Saturday, November 7, 2015

My Scariest Halloween: Racism at an animal rights protest




I have been attending (or organizing) animal rights protests since 1987, and I have cried at them due to the cruelty that is inflicted on animals – from the rattlesnake roundups in Oklahoma to walking with the elephants back to the railroad cars. But I have never left a protest in tears because of comments I heard from an animal rights activist until now.

This Halloween, I was among about 30 other activists protesting an amusement park that offers both rides and animals in captivity for entertainment.  After leafleting at this location for years, we know that many people go just for the rides and not the animal abuse.

As a Black family walked past us toward the park’s entrance, I heard (but did not see) one of my fellow activists make a comment to them. Someone from the family replied, “We are just a Black family trying to enjoy ourselves.” Although I did not hear what the family said first, I did hear part of what the activists said in response: “It doesn’t matter; we are all the same” and “We are all Earthlings; we are no different.”

I watched the family’s response, and the husband laughed to his friends and said, “They say we are all the same.”

Looking at two activists nearby (a Latina who I knew and a white woman), I said, “This is the problem when animal rights activists say shit like this.”

They were confused as to why I had a problem with this and then I realized that they were the ones yelling this rhetoric.

Recognizing that I initially did not handle the situation in the best way, I tried to recover quickly and show patience, and that was when I realized that nothing I said mattered. What I’d heard was only the tip of the iceberg.

They continued to say, “It is true; we are all the same, and all of the oppressions are the same.” I said that saying things like that and “All Lives Matter” is problematic.

I tried to explain that we as animal people need to show that we are not racists (well, at this point I had not realized what I was in for) and that we need to fight the image that we care more about non-human animals than human animals.

What followed were some of the most racist comments I have ever heard.  They told me that they (meaning Black people) complain about everything, they all say they are too busy with their own lives, they are always rude and angry, they don’t care about animals, they like to eat meat, and they are not special.

When I tried to relate to the Latina about how people say horrible things about our people as well, she looked shocked and told me it was not true. She said, “Yeah, but our lives were different,” and I said, “Yes, for some of us, this was our land— but they were brought over as slaves.” She said, “They need to get over that – it was a long time ago.”

I truly believe I was in shock, and my mind could not process what was happening.

I continued to try to relate to the Latina from our perspective by using the word “we,” but it was clear they thought I meant animal activists. Eventually I had to tell the white woman I wasn’t talking to her, to which she let me know what she thought of me, and the Latina told me she didn’t care about me and she only cared about the animals.

I tried to explain that if they truly cared about helping the animals, then we needed to relay the information in more effective ways in order to connect with more people.

I did mention how the Black community is taking the vegan and animal rights causes to heart, with vegan hip-hop dinners, etc.

I also apologized for this venue not being the best place to talk about these issues, and the white woman said she didn’t need me to tell her how to think.

I also tried to continue to explain how when I speak to people of color about being a vegan and an activist, I have to dispel the notion that we do not care about people.  (In hindsight I wonder why I continued.)

I have dealt with racist people in the animal rights movement before (people not knowing I was a Chicana and over the phone telling me not to move to particular areas because Mexicans lived there), not to mention racist comments when issues like charreadas come up, or Sheriff Joe, and of course, there was the time I was speaking at Boston University and a white woman interrupted me to insist that farm workers love their work. (The brilliant Dr. Breeze Harper reminded me the next morning that many white people have a romantic notion of what farm work is like.)

But I admit that it absolutely horrified me to have someone defend their racism to my face.

I was going to apologize for how I handled the issue to begin with, but by that time I was crying (I don’t think I realized it at first) and my wonderful husband asked if I wanted to leave.

I decided I needed to leave, mostly because I could not imagine staying at an event where these types of comments were being yelled at people of color.

The Latina asked me if I was leaving and I told her I was.

She seemed shocked and tried to explain to me that there are plenty of people helping people, but not many people to help the animals (she said this repeatedly). I tried to explain how untrue that was (and what came to mind was Hurricane Katrina), but I mentioned farm workers and she said there are always people to help people and the government could help the farm workers. I tried to explain many were undocumented….and just had to walk away. Sigh.

