When I was 16—a few months after getting my driver’s license—my stepdad let me drive his swanky company car home from vacation with two of my friends while he and my mom stayed on for a few days. Being 16 and generally immature and reckless, it wasn’t long into my ride when I got pulled over for doing 112mph in a 55mph zone on the Mass Pike. And because I was driving so dangerously fast, the car was impounded—which meant we had to go to the police station and wait there for someone to pick us up.
On the way to the police station, the white officer called my mom on speakerphone. When Mom realized what had happened, she started screaming at me so aggressively that the officer hung up on her. I remember him laughing and saying something about how awful it must be to have such a mother (it was not). He wanted me to feel like he was on “my” side (he was).
Despite looking older than my 16 years—and the very real fact that I had placed the lives of my friends and other innocent people in danger—I was treated with friendliness and paternal protection by the officers. I don’t even remember being worried that I may be arrested or detained. When we arrived at the station, the officers made sure we had water and snacks. Beyond being ashamed and nervous, I was otherwise fine. We even joked a bit with the police officers, developing a friendly rapport under a very odd circumstance.
Now imagine a 16-year-old Black boy and his two friends in the same situation. Three Black boys in a luxury car would be viewed by the police as inherently suspicious, and the situation could have easily escalated, potentially even ending in deathly violence.
I, like many other white children, was shielded from the most severe consequences of mistakes throughout my youth. But Black, Indigenous, and People of the Global Majority (BIPGM) are robbed of their childhood by a society that insists they navigate the world as responsible adults well before they reach the age of maturity. Even then, this unfair adultification of Black children does not protect them from the disproportionate risk of being jailed, assaulted, or murdered.
More often than not, the trajectory of their childhood is written for them, before they are even born.
Whiteness and otherization
At birth, white people slip into the comfort of established global systems that prioritize them and label Blackness, brownness, or indigenousness as the “other.” This central fallacy allows white people to disengage from discussions about race because it’s not “our” race that’s the issue.
In reality, the opposite is true. While the example I shared above is indeed about race, it’s not about the imaginary boy’s Blackness; it’s about my whiteness and how that kept me safe from harm—and continues to keep me safe, employed, insured, and overall incredibly privileged.
Oppression is like a quilt overlapping society; there may be rips and holes in small places, but the mechanisms of power suffocate the agency out of as many individuals as possible.
As an animal activist and in-house counsel representing farmed animal protection nonprofits, I’ve become intimate with the ways in which our society exploits non-humans and their defenders. I’ve seen companies push back against public call-outs for corporate malfeasance and have witnessed the police accost my fellow activists for engaging in protected speech. The goal is always maintenance of the status quo. White supremacist culture operates similarly, and all it requires is for white people to find comfort in the status quo.
Whiteness does not like to be named because it is used to being invisible—the “norm”—and centered on how we talk, think, and treat each other. But until we name our whiteness and understand its role in shaping our sense of self—until we see our whiteness as the central theme of our lives—we’ll forever show up to the conversation entirely missing the point.
When we don’t talk about our advantages—our privileges—it’s impossible to own it.
So I’m going to talk about it.
Here’s a personal (and incomplete) account of 22 ways my whiteness has advantaged me and shaped my life:
- As a white woman working within the animal rights movement, I’m surrounded by people who look just like me.
- I’m healthy, in no small part because I am not exposed to the physical and mental stress of institutionalized and individual racism—including but not limited to environmental pollution and lack of access to nutrition and health care that BIPGM disproportionately endure on a daily basis.
- I am propelled forward in life because of my skin color; because I was born into a family that has always had financial security and the means to live a comfortable life, and because my family’s access to resources has enabled my success and has generally protected me from professional failures.
- I have the luxury of working full-time for animals, a cause I’m passionate about and that doesn’t pay as well as many other sectors, without having to worry about impacts on my quality of life or my credit score—and without the stress of underemployment that pervades and destroys the lives and livelihoods of millions of BIPGM.
- I have witnessed workplace discrimination and racial microaggressions by nonprofit leadership against BIPGM and have simultaneously experienced completely different treatment by those same people, often those in leadership roles.
- I can take a stand for BIPGM friends without destroying my career or professional reputation, and my choice to do so will not endanger my safety or wellbeing.
- I can show up to workplaces without having to adapt my natural appearance to be viewed as professional.
- While I am a woman and therefore may be subject to income inequality as compared to white men in similar employment positions, my whiteness protects me from the much more significant income disparities that disadvantage BIPGM women.
- I am unlikely to experience bankruptcy, even in the face of a catastrophic accident. I also know I have a safety net should something life-altering happen.
- I’ve never been turned away from a housing opportunity.
- I’ve never been followed around a store.
- People in positions of power assume the best of me.
- Nobody crosses the street as I approach them.
- When I tell people I’m a lawyer, no one acts surprised.
- No one looks at me and assumes that I’m living “off of the system” (though, ironically, as a beneficiary of the many advantages laid out in this list and more, that’s precisely what I’ve been doing all of my life).
