Elitism and “The Movement”

There are two updates slapped on to the beginning of this post because of spamming and threats, to skip them please scroll past the last bit of italics and read the post.

note to readers (an UPDATE): someone banned from this site due to increasingly offensive and defensive comments, the bulk of which were not approved, is trying to drag me into a flame war over this post and center herself in the discussion rather than the issues of intersectional oppression and animal rights.  Pls read my post thoroughly as many people have either come here to rant about her misrepresentation of me and this post without reading it or have simply used her space as an uninformed pile on having not even bothered to look at this post.  When you READ the post instead of the privilige +ego-driven post(s) that the other blogger has written about it, I think you’ll find that most of what has been said, including that I am “a non-vegan” “judging” “real vegans” is simply not true, much like her assertion I asked not to be named on her blog. I don’t participate in flame wars and I never spoke to her about my blog or my name being used there, she chose to represent my blog name with a derogatory name she made up and when called on it, said I had asked not to be named to cover it up. (END UPDATE)

(UPDATE TWO) – A reader let me know that after being called out vocally by myself and other vegans of color and allies around the net several of the more offensive pieces of the banned bloggers assault on this blog have been removed, though some remain. It will be hard for readers moving between these two blogs to understand the level of my reaction as a result. But let me be clear, at one point those posts included: (1) a derogatory name for me and my blog, (2) they intentionally mentioned my sexual orientation and mocked my partner (who does not write here or anywhere else on the internet) in ways that could easily have instigated homophobic attack, (3) they blatantly lied about conversations the author and I supposedly had that she used to say she had confirmation from me about my politics and my social background. Editing those items out of her post, does not change the level of emotional violence and potential physical violence that her comments encouraged or engaged in outright, and (4) trotted out her adopted daughter’s race to prove that she was not having issues with a black blogger over race, even though this post does not mention race once. Had these posts been left as written, they would have been the most damning evidence for my point about what happens when privileged single issue vegans are asked to think about the broader implications of their choices and act according to the base principles of their philosophical-political choices like the rest of us. (END UPDATE TWO)

I am a big, BIG, fan of Vegans of Color blog. The questions they ask and the discussions they have are often some of the finest examples of intersectional analysis and respectful engagement out there. And I especially appreciate the way their engagement with Animal Rights runs counter to the public face of the movement, aka PETA, to remind people that issues of oppression are interconnected and that the people engaged in including animals in that matrix of oppression are not all willing to mobilize for animal rights along existing oppressions in a one up, one down hierarchy that negates, recreates, or capitalizes on others suffering.

My respect for the blog and the community it has built are part of the reason I found the conversation about PETA’s latest move so jarring. At the heart of Mcquirter’s post, does second-hand figure into your ethics equation?, was a question about freeganism vs. veganism and which of these better serves animal rights. Unfortunately, the question was couched in unexamined class privilege in which the choice presented for readers was to decide whether homelessness would “complicate their ethics”, ie if they were in the same situation as the homeless women, would they accept animal product donations from PETA (freeganism) or buy designer vegan clothes at the store (veganism). Not only did this question ignore class differences between homeless women and upper class vegans but also was accompanied by the author’s anecdote about freezing for a few hours in winter because she chose to wear vegan shoes rather than support animal cruelty. Her choice to have cold feet while walking to and from heated buildings or a heated car were thus compared to the “failure” to make similar choices on the part of a population who spends 18-24 hours a day outside, unwelcome in most businesses and heated buildings, and thus has a high rate of disability and/or death related to hypothermia regardless of the clothing worn. (UPDATE: Mcquirter has since reframed her argument on her own blog, taking into account much of the discussion at Vegans of Color blog, to shift the focus to issues raised in PETA’s action rather than one of choices in which middle class choices are centered. It is worth looking at how she, as an engaged writer and participant, in the conversation clarified her own thoughts and moved past the paradigm I am deconstructing here.) END UPDATE

My contribution to the conversation was to raise issues with how the concept of choice was being mobilized by the author and the comment makers. I drew a distinction between the class and survival issues of homeless women vs. the class issues of PETA and blog readers (who seemed to think homeless women had the choice to buy anything, let alone winter coats and shoes made all the more expensive because they came with designer labels) and encouraged people to reframe the discussion in terms of intersectionality based on class privilege or antagonism. Essentially I asked why the burden of ethics had been placed on homeless women who were choosing clothes from donations rather than on the people with the power and privilege to donate, ie the people with similar choices to those expressed by post author and comment makers alike.

Many of the people on Vegans of Color blog made similar points about class and other intersecting oppressions without actually addressing the problem of the original scenario in the post. For instance, the comment below, and the subsequent thread it initiated, asked for intersectionality not only in the specific instance of PETA donating furs to homeless women but also in the ways their various anti-fur campaigns work together to uphold oppressions:

I think another factor to consider in this is the intention of PETA in “donating” furs to the homeless. They are doing so to associate fur with people perceived as abject in our society. Rather than a charitable act, it might better be seen as misogynistic, classist, and sometimes transphobic (as Ida @ The Vegan Ideal has pointed out). Whether it perpetuates animal exploitation and/or ecological degradation are only two factors.