I was there for the non-human animals and this campaign is one I have been intimately involved with for two years, but I just couldn’t stand by and be complicit in these racist comments, so I left.

I am still sick to my stomach writing about it. And not because they were telling me that they cared more about non-human animals than human animals –I have been doing this long enough and unfortunately know how common this is.

Clearly, I should have started the conversation off better.

But did I do the right thing by speaking up?  I felt outrage and I would hope if I am not around people would defend me with the same passion as I have always done for non-human animals.

Would I have felt better now if I continued with an angry outburst of shock and incredulity?

Some of the irony of this is that these activists were trying to tell me (and the Black family) that we are “all the same,” and yet they said all of these racist things about Black people and how they were different.

You can’t have it both ways. It reinforces to me how problematic it is to say things like All Lives Matter (or those types of comments) and worse, what people really mean when they say this.

Halloween is by far my favorite “holiday,” and part of me wondered if I should have allowed myself to get so physically upset about this, but sometimes, you just can’t help it.

The best part? Other than seeing so many activists out for the animals and a beautifully put together event was the fact that a Black family with two kids walked by while all of this was going on. I handed them two leaflets, to which the Black little girl turned to me and said, “I agree.”

When I pointed that out to the two women, there was no response. But did I do right? I might have been better off trying to speak with that little girl more, but instead I wanted to prove my point.

I have continued to self-reflect about why such an incident caused me to cry even an hour after the interaction. Part of me wonders if it is because she was a Latina, or because this was at an animal rights event (having done animal rights since I was 17, I do consider animal rights activists “my family”), or because they felt comfortable defending their racist beliefs in person.

Mark and I spoke about it last night, and he said he sees these types of racist comments on social media. I am not on Facebook, so I guess I am spared, but I do know there are a number of animal rights groups that are indeed racist and promote this under the guise of “animals first.”

I realize it was probably a combination of all of these things as well as my overall feeling, Am I doing enough? Food Empowerment Project works on a number of issues impacting people of color to demand justice, but what do you do when racism is at the core?

Recently, I attended a vigil for the two-year anniversary of the killing of Andy Lopez (a 13-year-old boy who was killed by a cop in Santa Rosa for holding a toy gun), and a colleague of mine in the living wage campaign reminded me how prevalent white supremacy is. And I wondered, Am I doing enough?

When I think of all the excuses animal rights people use to treat each other with disrespect and at times act with cruelty – many excuse such behavior in the name of the animals – it reminds me of how some people use religion as a shield to hide bigotry. I can’t imagine the animals truly wanting us to be so cruel toward one another because, if nothing else, if we can’t live with solidarity among our own species, how can we save them?

Other similar blogs to link to:
http://appetiteforjustice.blogspot.com/2011/02/been-down-this-road-before.html

34 comments:

  1. As a black animal rights activist, I thank you for speaking up. Your outrage was justified. I too have seen terrible racism in the animal rights community, and have seen many black people in particular turn away from animal rights activism because of it. Facebook vegan and AR communities in particular have a lot of racist comments; I've been staying away from there for weeks because of it, so I don't blame you at all for not being on there.

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    1. Thank you so much for your support, it means a lot to me. And I am so sorry to hear how prevalent this is and I hope that together we can represent a better side of our movement.

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  2. As a white person who acknowledges my privilege and the white supremacy at the core of our society, I am so horrified by situations like this. I would urge you not to blame yourself for the way you handled things or get upset with yourself for having sincere compassion and crying for the oppression of other humans. Your feelings are completely justified and we all have to work against these stereotypes and self-serving attitudes. Well done!

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    1. Thanks so much Sarah! I appreciate your support.

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  3. You did nothing wrong. You engaged in Anti-Racist and anti speciesism simultaneously. I repeat, you did nothing wrong. Silence would have been wrong. The people you tried to speak to sound like they don't understand intersectionality not do they have any type of literacy around post civil rights Systemic racism at all. And they literally do not realize it at all.

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    1. As always your feedback and support is greatly appreciated. Thank you so much!

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    2. I was going to say something similar in that it sounded like you were being hard on yourself about not handling this situation differently or "better".

