Jordi Casamitjana, the author of the book “Ethical Vegan”, interviews LoriKim Alexander, a vegan Black femme biologist helping those who are oppressed in this world, no matter the species.
Sometimes I wonder.
As the progressive person I aspire to be, sometimes I wonder how much I have really advanced. I keep discovering more and more relics of the lives I left behind when I thought I had already cleansed myself from toxic indoctrination. Sometimes I wonder if my new habits and attitudes are only performative, not real. If the changes I have made are only cosmetic and superficial, and deep down I am still the same person that my genes, background, and education created at the end of last millennia. Sometimes I wonder if, after more than 20 years of being a vegan, I am still a meat-eater deep down. Other times I wonder if, despite being educated about it, I still show unintentional racist behaviour, even after realising how intrinsically racist the current system we live and work in is.
For instance, when I am looking for people of the vegan community to interview, I try to be as inclusive as I can, and not only find people who look like me who are likely to have the same views I have, but other voices from different people who may provide something completely new and fresh to me about veganism. In other words, as the forward-looking responsible person I think I am, I look for diversity — I am not saying that I always find it, but I certainly look for it.
But there is an inherent contradiction in this search. If I truly believe in the fourth axion of the vegan philosophy that tells us that we should not be speciesist, and I truly work to build the vegan world of the future where any form of supremacy and oppression will be abolished, am I not just viewing reality as if everyone is the same (humans and non-human animals, people from different races and cultures, or any sentient being for that matter) and therefore looking for diversity is futile?
Well, it’s not that simple. Differences and similarities are two sides of the same coin. You cannot toss this coin into the air and expect only one side will fall most of the time. This happened when I first learned about LoriKim Alexander from a podcast she participated in with Jasmin Singer, another vegan I interviewed. She is a biologist, anthropologist, activist, educator, and healer, who right now is primarily working in the community for the people (and for “people” she means those with feathers, scales, skin, fur, etc.) who are oppressed by systemic realities that don’t afford them full rights — as she puts it.
In my quest for diversity, I thought that interviewing someone from a different race, a different nationality, a different gender, a different sexual orientation type, a different cultural background, and perhaps a different type of vegan identity than me would be great, and she seemed to tick all those boxes. I thought interviewing this self-defined “general rabble-rouser with glitter” would give me the “difference” I sought. Little did I know that, when I tossed that coin, it was going to fall on a different side than I expected.
You’ll see what I mean.
LoriKim’s Vegan Journey
I am an immigrant who grew up in a Catholic country and move to another one leaving that religion behind. So did LoriKim — although in my case was moving from Catalonia to the UK, and in hers from Jamaica to the US. As a child, I was more interested in non-human animals than humans, and I befriended many of them, and so did LoriKim — although in my case on the streets of Barcelona, and in hers on the suburbs of Kingston. I became vegan decades ago, and so did LoriKim — although in my case about twenty years ago, and in hers about thirty years ago. We chatted via Zoom from big metropolitan cities, I from South London in the UK and she from the Bronx in New York City. As you can already see, we have several things in common, but her vegan journey, like all such journeys, was a unique experience for her. Let’s hear it:
“In Jamaica, as I was an only child, I spent a lot of time by myself. And I spent a lot of time outside. I feel I’m lucky, because we only had one TV station, and it was on only at certain times of day; it didn’t come on until late afternoon. So, I was outside playing literally with sticks, stones, and leaves and watching ants; playing in trees and watching birds. I used to sit for hours in the grass watching grasshoppers — I was fascinated by them. There are several photos of me as a two-year-old just crouching. And I did that throughout my childhood.
My favourite place in the world was my grandmother’s mango tree, and in that mango tree, I developed a lot of friendships. One of them was with a lizard. An adult lizard doesn’t hang around humans, but we used to spend so much time together, just resting. And no one could see either of us up in the tree, so we found sanctuary together.
I should say that when I was growing up, we did not value the animals that lived with us. Dogs and cats didn’t hang out in the house, the dogs were there for protection, and the cats were just there living in the streets or around the yard. For me, though, these were my friends, and so at every household, I would stop and I would visit with the dogs and the cats first, oftentimes before the humans. There was always this serious connection because we got each other. There was no artifice in that conversation. There were no requirements. The only requirement was that we didn’t come at each other from a space of harm.
When I came to the United States at 13, I was faced with a lot of cultural differences. When I was 14, we moved to New York City and I started to become aware of all these different realities and movements around. I was able to learn about Animal Liberation movements. And I was like, ‘Wait, what? so other people think the way I do?’ I was so excited. My mind was completely blown, and it took me a little while to develop a sense of who I could be in that space. By 15 I was vegetarian much to my mother’s dismay and disapproval — she thought I was going to die because I didn’t eat much anyway, I was a very picky child.
