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White Privilege in the Animal Rights Movement
If animal liberation is to succeed, the movement must address the concerns of oppressed humans as well as non-humans. Human oppression cannot be co-opted or ignored, and it certainly cannot be pushed aside within a movement that is supposed to be based on compassion and care for all animals.
White Privilege in the Animal Rights Movement
Disclaimer: I am writing this piece from the perspective of a white female settler within the animal rights movement. When I refer to the settler population, I am also including myself in those critiques. These ramblings are not an attack on the white settler population, but on the system which allows the continued dominance of one race over all others and how that dominance can be portrayed in invisible and seemingly insignificant ways. Race is a real world phenomenon with real life effects and failing to perceive or acknowledge it allows for its continuance with little to no interference.
*In this article, the term “settler” is used to refer to predominately white Europeans who were a part of the first contact made with indigenous groups. “Colonialism” is used to refer to the continued expanding of the European settler empire and its oppression and exploitation of indigenous populations.
Racism and colonialism are becoming a greater topic of discussion – which is a positive sign for the activist community – however these topics are often depicted as overt, in-your-face forms of oppression. We think of slavery, segregation, or residential schools. Referring to the more obvious forms of oppression while not including the more discrete forms (such as lack of access to resources, poor education systems, or higher rates of unemployment) has allowed two things to happen within the white population. First; it allows us to believe that racism is over and that we are living in a post-colonial time period and second; it allows us to believe that as long as we don’t advocate for slavery or segregation – we aren’t perpetuating an oppressive ideology. Lately, I have been unable to ignore the presence of this ideology within the animal rights community where other forms of oppression are deemed as being “over” and that our attention should solely focus on non-human populations.
Racism and colonialism are both far from over – they have simply become more embedded into the system and attempt to be more discrete. Instead of physical segregation, we see ghettoes or reserves which are denied the same access to resources. Instead of slavery, we see poor educational systems, unequal access to basic necessities such as food and clean water, a higher rate of unemployment, higher rates of incarceration, and higher rates of mental illness. White settlers have the privilege of ignoring these systemic methods of oppression as we do not often experience them ourselves. Subsequently, we also have the privilege to believe that racism and colonialism are issues that affect others and not ourselves. In fact, as a white person even acknowledging that one has a race at all is uncommon. We do not think of ourselves as “white people”, we think of ourselves as “people” – thereby normalizing the white race and only racializing those who do not fall within those guidelines.
This is a dangerous ideology and more often than not leads to continued oppression of non-white individuals – intentional or not. As a mentor once told me – “we are all treaty people”. After first contact, both settlers and indigenous peoples partook in treaty signing and although we have a long history of not sticking to those treaties or even making fair treaties to begin with, we cannot disinclude ourselves from those actions or deny the privileges we have gained because of them. Even if a person was to shun racist actions – that does not change the fact that systemically, the settler government benefits from a power imbalance. It runs deeper than racist taunts or slurs and is represented in the fact that white settlers are hardly – if ever – removed from their homes so corporations can conduct more logging or resource extraction.
We do not often think of our privileges as white people due to the fact that European settler ideology has been both normalized and portrayed as the dominant viewpoint (aka eurocentrism or white supremacy). White supremacy is a loaded term which often triggers mental images of the KKK or other violent white pride groups but modern white supremacy is a lot more discrete. It can be seen in marketing (where white individuals are more commonly represented in movies, commercials and other forms of pop culture), in economics where Europeans are predominately in control of the world’s banking systems and pharmaceutical companies, and politics where we control the world’s most powerful militaries and hold the vast majority of the positions of power on Turtle Island (aka “North America). The perspective that these situations are all normal are taught to us from the time we are born – usually through mass media, biased news reports, and stereotypical cultural aspects (western movies where indigenous peoples are depicted as savage and dangerous is a prime example of this). This is not to say that modern European settlers are malicious or do harm simply for the sake of it – but we do have a stake in the continued dominance. Colonization continues because it is still of economic benefit to settler governments and corporations. Our main stream media ignores land struggles as well as the damage done to indigenous communities and land due to natural resource extraction, logging, fracking, and development. These actions continue because they bring in money and (pretty successful) attempts are made to normalize settler dominance so we can continue receiving those benefits.
Imprinted on the consciousness of every white child at birth, reinforced by the culture, white supremacist thinking tends to function unconsciously. That is the primary reason it is so difficulty to challenge and change – bell hooks
Whether we are aware of it or not (and as bell hooks mentions, most times we are not since it is normalized at such as young age) race plays a large role in our daily lives. And yes, we are viewed differently and given more opportunities because of our white skin. For example, having a white sounding name on a resume can determine a higher chance of a call back for a job in comparison to traditionally black, Latino, indigenous, Asian, or middle eastern sounding names. It can mean not being subjected to random searches or stops by police, not being followed when walking into stores, not intimidating individuals when you walk past them on the street, not facing extensive aggression at the hands of the police and judicial systems, and not being forced out of our communities so the economic system can continue to thrive.