      A. From what you wrote here, I think you cited appropriately. The people you were challenging not responding in the way you would have liked doesn't change that.

      B. You need to do what you need to do to feel safe, and get out when it doesn't.

      C. Writing about it is brave and I appreciate that you did so. As a white animal rights activist, I am so grateful to anyone who shines light on these issues, but especially POC because I understand it's so upsetting and there's added vulnerability.

      D. You're a thoughtful, smart, sensitive, committed, tenacious person and you deserve a lot of credit for continuing to do this work despite all of it's challenges. I hope you are reminded of this regularly.

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    3. Thank you so much Dallas, I really appreciate your thoughtful response.

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  4. White vegan here, with more thanks for your speaking up. I'm really, really sorry you had to deal with such a painful situation. Hopefully it will have a lasting impact on the people you spoke with, even if they aren't able to take it in right now? I wish someone had said similar things to me early on in my own activism; it would have saved me a lot of time and it would probably have saved a lot of people from being offended / turned off by my privilege and ignorance.

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    1. Thank you so much for your feedback and I like think you are right and I have planted some seeds for them to think about - not just for the sake of the non-humans animals but humans too. And that's for your self-reflection. That is exactly what the movement needs for people to do!

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  5. Ah jeez Lauren, I'm so very sorry for your pain and upset...and regretful that humans advocating for our sister/brother Earthlings behaved in the way you described.

    I would second Breeze Harper's message that you did nothing wrong and also I commend you both for speaking up and for not wanting to be associated with the racist words of others.

    The U.S. is saturated with white supremacism and part of the potency of it is that it is not identified as such. I would suspect that neither of the two people who spoke so hurtfully see themselves as being racist.

    Thank you for writing about this and again...I'm sorry for your pain.

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    1. Thank you so much your kind words and support. I do believe you are right that they probably did not seem themselves that way. Thanks again.

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  6. Lauren, I'm a Black vegan and I thank you for speaking up! I've seen some ugly, racist comments by animal activists on Twitter and I don't understand. Veganism is about compassion--FOR ALL. In fact, if White vegans could understand and empathize with the plight of the non-dominant people in America, that could win more people over to the vegan cause. I think people who have been oppressed can understand the idea of inequality and oppression of animals, if it's framed and presented the right way (with compassion). I believe in speaking up in the face of injustice, so kudos to you for being a real activist--one who cares about all animals (human and others!). I hope you planted some seeds with those 2 women. And thank you again for being a voice against racism.

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    1. Thanks for your kind words and I totally agree with you. We want other people to empathize and I do think we could do more of that ourselves when it comes to human animals. Thanks again!

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  7. That piece needed to be written. I can only imagine how the family they spoke to felt - more reason to think of ar activists as a poorly informed group. You certainly informed those two activist. Your work, knowledge, and awareness help all involved. Thank you for being so amazing

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    1. Thank you so much Seba. Exactly. I wish that family knew what happened after they heard that. Thank YOU for being so amazing Seba!

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  8. It sounds like the injustice of their words combined with their refusal to accept what they were doing made you justifiably angry and frustrated. Well done to you for stepping forward and saying what you said. As for the wider question, "am I doing enough" I do think intersection ally-aware groups like FEP are a very effective way of challenging white supremacy: not everyone can be on the front lines of every struggle, but by helping people make better choices it takes away some of the pillars of this pernicious, systematic horror.

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    1. Kirsten thank you for your support and for definitely understanding where I was coming from. And I appreciate your answer to my question. It is tough. Thanks again woman! :)

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  9. This is my first time i visit here. I found so many interesting stuff in your blog especially its discussion. From the tons of comments on your articles, I guess I am not the only one having all the enjoyment here! keep up the good work
    recipes

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    1. Thank you Rami for your support and I am so glad you found us!