While this led to a productive discussion about classism, sexism, and transphobia (albeit marred by anti-intellectualism and potential transphobia), someone later denied the efficacy of intersectionality in ways that should seem all too familiar to women of color working in the feminist movement:

If I were a child advocate, no one would say: “OMG, you mean you hate adults?! Why don’t you speak out for women’s rights as well? Men’s rights?” I do see a connection among oppressions, but when I choose to work on helping a chained dog over helping out at a homeless shelter that’s not because I don’t think homeless people don’t need help, it’s that time is limited and that non-human animals is where I feel I can best make a difference. I get it that humans are offended by this, but working extra-hard to make sure that humans aren’t offended: no thanks.

Much like the white mainstream cis feminists who argue that their focus on themselves with an occasional nod to women of color, trans women, immigrant women, etc. is really about focusing on “women’s issues” and not being distracted by “other issues” because there is so little time in the day … single issue vegans believe that they can somehow parse out animal oppression from the circumstances that uphold that oppression. For single issue activists intersectionality is an affront to their politics because it seemingly moves them beyond their immediate goals, but when one thinks intersectionally, they realize that oppression does not exist in a vaccuum, or as others have put it more succinctly: when one group is not free, no group can know freedom.  Example: When a multi-national agrobusiness takes over all of the viable farm land in rural India, Africa, Asia, or Latin America and then pollutes the ground water, levels forests and mountaintops for roads, arable land, and other infrastructure specific to the company but not the community or the state, many working class people, especially indigenous or other racially marginalized groups lose their livelihoods and become dependent on either the exploitation of animals or people (including themselves or family members) to survive. In the case of the latter, women and girls are usually first to be exploited. They become all the more vulnerable to sexual exploitation, trafficking, forced child or unsafe labor, or early pregnancy (which comes with a series of economic and health complications the younger the mother is) and often get pulled out of schools to work. Uneducated women and girls are all the more exploitable and their conditions often used as a marker for international relief and lending agencies alike. One of the major internationally sanctioned solutions to these issues has been to provide women and girls, and/or villages, with a small animal who can be exploited for both its milk and its meat (ie a breeding program). So by not addressing class exploitation, racism, and sexism because “there is only so much time in the day” you actually help pave the way for more, not less, animal exploitation.

Another comment maker who dared to actually call vegan politics elitest for its failures to examine class privilege while still supporting veganism and its ideals was met with increasing vitriol:

so in order to afford non-organic fruits and vegetables..one has to be privileged? Considering the cost of non-organic veggies such potatoes to the cost of meat…I would think almost anyone can afford to be vegan ( or at least vegetarian ). Also non-leather jackets/shoes are typically cheaper than the animal counterparts.

and this comment

Oh no, I am so tired of hearing how veganism is elitist. It is the least elitist way of eating, far superior to “local” and “happy meat,” and all that other crap.

Certainly there are aspects of vegan eating that can be expensive, but by and large the non-processed foods are a lot cheaper than eating chunks of animal flesh.

These responses, like the original choice offered by the post, assume rather than interrogate class privilege. While fruit and veg is often cheaper than meat, this is not always the case. The cheap-and-subpar-product-stocking -grocery-stores that typify what is available in working class neighborhoods often have meat products on sale for much cheaper than fruit and veg when bought in bulk; and while they can often hide the condition of the meat with packaging and other tricks, they cannot hide the condition of wilting or moldy fruit and veg from their consumers. With regards to cost alone: fruit and veg for a family of 4 costs more than the $1 menu at any fast food restaurant which is mostly meat products, soy or almond milk costs more than cows milk, and prepackaged frozen foods provide a meal for the entire family at a moderate to low cost both in terms of money and labor (tho minimal nutritional value) while similar vegan prepackaged foods cost as much as fine dining. Not to mention that vegan bread and other baked goods can cost up to 5 times more than bread made with eggs and milk and that the same holds true for vegan cheese, yogurt, and other similar items. Even if this weren’t generally the case, and there are always exceptions, most vegan options, beyond fruit and veg, are not available in low income neighborhoods nor are the stores that cater to vegans generally set up to be inviting to working class people or people of color. There is also the issue of cultural costs, in which many working class families base their economic status on the ability to eat meat, ie to afford meat; it is better to eat cheap bad tasting meat for some families than to eat a bevy of produce (when that produce is also bad – wilted or spoiled or spoiling) it makes meat seem all the better. While vegans talk about the social status of meat, they do so from the moral high ground;  rather than effectively address the specific social-cultural meanings of what we eat (ie social capital) and its ties to class (economic capital), many single issue vegans simply disparage working class and poc populations as ignorant and their choices as disgusting. (If someone calls you a fool and the lifestyle of generations of your family and neighbors evil, are you more or less likely to listen to them?)

The first comment maker also assumes that working class people are walking around in animal products rather than synthetics. In most, though not all, cases this is simply not true. While vegans may be intentional about not choosing leather, many working class budgets simply don’t allow for it. In fact, letting go of elitism might open the door for vegans to learn how to transition from animal products cheaply and efficiently from the working class and subsistence level people that they seem to be stigmatizing in this conversation.