- I get to operate within and throughout the world without giving a second thought to my personal safety in almost every context. In the rare moments I’ve had to summon the police or first responders (once as a teenager when there was a break-in in my house and later when a family member was having a medical emergency), it never once occurred to me that the authorities might hurt or kill me.
- These days, when I get pulled over while driving, I may experience a bit of anxiety, but it stems from the general feeling of “being in trouble” and not from the valid fear that I might be shot dead in my car or unlawfully detained because my very existence is viewed as suspicious.
- If I were to be arrested, my access to resources and people in positions of power would insulate me from the worst possible consequences.
- If I were to experience debilitating mental illness, I would receive attentive psychological treatment; not only is such treatment readily available to me and those in my community, but my vulnerability would not be criminalized.
- I’ve never had to suffer the trauma of visiting an incarcerated family member in prison.
- Everyone I meet assumes that I’m “from here,” and I am generally welcomed wherever I choose to go.
- I move in and out of different social and professional situations without worry while engaging or not engaging in conversations about race. I get to stop thinking about race whenever it’s inconvenient—and for the vast majority of my life, I have unwittingly taken advantage of that.
There are myriad additional ways to describe how my life and wellbeing is protected and enhanced by my whiteness, but you get the idea.
Upholding the system
Now try to imagine a life where the opposite is true in every way. Like many white people, I’m just beginning to open my eyes, not only to the exhaustion of being oppressed by the system daily, but to the compounding and insidious effects of this oppression upon the lives of BIPGM. And like many white people (but certainly not nearly enough white people), I’m also confronting the stark reality that I have upheld this system with my seemingly casual indifference, lack of introspection, and, at times, fragility.
This reality can be especially harsh for those of us who have identified ourselves as part of the animal rights movement—a movement we consider an important form of social justice advocacy—for a long time.
Not coincidentally, I get to write essays like this one, as I clumsily add my historically absent voice to the many that are now speaking up about racism and white supremacy.
This speaking up doesn’t jeopardize my safety, and I’m even sometimes praised for speaking up. No one ever caustically refers to me as an angry white woman.
Of course, you can be white and struggle in both small and large ways. But a white person will not experience hardship or adversity simply because of their skin color.
The fact that I can float through life with so little adversity is the very point of white supremacy and systemic racism—institutions that operate to reserve the majority of the world’s resources for white people. White privilege is generational wealth. White privilege is the relative ease of accumulating education, wealth, access, and power as a white person.
This is what white people need to be talking about. And yet instead, we are too often in tone-policing conversations about what BIPGM have or have not done—such as the ways in which an individual Black woman may speak about racism (too angrily for white people’s own comfort), and whether it makes white people feel validated and welcomed or challenged and upset.
We have a habit of centering the response to oppression over the violence of the oppression itself. When we wring our hands at reports of property damage in connection with protests against police brutality, we both downplay the centuries of extreme violence to people at the heart of the protests and pivot our attention away from it entirely.
We are centering the property (a manufactured legal concept meant to uphold white structures and perpetuate the accumulation and retention of resources by white people) instead of listening to the protesters’ messages and trying to understand why that property is the target of centuries of frustration.
Instead of these asinine loop-de-loops that never get to the heart of the matter, let us instead focus on what we as white people have done, not done, or continuously allow to be done to perpetuate systems of violence against BIPGM because it directly benefits us.
When white people renounce our accountability for correcting the harms perpetrated upon BIPGM by our ancestors, we are confusing a basic duty to pursue and uphold equity within our communities with our subjective feelings of guilt and shame.
The expectation that we should proactively work to mend the destruction caused by centuries of white supremacy does not perpetuate some injustice upon white people; it is simply an acknowledgement of our responsibility to return what was never rightfully ours to those from whom it was stolen.
Confronting my difficult truths
During almost all of my 37 years, it never really occurred to me that I was racist.
Such a biting term, racist, for white progressives.
Yet that’s exactly what I was, because I was brought up in a racist society. I wasn’t doing much of anything to challenge white supremacy in my own life. I thought the goal was to be nonracist—to “not see race”—but I’ve since learned that being nonracist is the same as being racist; it’s not doing anything to challenge white supremacy and structural racism, including when they show up within the animal rights space.
The goal is racial equity and racial justice, and the only path there requires ongoing antiracist work.
I’m still learning about how white supremacy shows up in my daily life, and I’m constantly discovering new ways to confront my white privilege. I’m sometimes doing the wrong things, and overall stumbling through this process of incorporating antiracism and the fight against the systemic oppression of BIPGM into my activism and life. But every day that I continue to reassess my actions, I solidify a path of continued growth and improvement. I know I will make mistakes and that I’ll be uncomfortable, but I’m committed to continuing on.
Here’s a personal account of 13 ways I have started to make DEI work central to my antiracism, both personally and professionally:
- I am challenging racist statements on social media.