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  10. Thank you lauren! This recently happened to me too, and in some ways, I fear I might have pushed them farther away from anti-racism work in an effort to defend how they were feeling. I couldn't stop thinking about it for weeks. I'm still thinking about it. They are emotionally exhausting conversations that I want to run from, honestly, but I feel that is the best way to use the white privilege I was born into. I'll keep trying. You are are an inspiration! In the Seattle area NARN is trying to incorporate anti-racism (and feminism, etc.) into animal advocacy meetings, which I hope will help. They are also doing more solidarity work - like organizing AR and vegan groups to go to Black Lives Matter marches and doing joint demos against Chick-a-File against its homophobic owner AND animal exploitation. But there is so much work to do. I think sharing articles for people to read on their own time (vs being confronted) might help. In my opinion, you are doing more than your fair share. :)

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    1. Thanks for your support Anika and all that you do!

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  11. lauren, please don't fault yourself for not making those people see their racism. What you did was courageous and you did the right thing by leaving. That's hard, but you had to leave them with the seeds that you planted. Racism is so ingrained in us, even when we think it's not. White privilege has a nasty side that we don't always see. You're such an inspiration!

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  12. Lauren - I'm going to have to disagree with you on this one. Basic AR philosophy is that WE ARE ALL THE SAME. We are all earthlings who suffer the same. The man who laughed was probably laughing at the notion that we and non-human animals are the same. This is the same indifference that I spent every day educating about and fighting against.

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    1. When you write 'basic AR philosophy', are you drawing from the canon produced by European white men who never had to think about racism, white supremacy, sexism, colonialism, etc when developing their philosophies about non-human animals yet claimed to be 'objective'?




      If we are talking about the Eurocentric white framing of 'basic AR philosophy'....then, to defer to such 'basics' without mentioning how it didn't come out of a 'vacuum', and was heavily influenced by taken for granted, "Isn't everyone in the same social, political, and historical positions" as Eurocentric cisgender white men (and later white cisgender women), is problematic. This historical framing of AR Philosophy is never mentioned in the mainstream AR spaces. It's the white elephant in the room. Philosophy (and in the USA, they almost always mean European, and not African or Asian 'philosophies', because systemic racism has made these contributions invisible), like any system of thought, comes out of embodied knowledge. Here, in the USA at least, embodiment is racialized and consciousness is racialized because for the last 500 years, we have all been part of a racial caste system. It is highly likely that THAT is what the Black man going to the park was laughing at; laughing at the clear lack of racial literacy that the women holding those signs had-- especially systemic anti-Black racism we're all seeing in the news since Trayvon Martin and Black Lives Matter. There are plenty of us POC activists who are ahimsa-based vegans and laugh-- not because we don't believe that non-human animals suffer, but because of the erasure of CURRENT systemic racism and systemic white supremacy when "All Lives Matter" or "We are all the same" are invoked.

      My two cents but I also wrote a dissertation about how racialized embodiment creates differing vegan philosophies and drew from both critical animal studies and critical race feminist studies; and actively exist in white 'post-racial' communities and 'anti-racist' communities (vegan and beyond) to understand the core differences that being racialized as 'white' or 'non-white' have produced (collectively).

      "We are all the same" erases the specificity of systemic oppressions. Yes, we all suffer and have pain, but it is specific and unique. Engaging in both critical race, critical animal, critical disability, critical gender, critical decolonial, etc framings helps to understand that specificity and more appropriately dismantle both speciesism, as well as 'isms' faced by marginalized human groups.

      Thanks for engaging.

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  13. Hi, Deniz,

    Thank you for your feedback.

    I got into animal rights when I was fairly young so I didn’t prescribe to any type of philosophy, but I also did not get into animal rights because we are all the same and therefore I wanted to protect "them." I got into animal rights because I found an injustice that I did not want to be a part of and that I wanted to stop (also fighting every day since 1987). I got into it because I know that animals feel pain – physical, emotional, and psychological pain – and for someone like me that includes human animals (and I wanted to stop that injustice that is imposed upon them because of humans.)

    I believe we all suffer in similar ways, but I do not believe we are the same. Nor do I believe that as a Chicana I have had the same experiences that you have had, nor do I believe I have had the same experiences as that Black man. Looking at how we treat others in our society, in the past and unfortunately still today, people of color are often treated differently and unjustly compared to others; therefore, I protest the injustices I see and choose not to be a part of – I don't try to tell others we are all the "same," because in my view, we are not.

