Oppression Without Hierarchy: Racial Justice and Animal Advocacy

Why did they choose you? 

That was the question a white animal advocate asked me in the midst of a casual conversation one day—referring to my hire as managing director at a new animal rights nonprofit organization, one that sought to grow the movement by educating millions through targeted advertisements akin to those used to curb smoking in the 1990s.

Now, why would a person with 15 years experience in nonprofit management and entrepreneurship, plus an MS and an MBA, get asked why they were chosen for a job in senior leadership of a startup 501(c)3 that required deep analytical, strategic, and operations skills? 

The answer is staggeringly simple: It was a racial microaggression, the likes of which I and all other Black, Indigenous, and people of the global majority (BIPGM) experience at random, in any setting, and without advance warning. 

Because of my current work as the managing director for Encompass—a nonprofit focusing on pursuing racial equity within farmed animal rights spaces—I’ve developed a well-worn understanding of microaggressions. This deep-set knowledge protects me from some, though not all, of the negative impact that comes with these painful experiences. 

Try as I might, I can’t diminish the hurt and restore myself without spending precious energy and time. From talking with many other BIPGM, I know I’m in good company there.

Interpersonal racism: individuals as oblivious agents of white supremacy

While any particular encounter is open to interpretation, research has found that BIPGM are much more accurate in their identification and assessment of microaggressive encounters than white people, who are usually unaware they have microaggressed someone in the first place. So in order to develop sophisticated racial literacy, white folks must accept and respect BIPGM’s point of view. 

And here is that point of view: Microaggressions are not small nor unimportant to those of us on the receiving end. 

In fact, the opposite is true. They take place at the interpersonal—or “micro”—level, they are, by nature, ambiguous and subtle, and they siphon emotional energy away from the targeted party’s focus.

Because of their chronicity, microaggressions have a significant negative impact in the physical and mental health of their targets. How could they not, when racism is embedded in every part of life in this society, relentlessly undermining and attacking BIPGM for our entire lifetimes?

Like most people who have been targeted with microaggressions, on that day when my qualifications were doubted, I didn’t speak up. Despite my long history with being microagressed, the comment took me by surprise—and by the time I processed what had happened, the moment was over, and I was exhausted from the internal turmoil. If you’re BIPGM, this probably sounds familiar. 

There’s a very good chance that everyone reading this essay has microaggressed (I know I certainly have)—and not just once, but repeatedly. If you are so lucky that someone you microaggress recognizes, in that moment, your potential for growth—and lets you know you have erred—do not question their experience nor discount your impact. 

On the contrary, let this be the wake-up call that teaches you how so many of us are complicit agents of white supremacy and pledge to tear it apart bit by bit by preventing microaggressions in the first place, and making amends for them when they happen anyway. 

So if you’re called out (or called in), thank the person brave enough to say something. Then say you’re sorry. What a terrific gift you’ve just received! Being receptive to feedback and promptly making amends is surely a powerful way we can show up as antiracists.

Structural racism: white supremacy culture at the core of animal rights nonprofits

Interpersonal microaggressions are just one of the ways in which racism manifests in the institutional animal rights movement (white-led, well-established, well-resourced advocacy nonprofits). Given my role as managing director at Encompass, my focus is the institutional farmed animal protection movement. 

Racism is indeed baked into the movement’s nonprofits: into our vision for the future, into our strategies, into our leadership, into our accountability (or lack thereof), into our staffing, into our campaigns, into our communications, into our cursory nod to diversity, and into our isolation from broad social justice and the communities we do and should serve.

While the pervasive narrative is that nonprofits are disadvantaged and perennially operating in scarcity, it is also true that white-led nonprofits in the movement have a lot of institutional power that grassroots advocates do not possess.

Grassroots work is done mostly by BIPGM and is grossly underfunded, underappreciated, and misunderstood. Given that race is a strong predictor of inputs and outputs in the movement—which is the very definition of racial inequity—prominent nonprofits and the white individuals who hold the most power must own up to and grapple with how the world of animal rights benefits from and contributes to racial inequities by perpetuating oppression within. 

Certainly, our movement is no racist outlier. It’s actually just the opposite; we are subject and susceptible to the same racist ideology, systems, and behaviors as other peoples immersed in white supremacist cultures.

That said, I find racism inside animal protection to be particularly painful because our cause is inherently against oppression—and yet collectively, we are indifferent towards racism and callous with BIPGM. When will that finally change? 