(Note the comment maker, like the post author, makes no distinction between working class people and middle class people, so with the exception of the scenario that asks us to question homeless people no one is intentionally singling out the poor. The classism lies in the hegemonic failure to recognize class differences and availability of choices based on class which equates working class people with 1 or 2 pairs of leather shoes -with middle and upper class people with closets full of leather shoes and hand bags. While all are guilty of owning leather in this scenario, part of unexamined class privilege is to sit in judgment of the people with the least for not making choices people with the most can and do. This in turn creates tension between working class non-vegans and middle and upper class vegans along class lines that prevents veganism from appearing to be a viable or relevant option while making it that much harder for working class vegans to impact their communities. The failure to interrogate class, and the willingness to intentionally or unintentionally target and stereotype people with less options as the culprits, once again leads to more animal exploitation not less.)

While the back and forth on the blog shows the caliber of discussion at Vegans of Color blog, and the willingness to engage in heated debate, it seemed to me that by reframing the initial question we might be able to recognize the elitism so many were evading and move forward in a discussion of the issues at hand.

This is how I reframed the question:

When we think about choice, or agency, we have to remember that choices are not made in a vacuum in which power and access are constant.PETA has much broader choices than homeless women do and those choices contribute to the availability of ethical options for homeless women.

So perhaps the better question here is: if you were to donate to a homeless shelter, would you donate the animal products you are clearing out after having gone vegan b/c of a commitment to challenging consumption and waste or would you donate vegan items so as to make available ethical choices to people in need?

In my mind, the new question posed deconstructed classism and moved us to the heart of the matter: freeganism vs. veganism and its place in social justice work. It encouraged readers to continue to think in complex ways about these two positions while moving away from judgment of a population who receives services but often has no say in how those services are offered.

Instead of taking up the challenge to refocus the discussion through the lens of class awareness rather than class privilege, the conversation died almost immediately following this response:

… as I sit here looking at pictures of rescued animals on my calendar I wonder sometimes why human animals still are the major factor for people advocating for non-human animals. Or where those who advocate for both draw their lines? Obviously those of us who call ourselves animal rights activists focus mainly on helping non-humans. Because this has been my focus, and in all honesty I see this continuing, I wonder how others have managed to split the balancel how *do* you balance things between those with absolutely no voice and those with a whisper? Those who, at least on paper, have legal rights and those who do not?

In other words, privilege evasiveness won out. By avoiding addressing elitism and instead repositing a hierarchy of needs in which I was the guilty party for putting human rights first, this comment maker reaffirmed that vegans are “good people” who care about defenseless animals and intersectional animal rights advocates are not because we really only care about humans. Yet if you read my reframed question, I did not put human rights first. What I did was point out that choices are complicated by class and that when we discuss freeganism vs veganism in the context of social justice giving, we need to discuss the choices of the people doing the giving not the people who are freezing to death every single day in this country who take what is available to them. In other words, to support animal rights, we need to ask the people donating products why they are donating animal products when they claim to be animal rights organizations rather than questioning the choices of people who go to the clothes closet and take from it what has been donated.

Underlining the comment maker’s criticism was the not so hidden belief that my pointing out class divisions was some how proof that I don’t care about animals or animal rights. The other side of the coin of course, is that her failure to address classism is acceptable in the name of animal rights. And yet as I pointed out above class inequality in the world is a key factor in the exploitation of animals because of the interconnections between class and animal exploitation; classism in the movement is also a  key factor in the continuation of animal exploitation on the ground because of the failure to reach and/or work in conjunction with working class and subsistence level communities. Thus combating both structural and individual classism is critical to creating lasting global commitment to animal rights.

The sad part about this exchange, besides the obvious, is that it shut conversation down completely on the post. Where some participants had been raising issues of complexity between freeganism and veganism prior, there was now only silence. As if the spectre of oppression, and the potential of having participated in it, however intellectually, was too much to overcome. The fear of being a bigot, or worse the self-righteous denial of oppression in the name of one’s own cause over that of equality, is one of the major reasons why movements fail. When we tell ourselves that our position is right and just and therefore we cannot make mistakes, benefit from inequality, or otherwise uphold a system of oppression, we make it impossible to grow beyond ourselves and engage in radical social change for the equality of everyone. Growth, requires the willingness to fail. It requires the willingness to struggle with other people rather than against anyone who dares to disagree or hold up a mirror. And justice requires complexity and the willingness to look beyond a single issue into how oppressions works across issues. In the same way that the failure to confront racism in mainstream feminism means that women will never gain equality as long as the mainstream is in control because they have already eliminated the rights of the majority of women from the struggle and/or the definition of women’s equality, the failure to address elitism and/or classism in veganism means there will never be animal rights because there will always be poor people whose survival is reduced to engaging in animal exploitation because no one has bothered to create a world in which alternatives are available to them or the alternatives they already engage in are reconstructed as resistance and justice rather than necessity to overcome.