Personally, I acknowledge that I am a very privileged individual. I have young, white, and able-bodied. I grew up near the poverty line – but I have enough food, can afford my rent each month, and have the privilege of attending university. I have also been lucky enough to be born on Turtle Island. Not that it is without its issues – especially under the reign of Stephen Harper, but being a gay female I am aware that my life could be much harder in other parts of the world. I recognize my privilege, but I do not claim to fully understand the consequences of it or what to do about it. That, however, is exactly why conversations around this topic are so vital. Especially when working in an activist field that is predominantly white and often comes off as oppressive towards already exploited individuals.
The Animal “Whites” Movement
Since my introduction to activism – I have predominantly organized within the animal rights (AR) community. Through my experience I could not help but notice that the oppression of non-human animals is often placed ahead of the oppression of human animals. This is troublesome since the vast majority of individuals within the AR movement are white European settlers. A common ideology is that if we can grow the AR community (and specifically the vegan community) that there will eventually be a vegan revolution and animal captivity and abuse will no longer be an issue. However, the problem is that both the AR community and a vegan diet are inherently exclusionary and do little to counteract the barriers that many communities face or to acknowledge the oppression and exploitation of human animals (such as migrant workers in the factory farming and slaughterhouse industries).
As settlers, many of us have access to healthy food within walking distance. Much of which caters (to some extent) to a vegan diet. Of course this isn’t true for everyone – but speaking generally, the settler population has much better access to affordable food and live in areas where there are healthy options. However this is not the experience for many indigenous, black and Latino communities across Turtle Island. Due to the fact that it is not part of our experience, we are able to ignore the situations of others. Taking for granted that healthy food is always accessible. We then mirror our experience on the whole of society – thinking that how we experience the world is how everyone else experiences the world. This perpetuates oppression further as not only does it not address the systemic issues many individuals face, but it also ignores the fact that it was settlers and white dominance that caused the lack of resources for other communities in the first place.
In a local context, this can be seen with the protests of the indigenous Short Hills Deer hunts in Southern Ontario. Protestors of the hunts portray themselves as peaceful and non-violent although aggressive tactics have been used. Settler hunters have also been known to hunt in the area and leave the carcasses of the slaughtered deer strewn about in protest. These images have been used by protestors to argue against the traditional hunts – despite the fact that they were committed by settler hunters. As an animal liberationist, I am also saddened by the death of the deer – but there are some highly complex issues with taking a position of aggressively protesting a small scale indigenous hunt.
The Right to Autonomy
An important thing to remember is that through a long history of colonization, of pushing indigenous peoples off their land and attempted assimilation, European settlers have destroyed indigenous abilities to have food sovereignty. The localized community of the Haudenosaunee of the Grand River have an extended history of growing the Three Sisters (corn, beans and squash). Through the loss of their land, they can no longer grow these plants to the same extent that they used to. This is why adding hunting rights into treaties was important, because communities were already is a state of crisis when it came to being able to provide food for themselves. Settlers created the scarcity and then have come back to target communities which still depend on animal use after we have already cleared out their other options. The common solution here is often to combat with the argument of grocery stores, but this is problematic as well. Food resources on reserves can be limited, of poor quality, priced higher or may not include traditional foods of the community. Also – modern settler methods of food production and consumption (industrial methods supplying large chain stores) does nothing to secure a peoples sovereignty. Which should be the aim as this is what indigenous peoples have been asking for since first contact on Turtle Island. Methods which perpetuate assimilation by forcing our European traditions of food distribution on already struggling communities does nothing but strengthen current power structures. If we simply focus on the deer hunts and view them as the issue – we are missing an entire history of colonization and oppression. The deer hunts are a method to maintain sovereignty and autonomy and are a side effect of the issue – not the issue itself.
Another concept to consider is the European tradition of animal agriculture. Cows, pigs and chickens (which are currently the largest farmed animal populations) are not native to Turtle Island and did not exist here until Europeans introduced them 300-400 years ago. Their introduction played a huge role in the oppression of indigenous populations and still does to this day. The expansion of the animal farming industry created a situation where Europeans needed even more land to satisfy the need for increasing amounts of animal products. In the “United States” – 11 times more land is given to grazing farm animals than is recognized reservation land. In “Canada” – 7.5 million acres is recognized as reservation land and 50 million acres is used for animal grazing. This does not even account for the amount of land used to house, feed, water and process the mass amount of animals slaughtered each and every day. The animal agriculture system is built on the clearing of traditional indigenous lands – and continues to do so as the industrial farming method took over after WW2 (introducing factory style farms and larger slaughterhouses). The harsh reality is we as white settlers have no right to go into indigenous communities and act as if animal liberation is an issue that regards everyone when a single slaughterhouse can kill up to 2-3 thousands animals a day. Hardly comparable to the 3-5 deer who die annually during the Short Hills hunts. When we ignore our own mess, we have no legitimacy to point out animal use in indigenous communities.