In that space is where I really started to understand what was happening in factory farm systems, like the industrialisation of our foodways. I didn’t have any idea of that but because I came from a mostly agrarian culture, very artisanal. I was a vegetarian for a few years, but I was already feeling a little hypocritical because I was in this movement and in love with cheese —I didn’t drink milk, though. I’d finally given up eggs but the dairy was hard for me. Then I read this article about the dairy industry and what happens to dairy cows, and also from the perspective of a worker. Hearing that, understanding that, knowing Farm Workers’ Rights growing up, and having that instilled in my blood, it didn’t sit well, so that day I decided to go vegan. That was 29 years ago.”
LoriKim’s Space Jumping
My initial experience of oppression informed the way I would try to help other victims of oppression, and so was the case for LoriKim — although for me the oppression came from being a Catalan growing up under a Spanish fascist regime, and for her, it was for being a Black femme in the US. During my vegan activism I have been learning what works for me and what doesn’t, which made me leave some activism spaces and move to others, and so did LoriKim — although in my case I end up channelling my vegan activism through writing, and it seems that in her case through educating her peers face to face. Again, the diversity coin keeps flipping around. For some time, LoriKim jumped through different social spaces, trying to find her home. It started from the moment she became vegan as a teenager:
“At that point, though, I wasn’t really into those Animal Liberation spaces as actively as I had been when I was younger because I was not finding myself comfortable in those spaces. I didn’t know the name at that time. I didn’t know how to name racism well at that time; though I spoke out about it. I only knew that I felt it immediately when I came to this country. I didn’t know how to name homophobia — I had been out since I was 14, but I didn’t know how to name that easily. I didn’t know how to name femmephobia either. They said, ‘Who is this teenage Black lesbian trying to tell us what to do?’ because I was saying to them, ‘Why are we going to the farmer’s market to talk to people? Those are the vegans. What’s the point of that?’. And they weren’t coming to my neighbourhood.
I was reflecting on this, and there was a period of time when I bought the gaslighting because I knew how hard it was talking to my peers as they would make fun of me. But those same people would come back to me weeks later, months later, and tell me, ‘I started to go to Taco Bell, and I started to order the bean burrito.’ Talking to me and then asking me questions and things like that. Whether or not they went vegan later, I don’t know, but it was already there, and to me, that showed me the validity of my feelings and how organising truly works. You talk to people one-on-one and show them who you are first. You can’t give people a prescription. It has to fit them.
For a while, I had to leave a lot of movements’ spaces, because it was so hard. I went from that Animal Liberation space to more leftist spaces, socialist spaces, and communist spaces for a little while. And as a young Black child, nobody was giving me the support that I needed in that space. Quite the opposite.
When I moved to Alaska for a while I came across just the most innate racism that it’s almost unfathomable, but it’s so commonplace for these folks that you can’t even name it to them, because they couldn’t possibly see it. And I had never experienced anything that acute before. That really helped me when I went back to New York because it gave me the impetus to find Black liberation spaces. At that time, I’m reading Barbara Smith, Audrey Lorde, bell hooks, Angela Davis, Frantz Fanon, and Marcus Garvey. I’m reading all of this stuff and trying to get a sense of what is actually happening to me — because coming from a Black country racism exists but it exists through the lens of colonisation, which looks completely different when you have pushed the white people out of your country, but not the whiteness.
Later I began organising spaces that are geared toward Black liberation. In those spaces, I was finding my own learning. Learning how to learn, how to be quiet, and how to really hear. Getting these deep rich histories in New York City of the struggles that have been going on since the 1600s. It is a rich tradition here in New York City, and it’s beautiful. But a lot of these spaces are really patriarchal. So, what I found is I had to stay quiet, because they really didn’t want to hear from anyone who looked like me, who looks like a femme, and they definitely didn’t want to hear anything about Queer folks, because even in some spaces they say ‘we don’t believe in that’ — like they don’t believe that people exist!
I just kept jumping from one movement space to another trying to find a fit, all while, in the university setting, I would end up joining whatever queer organization, and then end up being the president the next year — just running it because nobody was going to do it. I felt I was losing this duality of movement spaces that they couldn’t meet, because the queer spaces were mostly white, and even if some spaces had a lot of Black and Indigenous People of Colour, they were small because a lot of us were not out, or a lot of us just didn’t have the capacity — we got to work our way through school.”
