“I’m from the airport!”
This was my light-hearted response as a child whenever a stranger asked me where I was from. After all, as far as I could remember, that’s where my life started. It was a common question posed by many as I jauntily moved through life as a young girl with hair and eyes the color of obsidian, alongside my brown-haired and brown-eyed family.
Often, I’d ask my mom to tell me again the story of how, when I was just ten-months old, I came to live with my family. She’d reminisce back to when she, my father, brother, sister, Pop Pop, and MiMi traveled to Newark airport to meet me for the first time, and we’d laugh about how the first thing they tried to feed me was rice, but I much preferred French fries. Any time my older brother and sister teased me to tears (as older siblings do), my mom would sing a silly song telling me how I came all the way from South Korea to live with my family, who loved me so, and it always made me smile from ear to ear.
These stories and songs never got old because they painted a vibrant picture of the start of my life in America, and I never longed for more. Hearing them made me dreamy-eyed and filled me with love and contentment.
In other efforts to teach me about being adopted from Korea, my parents shared a book with me called Chinese Eyes. The book tells the story of a young Korean girl named Becky who is teased and referred to as “Chinese Eyes” by a classmate, leaving her feeling upset and confused about her self-identity. Ultimately, Becky’s mother reassures her by speaking about her beauty and origins, encouraging her to feel proud of her “Chinese eyes.”
Throughout my youth and well into my young adult years, I spoke openly about being adopted and felt proud of not having any self-identity issues. No one ever called me “Chinese Eyes”—at least, not to my face. I had many friends, and everyone in my white, upper-middle-class town knew that I, along with another Korean girl, was adopted. It didn’t really bother me when students at recess asked me, on more than one occasion, if we were sisters. In school, I didn’t think twice when people commented on how good at math I was—I was in honors math, after all, and was a high academic achiever. When strangers greeted me in Mandarin while walking down the street, I’d simply smile politely and continue walking.
I’ve always embraced my adoptive family as my one-and-only family and often joked that, like them, I was Italian. In college, I laughed along with my friends when they called me a “twinkie” or “banana,” and honestly, the sentiment of being “white” on the inside resonated with me. I would tell others that I was more American than my family members, conflating whiteness with being American—because American history, media, books, beauty, and success had always reflected back the stories and faces of white people for as long as I could remember. And, as shocking as it sounds, throughout my youth, I’d often look in the mirror and question if I even looked Asian at all.
Understanding the bottom line
Unphased by these early experiences, I felt like a well-adjusted individual and was able to focus my ambition and passion elsewhere. While I was in high school, I was struck by a campaign ad showing the juxtaposition of a cow and a dog called “Meet Your Meat.” Having grown up in a house full of animals, I hadn’t previously considered why we love some animals and eat others. I immediately went vegetarian, though I flip-flopped for many years, contributing to the well-researched statistics on vegetarian recidivism. It wasn’t until adulthood that I revisited these ethics and decided to face my cognitive dissonance once again. I began volunteering for the cause, and my first assignment was to go out leafleting in the subways of New York. Thanks to my competitive nature, I loved it.
It wasn’t long before I fully reconnected with the urgency of animal suffering and sought out full-time employment in the animal protection movement—a privilege that many other people of the global majority (those who identify as Black, Brown, Indigenous, Asian, or Pacific Islander, and those who are mixed) often cannot afford, or are not afforded. I was wide-eyed and eager to learn how to help farmed animals, and one of the earliest principles I learned was we must act on the most effective ways to help the greatest number of animals possible. The bottom-line for our movement was a six-letter word: i-m-p-a-c-t.
Of course! It made so much sense. And each time I listened to the speeches and arguments of many prominent movement and organization leaders, who were primarily white men, I walked away feeling great clarity and resolve. Although there were various groups approaching the issue of factory farming from different angles, I learned this way was the best or “right way” to eliminate industrial animal agriculture and spare the lives of countless animals. I understood that the movement needed to focus on numbers, a targeted demographic, and animals (not people).
Success was handing out the highest number of leaflets, amassing the greatest number of views on videos depicting animal cruelty, and growing the size of supporter lists. The higher the number, the higher the odds for change.
Success was prioritizing affluence in donation appeals, appealing to an audience of educated white women who were most likely to go vegan, and conducting outreach to students at prestigious universities who would make up the upper echelons of society in the future. The greater the influence and likelihood of engaging in our work, the better the target.
Success was focusing on the needs of animals above all. Reducing overhead costs meant more money for advocacy programs, and every dollar was equal to one animal’s life being spared. Personal sacrifice paled in comparison to the suffering of animals. Responding to significant national movements taking center stage in society or speaking to related areas of work like diversity, equity, and inclusion, environmental racism, and food justice would stray too far from our mission.
What I learned in these early days of my advocacy, while I was hungry to learn from such well-known and leading activists, shaped my understanding of effective animal advocacy. We could not spare resources to veer from our mission-driven work or we would risk helping fewer animals. Every action, every dollar, every impression needed to have a direct line to a measurable outcome of animals’ lives spared.