My girlfriend was homeless for a few years during her teens because of homophobia and sexism in her parents’ home and many of the teens we work with in the drop in center are experiencing similar kinds of homeless now. Much of her social justice work has involved confronting elitism and classism on the left and providing tools to grassroots, non-profit, and for profit social change organizations to address class antagonism in the workplace, the communities in which they live and serve, and their movements. And like me, she has come to the conclusion that while most people claim they care about intersectionality and are engaged in their various causes in order to create a just world, the reality is most people are only willing to go as far as their own cause takes them. When things become uncomfortable they retreat to accusations (your critique is proof you really don’t care about X like I do) or to silence. Since many social movements are dominated by the middle class, because they have the free time and the resources to engage regularly in the work, class is a major stumbling block to inclusion, change, and justice.

As a vegan, my girlfriend has often rallied against the elitest space in which vegans often come together like: expensive grocery stores, high priced restaurants, gentrified neighborhoods, and expensive conferences. She points to how these spaces intentionally or sometimes unintentionally police class boundaries so as to be inhospitable to working class people as well as to people of color and how hard it is to examine space within the vegan movement. As she says “space is seemingly neutral and should therefore be an easy place to start”, and yet it never is. If your movement cannot look at the spaces you occupy or in which you move and build, then how can it look at the people and the choices inside those spaces?

My girlfriend’s own experience of homophobia and sexism related homelessness also highlights another key set of intersections missing from single issue vegans’ understanding of animal rights. According to an elitest version of veganism, class is a non-issue and any discussion of intersectionality threatens animals and the environment. Yet 1000s of kids end up homeless every year because of homophobia and transphobia and many young girls end up on the street because it is seemingly safer than their own homes. Most of these “throwaways” (kids cast out by their parents) do not have the economic support systems to find alternative housing with other relatives or friends and many are too young and inexperienced to know how to access the system in ways that benefit rather than disempower them. When these youth are cold or hungry, they access donations and cheap food options. And as we have already established, unless donors with more economic choices make ethical donations, that means that homeless youth are participating in animal exploitation in the clothes they select from the clothes closet and the food they are given. So that while the single issue vegan activist is staring at her pics of abused animals and refusing to address classism or rallying to rescue a defenseless and abused dog all the while claiming there is not enough time in the day to address homophobia, sexism, classism, racism, etc. what they are really doing is helping to ensure that animal exploitation continues by failing to address either the people with the choice to do things differently or the circumstances that encourage people with fewer choices to unwittingly participate in animal exploitation. By not looking at the big picture single issue vegans are part of the very problem they organize to end.

I began this post by saying what a truly revolutionary space I think Vegan of Color blog is in a sea of other status quo spaces. The conversations that go on there certainly indicate an ability for blog writers and comment makers alike to address class as a critical intersection within the animal rights movement. While I am sad to see the way this conversation came undone, I do still believe that Vegan of Color blog can and will address classism better than it has been addressed in the past. This momentary lapse into recrimination and silence is really a mirror of the larger movement and its ongoing failures than it is about the women who write the blog and the people who work out complex ideas there, so I hope this post nudges them to keep talking. And as proof of my optimism, here is another comment I initially missed:

when i worked in this area there were a lot of non veg decisions i’ve made because it wasn’t about my politics. i did my best to create choice so all needs were met on what was available. there were a few recent vegetarians in the group due to the fact that one big area (not being homeless) had been taken care of. i made sure there was food to take care of their needs too. being veg sometimes is a luxury.

Update: The author of the original post on Vegans of Color blog, has written a more complex series of questions and thoughts about the PETA giveaway on her own blog as well. Like others at Vegan of Color Blog active participation in the conversation and taking time to think through the complexities raised seemed to help her deconstruct the initial classism and reconstruct the post with out it as a result. The new version of the post also seems to be more in keeping with other themes on her own blog by and about black vegans. check it out here.

40 thoughts on “Elitism and “The Movement”

  1. Pingback: Examining Classism in Vegan Rhetoric « Vegans of Color

  2. I was linked here via Vegans of Colour.

    I really appreciated your reframing of the question, and the way it had/has the potential to open up discussion. Veganism can be really elitest, and your comments and this post have me thinking about the unquestioned classism that occurs (both within vegan communities, and in myself).

    I skimmed past the original post when it first went up, and ignored it on the grounds that it would be a lot of people debating a marker of privilege (choice) and that didn’t interest me, but I would never have considered the reframing to an ‘ethical giving’, even though in my job (which has to do with environmental + social sustainability education) I talk about ethical giving all the time, but in terms of environmental issues. It’s (for me at least) a byproduct of my class status – I promote (for example) the extra expense that might be involved in choosing ethical giving, but I don’t think of it in the reverse, that of the choices of others who might not have that cash. So thanks for making the comment, and making the point.

    And now that I have read the comments…well, I’m really glad for some of them, too.

    Sorry for the rambling paragraph!

    • I am glad you are out there teaching ethical giving in whatever form you already have been and I am equally glad that this post helped expand your existing thinking on it.

      The hardest struggles are always targeting the systemic oppressions and the ones we carry in ourselves but hopefully we strengthening each other to do that every day.🙂

  3. Did you know that ALL nonhuman animal rights issues combined have a smaller budget than ONE human disease? According to The Animal Activist’s Handbook by Matt Ball and Bruce Friedrich, Planned Parenthood took in 30 times more money than the largest AR organization. Catholic Charities took well over 100 times more to work on poverty issues. And cancer gets thousands and thousands of times more money devoted to it than is contributed to every single issue related to animal rights.