Just to be sure I understand, I asked LoriKim what the “femme” means when she says she is a “Black femme”. This is what she replied:
“A femme can be any gender who is feminine presenting, feminine of spirit, or feminine of centre. It’s a long spectrum and I am a Black femme. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m a woman every day. Some people would say, ‘Oh, you’re non-binary?’ Yeah, most of the time, but I’m also a femme, so that’s a way of subverting the binary while being who I am.”
LoriKim’s Universities Touring
I am a biologist specialising in Zoology, and so is LoriKim — although I worked mostly on insects and primates, and she worked mostly on bats and reptiles. During my studies I took some Anthropology classes, and so did LoriKim — although mine were in biological anthropology and as part of my zoological degree, and hers were cultural anthropology as a separate degree. I concentrated my zoological work on species that most people do not study or care about, and so did LoriKim —although in my case was wasps and in hers, Caribbean species considered less charismatic. At one crucial point in my life, I decided to leave academia behind, because it was not for me and I thought I would not be able to help those who needed the most help if I carried it on, and so did LoriKim — although in my case this led me to emigrate and start a career as animal protectionist, but in her case, she had already emigrated before she started on it and moved to other things. Again, plenty of similarities and differences. However, LoriKim’s universities tour was quite bigger than mine, as you will now learn from her own words:
“I started university to do biology because I thought I was going to be a veterinarian, and then I actually worked in a vet’s office and I realised this is not what I want, because this is about money. So, I said, ‘Well, who’s left out? it’s Wildlife. I could be a wildlife vet.’ So, I started down that path, and I went to six universities to get down this path. At first, I went to a School in New York. I had been in Florida by this point, and I went back to New York by myself, but I realised I needed greenery, so I moved to Alaska. At 19 years old I went to interior Alaska, to Fairbanks, Alaska, where it’s more than nine months of no sun. That wasn’t really the right place for me because I need some sun, and because they’re doing Arctic studies and I’m more interested in tropical and subtropical species — I wanted to go back home to do research and also help fortify our conservation initiatives there.
One day I realised I wanted to take an elective, so I took this anthropology class, and it was this older German lady. She was very stern, and she was teaching all these theories that were developed by these white men in the late 19th century. I was thinking, ‘What is happening here? how are you giving these prescriptions on how we live our life talking about Black people, talking about West African cultures? Oh no, I need to go into this field and I’m going to just mash it up, this doesn’t make any sense.’ I felt it was urgent too, because, at that time, I realised from reading ethnography that the narrative in my country where humans and other species always working together was being lost because we were losing our elders, and the younger folk were mostly not interested in the older traditions anymore. I decided I was going to do that, research and then go back to biology. That was the great plan.
I went back to New York to finish up my degree and changed to a cultural anthropology concentration. I did independent study for the last two years of my degree so that I could do an ethnography with women in the Afro-Caribbean belief system and the healing modalities that they use. The reason I did that is that I saw the deep connection with the ecology in Jamaica and around the Caribbean. While folks were looking into this, no one was focusing on women, who, historically, were actually the main practitioners. I wanted to learn our traditional ways of knowing, our traditional ecological knowledge around botany and wildlife in the Caribbean as well. It was very eye-opening. That’s when, in talking to these women, they healed me. I was 21 and they saw this young person who had a spiritual connection but no idea how to access it. And they gave me language and knowledge on ways to access this connection that I’ve always had with other animals and Earth in general, but also to our ancestral planes. That was a profound experience and so I decided to go to grad school to finish up the research.
But then I realised I hated Academia. It was just too much bureaucracy. And again, like just innately racist. Anthropology is an inherently racist construct. So, I realized I would be mining our people, including our ecosystems, to give this information to Academia, not the folks who need it.
I decided that I was going to go back and do a second bachelor’s and do it in biology. Focus on wildlife. That brought me to several different schools, and in each place, when the racism got too high, I had to move. And that’s what happened. I was learning what was helpful. I started to learn about the species that I had the most interest in working with because these are the least charismatic but the most impactful in an ecosystem: bats. They are keystone species. Everywhere they’re found but Antarctica. And I work with reptiles and amphibians, and several of those species are also keystone species.”
The Cypher, a Healing Sanctuary
One of the things LoriKim is doing now which I do not do directly is to help her peers to overcome the oppression they experience, as I am really a privileged person who, although I experience oppression, that feeling is now distant from my past. In LoriKim’s case, it is very much in the present, so this is why she has to address it right now and help her peers who may need help even more than she does, still within the framework of veganism as interpreted from a social justice perspective. One way she decided to do that is through a mysteriously-sounding initiative that she calls The Cypher, which works on interspecies relationships, health, healing, food justice, and more. She explains how it was formed:
“I’ve been jumping into spaces that say that they are inclusive of trans and queer people, but it really is, ‘Let me include you in the sentence at the end of the paragraph, not in body, not in spirit, and definitely not in intention.’ The table’s already built and set, you have a seat, that’s cute, but I don’t want to sit, I would like to help you set the table because then I know that you are really there for me, and then that my narrative is not being retold to me. So, I really hadn’t found those spaces anywhere in the vegan space.
