In March of 2019, I attended my first event hosted by a local chapter of Anonymous for the Voiceless (AV), an animal rights organization focused on public education and outreach. Activists showcased standard but horrific footage of factory farms and slaughterhouses, engaging the wide-eyed public in conversations about the dismal experiences of farmed animals and the necessity of adopting a vegan lifestyle. Afterward, I posted a group photo from the event on my Instagram account.
The photo showed upward of 40 activists—surprisingly, the majority being vegans of color—under a Moreton Bay fig tree in a primarily Spanish-speaking historical plaza in Los Angeles. Participating in collective action was not unfamiliar to me, but never had I imagined myself advocating for animals. Members of the activist community were compassionate and like-minded, but I was especially surprised to find a vegan group that actually reflected the demographics of our city, my hometown.
“I was so inspired seeing so many activists from such diverse backgrounds teaching and spreading knowledge,” read my Instagram caption. “Becoming #vegan was a personal lifestyle choice that came from learning more about the impacts of consuming meat and dairy on my health, animals, our communities, and our Earth.”
Over the next several months, I attended AV events in Hollywood and Santa Monica. Bolstered by the positive experience I had advocating for animals—and heartened by activists of the global majority who had also come out that day to lend their voices—something began to change in me. I became emboldened, growing increasingly comfortable speaking to bystanders about the suffering endured by farmed animals, and responding to anti-vegan comments with a level-headedness I was proud of. Compelled to action and feeling a sense of camaraderie with our new activist friends, my husband Gerard and I stepped up as co-organizers of a new chapter in Los Angeles.
A year later, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and the uprisings, AV posted a photo of a Black protestor holding up a bloodied pig’s head on Instagram. The caption read: “Hypocrisy is protesting against rights violations while violating the rights of others!” Many were appalled by the organization’s lack of sensitivity and stance, which the social media coordinator, George Martin, defended by commenting that “there are many people who believe systemic oppression does not exist in the West.”
While the organization later deleted the controversial post and issued an apology for the latter comment, its stance on intersectionality was clear. In a post shared on social media in June, AV co-founder Paul Bashir stated: “When vegans say that veganism is also about humans because we’re also animals, tell them to stay the fuck in their lane. Stay the fuck away from animal rights … This is ruining our movement. It’s a nonhuman rights movement.”
Ethical inconsistency in veganism
For vegans and animal rights activists, especially those who have engaged in public outreach and conversations about veganism, the phrase “ethical consistency” may be familiar. The concept—essentially, the opposite of hypocrisy—is central to a debate tactic that vegans employ when arguing against non-vegans.
The basic premise involves pointing out the contradiction of participating in the exploitation of animals (eating animals) while holding beliefs which are anti-exploitation (such as believing that animal testing, wearing fur, or dogfighting is wrong). Sometimes, this approach works, and a person will reconcile the inconsistency and choose to become vegan. Non-intuitively, there are a number of people who are open-minded and caring enough to become vegan, yet are simultaneously unable to budge on topics for which most people have no trouble, such as various human rights issues.
Racist vegans—those who do not reject, resist, or otherwise work to dismantle racism in our society, even if they are unaware of it—exist because vegans are a product of society-at-large. They have not only surfaced as protestors took to the streets in defense of Black lives, but also at the onset of the pandemic with xenophobic and racist rhetoric. They are not exempt from the accountability of ethical consistency or scrutiny just because they are sensitive to the suffering of animals. Rather, their presence in animal advocacy creates an environment that is dangerous and unwelcoming for marginalized people in an already inequitable space.
While plant-based eating has been practiced in various parts of the world, especially prior to colonization, “veganism” was officially coined in 1944 in the United Kingdom. While vegans are often generalized as middle-class and white, the Black community is the fastest-growing demographic in the vegan community. Given that the professional animal rights movement is predominantly white, propped up by white men as key figures of the movement, the lack of empathy toward marginalized communities is disappointing, but not surprising.