A racial awakening
I felt good about the work I was doing—for the first time, I was doing my part to help animals, and helping others do the same. Under the pressure of urgency, I didn’t stop to reflect on how my collective personal and professional experiences now influenced my evolving worldview.
After I had worked in the movement for a few years at a prominent animal organization, a staff writer asked me if she could feature me in a blog. I was excited for the opportunity to contribute, but when she told me the topic, it gave me pause. She was writing a blog called “Here are 15 POC Activists You Need to Follow.”
“POC activists?” I wondered. “Am I a person of color?”
Until this point, and I am embarrassed to say, I had not really considered if I, someone of Asian descent, was a person of color. I certainly didn’t identify as white outright, but I was obviously “closer” to being white than Black, right? And while I knew that the term “POC” or person of color was broader than just including Black people, I thought it also referred to more marginalized communities, and Asians surely were much more privileged than other minoritized peoples, right?
These questions led to an exploration of my own identity as a person of color, or a person of the global majority. Indeed, Asians are people of color and Asian communities are also often marginalized. In my reflection, reading, and research, I discovered that I was not alone in asking these questions. People from all corners of the internet, both Asian and non-Asian, shared similar musings about racial identity—especially when it came to Asians, who are seen as well-integrated and accepted in American society.
But, what brought us all here? Why did so many of us need to turn to Google to figure out what we should have inherently known?
I began to realize, and am still unearthing this realization, that after years of experiencing and inadvertently reinforcing microaggressions, the “model minority” myth (which is a term that’s a microaggression in-and-of-itself), and my own internalized racism, I had been subconsciously following a path toward white-centric assimilation. I now recognize that I was, in fact, confused about my identity because I have been immersed in a white-dominated culture—or, more directly, white supremacy culture—my entire life.
In understanding more about my lived experiences and how they influenced my perspective on life and activism, I have begun to ask more questions about the animal advocacy work I am doing as well. As activists and organizations are beginning to question and recognize the dire need for greater diversity within the animal protection movement, I’m reevaluating my learned approach to effective advocacy.
What I failed to see in my early days of activism was how the ideals of effective advocacy I was trained on were shaped by this same white supremacy culture. We listened to white movement leaders to learn the best ways to secure funding from white philanthropists so we could engage our white supporter base to conduct outreach to the white masses because data from white researchers indicated this would be the most effective advocacy for farmed animals.
Understanding white supremacy culture
The term “white supremacy” can be jarring for many, and when we think of this term, images of hate crimes, racial slurs, and extremists may come to mind. But what I am referring to here is centered on our culture. My colleagues, while hosting a racial equity training, explained the concept of white supremacy culture, using definitions from Dismantling Racism Works, a consulting group that offers a collection of resources for antiracist organizational development:
Culture refers to the knowledge, experience, beliefs, values, attitudes, meanings, hierarchies, and material objects and possessions shared by a group of people. Culture is how we experience the world, shaping what has value and meaning. Here, we’re understanding culture as a set of beliefs and values that create and are reflected in dominant social structures. When we talk about white supremacy culture, we’re pointing to a particular set of dominant values—values that are often so ingrained that they become invisible. These values are so prominent that they are often taken for granted and appear as what is neutral, universally best, most desirable, or most effective. This is precisely because they have created the very standards that we use in our judgments.
Culture is as omnipresent, yet invisible, as the air we breathe. It informs our philosophies, worldviews, and values. Its influence is why today, we view scientific knowledge as superior to all other knowledge. We worship the written word and writing ability over other forms of communication and information-sharing. We place productivity and progress above well-being and creativity. We focus on individual gains, needing to be “right” and maintain our positions of power, rather than truly sharing accountability and credit. And, when our decisions or perspectives are questioned, we feel we are personally being questioned—we react with defensiveness, seeking to avoid conflict and discomfort, and to eliminate threats to our power.
In better understanding white supremacy culture, it’s clear how white-led, white-majority animal advocacy organizations have long upheld white supremacy through the tactics and strategies centered around these pervasive values and belief-systems, especially the hoarding and preservation of power, within a racist paradigm.
This understanding has felt much like a profound revelation that has been right in front of me this whole time, but I couldn’t see it until now—until I began to peel away the layers of my distorted sense of self and the world I live in. But this realization is only the starting point of challenging a racist paradigm. It highlights the depth of the challenge we face today in creating a truly diverse and equitable movement, one where our work is centered on effective advocacy that, yes, is informed by research and potential impact, but without the influence of these seemingly inconspicuous characteristics of white supremacy culture, and without upholding structural racism.
The roots of racism run deep
It was white supremacy culture that allowed the violent and deadly siege of the US Capitol by far-right fascist mobs during the 2020 election certification on January 6, 2021. The consequences for rioters were negligible compared to the militarized response and attack of peaceful protesters at Black Lives Matter demonstrations, months prior. The storming of our citadel of democracy made it even more clear that racism and white supremacy continue to surge through the veins of our country as they have for its entire history. The importance and urgency of dismantling racism at all levels—ideological, institutional, interpersonal, and internalized—to protect our democracy and its citizens now reverberates in conversations across the nation. But, while many are crying out for change, who is willing to change? Who is willing to lead change?