The same ideology can be seen during the Makah Whale hunt of the mid 90s – a similar conflict that resulted in the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (an activist group focusing on marine animals) losing some of its prominent indigenous supporters . The group targeted the Makah community located on the coast of Alaska – using aggressive tactics and racist taunts during their protests (all accessible within the “Confessions of an Eco Terrorist” documentary following the groups actions).
Just because certain communities continue to eat meat does not make them the enemy. Indigenous communities were pushed into an increased use of animal products due to being forced onto reserves and experiencing the loss of their land as highways, factory farms, and developments ate up much of the prime farmland. We argue that other cultures should be more like us and eat out of conventional grocery stores, even though this would mean a higher amount of environmental destruction and the death of even more animal species. Although it may be difficult to accept – the animal liberation movement should focus on the systems and structures which make animal use profitable (and to focus specifically on those who stand to make a profit) – not on the small scale hunts which result in the death of half a dozen animals. A simple repackaging of colonization by demanding all cultures to live as we do and eat a particular diet – even if a vegan diet is not available to them due to our own oppression of their people and land – is nothing short of fascism. In the case of Short Hills – if advocates wish to see an end to the deer hunts –the most productive way would be to shift the focus on standing in solidarity with the Haudenosaunee. To call for a return of their lands which would provide them with the resources, capacity and autonomy needed to return and rebuild their agricultural industry. We can no longer support the inability to cede autonomy back to those resisting oppression and food insecurity. As white people, we will never fully be able to understand the experience of other races. We cannot pretend to know what is best or claim that we have a simple “one size fits all” approach to animal liberation. But we can stand in solidarity and recognize that sometimes different forms of oppression are more closely related than we previously thought.
So what can be done? On an individual level, reflecting on the fact that we benefit from having white settler ancestry is the first step. This opens up the pathway to things such as noticing when you receive those benefits and when others don’t (for example; how a person’s race is left unsaid if they are white but mentioned otherwise). Then, as activists, we should work to dispel myths about the root cause of animal oppression and who benefit from it the most. We also need to recognize when it is our time to step back and take leadership from those who are most impacted. Just as it is problematic for an entirely white activist group to protest a local indigenous hunt, it is also problematic to show up at a Black Lives Matter protest with a “one race one struggle” sign. This turns the conversation back to whiteness – no longer keeping the attention on the root issue. As white people we cannot understand the black struggle. We never will. And that is fundamentally part of the problem. So we cannot claim that we are a part of that struggle or argue that “white lives matter too”. Doing so distracts from the issue. Sometimes the most appropriate form of activism is to step back and lower our voices so that those who have had theirs silenced for too long can finally be heard.
We cannot get rid of our privilege. It is not something we ask for but instead something that is given to us from birth. We can, however, acknowledge it and attempt to use it to the benefit of the less privileged around us. For example; police are less likely to harass and arrest white individuals during rallys and protests. We can act as allys by putting ourselves between vulnerable populations and police lines. We can also point out issues in the behaviour of other white individuals when we see it take place. Other privileged individuals are more likely to take constructive criticism from someone in their own position than from individuals in different positions. As friends and comrades, we have to be prepared to both face our privilege and to draw attention to the privilege of others. Animal rights is dominated by white settler individuals – but we do not have to be exclusive, intimidating or oppressive. We must recognize the systemic exploitation of indigenous populations as well as other populations such as migrant workers on factory farms and slaughterhouses who are threatened with deportation if they leave their jobs. If animal liberation is to succeed, the movement must address the concerns of oppressed humans as well as non-humans. Human oppression cannot be co-opted or ignored, and it certainly cannot be pushed aside within a movement that is supposed to be based on compassion and care for all animals. Humans are part of the animal kingdom as well – and when we do not extend the same amount of care and passion for people as we do for non-human animals our cause is incomplete. We are not talking about individual forms of racism here, but systemic methods of exploitation and oppression which have been in place for generations and have become so normalized it can be difficult to even recognize their existence unless one is part of an oppressed group. The ultimate goal of liberation cannot be reached unless an intersectional and diverse method of understanding is applied – taking into consideration all other areas of oppression and how they overlap. Any oppressed voice, vegan or non-vegan, must be heard and respected.
**The use of Turtle Island (as opposed to “North America”) is a sign of respect and honour for the territory I am on. I recognize it is not my own term and do not claim to have a shared experience with the indigenous peoples of this land.
Animal Whites Movement – http://funcrunch.org/blog/2015/07/14/white-vegans-need-to-check-their-privileges/
Dylan Powell: animal advocacy or assimilation – http://dylanxpowell.com/2013/11/26/animal-advocacy-or-assimilation/
Undoing Privilege – Bob Pease
Discussion on Short Hills hunts and Settler Colonialism (Dylan Powell and Amanda Lickers) – https://vimeo.com/132293327
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KOSo_LHZeTw (confessions of an eco terrorist)
Writing Beyond Race – bell hooks
Animal Liberation Press Office