The animal protection workspace from an outsider’s perspective

Motivated by health concerns, eight years ago I switched to a plant-based diet overnight. Always the discerning thinker, I then became very curious about the ethical and environmental implications of animal agriculture, so I read several books and articles. Within a year, I began to feel in my heart that eschewing all animal products is entirely necessary if we are to have any hope at a civilized, sustainable society. 

What I found, admittedly, blew my mind; I realized there was such a strong ideological connection between animal protection and racial and gender justice—causes I already cared so deeply about—that I wanted to incorporate animal advocacy into my life as well. I’ll spare you the details of how I regularly asked myself, “How could I not have known?” If you’re vegan, this is an all-too-familiar moment in your own evolution. 

But as a longtime activist and brand-new vegan, I was still an outsider looking in, and what I saw was troubling. Upon first glance, I noticed that the animal protection movement was (why was I surprised?) fundamentally racist (campaign rhetoric, marketing images, recommended diets, virtually all-white leadership), and, from where I stood, alarmingly unprofessional (acrimonious social media battles, minimal infrastructure or staff support, private club dynamics). As you can imagine, my observations kept me away for years. 

But the world changes, and so do we: our approach, our focus, and our commitment as activists and change-makers. 

In time, I was able to expand my internal capacity to resist, reject, and challenge racism in the animal protection movement—which is what made it possible for me to embrace work within this flawed yet passionate movement. Building that resilience will be a life-long journey for me; it will never be over. 

There are three things that have helped me most in this quest: having a rich home life, studying history, and cultivating lots of experiences outside the animal rights movement. Certainly, my long professional career in other fields has given me depth and breadth of perspective, which have also proven to be valuable as a leader in a developing social justice space.

A word of caution: I am not alone in my hesitation to get involved in animal advocacy. Black, Indigenous, and people of the global majority excel at spotting racism, and most of us avoid it as much as possible so that we can endure. 

Let me be clear: racism in this field is a major reason why there are so few BIPGM in its ranks, and fewer still in leadership positions at the largest groups. This is a terrible loss for the movement, which is missing out on great talent and skills that find a home in other industries and social justice realms, further delaying the progress of animal advocacy—both in absolute and relative terms.

Can white-led groups build a global movement for animal liberation?

Collectively, our goal is to end farmed animal suffering and exploitation worldwide. And yet, the institutional animal protection movement does not share a worldview or culture with the world it is trying to influence and transform. 

By Encompass’ estimations, about 11 percent of farmed animal advocates in the United States are BIPGM. This is in sharp contrast to 39.9 percent of the US population, estimated by the Census Bureau

In any other setting, a 72 percent racial representation deficit would be recognized as a systemic failure. And yet, in the animal protection movement, many struggle to understand the serious negative consequences of a cadre of white-led organizations attempting to build a global movement. What is up with this colossal divide? 

Nor does this movement live like the rest of the world. Currently, nonprofits whose goals are to change the treatment of animals are clustered along the coasts of the United States, where mostly white, upper-middle-class advocates create strategies that are exported to other cultures—perpetuating an imperialistic approach that has caused much harm to people in the Americas, Africa, Australia, and Asia.

For the sake of the farmed animals we advocate for, we must realize that the white American experience is not neutral. It is not a clean slate on which we can sprinkle bits of diversity and ethnicity for flavor. We must check ourselves every time we center whiteness in animal advocacy, which happens every day, because white supremacy culture is leading us astray. White supremacy in the movement is why I stayed away in the first place, and it is why I’m writing this essay now.

The antidote to white supremacy is equity: the state where everyone has what they need to succeed, and identity does not predict outcomes. Let us work on equitable movement-building so that we develop the capacity to transform animal agriculture worldwide. 

Our community-wide challenge, should we choose to accept it, is to open our eyes to white supremacy all around, and to not look away when it overwhelms us.

Whack-a-mole advocacy is a losing proposition

Many in the animal protection movement consider the plight of non-human animals especially dire and worthy of single-minded attention. 

For example, we devote massive resources to outreach campaigns that ask BIPGM and socioeconomically poor people to change their eating habits, yet we don’t acknowledge, call out, nor address the widening chasm of socio-economic inequity. Inside the movement’s nonprofits, BIPGM advocates are often required to stay silent about their own experiences with oppression, while concurrently being pigeonholed in outreach positions to other BIPGM. This is not okay.