- I am protesting for Black Lives Matter (BLM) and spending my time and resources supporting the structural changes they are striving for.
- I am shifting my attention to Black, brown, and indigenous voices and perspectives in activism, art, and life by exploring new perspectives in literature, film, and on social media, and by confronting the disproportionate whiteness of my personal relationships.
- I am prioritizing my support of Black-owned businesses over white ones.
- I am redistributing my wealth by supporting BIPGM individuals and organizations financially.
- I am talking to my white friends and family about whiteness and white supremacist culture.
- I am centering civil and human rights in my animal rights activism, and committing Strategies for Ethical and Environmental Development (SEED), the animal and environmental protection organization I co-founded, to position racial equity as a central part of its culture and operations.
- I am prioritizing BIPGM for SEED’s board, executive leadership, and staff roles.
- I am prioritizing programmatic work in support of food justice and food sovereignty, and centering the elevation and protection of BIPGM and Global South communities in our initiatives.
- I am challenging the animal rights movement’s historical reliance on individual prosecutions in furtherance of progress for animals and vocalizing the inherent failure of relying on a racist and oppressive criminal justice system to achieve social progress for animals, and I am committed to helping find a better way forward.
- I am speaking out when I notice whiteness being centered in public narratives.
- I have and will continue attending educational workshops such as Encompass’ DEI Institute, encouraging others to attend, and talking about my learnings with friends and family.
- I am writing this essay and starting these conversations.
- While I am taking the above actions, I am simultaneously doing the long-overdue internal work and engaging in the radical self-reflection necessary to ensure that these actions are rooted in honesty and not a desire for appearance.
Putting antiracism to action
Yet often, knowing what to do, how to do it, and how much to engage as a white person and as an animal activist can be confusing.
Does it appear from the list above that I’m doing a lot? I’m not, but it might seem like it compared to my history of doing almost nothing.
Even so, the above actions have collectively taken up a relatively small fraction of my time, energy, and attention in the past few months. I’ve barely scratched the surface, and I am still living squarely within the bubble of white privilege. That bubble will follow me everywhere I go.
What is it about this comfort that is so intoxicating? How have we created comfort for ourselves as white activists while denying it to our BIPGM colleagues, all while expecting them to keep showing up?
As animal activists, we’ve committed ourselves to tackle injustice, and we push the public to change, and yet many of us who are white have operated with a sense of ideologic self-righteousness for so long that we’re unable to see our own oppressive roles. I can identify with this.
White people have enabled racist ideology in our animal activism via our silence—and even promoted it through our acceptance of the benefits of that silence.
Or the unabashed resistance to and public devaluing of Encompass’s urgently necessary work within the farmed animal rights space on social media, such as a recent thread of comments under one of Encompass’ posts on the “Effective Animal Advocacy – Discussion” Facebook page, including outright denials that systemic racism exists. Seriously.
Or the casual, everyday comments, actions, and failures from nonprofit leaders who have allowed their BIPGM employees to suffer dehumanizing treatment without support until they are so exhausted and depleted that they resign.
Or our marginalization of the equally urgent and necessary work of groups like Food Empowerment Project, Chili’s on Wheels, and the Afro-Vegan Society because we see food justice initiatives as “not effective or impactful,” and therefore optional.
Or our support for the prosecution of farm-workers for animal cruelty, resulting from the oppressive and abusive systems in which these workers are themselves victimized.
These racist systems will only be dismantled once white people acknowledge our complicity in maintaining them. When white people deny that they exist, or think of antiracist work as something that doesn’t apply to us, we are letting our fellow BIPGM activists down, and through this, we are letting the animals down.
In other words, we are failing to be as effective for animals as we could be, and we are failing to uphold a basic moral obligation either way.
White animal activists, myself included, must remain uncomfortable enough to challenge our assumptions and to question how we are engaging with the world and whether our activism is supporting injustice against BIPGM. I know that I will need to actively rise to the occasion to challenge all systems of oppression, not just those that exploit non-human animals, for the remainder of my life.
Any way I look at it, I am still that 16-year-old white girl who gets to feel safe, even while putting others in danger.
But antiracist efforts are not optional. As a white person, I carry a debt to BIPGM that can never truly be repaid, but that will not stop me from trying anyway—unrelentingly—and doing it more effectively.
It is my job to take action, and until all white people see it as our job, injustice will prevail for people and animals alike.
Note: I want to thank Aryenish Birdie and Michelle Rojas-Soto for their work to improve the animal rights space, and to Our Hen House and Sentient Media for hosting this series alongside Encompass, and to all for allowing me to participate.
Cailen LaBarge is co-founder of Strategies for Ethical and Environmental Development (SEED), a nonprofit organization focused on dismantling capital-intensive industrial animal agriculture and advocating for a just transition that is fair and sustainable for animals, people, and the planet. In addition to her work with SEED, Cailen serves on the boards of Sentient Media and Happily Ever Esther Farm Sanctuary and is Of Counsel with Richman Law Group.