After going vegan in my mid-20s, the mainstream animal rights movement was very appealing to me. I had spent most of my college years introverted and anxious. My social life involved hanging out with the same small group of high school friends in the same small apartment I shared with my mom for years. Now in grad school and becoming increasingly disillusioned with academia, I started looking elsewhere for role models. I wanted to be among the cool kids posing with vegan leaflets at concerts, eating vegan donuts, marching in veggie pride parades. It was 2013, and lacking financial independence and looking to change career paths, I wanted in.
While I noticed early on that conventionally attractive white people were presented as the face of the vegan and farmed animal advocacy movements, I didn’t think about this as my problem. We were animal advocates, so what I had learned about the importance of diversity and inclusion in progressive spaces fell to the back of my mind.
I listened to what the “experts” who came before me deemed the most effective way to help animals, giving little thought to the privileged social positions that many movement leaders held. Since we cared about nonhumans—an unpopular stance in mainstream society—I assumed the movement had evolved past or was immune to other social injustices. I would soon learn that these injustices also permeated vegan and animal rights spaces.
Looking for a movement
When I started university at eighteen, I would have said that I was drawn to the social sciences because I wanted to understand people. What I meant was that I wanted to understand why people suffer and cause suffering—and thus, a sociology major was born.
I lived with a single mom starting from age 12. It was commonplace for her to stay late at work without compensation to make male leaders’ workloads more manageable the following day, or to receive a thank you card for good work while high-ranking partners got golf retreats. She was regularly subjected to inappropriate comments about her appearance, inappropriate offers for dates by clients, and her polite responses sometimes resulted in harmful rumors spread by other colleagues. Through learning of her struggles with class and gender oppression in a large corporate workplace, I entered university already a feminist and anti-capitalist.
For these reasons among many, it was easy for me to find truth in Marxism and gender studies. Yet, the further along in academia I went, the more white- and male-dominated the spaces were. While we were addressing pressing social problems and working on theories of social change and revolution, the learning and work environments were saturated in white male supremacy culture.
As graduate students, the expectation to have academic publications before graduating loomed over us with little support or training to make this feel attainable. Week after week, I found myself in classrooms with the same students speaking up, and the same students remaining silent. It was competitive and alienating, and I assumed that the barriers I faced were due to personal inadequacy or a poor career choice. Even though understanding and addressing systems of oppression had become my life’s passion, I didn’t make the connection that this learning environment was an extension of those very systems.
I didn’t know how to advocate for myself, and my fairly strong theoretical understanding of oppression still left me largely unaware of the impact of my own whiteness. My racial privilege would not enter my consciousness until I entered vegan advocacy spaces.
How was it that I, coming from a graduate program known for its radically left politics, who had taught intro to race studies in the social sciences, missed the ways that white supremacy culture showed up in liberal spaces?
A movement devoid of race
There are many reasons why my own whiteness eluded me, but one in particular that I’ve come to see as common among white vegans stands out: I was operating under the false and dangerous idea that since we include nonhumans in our moral sphere, then we must undoubtedly be on the right side of every other social issue.
The idea goes something like this: if we can extend our ethics and politics all the way to nonhumans, then we must be implicitly including all humans in there too. As someone whose veganism developed from an academic understanding of interconnected oppressions, I was particularly vulnerable to this perspective. Later, I would start to view this as the epitome of passive, non-racist, white liberal thinking, that if we agree that oppression is bad, we must not be part of perpetuating it.
Vegan activism can be an appealing framework for white liberals precisely because it appears all-encompassing. It’s also convenient that nonhuman animals can’t hold us accountable for the quality of our allyship. In practical terms, the decision not to use animals and animal-derived products and encouraging others to do the same in itself does very little in challenging us to face our own role in systems that oppress other humans.
It’s been a difficult realization that studying critical social theory and how oppressions intersect is not enough and doesn’t necessarily lead to creating an equitable justice movement or advancing antiracist efforts.
Initially thinking that going vegan was a catch-all for being anti-oppressive, I adopted the “go vegan” message centered in the mainstream movement and made it my purpose to make more vegans. I was desperate to do something concrete with measurable results after too many years of theory-heavy university life. Being vegan became the litmus test for how I judged others’ progressiveness.
I didn’t consider how advocating for supposedly easy ways to go vegan was not culturally neutral. I didn’t consider that they were rooted in the assumption that our target audience was white, middle class, and non-disabled. Here I was, late-20s, white, educated, and judging people—some of whom had done far more to reduce suffering in the world than I had—for still eating animals.
And yet, I was simultaneously frustrated that animal advocacy wasn’t taken seriously as a social justice issue.
A movement made just for me
When I started volunteering to do vegan activism, I didn’t realize that I was following a path directly made with me in mind. Handbooks on effective activism taught us that helping the most number of animals meant getting as many people as possible to go vegan or reduce their consumption of animal products. To achieve this, we needed to focus on the demographic that was most influenced by this message: college-aged, educated, white women. We were encouraged to “look healthy” and “professional” so that we made veganism look good. Unsurprisingly, these optics were narrowly defined in Eurocentric, classist, ableist, and cisnormative terms.
None of this sat well with me, but I followed along, only to later realize that I am not a woman and the very reasons I was drawn to progressive social issues—a sense of justice born from my own experiences of class and gender oppression—were nowhere to be found in the movement I was assimilating into. I even remember fellow activists telling me that I should attend an animal rights conference because “it’s a huge party where everyone gets drunk and hooks up.” I did not attend until five years later when power dynamics related to gender equity in the movement were exposed in 2018.