An animal rights movement centered on animals is critical. Yet, being unaware of how oppression operates, especially to the point of condemning those who have an intersectional approach to their advocacy, is a detriment to animal rights altogether. Being able to mobilize people for animal rights requires engaging with those who can empathize with the cause and can see themselves belonging to the movement. Contrary to the notion that discussing race dilutes animal rights, ignoring their connection undermines animal rights—which, at its core, is a social justice movement.
The “animal” category
The notion that human liberation and animal liberation are intertwined is not new, especially among those who identify with oppressed groups. The rise in veganism and recent social unrest resulting from anti-Black racism has peeled back the layers of how systems of oppression are more connected than disparate.
Oppression does not exist in a vacuum. Perceiving animals as separate from and inferior to humans, invoking an “us-versus-them” mentality, has normalized their abuse. It is acceptable in society to farm animals for food, train racehorses for entertainment, and imprison “exotic” animals in zoos and aquariums. In other words, animal abuse has become institutionalized. In Aphro-ism: Essays on Pop Culture, Feminism, and Black Veganism from Two Sisters, authors Aph and Syl Ko write: “‘Animal’ is a category that we shove certain bodies into when we want to justify violence against them.”
The “animal” category manifests itself in the human species when dominant groups subjugate marginalized people. When people are viewed as animals, objectifying, and harming them becomes justified actions. Historical and contemporary examples include but are not limited to the detention of undocumented migrants and the policing, incarceration, and killing of Black people.
For instance, in 1989, five black and Latino teenagers from Harlem were wrongly convicted of brutally raping a woman in New York City’s Central Park. At the time, the media played an outsized role in portraying them as feral animals, wreaking havoc in the park as “a wolf pack.” Donald J. Trump had even taken full-page ads in newspapers, calling for the death penalty and saying: “They should be forced to suffer and they should be executed for their crimes.”
Despite the case’s glaring lack of DNA evidence and eyewitnesses, mired with coercive tactics from the police, the jury found all five teenagers guilty. By the time the convictions were vacated in 2002, the Central Park Five had collectively served 40 years in prison for a crime they had not committed. The call to violence and death, the heinous treatment, and the act of gross injustice toward these young boys is what happens when bodies are shoved into the “animal” category.
This instance is far from being an isolated incident as it represents an institutionalized system that codifies a group of people as being non-human. When marginalized communities are viewed as less than human, they are viewed as animals—a linguistic shorthand for an inferior being that can rightfully be controlled, commodified, and harmed. Read: dirty as a pig, kill two birds with one stone, bigger fish to fry, be a guinea pig, and more.
Achieving collective liberation
Advocating for animal rights and fighting for human rights—by combating racism, sexism, transphobia, and other injustices—can strengthen each cause. When society no longer views animals as inferior and undeserving of basic rights, such as the right to bodily autonomy, dignity and respect can be restored to all sentient beings. We can radically reimagine our relationship to each other as humans, regardless of our differences, as well as to animals and the environment.
A world that does not practice slaughtering animals could end the harm inflicted upon humans by the animal agriculture industry. Meat processing plants are life-threatening and injurious workplaces that exploit migrants, especially those who are undocumented, and people living in poverty. Workers endure psychological trauma and have high rates of suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, PTSD, depression, anxiety, and domestic violence. During the pandemic, these processing plants have become hotbeds for coronavirus outbreaks, further endangering workers’ lives and leading to deaths that could have otherwise been prevented.
In the United States, the hog industry in North Carolina could cease to contaminate natural resources and sicken low-income Black communities. Hazardous chemicals found in leather tanneries in countries such as India and Bangladesh would no longer disable and disfigure workers, especially children. In impoverished communities—where chronic illnesses are prevalent and unhealthy diets are due to lack of healthy food access and nutrition education—plant-based diets can help prevent illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, and heart diseases.
Likewise, the fight for human rights can positively impact animal advocacy. In a world that respects women and female bodies, it is hard to imagine that dairy and egg industries—which exploit the reproductive system of female cows and hens—would thrive.
