Racism in Me, the Movement, and the Meat Industry

We sat in the back seat of the car like kids waiting for mom to pull out of the driveway, cameras and sound equipment at the ready on our laps. Before starting up the engine, Akilah turned around from the driver’s seat to look at us, her brown eyes stoic and piercing. My heart began to race as she spoke. Typically friendly and warm, the tone of her voice had turned flat, serious. I felt my palms turn damp with sweat inside my gloves. The still, cold air inside the car suddenly felt suffocating. I don’t remember her words exactly, but I know she conveyed that our repeated requests to interview her, to have her take us on this filmed driving tour of her hometown, were an imposition—and that we, as white filmmakers producing a documentary about racism, must take more care in the requests we make of our subjects.

Of the countless uncomfortable situations my colleague and I have experienced while creating our film about environmental racism and the pork and poultry industries in Eastern North Carolina, this one stands out to me. Here was a Black woman whom we’d pressured into filming with us—despite a challenging family situation and a more-than-full-time job leading a grassroots organization—bearing the added, heavy burden of educating us about the impact of this ugly abuse of our privilege. I have never felt more fragile, more guilty, more ashamed than I did in that moment. But I also felt grateful. I thanked her for sharing that with us. And in the days, weeks, and months that followed, I have been profoundly grateful for the lessons I learned that day and for the experience of seeing the racism inside of me surfaced and on full display.

What I hadn’t realized was that my calls, emails, “follow-ups,” and “circling backs”—typical and accepted within the culture of white-dominated professional spaces, including the animal advocacy movement and filmmaking industry—were, in this context, racist harms against the very people we hope our film will support. Though we were well-intentioned, in demanding to tell Akilah’s story on our terms instead of hers, we were exploiting her as a means to an end.

But the bigger lesson I took from this experience—and many others throughout my filmmaking process—is that we animal advocates will never create the world we envision if we refuse to confront our own racism. Further, we will fail if we refuse to address racism in our food system and in society more broadly.

So close you can smell it

Before that day a few years ago in the car with Akilah, I had considered myself an ally in the fight against racism. I had studied environmental racism in college as part of my senior honors thesis on the North Carolina pork industry, and I had already spent a year or so working on my documentary on that same topic. I had researched—and seen—how factory farms are disproportionately located in communities of color. I had sat in the living rooms of Black residents whose health and quality of life the pork industry had devastated with decades of pollution. Listening intently to their stories of loss, intimidation, and incredible persistence, I tried not to take for granted that at the end of the day, I’d return to a place where the air was fresh and the water was safe to drink.

I had also been inside several factory farms and had spent months in a region with the densest concentration of these facilities in the United States. I had grown familiar with the distinctly revolting stench of pig shit—the way it burns your eyes and embeds itself in your hair and clothes—and had become accustomed to the sight of long metal sheds and the caw of turkey vultures feasting on decaying bodies in “dead boxes.” I had interviewed factory farm and slaughterhouse workers and their family members, had spent endless weeks observing, from the closest vantage point possible, the quotidian nature of this industry’s churn through animal and human lives.

These experiences gave me a nuanced understanding of the way the animal agriculture industry operates—the means by which it exploits people and land in the pursuit of profit. I came to see the environmental and human harms this industry inflicts as equally pressing as the animal suffering it causes. All of these, I believed, were parallel symptoms of a broken food system.

Meanwhile, I continued my day job at a disproportionately white animal protection organization, believing that as long as I was fighting factory farming—even from this comfortable, privileged place—I was working to correct the injustices I witnessed firsthand through my filmmaking.

Racism as a business model

Akilah’s comment had put a crack in my self-perception as an ally. But it wasn’t until the summer of 2020, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and the racial uprising of the Black Lives Matter movement, that I, like many white people, took a larger step forward to confront my whiteness, my own racism, and the racism embedded in the animal protection movement. 

I marched among thousands in the streets of Washington, DC, and read How to Be an Antiracist and other books and articles on racism. I began listening more intently to Black, Indigenous, and people of the global majority (BlPGM) leaders in our movement and beyond. I asked, along with my colleagues, for the formation of a diversity, equity, and inclusion committee and other changes to internal policies and practices. And I looked inward, reckoning with my race and the arbitrary advantages it affords me, asking myself why it took me so long—despite my previous experiences—to see racism so plainly in myself, to better understand my role in upholding white supremacy in society and in the animal protection movement.

