russian embassy with signs saying “Ukrainians’ lives matter!”, and then a member of staff comes out and says “All Slavs lives matter!”. What do the comments of all those “reactors” to injustice calls tell you about them? I hope you see it now.
Of course, everyone matters, but if you say this in the context of a response from the outrage expressed by people about a particular social injustice issue, your response is a statement that actually means to them “superior beings like me matter more, so stop complaining.” It not only shows insensitivity. It shows speciesism. If you are truly anti-speciesist, if you hear “trans’ lives matter” you should reply “yes, they do “. If you hear “cow’s lives matter” you should reply “yes, they do”. If you hear “Kurdish’s lives matter” you should reply “yes, they do”. And if you hear “deaf people’s lives matter” you should reply “yes, they do”. Because for you all lives matter, you should join all social and biological justice calls, not criticise them or be selective about them.
I was one of the vegan animal rights activists who posted on social media a photo of me joining a local BLM demonstration in 2020, as many others did, but the number of “all lives matter” reactions I saw in comments surprised me. I even learnt that there had been resignations and firings in some animal rights and vegan organisations for having either posted in support of the BLM movement, criticise such posting, reacting inappropriately about it, or related ethnoracial issues.
The other example of “reaction” that may expose an underlying racist attitude is anti-intersectionality within the vegan movement, a subject I dedicated an entire article about. Being intersectionality a theoretical framework for understanding how aspects of social and political identities (race, gender, sexuality, class, etc.) might combine to create unique modes of discrimination, you would expect that all ethical vegans would also be intersectional vegans, as I am. However, although the most experienced animal rights activists I know that have been vegan for a long time clearly are (even white men such as Kim Stallwood or Alex Lockwood) there are quite a few new vegans who are anti-intersectional. Some of them may just be misogynist and racist people who happen to eat a plant-based diet, but others may not realise how much of their comments against people with an intersectional approach to campaigning may come from a subtle subconscious racist attitude. In fact, public comments made against intersectional vegans by the leaders of some of the vegan outreach groups I volunteered with made me stop joining them in their events, as I no longer felt welcomed. So, again, if you are anti-speciesist and all lives matter to you, the intersectional approach is the right one for you.
Who Are Racist?
Does making an anti-intersectional comment or saying “all lives matter” make you a racist, though? Not necessarily. It may show that you have been indoctrinated under a racist and speciesist system for a long time and you have not gotten rid of all carnist indoctrination yet. Or it may also be resonance from the system, rather than something that comes from within you. You may have seen someone else commenting, and you just repeated it without thinking too much about it. I will give you an example of a case where I posted something racist, without realising it.
One of my favourite things to do these “pandemic” days is to walk through my local park. I enjoy the fauna and flora there, and I often take photos of who I meet and post them on social media. A couple of years ago I saw one scene that drew my attention. A flock of pigeons was sunbathing close to the lake. One of them, though, was doing it a few metres from everyone else. It looked like he had been ostracised from the pigeon community. He was a brown pigeon, while the rest were white and grey. I took a photo of the scene, and I posted it with the sentence “It’s no easy being brown”. I intended to make a humorous reference to Kermit the frog, the famous muppet character who sings the melancholic song “It’s not easy being green”. A couple of hours later, a friend of mine (who just happen to be white like me) commented “You cannot say that, man!” For a second, my reaction was thinking “why not?” And then I saw it. The word “brown”. For me, it was just the colour of the pigeon. I had not realised that this is also the term often used to describe some races, and as the context of my post was the feeling of being marginalised, some people could have read it as if I was making an insensitive comment on racism (as opposed to a comment about not fitting in). I removed the post immediately, realising that I had used words that could offend people who have been victims of racism. For being white, I had become relatively “blind” to some skin colours, which was not a good thing. Saying “I don’t see colours” in a racial context is not a good thing. It’s like saying “I don’t see you. You are invisible to me. Your problems don’t register in my mind.” Not seeing colours also may mean not seeing racism when it is in front of you. It’s like being unable to hear the word “help” and justify your inaction with the ignorance this anomaly would provide you.
I think you can say racist things, and sometimes behave as a racist does, and not be an actual racist. The institution you run may be racist, the system you run it under may be racist, and you may say or do things that can be racist, without you being a racist. That is because, at the individual level (as per the 1.0 definition, if you like) being a racist is defined by the belief the person holds, not the behaviour. A racist truly believes other races or ethnicities are inferior, and therefore it is justifiable to discriminate or be antagonistic against people belonging to them. Racist people would manifest such attitude in any interaction they have with people from other races and ethnic groups, and with people of their own group relating to them. Racist people would defend their racism because having to hide it would imply not feeling their superiority. If being racist becomes unpopular in the white-dominant society where they live, they will find ways to express their pride in their beliefs by joining groups that tell them they are right (such as neo-Nazi militias, far-right parties or the Ku-Klux-Klan). White supremacist racists stand out from the crowd. You will see their contempt in their faces. You would hear their hate in their voices. You would feel their arrogance in their demeanour.