A lot of people I’ve been talking to over the years said to me, ‘Well, it would be really great if you could just start something for us,’ and these are all folks who are asking me this along the spectrum of gender. So, around 2014 I started this Facebook group, and it was for Black women, but actually, other folks ended up coming into the group. It was multi-generational, multi-experiential. There were Black lesbians in that space, there were non-binary folks, transmasculine folks, there were Cis-het Black women in the space, and we could all put our little memes and our pictures and feel good. But then I got tired, couldn’t find anyone else to help moderate it, and I had to close it down.
Over the years, I moved to focus more on in-person organising, all different kinds of Black-led spaces dealing with some really heavy things — from supporting the family of folks who have been killed by police or folks who have been brutalized by the police, to making sure folks have healthy vegan food through the pandemic, etc.
Then I started this thing I call The Cypher. Because I didn’t see it existing anywhere else, and folks had asked me to do it. It is a queer Back femme-led formation for Trans and Queer Black Indigenous People of Colour — another way to say that is QTBIPOC. We hold QTBIPOC-only spaces because we are allowed very little space in the world, and a lot of the information that comes with political education is intensely layered, and you have to make sure it is exquisitely delivered — and also that it is highly trauma-informed in the space that you’re in. I know I feel safest when I’m with my folks, so that’s the main reason. Our spaces are sacred.
What we’re doing is giving information to folks who don’t have access to these spaces. At first, we started with closed events, so meaning word of mouth, and it started as me just grounding people, doing somatic healing work. Talking to people about their worth and giving little pieces of political education. We are going to have the first in-person event next weekend and it’s going to be an herb walk. I’m walking people through the neighbourhood here in the Bronx and showing them the herbs that are growing on the block that they may just want to pass by as weeds. Giving folks a sense of place, teaching them about their neighbourhood trees that are actually their neighbours, and also making sure that they realise that within the inherent value of those beings is showing your inherent value because you can utilise that to combat what you’re feeling, the stress you’re feeling under oppression. Our cortisol levels are extremely high from the stress, that’s especially for folks who may be transitioning medically. We need specific types of nutrients that herbs can help provide. A lot of us are going through major depression right now and have been diagnosed with mental health diagnoses, and there are herbs that are growing outside that could support us. I’m also going to explain some of the natural history of the Bronx in an effort to make us realise our connection and how young we are as a species. And that also gives us an opportunity to bond with each other.”
The Social Justice View of Veganism
I have often said that, although I entered veganism through the animal rights gateway, over time I end up exploring the five dimensions of the philosophy (animals, the environment, health, social justice, and spirituality), so I now identify as an ethical vegan who is an animal rights environmental social justice vegan also interested in good health. But my language and presentation still are very much within the animal rights framework. I feel LoriKim also embraces the five dimensions (as most vegans I know who have been vegan for decades also do), but her presentation very much sounds to me within the vegan social justice framework. That is excellent, as I am very interested to learn how social justice vegans see veganism. So, I asked her, and she replied this:
“Veganism runs all the way throughout The Cypher because another thing that we’re talking about is food justice and environmental justice. And to me, veganism is our traditional birthright. These are our indigenous ways of knowing. If we didn’t have the resources to kill hundreds of animals to eat, what did we do? That was never our intent anyway. We worked with what we had, what was best, and that was what was growing out of the ground. And it was really healthy. And this is how we healed ourselves, not just for everyday food, but when we got sick as well.
So, it’s talking about veganism without the “traditions” that started again in the 19th century in England. It’s not speaking about veganism in that kind of container. it’s within a container of lineage that is ours, so explaining to folks that there is harm all through the system, and giving folks veganism as an answer to that harm. Because a lot of times, when we tell people what’s happening, they just feel like, ‘Okay, there’s Doom and Gloom, everything is going to kill me, so why should I care? it’s fine then because we’re going to burn up anyway.’ And then you say, ‘Well, actually, here’s an opportunity to slow this process of burning up, to support your fellow workers, to uplift Black and Indigenous farmers, to live with the land that you live on.’ There is dirt under the concrete. That is the conversation, that’s the heart that it brings. It’s not hiding veganism in any way, but it’s also not quantifying people by how many vegans The Cypher is going to produce either.