In my four years working in the movement, I have witnessed many white animal advocates deny racism, discount its impact, and promote single-issue focus on animals (brushing off antiracism as a “separate issue”) as their preferred strategy. 

But this strategy puts the movement at risk of irrelevance and ineffectiveness. Just like carnism conditions people to be unaware of farmed animals’ pain, racism conditions white animal advocates to remain unaware of the plight of BIPGM; to believe that “pure” animal advocacy is superior; and that combining it with antiracism is counterproductive.

Yet, systems of oppression are interconnected in a tangled web and regularly benefit from one another. In other words, speciesism is made stronger by racism, which is made stronger by sexism, which is made stronger by heterosexism, ableism, and on and on. But instead of being ordered in sequence, each node of oppression is connected to every other node, creating a very strong and resilient system.

My lived experience as a Black Latinx woman helps me see these connections so clearly! In many ways, all people from marginalized groups do too. 

Those of us on the target end of oppression face challenges every single day. The fact that we are still here, that many of us thrive in spite of so much adversity, is a testament to our resilience, resourcefulness, and intelligence—not to the benevolence of white supremacy culture. It is disheartening, to say the least, that we as a movement don’t embrace BIPGM’s collective wisdom and let it guide our strategy.

Oppression is the manifestation of our commitment to inequity. Its roots are deep, going all the way back in time to the early settlers who were able to produce a surplus through agriculture; when people began to specialize, and some people lived off of the physical work of others. 

With oppressive roots so well-established, we can expect that transitioning to an equitable model of agriculture—and of civilization—will require tremendous, sustained, strategic work across all sectors of society.

Because oppressions are interconnected, to create a viable anti-speciesist future, we have to also live antiracist, anti-sexist, anti-heterosexist, anti-ableist values. That’s a tall order, certainly. Yet nothing short of that will accomplish the radical, sustainable shift towards equity that we desire. 

At best, single-issue focus creates short-term gains that are quickly eroded as soon as we look away. So let’s stop looking away.

Reason as anchor

By anchoring animal advocacy in white supremacy culture, we are trying to change the world by using the same tools and strategies that got us here in the first place: top-down patriarchy, capitalism, and imperialism. It makes no sense to seek equity using the tools that brought us crippling, lethal inequities at every turn.

Instead, I want to be a part of an animal protection movement that studies and learns from history, and that pursues comprehensive systemic transformation as the path forward. To bring about an equitable future for farmed animals, we need to be intentional about how and where we go; in other words, we need to reinvent our strategies and redefine our values. 

Putting an end to non-human animal exploitation and suffering will be very difficult—so much more than we think—because the status quo has been entrenched for so long and because the people who benefit from any and all oppressions will fight vigorously. Grounding ourselves in this reality helps us accept the challenge, in all its complexity, and ready ourselves for the long-haul.

Movement building through interdependence and collaboration

As we think about equity in the context of crafting strategy, it is important to consider that farmed animals need help at many levels simultaneously—from direct relief to grassroots sanctuaries; from plant-based education to socio-political advocacy; and from a total reconfiguration and reconceptualization of the human food supply to a re-imagining of our relationship to non-human animals, each other, and the planet.

This movement is comprised of people with a remarkable capacity to care about the world and some of its unpopular inhabitants. We have the capacity to stretch further in order to realize these seemingly exclusive approaches to advocacy are interdependent. 

If we collaborate across advocacy levels, we have the potential to achieve progress of historic proportions. What I wish for this movement is the humility and bravery required to realize that potential, and to do so in a way that is inclusive and fresh. 

Though a tall order, complete transformation is indeed possible, because working at these intersections can simultaneously cultivate the best of our humanity. All we need to do is tap into our multiple intelligences and the cumulative wisdom of our lived experiences. 

Working through problems in neatly structured flowcharts is the stuff of 19th and 20th-century thinking. Equity requires us to think non-linearly and multi-dimensionally, which is a stretch for each of us individually—but not collectively.

Equity at the core, and radiating out

We often think of strong organizational values as a nice to have, a sign of sophistication for those who can afford the time to craft them.

Instead, values give us clarity of purpose and help us make decisions in the face of uncertainty and incomplete information. For those of us who care about issues of equity, organizational values are crucial because they are both aspirational and grounded in accountability—helping us overcome our biases in the day-to-day where we spend most of our conscious time.

The following values, implemented collectively, could transform the farmed animal protection movement and make it more effective, powerful, relevant, and resilient. 