However, a non-racist who manifest unintended racist behaviour may become defensive when criticised for it, and without realising it, may gradually repeat the behaviour (this time intentionally), not necessarily for believing its racist justification, but by sticking to a libertarian attitude of “don’t’ tell me what to do”. Not being good at handling criticism may gradually convert a non-racist into a racist, which means that, although we should always challenge racist behaviour, it would be prudent to do it having into consideration that it may not come from a racist person as such, but from a person contaminated with racist tendencies we can easily get rid off with tactful communication.
Because we, animal rights vegans, live in a carnist world, and because we often argue with people who criticise us or try to put us down, we may not be the best people to handle criticism well. We may be less open to an alternative point of view because we are trying to defend a very specific philosophy with a clear sense of what is right and what is wrong. We may be inclined to repeat other people’s arguments we find in our vegan echo chambers. Or we may have a heightened sense of identity as vegans which may distance us from other communities. And as far as those “health vegans” looking for some sort of extra-fitness and purity of body are concerned, it doesn’t take much imagination to see how this could be perverted by some as seeking a “superior” race (as the Nazis did last century with the Lebensreform movement). I think all of this could make us vulnerable to falling into some racist attitudes — perhaps only occasionally, but for some people more regularly. And perhaps all this may allow some true overt racists to feel comfortable joining our movements.
What Should We Do?
If we detect racist behaviour in others, it may be more effective not to label those having them as “racists” without checking first if they truly believe their race or ethnicity is superior to others. It may be more productive to engage in a constructive dialogue first rather than apply draconian “label and cancel” reactions based on form and not context. They may not have realised how racist their actions or comments were. They may have interpreted racism in an old fashion way. They may be inexperienced in dealing with other cultures or people. They may be naïve, out of touch, or ignorant rather than malicious or antisocial. And it will always be wise to listen to the victims of their racism and not assume we already know what they think.
It may well be that all the systemic, institutional and individual racism we detect in the animal rights and vegan movements is not driven by racist people, but by ignorant and careless people with a strong identity and a tendency to argue. Or it may be driven by old structures, procedures and policies, not people. Or it may be driven by unconscious bias, defensiveness, and insecurity, not beliefs. Studying the phenomenon further could tell us which of these drivers is dominant.
Considering the post imperialistic patriarchal speciesist societies most of us live in, there will always be racists in our movements. Even more when they become more mainstream with more people and higher diversity. And if we cannot eradicate the epidemic of conspiracy theories within the movements — which often go side by side with far-right views and racism — even more. What we need to do, though, is to keep their numbers down, to ensure they don’t take prominent positions, and to prevent them sabotaging progress towards better equality and social justice.
If we are aware of the problem, if we don’t hide it, if we don’t deny it, I think our intrinsic anti-speciesist values will eventually purge our movements from racism and make them more inclusive spaces for everyone. Supporting those who try to fight racism from the inside is a good step. Restructuring our organisations to make them fairer is another. Deplatform those with racist tendencies and stopping misinformation is another. Being mindful of our language and embracing the intersectional approach is another. And not being shy in expressing our solidarity with marginalised groups of any sort is another.
The Voice of the Movement Report issued seven recommendations worth paying attention to:
- Identify, address, and work to eliminate exclusionary practices and racism in the movement. Approach movement building by viewing the diversity of experiences and strategies within the movement as an asset. Reconsider and expand views on what makes for “effective” advocacy.
- Recognise BIPGM-led entities as peers and equals in this space. Build bridges with BIPGM-led grassroots organizations.
- Acknowledge the harms that BIPGM have experienced and continue to experience in the movement. Further, acknowledge that these harms are a direct result of racism, unconscious biases, and practices that marginalize and exclude BIPGM.
- Engage in facilitated dialogue about racial equity to develop understanding, trust, and healing, and to ultimately build bridges with BIPGM members of the movement who have experienced harm.
- Recognise human exploitation in animal agriculture and the opportunity for collaboration with those humans exploited or otherwise directly harmed by animal agriculture.
- Track social identities of staff and board members to identify inequity in organisational makeup.
- Evolve funding practices and broaden the understanding of effectiveness to distribute greater funds to BIPGM-led organisations.
They all seem sensible to me, and quite doable everywhere, even on a short-term basis. There is also a new book dedicated to this subject that may prove very useful to those who want to tackle it: Antiracism in Animal Advocacy: Igniting Cultural Transformation, edited by Jasmin Singer from Encompass.
There are many things we can do to help, especially for those of us who recognise our white privilege. And to help us help others, Encompass provides racial equity training to anybody.
Writing about all this made me nervous, but it turned out to be quite straightforward.
It’s all about being vegan for everyone.