It has only been with this clearer (though still very much in progress) lens of understanding that I have been able to reflect on my activism and filmmaking work to see what I had long overlooked—and what many advocates of the global majority have always known. Racism, I realized, is not a side effect of industrial animal agriculture; it is the modern meat industry’s entire business model—the foundation upon which this industry runs. Racism is the industry’s primary source of wealth and power. 

By refusing to address the meat industry’s racism—and our own—many white animal advocates, including myself, have been complicit in the very system of oppression we say we want to dismantle. We are replicating the meat industry’s power structure within our own movement. Redistributing this power in both sectors is the only way to achieve our goal of creating a more compassionate world.

I realized, looking back at the harm I’d seen in Eastern North Carolina, that factory farming would simply not exist if the animal agriculture industry were not able to exploit and commodify Black, brown, and Indigenous lives. I saw that this industry is deeply entwined with other racist institutions—like the criminal justice system—designed to maintain white supremacy.

Cops and pigs

With a more antiracist lens, I looked back at the experiences I’d had making my documentary and connected the dots I hadn’t before. I remembered how one of our interviewees—a Black woman who lives among dozens of factory farms—had shown us how she places cardboard in her windows at night for protection should someone decide to shoot her from outside her home. She has good reason to be fearful; over the years of standing up to the farm owners around her and the industry at large, she has been followed, harassed, and surveilled.

After leaving her home, my colleague and I were filming the factory farm next door when a sleek car with heavily tinted windows pulled over on the road across from us. We could tell the driver was holding a cell phone up to the windshield, likely recording us as we filmed (from a public road) a herd of cattle munching on grass “fertilized” by pig poop from the nearby lagoon. Disturbed, we drove a few hundred feet down the road to park and get our bearings before carrying on. Fewer than three minutes had passed when several police cars—including a sheriff’s vehicle—surrounded us, blocking us in from all sides. We had done nothing illegal, but this display of power and suppression had its intended effect: My stomach churned with panic as a white officer questioned me about our motives and activities in the area. They let us go, but not without a less-than-kind suggestion to be careful about filming in the area lest we stir up trouble. Had we not been white, the situation might have ended quite differently.

As it turns out, the factory farm we had filmed was originally owned by a county sheriff and is still operated by his family. In this case—and in many other rural communities in Eastern North Carolina—the pork industry and local law enforcement are one and the same. Working as one oppressive force, they’ve created a culture of intense fear in these communities … and have successfully maintained a white supremacist status quo their great-grandparents likely planted there as slave owners.

Some time later, not far from that farm, we saw a sheriff’s car parked at a home proudly adorned with a confederate flag.

Nothing without Black lives

Reflecting on this incident during the summer of 2020, when discussions of police brutality permeated our society and movement like never before, I shuddered at comments from some of my fellow white animal advocates that we should stay silent—that there is no connection between race-driven police violence and our mission to end factory farming.

The more I examine our movement with an antiracist lens, the more I am trying to challenge the belief behind this idea—one embedded in my early activism that is still dominant within historically white-led and white-majority organizations. It’s the notion that we must focus narrowly on our mission to reduce animal suffering (and therefore ignore human suffering)—or risk upsetting donors, losing our nonprofit status, and diminishing the all-important Impact of our work.

But to say that centering racial justice in our work against factory farming is a divergence from our mission is nonsensical and counterproductive. Like racist North Carolina cops and the pork industry, the oppression of animals is not separate from the oppression of humans. They are one system, a system designed by whites to amass and retain power over all others.

Examples of this are all around us. Take, for instance, Popeyes’ tweet in response to the protests following George Floyd’s murder: “We are nothing without black lives.” True. Popeyes and other fast food retailers—overwhelmingly white-led companies that sell unhealthy, meat-heavy food that contributes to an epidemic of chronic disease—would not have the profit margins they do if they did not market to Black consumers, locate disproportionately in Black communities, or refuse to pay their workers a livable wage.

Similarly, major meat companies would be far less profitable if they did not rely heavily on Black, brown, immigrant, and prisoner labor in their factory farms and slaughter plants. They’ve learned they can pay these workers less to do work that is twice as dangerous as the average job in America. The astronomical rates of COVID-19 among slaughterhouse workers—and the industry’s efforts to shift blame onto workers’ “living circumstances in certain cultures”—unveil its racism and illustrate just how little value this industry places on its workers’ lives.

In North Carolina, the pork industry exploded in the late 1980s and 1990s in Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities, aided by the legacy of slavery and modern-day racist policies that stripped these communities of their power to fight back. Only when the industry made the mistake of planning to build a factory farm near a golf resort—where its pollution and stench would have threatened a white community—did politicians enact a moratorium on new construction.