    Our resources ARE finite. That doesn’t mean we can’t involve interesectionality, but it does mean that if we want to accomplish anything at all, we must prioritize.

    It’s not “single issue” to promote veganism in a way that reaches the most people effectively. It’s TRIAGE.

    • Actually as an animal rights advocate, I did know abt the funding issues and struggles of vegan activists, and I find your assumption that I didn’t and your insistence that I am both clueless and uninvolved in animal rights because I draw a distinction between single issue vegans and intersectional vegans telling.

      I would suggest that you read the 3 examples in this post again: agrobusiness, grocery store/grocery shopping, and homelessness. As I’ve shown in these examples, when you work on a single issue to the exclusion of others you support animal exploitation as surely as do those who exclude animal rights in the name of their single issue.

      • My definition of vegan, and the accepted one from the Vegan Society – the people who coined the term “vegan” – allows for someone to consider themselves vegan even if the used some animal products so long as those animal product uses were unavoidable. So… it seems to me that your entire argument rests on a definition of “vegan” that includes elitism, not on the actual definition of vegan.

        When I go out and leaflet with Vegan Outreach materials to college students – which are written in a way that appeals to a majority of people and does not include any discussion of other forms of oppression – I am in NO WAY supporting other oppressions. I am merely focusing the discussion on one topic: eating animals. I am encouraging students and faculty to choose alternatives.

        You can call it “single issue” if you want and say it’s being elitist, but it’s simply not a fair criticism. There’s not enough time in the day to work on all the issues that need attention. I HAVE to choose and so I choose the issues and the activities that have the most potential to make a real difference for animals, the environment, and public health.

      • Elaine you are still lecturing me as if I do not know what vegans or veganism is (or @ least positing your def as The def) and refusing to address the material in this post. Rather than debate with you, I want to draw your attention to the irony of a portion of your own comment and how it is related to my point abt unexamined class issues:

        When I go out and leaflet with Vegan Outreach materials to college students – which are written in a way that appeals to a majority of people and does not include any discussion of other forms of oppression – I am in NO WAY supporting other oppressions.

        By nature of being in college, students and faculty are more privileged than the people being discussed in either this post or the post at Vegans of Color blog. Not only does your outreach not reach the people discussed, but also note how you targeted the most privileged people on campus as well, leaving out staff, janitorial and food service workers in favor of students and faculty, even though many of these positions could have more impact on the overall veganism of the campus:

        I am encouraging students and faculty to choose alternatives

        .

        You are clearly personalizing my attempt to get you to actually sit down, read, and think about the three examples in the post. While this allows you to avoid the issues raised about those specific examples, in order to talk about needed activism, your comment still illustrates my overall point about classism and elitism. No one is faulting you personally for the activism you do or questioning the need for it. And no one is saying that organizing around animal rights is wrong. Nor, as you imply, does this post argue that ALL vegans are engaged in elitism or classism.

        Until you are willing to at least question why you feel you can come into my space and lecture me about vegans b/c I draw a distinction between single issue vegans and intersectional ones (especially having been sent here from a blog whose tag line states “Because we don’t have the luxury of being single-issue“) I don’t see how we can have a productive conversation. Disagreement is one thing, lecturing me as if I know nothing about veganism or vegan activism is another.

        I do hope that at some point you take time out to actually think about the content of this post and the issue of classism in social movements, including veganism.

  4. I am a vegan now and I have been wondering how to expand activism to include more working class people and the poor. Most literature is aimed at people who are privileged.

    I have been homeless myself. I was a vegetarian as much as possible but eating at soup kitchens this was not always possible. I didn’t even think about non-animal clothing – I took what was warmest in winter; coolest in summer. I was accused of being ungrateful when someone offered to buy me a 99 cent burger and I asked instead for a 99 cent baked potato.

    Now I am on my feet again I try to donate vegan food to food banks- including food that is ready to eat for those who don’t have cooking facilities.

    Just because organizations that help humans have more resources than organizations whose focus is animal rights doesn’t mean vegans should ignore human issues- if we want people to go vegan we have to care about all people – including the poor and the homeless.

    • @blondiefk – I can’t even imagine yelling at someone because they ask for a same priced alternative to what you offer them. I’m sorry that happened to you, but I also think it illustrates how deep the connection between classism and animal exploitation is for some ppl.

      And thanks for reframing that other discussion back to the pt, ie that caring for everyone is not the same as refusing to care for someone.

      @EVERYONE – for focusing on what I saw as underlining issues in the past exchange w/ Elaine instead of just pointing out the inconsistencies briefly & letting you all sort it for yourselves, you have my apologies.