I feel veganism is really one of the tools that we can use in this anti-oppressive toolbox. And it may be one of the most important tools that gets forgotten or dismissed as, ‘Oh, it’s just for animals, people are not included.’ And other movements dismiss it in that way, primarily because that is the mindset of a lot of people in the vegan movement. That is a very narrow and dangerous mindset that ignores the reality of the connections of oppressive systems — so, therefore, upholds them. I really think veganism is about moving away from the reality that we face because of colonisation. True veganism to me looks at all the ways that all the systems that are the bastard children of colonisation have kept us in this loop of death. Everyone’s death, and the death of true Spirit, the death of human and other animal cultures (who was the cow before the cow was put in a stall? Why are cows in stalls part of our food culture? And who is relegated to tending that stall?). I think that as a tool we can use it to tease apart these systems and consciously get back to a holistic way of being, that is able to give everyone the space that they need to thrive and to grow. Total liberation.”
In the past, I used the term “intersectional vegan” instead of social justice vegan, but it seems that term is going out of fashion (not the people or the type of veganism, but the word), and some have complained that people like me has misappropriated it — as it has been pointed out to me that Kimberly Crenshaw created it referring exclusively to the intersections that Black women experience during their oppression. Therefore, these days I tend to use the term “overlappinality” instead of “intersectionality”, meaning the framework where different types of oppression overlap. But I wanted to know if LoriKim uses it, as she is a Black femme in the middle of multiple intersections (sexual orientation, gender, race and veganism), and I don’t think anybody would object to her if she did. This was her reply:
“I don’t hate that word, but I don’t use it, that’s the easiest way to answer that, because what happens is it’s too buzzy now, so nobody knows what it means, nobody’s trying to read Kimberly Crenshaw either or knows who that is. So, in order to make sure that we call the truth what it is, I say all the words, so just like we say words like QTBIPOC or acronyms like that. I will use the acronym but will say all the words most of the time so that you know what I’m talking about. Saying Trans and Queer Black and Indigenous People.
I cannot separate myself from myself. I’m these things all the time, from when I wake up to when I go to sleep, but when it becomes a question for me is when I experience issues walking outside my house. I cannot walk outside without coming up against some sort of oppression, and it depends on what it is, and how I’m presenting that day. Also, thinking about where I live. I live in a specific area because of who I am. I’m afforded the opportunity to travel because of who I am. There’s so much that goes on and I think the difference between your intersections and my intersections is how often I have to think about them because it can often mean life or death. And even if it doesn’t mean life or death immediately, it means it aggregately. These things are aggregative. It makes you sick; it makes you tired; it makes you doubt yourself, and that sickness and that tiredness is killing you slowly. But I also overall rejoice in the realities of myself. I am so blessed. I’m so happy to be who I am, to have come here to this earth in this form. I am so happy for that every day, despite what anyone else wants to say about or do to me.”
That makes sense to me. I understand why LoriKim often feels happy because knowing who you are is an important part of happiness. If one has managed to articulate each layer of one’s intersections so they all feel free, authentic, genuine, and not forced by societal lazy stereotypes, I think happiness becomes much more attainable. It does not mean that you will attain it because living in a carnist patriarchal supremacist world will oppress your chances to attain anything, but it does give you an edge to resist such oppression, and the hope that this may be enough to crack the system and help to build a better world for the next generations to come.
Chatting with LoriKim has made me notice how many more things she and I have in common than my performative naivety initially suggested, but this does not mean that I do not acknowledge the big differences — my privileges, her burden, my luck, her struggle.
I find it fascinating that she fits what I often label a “social justice vegan” box, but yet, it seems she entered veganism through the animal rights gateway like me — breaking another stereotype there. I like how we both speak the same language, but yet in a very different mutually-comprehensible style (I am not talking about British versus American, but about animal-rightish versus social-liberationish). I found it inspirational that she seems to be so “hands-on” and keeps moving where she needs to be, not waiting for others to fix things (she made me think about what Christopher Sebastian, another influential Black vegan, said about lesbians when I interviewed him: “I would love it if animal rights organisations were led by lesbians. I think that they are so organised. We would have had this all wrapped up and we’d be doing brunch next week”).
Above all, I appreciate her unique perspective and her compassionate approach toward people of any species, giving them sanctuary tailored to them, not to society or the unifying urges of progressive universalists.
I get it. The idea of having a space of your own so you can invite whoever you like and be hospitable is something only people who had the privilege to have it from birth give for granted.
Everyone is equally different, and that’s the best part of not being alone.
I don’t wonder about that; I know it.