Today, the North Carolina pork industry continues to control the state’s legislature by funding many of the same politicians working diligently to restrict voting rights, gerrymander districts, and otherwise dismantle the state’s democracy—all in an effort to further disempower its most marginalized citizens.

As a movement, we say we believe in creating a just and equitable food system, where all animals are respected and free. But we must recognize that we will only realize this future if we are also willing to address the human exploitation upon which our current food system operates.

Weak alone, strong together

Some might argue—and indeed many white animal protection movement leaders have—that other organizations exist to address racism in our food system and in society, and therefore we have little obligation to confront this issue. This is not only naïve to the inherent interconnectedness of oppressions, but it is also based on the false, individualistic belief that animal advocates can do this work in isolation and that we can achieve our mission alone. To think that we, a tiny movement of people who cuddle with chickens and see fish as friends, can reform a global, trillion-dollar industry by ourselves is preposterous and self-aggrandizing.

It is also misguided to think that disproportionately white animal protection organizations operating in isolation have all (or even most of) the answers. Our homogeneity doesn’t just limit our creativity, effectiveness, and productivity. If we don’t meaningfully partner with the people closest to the problem of factory farming—slaughterhouse workers, rural communities, victims of food apartheid, contract farmers, and others—we’ll also exclude those who have the most to gain from addressing this problem, likely have the best ideas and approaches about how to solve it, or who might even be able to reform the system from the inside.

People power is essential to our success. We will only achieve our mission to create a better food system when we help build a broader, deeply interconnected movement, one inclusive of Black and Indigenous people and people of the global majority.

But as I learned from Akilah’s challenge, white animal advocates will never be able to fight alongside BIPGM effectively if we perpetuate oppression ourselves. Unless we take a hard look at our own racism—and the ways we uphold white supremacy in our organizations and society—we will only do more harm, even if we have good intentions.

What will it take?

Looking forward, I’ve begun to ask myself and others around me the question: “What will it really take for animal advocates to help build this equitable and interdependent movement?”

We are beginning to see shifts in the way some of the disproportionately white animal protection organizations operate, as we are starting to reckon with our racist former practices—like targeting only wealthy, educated white women with our outreach, preaching the enormous ease of adopting a vegan diet overnight, operating on unpaid intern labor, or pursuing criminal charges against factory farm and slaughterhouse workers instead of aiming at the system itself. 

This is laudable progress, but we have much more work to do to uncover and uproot racism in our approaches, policies, and cultures. For global organizations, this includes looking at our structures and asking whether we are operating with a colonialist framework. It includes reviewing our key programs, from welfare reform to outreach, and asking hard questions about the impact of this work on marginalized communities. In crafting our visions, missions, and strategies, we must ask: in building a better world for animals, what humans might we risk leaving behind? How can we instead build a better world for (and with) them too?

Many of us, myself included, have only just started evaluating the inequitable distribution of wealth within our movement. I recently led a program to provide grants to Black activists, but this redistribution of resources represents only a tiny step toward correcting a profound imbalance of funding. Anecdotal but worth noting: The combined annual budgets of the organizations with which the 48 applicants to this program are affiliated amount to only $2.3 million, a fraction of the budget of my own organization. Like the racial wealth gap in society more broadly, the one within our movement demands dedicated introspection and bold action—up to and including tangible sacrifices.

Many white-led and white-majority animal protection nonprofits must also learn the important difference between being partisan and being political. To avoid being partisan—supporting a specific political candidate or party—is responsible; to avoid being political is to choose the side of the oppressor.

We must boldly call out and take real action against injustice and white supremacy, and we must wholeheartedly join the fight to preserve democracy, as its collapse threatens everything we do. Educating our base is critical, but the loss of some followers and supporters along the way must not deter us. After all, it was our own white supremacist approach that brought them into our fold initially.

Finally, it may sound simple, but some of the most important work we must do is the quiet, contemplative work of confronting and breaking down, piece by piece, our own racism. Last summer, as I moved more deliberately through that work, a quote from the author, poet, and activist Sonya Renee Taylor struck me to my core:

I don’t want an ally. Because an ally means you came here to help me … How are you helping me solve the problem you caused? Why aren’t I helping you solve the problem you caused?

Why am I not the ally, and you the actor? Why is Blackness the responsibility holder and whiteness gets to be the helper?

My conversation with Akilah in the car was like looking in the mirror. I saw an ally, a fragile white woman offering the most unhelpful help. Now, when I look inside, the image of an ally is fading. Instead, I see someone striving to be an actor.