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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?

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