After attending the inaugural Gender Equity in Animal Rights Leadership Conference that year and obsessively reading every commentary to be found about problems in the farmed animal protection movement, I came to understand the correlation between the rise in that particular “go vegan” advocacy strategy and the lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) practices in vegan spaces. Veganism and farmed animal advocacy becoming a more central focus for an increasing number of animal protection organizations coincided with a new single-issue advocacy strategy that focused solely on reducing animal suffering and defined the very terms of its own effectiveness.
This approach was borrowed from effective altruism, social psychology, marketing, and sales research to promote individual diet change and institutional welfare reform—in order to purportedly impact the largest number of animals. To its credit, this approach has advanced some aspects of farmed animal advocacy substantially. Individual behavior change encourages aligning actions with values, thereby reducing demand for animal-based products and creating demand for more ethical consumption. Now, institutional animal welfare reform is helping to eliminate some of the cruelest practices in industrial agriculture, and allowing for powerful alliances across the political spectrum. Measuring impact fosters accountability and strategic program planning.
However, this single-issue strategy discounts areas of vegan and animal advocacy that are often led by women of all races and people of the global majority of all genders—such as work on food access and justice, environmental racism, labor and workers rights, and animal rescue and sanctuary.
In terms of organizational culture, this single-issue strategy meant that leaders were recruited and promoted who had little training in anti-oppression and who would therefore recreate sexist, racist, and other oppressive dynamics in the workplace and movement.
This framework circumvents critique in part because it creates its own metrics of effectiveness, often measuring impact by the number of animals spared or the number of individuals reached with the vegan message. While it is undoubtedly important to demonstrate success in terms of animals impacted and information shared, these metrics are educated guesses that may exclude critical facets of social change, such as movement building or addressing economic inequality and access to resources.
At its best, this approach is rooted in a desire to do the most good with the least resources. At its worst, it is a reactionary white savior attempt to “save more animals” and water down a complex system of interwoven oppressions to something more palatable to donors who we assume can’t be radicalized.
By engaging with supporters through a single-issue lens, we may be missing important opportunities to connect on other issues that are important to them. Experts on animal advocacy may be well-positioned, after all, to educate supporters on how our work is tied to social justice and racial equity.
When our movement disconnects animal advocacy from its intersection with other justice issues, we risk reproducing other oppressive dynamics and limiting our potential impact. When we focus on the “numbers game” metrics of effectiveness, we lose the revolutionary potential to re-imagine the human-animal distinction and colonization of nature for human gain, and the potential for an anti-capitalist, anti-racist, anti-ableist, queer vegan movement.
A movement for everyone
My growing unease about single-issue veganism reached a pivotal moment during a typical vegan leafleting session at Toronto’s largest university located in the center of the city. With every vegan leaflet I handed out, I felt more and more like a white missionary trying to save every person I encountered. I could no longer ignore the racial dynamics.
We were white vegans handing out leaflets touting phrases like “Info to help animals?” primarily to students of color. Not only was I uncomfortable with the fact that the other leafletters I saw most often were white evangelical Christian groups, but the lack of active antiracism in my own life flooded into my awareness at that moment, as did all of the privileges that gave me access to this position as “educator” and “bearer of knowledge.”
I had time to volunteer and was privileged enough to do an unpaid internship at a major animal rights organization. I was given professional development opportunities and got promoted. I was given organic mentorship by white leaders. Yes, I was driven. Yes, I was smart and hardworking. Yes, I had to overcome obstacles, but my whiteness opened up these paths with little struggle, and this opening is part of why I found a home in the vegan community. I felt like my skills were useful and appreciated. I was empowered in this space.
Some of that empowerment has been personally wonderful and has pushed me to be a stronger advocate and ally. My own development as an activist led me to come out, first as queer and later as transgender. Working in this space, I’ve developed a deeper understanding of justice work across sectors, connected and collaborated with incredibly dedicated and innovative activists, and am able to write this piece today.
Yet, even with advantages, I faced a lack of belonging in my early experiences in this movement when I brought concerns related to the lack of DEI initiatives in organizations and programs. Some white leaders told me that maybe I belonged in another movement. If I cared about human issues so much, they asked, why was I working in animal advocacy? Didn’t I realize that there were already so many people working on human issues and that the animals needed us?
It took some time for me to realize that this pushing out of people who care about multiple issues and are able to identify organizational and movement-wide oppressive dynamics is an extension of the aforementioned brand of single-issue white veganism. This culture delegitimizes and stigmatizes changemakers from within and labels the desire to implement DEI practices as a mission drift. I could recognize the pattern because I had, in my past academic work, tended to do this very thing by centering class oppression alongside other white Marxists who saw “identity” issues related to race and gender as peripheral and not the “core work.”
I learned, and am still learning, the impact of assuming this kind of authority. It silences the experiences of marginalized people and ignores the sophistication of cross-issue work that sees race and gender as inseparable from class. And now, I recognize how these very components of oppression are inseparable from animal exploitation and advocacy.
Today, I increasingly understand that the work of white vegans is to deconstruct the notion that we need to work in a silo of single-issue veganism in order to help the most animals. We can’t assume the authority to determine what is effective across diverse issues, people, and places. We need to build bridges, not more white vegans.
PJ Nyman is Encompass’s Board Secretary, a Corporate Relations Specialist at Mercy For Animals, and holds a Master’s Degree in Social & Political Thought from York University in Toronto.