  5. Thank you for this post, because as a middle-class white vegan who runs a vegan grocery store (hi, it’s near the local university), I am concerned about the role I play in perpetuating the elitism of veganism. Like blondiefk, I’m trying to find ways to expand the accessibility of veganism (working the system to be able to accept EBT was the first step) without presumptions of middle class. I struggle with the very question, “is helping middle-class folks go vegan the first step, so then it’ll be easier for underprivileged people?” And related to the original post, when I receive non-vegan samples at work I send them to the food bank, then wrestle with my decision. (rolling my eyes at myself, here.) In fact, I struggle with sounding like the many who, like Elaine, feel self-important enough to defend their actions/positions, as if they are the ONLY ONES who can save the animals and therefore they cannot POSSIBLY do anything else.
    While I use this Peter Singer quote in my email sig line, “When nonvegetarians say that ‘human problems come first’ I cannot help wondering what exactly it is that they are doing for human beings that compels them to continue to support the wasteful, ruthless exploitation of farm animals,” I am tempted to turn it around on vegan activists: what are you doing for animals that is so important that you’re willing to ignore human oppression and exploitation?
    Then I remember that I have fast-selling, popular products in my store that were, most likely, made by low-wage labor in China, and I shut myself up.🙂

    • I love that you have a sense of humor about your self-reflexivity as much as the fact that you are being self-reflexive about your choices.

      I think the first step in the puzzle is trying to resist the urge to think in either/or and start thinking in both/and, so that the work done w/ middle class ppl matters AND the work should come from an intersectional decolonized place. Nobody expects anyone to drive three towns over to get to a vegan store run by working class poc (is there one?) but while shopping at the white middle class vegan store why not advocate for ppl who work there and/or own it to think abt opening one in a working class neighborhood or get involved in garden programs that help build community veg gardens in working class neighborhoods and empower elders and youth to take care of their own (of course checking the classism in that as well). In other words, I think intersectionality is often this “big chore” that’s going to “suck up your whole life” but really it’s just about being mindful and intentional and seeing how oppressions work together.

  6. mmm, “both/and” will help me when I’m stuck, thank you. It’s true – none of us know what our lives will look like 10, 20 years from now, so it’s ok that we’re still figuring out how to make veganism more accessible *right now* so long as we keep the big chore of intersectionality in mind as we move forward.
    Can you clarify a sentence in your post for me? You wrote:
    “In the same way that the failure to confront racism in mainstream feminism means that women will never gain equality as long as the mainstream is in control because they have already eliminated the rights of the majority of women from the struggle and/or the definition of women’s equality, the failure to address elitism and/or classism in veganism means there will never be animal rights because there will always be poor people whose survival is reduced to engaging in animal exploitation because no one has bothered to create a world in which alternatives are available to them or the alternatives they already engage in are reconstructed as resistance and justice rather than necessity to overcome.”
    So, are you saying that framing (or reading into) a basic survival activity as “resistance/justice” (“I was just trying to get home,” said Rosa Parks) is a fairly typical classist maneuver that works *against* progress? Or that it places an unfair burden on the actor to be/do more than they are (“you’re an inspiring symbol of the Civil Rights movement!”) rather than simply helping the movement? Or am I just totally not getting some other meaning?
    Thanks!

    • the quoted section is about focus. When you focus on a single issue to the exclusion of the other issues upholding it, you are making small changes in a large system rather than addressing the big change any movement claims to be invested in. So using pay as an example: mainstream feminism has been successful at opening some doorways to capital and bumping the salary of women in some states up as “high” as 90 cents to the white male $ (average is still 75 cents tho); but when you break that down by race Native American women on average make 30 cents to the white male $ so that *women’s* lives are not in fact improving. Women of color still make nothing in comparison to white male $1 and white women’s income is still held down by gendered politics that note how little other women are being paid and see it as a gender issue. ie when a Native American woman makes 30 cents b/c she is a woman (of color) then why should a white woman make a $1 goes the logic of the sexist in charge? so failing to work on ALL women’s issues disempowers both the women left out of the organizing (intentionally or unintentionally) and the women who make small gains.

      The example your comparing it to is not about focus but rhetoric. Parks was being both sarcastic and ironic; she was tired of being singled out for doing what most black women on the bus wanted to do and trying to reframe the discussion in terms of humanity rather than exceptionalism. Parks was a member of the WPC, a women’s run civil rights organization who chose Parks for the face of the bus boycott. Primary resource data and interview data shows that her actions were intentional and planned, though it is unclear if the day she made her stand against transportation segregation was chosen by the group or simple a day in which Park’s was “sick and tired” to quote Fannie Lou Hammer. You can read more about the WPC and the bus boycott history by using the link to my post (and the links within it) under the AfAm Herstory Posts at the top of the blog.

      I do also want to caution about this phrase in your comment:

      the big chore of intersectionality

      I don’t think intersectionality is anymore complex than trying to figure out how to liberate monkeys from a lab or hold a big corporation responsible for polluting the amazon. One of the things that makes oppressions hegemonic is that they convince us it is natural to think one way and unnatural or difficult to think another.

  7. (And I think I should clarify that when I wrote, “rather than simply helping the movement,” what I meant was that the person who pats the actor on the back should worry less about framing the action as “resistance” and should worry more about whether their own actions are helping the cause.)

  8. I really appreciate this post. I grew up in a very poor county and was supported by a single, working-class mom after my dad passed. I still had it better than many people I knew, though, so I don’t even consider myself then as “poor”. In fact, back then I thought we were rather rich in comparison!