    My blog, however, is really about our response as activists – not his.

    Here are some blogs you might find useful:
    http://www.sistahvegan.com/2015/11/11/getting-real-about-race-a-toolkit-for-ethical-consumption-veganism-animal-rights-and-more/

    http://www.sistahvegan.com/2015/07/23/must-i-be-killed-by-a-racist-cop-while-traveling-to-a-vegan-event-for-you-to-finally-get-it/

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  14. Look forward to seeing you both at the next leafleting! Cheers.

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    1. Absolutely! We have a protest on Saturday at the local slaughterhouse. We are out there once a month. If you want to join us - just send me an email. Thanks!

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  15. Hi lauren,

    I was directed to your post here from a FB post re race and sexism in some AR organizations.

    I've reread your narrative a couple of times. It does seem that the woman who generalized about the opinions of Blacks was speaking from a racist perspective, whether she recognized it or not. But I don't understand your strong reaction. I apologize for my insensitivity. You describe the event that led to your pain:

    "As a Black family walked past us toward the park’s entrance, I heard (but did not see) one of my fellow activists make a comment to them. Someone from the family replied, “We are just a Black family trying to enjoy ourselves.” Although I did not hear what the family said first, I did hear part of what the activists said in response: “It doesn’t matter; we are all the same” and “We are all Earthlings; we are no different.”

    You explain later in answer to one of the comments to your post that, "I believe we all suffer in similar ways, but I do not believe we are the same."

    I certainly agree that we are not all identical; I wish I could fly and breathe in water. But when the activists I know say that we are all the same, when I say that, it means that as you observe, "we all suffer in similar ways."

    I don't understand your seeming aversion to using the shorthand: we are all the same. In ways that seem to carry with them important ethical implications, we are all the same, I think. If I thought our suffering was different enough that the term did not apply to all sentient beings, I might still eat animals.

    Admittedly, I'm a white male, maybe this means I am particularly shielded from the realities confronting minorities and women and thus just can't see what is squarely in front of me. Even if this is so, I don't believe it means that I ought not refer to the injustice that has been heaped upon people of those other groups in my advocacy for animals (the Jewish ADL has been angered by the parallelisms I've drawn) because it seems very on-point to me. I take it from your post that you may see the differences between human groups, the differences in their cultural histories, as reasons not to point to our similarities and capacities for suffering in our animal advocacy. Maybe I am misinterpreting your words.

    Anyway, I don't understand why you were so upset. I understand that you were, and am sorry that you felt so bad.

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    1. Hi, Rick,

      Thanks for this. To me, it difficult to compare and quantify suffering. Each is unique to each individual.

      In terms of why I was so upset, think about being at a demo where a person belittles the suffering of non-human animals - for me, this can make me very angry and upset to the point that it makes me cry because they don't understand or empathize with the pain non-human animals endure - and to me this was the same feeling.

      I am happy to discuss any/all of this over email.

      Thanks.

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    2. Lauren, you should not have to explain the negative impact "we are all the same" or "all lives matters" has to the plethora of white people who keep on contacting you about it. A Google search of "Why all lives matter is problematic", along with searches for the recent articles about "white fragility" can offset the added burden you have as a WOC who has to constantly explain this to mostly white people who approach you. They often admit they know nothing about being non-white or the deep history of our (non-white) collective struggle , etc (because racial privilege means you never have to become a real ally or pick up some literature about systemic racism). Though not intentional, I think most white people may not even know that that is what they are doing. As a cisgender Black woman, I would never write a transgender woman that I don't understand her suffering in a systemically transphobic society and then say, "Well, I am coming from the perspective of a cisgender woman." Why would I DO THAT instead of Googling to educate myself about my collusion into cissexism by simply being ignorant about it? Also, This is beyond "feeling bad". It's not just about "upsetting Lauren" or any marginalized group. I don't think most white people realize that 'hurt feelings' is not the worst thing-- but with white fragility, white people think that 'hurt feelings' is the worst. It's more than that.

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    3. Thank you so much Breeze. I always appreciate you helping me to feel okay in my own skin when it is questioned by others. And of course, you are so on point.

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