While these acts of violence illustrate the depravity of overt white supremacy, which many deem socially unacceptable, we must acknowledge that our society, including the animal protection movement, continues to be plagued by covert white supremacy, which includes taking a “color blind” approach to race issues, allowing socially acceptable forms of racism and discrimination, including the white-centric approaches to effective advocacy I described above, to persist.
Now, more than ever, we must recognize that it is within our power, as individuals, and as a collective movement, to call for, create, and lead the change we need to see—much like we have done when it comes to protecting animals. We must identify the ways in which systemic racism pervades our movement in how we approach our work, who makes up our movement (and how we define our movement), who we are reaching, and who is being impacted by our progress.
Where the work begins
For many of us, the work of racial equity in animal advocacy is only just beginning. The years of my life spent living with a false sense of whiteness means that I am often scared of “getting it wrong” and view much of the work I have to do in the same way a white person might. But, I also understand that I am a product of my environment and while in many ways I’ve felt tied to whiteness, I have been subjected to racism and have harbored deep internalized racism at my core. These are not experiences that white people share.
The work and progress I need to make are twofold—I understand that to effectively help animals, it’s critical to invest in doing intensive antiracist work at both a personal and professional level. And while this may seem obvious, it can be really difficult to look inward and recognize our own shortcomings, especially when it means asking ourselves how we individually have perpetuated and upheld structural racism, or even uncovering how our worldview has been warped by these systems.
On a personal level, I feel insecurities abound about advocating in this space as I discover what my role must be in creating real racial equity within (and beyond) the animal protection movement. But, I’m continuing to understand my racial identity and am challenging myself to find my voice—and use it—even if I fumble my way through.
To support activists of all racial groups, we must cultivate spaces for individuals to reckon with our racial identities, understand the responsibility we each hold, and take actionable steps to combat white supremacy culture in our movement and in society. For me, having access to safer spaces, like Encompass’ Global Majority Caucus, has allowed me to begin some of this work, first by cultivating connections with people of the global majority to pursue self-discovery, learning, and empowerment.
Leaders of the global majority need to be the majority in prominent leadership roles, and those already in leadership must be recognized more than they have been in the past. For too long, we’ve clung to the narrow and deficient words and strategies of the charismatic white leaders of the professionalized animal protection movement, who did not represent the people suffering from the extremes of oppression, including those suffering within the very same systems that exploit animals. We need leaders and mentors of the global majority who understand these experiences, and this means taking intentional steps toward a broader, more diverse movement and amplifying the work and opportunities for people of the global majority.
The price of silence
On a professional level, I see the work of our movement evolving to center racial justice in the work we do for animals. But I also see, firsthand through my work, that as groups begin speaking out and committing to antiracism, there is extreme backlash from the same supporters we sought out, nurtured, and catered to for many years.
The social media pages of white-led animal protection groups who now resolutely speak out against racism and racial oppression are flooded with seething and virulent responses:
“Please don’t do this… Don’t let human rights triumph over animal rights once again.”
“How the hell is our food system built on racism?? Give me a break.”
“Omg this is all about animals PLEASE keep it that way; IT always was.”
It’s obvious that there is no one else responsible for this but ourselves. Historically, our approaches, organizations, and the overall white-led movement have not made diversity, equity, and inclusion core tenets of our work fighting against systems of oppression. These responses illustrate a dire need for reflection and education on how systems of oppression are intertwined, similarly to how these same animal activists highlight the pressing need for public education about animal oppression. We must not grant the “right to comfort” to a supporter base unwilling to reckon with how racism and white supremacy appear in our advocacy.
If we cannot even speak out about the interconnections among all forms of oppression, will our society ever be ready to end animal oppression? If we refuse to acknowledge that industrialized animal agriculture claims many victims, including animals, marginalized peoples, and our planet, will we ever be able to bring others into this movement?
Forging a new path
We, as a movement, will not succeed in our mission if diversity, equity, and inclusion do not underpin and reinforce every aspect of our advocacy work.
We must work together, as individuals and a collective movement, to break down these barriers and not only face racism and white supremacy head-on but elevate the voices and invest in the work of the people of the global majority. Directing resources toward creating a foundation of racial equity and inclusion will ultimately equate to more animal lives spared. Only then can we truly help, not only the countless animals suffering at the hands of Big Ag but the marginalized communities and people who are most affected by this industry as well.
It’s taken me longer than I would have liked to really grasp how my life and advocacy have been shaped by a culture of white supremacy. In looking back at my upbringing and past experiences, I wouldn’t change anything. Much like Becky in Chinese Eyes, and contrary to what I believed for many years, I am unfurling and discovering the nuances and hidden corners of my identity. But, I know this is the work I need to do to gain a better understanding of myself and how to help bring about more diversity, equity, and inclusion in our movement. And it’s not only for our people, but for the animals.
Shayna is the organizing manager for the U.S. for Mercy For Animals and serves on the board of Encompass.