    I’ve been very lucky and now, not just by my own doing, I find myself firmly in the middle class and a vegan who truly appreciates the choices I have. I am frequently taken aback, though, by the elitism I see. It was bad enough in college where I heard people say stuff like, “Well, it’s THEIR fault for being poor! They’re just lazy and don’t want to go to college like the rest of us!” But now, as part of the vegan community, I am often very disappointed by some people who show so little compassion for their fellow human animals.

    Indulging in feelings of moral superiority might make us feel better, but it is not without a price. It tends to make us complacent, hurt and turn away people, and hurt the movement, as well. That’s why I encourage people to — as much as possible — try to withhold judging people harshly, especially when we have no clue where they’re coming from. It is much better, in my opinion, to focus on choices — and not just judging those choices, either, but working to give people more, better choices and educating them about the choices they do have without assuming too much. Indeed, the first step in helping them is to educate *ourselves* about what choices they truly have.

    Of course, even the most privileged people will often make the wrong choice and disappoint you, but sometimes people will surprise you when you give them a real chance.

    • thanks for sharing your story with us and regrouding the fact that vegans come from all classes (a point I touch on in the post, but needs more highlighting). I just wanted to highlight this part of your comment, because I think it is spot on:

      working to give people more, better choices and educating them about the choices they do have without assuming too much. Indeed, the first step in helping them is to educate *ourselves* about what choices they truly have.

      and to that, I would simply add, we all make choices every day about who will consider important and who will not, about who will empower or stand in solidarity with and who we will not, many times those choices are unconscious and naturalized but in the same way that we can find it in ourselves to stand up for animals in a world that says that choice is stupid and idealistic we can find it in ourselves to see how standing up for animals includes standing against all of the issues that bleed into their exploitation.

  9. Excellent post – but this quote concerned me:

    In the case of the latter, women and girls are usually first to be exploited. They become all the more vulnerable to sexual exploitation, trafficking, forced child or unsafe labor, or early pregnancy (which comes with a series of economic and health complications the younger the mother is) and often get pulled out of schools to work. Uneducated women and girls are all the more exploitable and their conditions often used as a marker for international relief and lending agencies alike.

    Actually, globally men and boys are more likely to be trafficked than women and girls – the demand for laborers, not females to fill brothels, is highest in the traffickign world. In both the Caribbean and Latin American, boys are more likely to be pulled from school and made to work than girls. I really appreciate your analysis of the thread at Vegans of Color – but I think that your comment on women and girls being the first to be exploited buys into the idea of non-white, non-Western people as sexist i.e. when times get tough THOSE PEOPLE through females under the bus — something non-white, non-western women scholars such as Dr. Haunani Trask, Dr. Ifi Amadiume, Dr. Oyewumi Owerike, Barbara Namri Aziz, Dr. Fuambai Ahmadu, Dr. Catherine Acholonu, Dr. Molara Ogundipe, and Dr. Mojubaolu Ogundipe have all condemned.

    • While I think you are right to point to how the discourse of sex trafficking masks other forms of trafficking and posits a liberated West over an exploited “Rest”, that is not the paradigm I am working in here nor what the full section you quote from says. You’ll note in that section that I actually refer to sex trafficking specifically when I am talking about it followed by a short list of other exploitations alongside it (see my emphasis below to same quoted section):

      In the case of the latter, women and girls are usually first to be exploited. They become all the more vulnerable to sexual exploitation, trafficking, forced child or unsafe labor, or early pregnancy (which comes with a series of economic and health complications the younger the mother is) and often get pulled out of schools to work. Uneducated women and girls are all the more exploitable and their conditions often used as a marker for international relief and lending agencies alike.

      While that list does not cover everything, I wanted certain issues to stand out b/c of the statistics surrounding them (particularly those that have to w/educational attainment, health risks, and infant and maternal mortality & their links to global capitalist exploitation). So, in the section you quote, it should be clear that I was referring to exploitation in general, ie factory labor, domestic labor, household labor (ie exploited in their own homes), as well as sex work. Unless you are assuming that all of the complications listed are coming from sex work, which they are not. Just to clarify language here: Trafficking refers to the movement of people and goods for any number of reasons, sex trafficking is explicitly about the movement of people for the sex industry (within sex trafficking there are people who have some or quite a bit of knowledge about what they will be involved in and others who have less or possibly none), and forced or unsafe labor can occur independent of trafficking, hence why I single all three of these terms out.

      I would also point out that the statistics surrounding education show quite clearly that around the world girls are the first to be pulled from schools, the last to be given food, and the first to be sold in households with girls to exploit. These statistics are available through WHO, UNHCR, WB, AI, etc. as well as local studies done by both western and indigenous feminists and NGOs. All of these groups conclusions are based on triangulated data and many of them represent longitudinal research often supported by participant oberservation or PAR. And unless you are referring specifically to the “brain drain” and/or the out migration of men and boys, I’m not sure how you concluded that boys are more exploited in LACs since this unsupported by any major data source.