Overcoming racism—which is the belief in racial superiority to justify discrimination toward people based on physical appearances—may help us overcome speciesism, in which discrimination involves treating members of one species as more morally important than others. Think about how we treat domestic animals, such as dogs and cats, for example, very differently from farmed animals, like pigs, chickens, and cows, on the basis of species alone.
These systems of oppression, whether racist, sexist, classist, or speciesist, represent historical and institutionalized mistreatment toward non-dominant groups. This is not to suggest that promoting veganism alone ensures the total end of harm, exploitation, and violence. Nor is this a reductionist approach to solving complex social issues. Rather, dismantling oppression would need to occur concurrently, systemically, across all facets of society. Liberation is, after all, not zero-sum.
Rights being granted to one group are often granted to another. For instance, the civil rights movement in the mid-20th century sought to end racial discrimination under the law. Victories benefited not just the Black community, but all marginalized communities—across race, gender, nationality, and religion—in the fight for equality in voting, employment, and housing.
Similarly, the Black Power movement of the late 1960s and 1970s, which emphasized pride in racial identity and self-determination, also influenced and empowered Chicano, Puerto Rican, Asian, Indigenous, and LGBTQIA+ communities. When one group wins, we all win.
To be unaware of the historical legacy of social justice and political movements is to believe that causes are unrelated, that there is a scarcity of resources, and to insist on a “non-intersectional” approach to advocacy. In the words of Black feminist and writer Audre Lorde: “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”
The work ahead of us
The work to achieve justice for all members of our society—humans and non-humans alike—will span our lifetimes. While the path ahead may seem filled with uncertainty, we can all individually contribute to achieving collective liberation in our own ways. In an interview with LAIKA Magazine, Aph Ko expressed that all efforts are essential. She said: “Revolution won’t happen without thought; however, thought without action won’t make the revolution a reality.”
Take the time to learn about different issues that affect various marginalized communities. If you identify as a person of color or a person of the global majority, this includes communities other than your own.
This is not an effort to diminish the lived experiences of those who occupy multiple spaces or to place the burden of responsibility on those who identify with oppressed groups, but a beckoning for everyone—especially white people—to learn about others. Listen, reflect, and improve your behavior as a result of what you’ve learned from marginalized communities. Confront your own biases and learn about the histories, legacies, and pressing issues of groups that are not your own. Whether through podcasts, books, or articles, the resources available to learn about other communities are innumerable.
Consider withdrawing support from and boycotting companies that exploit animals or violate human rights. Voting with one’s dollars can have an immense impact. This applies to both food companies (yes, even vegan ones), as well as everyday businesses and companies like Amazon, Walmart, and Uber, all of whom exploit their workers. When done in concert, boycotts can be leveraged to achieve workers’ rights, as in the case of the historical Delano Grape Strike of 1965 led by Filipino and Latino farmworkers.
The Food Empowerment Project is a nonprofit organization that not only promotes a vegan lifestyle but also sheds light on ethical food choices and provides educational resources to consumers about companies that engage in exploitative practices. It is important to be mindful of one’s consumer choices. If we want to live in a world where workers are treated fairly and respectfully, in an environment free of harassment and hazards, with pay and benefits to achieve a quality standard of life, then we as consumers need to actively shape this world.
Lastly, hold your fellow vegans accountable to be ethically consistent. While being vegan can lead to a greater sense of compassion, this is not always the case. Be willing to question and have difficult conversations with friends, and reconsider your support of activists and organizations that hold problematic views regarding marginalized communities. Ethical consistency is a goal to work towards every single day, rather than a checkbox that is ticked when a vegan lifestyle is adopted.
In working purposefully, aligning our values with our actions, and making ethical decisions driven by our moral conscience, we can transform ourselves and the world.
Malina Tran is a software engineer based in Los Angeles, California. She is a Writing Fellow with Sentient Media, a nonprofit organization that advocates for animal rights. Her areas of focus include animal welfare, activism, culture, and identity.