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
15 May 2011
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.
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.
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
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
Considering all the aspects
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
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.'
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.
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.
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?'
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
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
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
Building alliances isn't easy: it means acknowledging our
privileges and making major changes to our behaviour, actions and
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
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
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
- 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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
sexual abuse of female farmed animals by abbatoir workers.
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
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.
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
� 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.
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
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
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