      Finally, I’m glad to see so many of my colleagues and/or scholars I admire in your list of must reads at the end of your comment. I hope people reading this thread get a chance to look some of their work up and continue the broader discussion of imperialist feminism, west vs. rest, etc. that they discuss. (You can also find some of their work highlighted here on the blog)

  10. Hi Prof Susurro,

    Thanks for your thoughtful reply. Please understand I’m not trying to argue – just discuss. As I noted earlier, I think this post is great. I’m still don’t agree that women and girls are the first to be exploited or that girls are first to be pulled from school and my sources include the International Labor Office and the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour.

    • I think we are both OT here but also both just clarifying not arguing. That said, I really do think you need to expand your primary resource reading on the topic b/c the global trends in longitudinal studies are pretty clear & they don’t all come from outside looking in but also from internal orgs.

      @Everyone here should always cross check any facts or figures discussed (including the ones I put forward) for your own knowledge.

      to get us back on point, one of the major solutions to global poverty is animal exploitation which makes sexism, clasissm, and veganism interconnected regardless of what side of this issue you choose to take. I would encourage everyone participating in theis convo or thinking about it, not to lose sight of that

      • I’m having a bit of trouble understanding this point. If there is a starving family in Thailand, and I send them a cow for milk, meat, and possibly a small cottage industry, how is that perpetuating sexism and classism? Is it based on the assumption that there is an overall system which caused the family’s poverty which is also responsible for causing the exploitation of women?

      • sorry it took me so long to answer this Gen. In your example, you wouldn’t be participating in sexism or classism, you’d be trying to address them through animal exploitation. This is why single issue is an issue no matter which issue you think of as your “cause”

  11. To clarify, I’m not saying that girls are never first in any country to be pulled from school – I’m saying that the research I’ve read doesn’t show that the idea that girls are the first pulled from school is necessarily true of just any given country.

  12. Thank you for discussing this issue, both here and on the Vegans of Color blog. When I read the original post on VOC, I thought, “I can’t afford Franco Sarto boots.” And I don’t consider myself to be poor and I’m certainly not homeless.

  13. I just wanted to add: Not only are fresh fruits and vegetables less available in some areas, but food banks are stocked with government-subsidized meat and dairy products. To bail out these failing industries, the U.S. federal government buys surplus meat and dairy products and, at least at my local food bank, the bulk of the food available for lower class families is this government surplus non-vegan food.

    • I just saw a chart that compared the food pyramid to a government subsidy pyramid that clearly linked meat consumption with subsidies. I haven’t been able to verify the facts on the chart so I haven’t put it up on the blog yet, but your comments definitely resonate with that.

  14. Excellent post.

    Unfortunately, animal liberationist movements (like feminism, anarchism, etc.) can become elitist, single issue movements, as you have pointed out very well.

    I come from a place of privilege meaning I have the choice to go vegan. I am university educated. I have the luxury of working for a job that supports my activism. All that other stuff.

    And while I agree that we are all doing what we need to do to survive (which means very different things to different people) and do have finite resources (emotionally, physically, financially) we absolutely MUST participate in intersectionality politics.

    Being animal liberationist means nothing if it means oppressing other marginalized groups, as PETA has a long history of doing. And I don’t even need to necessarily pick on PETA. I personally find the inaccessibility of university activism a real thorn in my side. That doesn’t mean that I begrudge the activism that happens on campus, or that I believe that it shouldn’t happen at all, but that I am so sick and tired of students refusing to see their privilege as well as privileging on-campus activism over community activism.

    Monika

  15. Pingback: We have to choose. We have to focus.

  16. Pingback: … & the rest of you can wait « Vegans of Color

  17. Pingback: Pushing Animals To The Margins

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    • Thanks for letting me know, I appreciate you adding your voice and your nuance to the discussion. As I said @ your blog, I do think the issue of intended audience and also actual audience are really important additional layers when working in the blog medium.

      • Hmm. You said you left a comment in my blog but it did not appear…is my blog not recognising you? Is that even possible? I am not censoring you!

      • I did leave a comment, I tried twice b/c the permissions you have set often block me for some unknown reason. (for those using that blogger system that requires a person to verify their id using the blog username, etc. that system seems to filter me out a lot)

        Anyway, I just said thanks for adding your voice to the convo. Glad to be reflecting on the ideas of authorial voice and audience. And also that it was actually the original blog author who framed the discussion as choice, not me, I was just expanding on that framework in order to question why we were looking at homeless women’s choices but not PETA’s, or equating them & what that meant for class solidarity in the movement.

        I can try and send it again …

      • ok, I just tried again using my blog name, username, name/url, and anonymous (just signing comment at bottom) and none worked … You may wanna check with blogger b/c that hasn’t happened before. But then again, it may be my error somewhere … don’t know

  19. Bravo…well written. These issues continue on completely unabated it seems…recently on Free From Harm, I’ve been informed that racial/gender/class distinctions no longer matter, that discusses these issues means I don’t care about the animals, and then I was graciously diagnosed with a mental illness. Pretty gross: http://academicabolitionistvegan.blogspot.com/2013/06/on-moral-relativism-post-racism-and.html

    I’m glad to see there are others who are fighting to bring these issues to light.

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