  1. Cultivate power with, instead of power over others. Distributed power is regenerative, cyclical, inclusive, and allows us to cultivate the power within every advocate.
  2. Face our movement’s foundation in inequity as an essential step to divest from the fear and defensiveness that consume so much of our energy and prevent equity from taking hold.
  3. Seek out feedback and be grateful for constructive criticism from marginalized people, however it is given. Do not get defensive.
  4. Develop cultural literacy in the most inclusive terms: racial, ethnic, national, gender, sexual, age, abilities, etc.
  5. Map systems of contribution, not blame. Show appreciation for what is good and make amends for what is wrong. Study history and seek to understand how it is impacting us today.
  6. Map systems of impact and project impact multiple generations into the future.
  7. Draft realistic work plans that measure progress in generations, not years. Acknowledge complexity and strive to develop and implement strategies that are in tune with complexity.
  8. Embrace human subjectivity and focus on understanding others’ perspectives as a strategic imperative. Value long-term relationship building.
  9. Prioritize process and sustainability over quick, measurable results.
  10. Value and support community-driven, community-centric work as mission-critical.
  11. View animal rights advocacy as a node in the pursuit of justice. Cultivate interdependence and collaboration across animal advocacy organizations, across sectors, and with other social justice movements.

To be sure, my logic and my work are not finished products. I invite collaboration and refinement from other equity-minded and culturally literate folks working inside, on the margins, and outside the animal protection space. 

At the same time, let us agree that the path forward in the quest for justice must be built on equity. There is simply no other way forward.

Collectivism: our duty to protect marginalized advocates

That racial microaggression I experienced a couple of years ago, like all other instances of oppression, carried within it all of the past and present forces of oppression combined. 

Realize, then, just how many opportunities we have every day to make positive change: when we interrupt racism with microinterventions. 

If you are white, this might mean connecting a BIPGM leader to a major donor, speaking up in support of grassroots advocacy, and interrupting racist jokes, for example. When we use our power to influence, our power to lead, our power to fund, and our power to amplify the most marginalized among us, the potential for change and liberation becomes massive. 

We are all responsible for the health of the animal protection movement. Organization leaders have the most institutional power. Philanthropists have the most financial power. Rank-and-file staff have the most interpersonal power. Whatever role you play, you are, in fact, performing.

Perform equitably, so that we can create equity for all living beings.

The pursuit of equity is not a thought exercise

I vividly remember a conversation I had with my mother when I was in my senior year of high school. 

I had just been elected class president, and I was stunned by the news that thousands of dollars our class had raised for the past five years had disappeared while in the care of our previous treasurer; I simply didn’t know what to do. 

The truth is, I knew that the previous treasurer had come from a very challenging home life, and I felt it would be irresponsible of me to lead without first having all the facts and without legal and financial expertise. As this all swirled around in my head, I was also concerned about appearing to be a steamroller by overriding the work of the previous student administration (this kind of “imposter syndrome” is not uncommon for girls and women); I simply didn’t know how to move forward.

My mother, always the wise one, looked me in the eye and said, “Michelle, if you don’t make a choice, that, in and of itself, is a choice. You are choosing for someone else to choose for you.”

My mom was right—¡Gracias, Mamá! Once I looked at it through that lens of choice, it became clear that I had a lot of options available to me, and also that I could help set the tone for what happened next. 

In the end, I chose to focus on rallying the class to fundraise hard for eight powerful months, welcome the past-treasurer socially, and open a bank account with a trusted parent. Come late May, we had a lovely, modest prom with a live merengue band. 

That story might seem quaint from an adult perspective, but it was life-changing for me, and the lesson learned has continued to guide me to this day.

Waiting for someone else—maybe someone better—to come along and solve my problems for me is definitely a strategy, but one that doesn’t honor my agency, and one I could never be proud of. My mom’s mantra applies to every choice in life: big and small, personal and professional, individual and collective.

The pursuit of equity is not a thought exercise, and we don’t have unlimited time. Act we must.

Fellow animal advocates: there is no one better coming. We have as much chance of creating an equitable animal protection movement as anyone. Let us commit today to do everything in our individual and collective power to stamp out oppression in all its forms as the surest way to help non-human animals. 

White animal advocates, you have the most privilege and power in this movement, benefiting from a long history that has favored your ancestors and you. It is time to share your power and divest from it. I expect that will be painful for you in the short-term. 

However, growing pains are only temporary and ultimately lead to true strength and lasting liberation.