This post was last updated on January 29th, 2019
Civil rights advocate Kimberlé Crenshaw first introduced the term “intersectionality” to feminist theory in 1989 as a way to describe the ways in which different forms of discrimination and oppression overlap. She pointed out that racism and sexism did not take place independently and that our different identities form one new identity. Crenshaw explained that it was not simply enough to include black women in either the feminist or anti-racist discourse (both of which they had been excluded from), but that the specific forms of oppression and discrimination that black women face for being black women needed to be addressed: Black women did not suffer racism and sexism separately (consider the long history of sexual violence against black women in the US) – they had to deal with specific types of oppression targeted at black women specifically.
Patricia Hill Collins expanded Crenshaw’s theory, but the main point remained the same: When identities overlap discrimination does as well. Oppression occurs on multiple levels which need to be thoroughly examined.
Intersectionality is particularly popular in the context of feminism because traditional feminism has excluded women of color. After the Women’s March, after the current US President was sworn into office, a lot of people voiced their concern about the lack of inclusion of trans-women.
On the other end of the spectrum, white women have said that they felt left out by the march’s agenda. The largest female group in the US felt left out because things were not going to be only about them any longer. They conveniently forgot their own complicity in the oppression of non-white women: the fact that the white feminist movement did not support black suffragettes; the lack of vocality about the concerns of black mothers who have to fear for the lives of their children, Latinas who are more likely to be sexually exploited, Muslim women who are the target of Islamophobic attacks on a regular basis.
The fact that these issues were being addressed more openly made white feminists uncomfortable, and they wanted people to stop the “infighting.” Just as much as many men find it uncomfortable to acknowledge that men discriminate against women, white feminists are having difficulties accepting their participation in the oppression of women of color.
All of this is relevant to veganism as animal rights cannot be achieved when human rights are not acknowledged yet.
As a progressive Muslim feminist vegan, my different identities help me to understand the importance of intersectionality, but, unfortunately, many people in the vegan community focus exclusively on animal rights. In fact, many vegans completely disregard the rights of other oppressed groups which alienates members of those groups. It is, unfortunately, not uncommon to hear vegans compare the oppression of animals to the oppression of women, people of color, and religious minorities.
Generally, this comes from a position of privilege. Like intersectionality, privilege is a term we have been hearing more about in recent years, as people of color and other oppressed groups have been fighting to make our voices heard.
A white male vegan atheist or Christian might think that animal rights are the only thing that matters because he has never had to experience discrimination or actual oppression.
While there are incredibly many vegan people of color, the fact of the matter is that people who struggle to have their own rights respected do not always have the luxury (privilege) to care about animals. Naturally, white vegan elitists will consider such a statement as un-vegan and a sign of not supporting animal rights, but please consider that black parents in the US have to worry every day about whether or not their children might get killed by a cop that day simply for being black. The amount of stress that black people in the US are under make it more difficult for them to seek out information about the oppression of animals. And when animal rights advocates use the slogan “All lives matter” they show a complete lack of understanding of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Similarly, vegans like to claim that real feminists should be vegan because of the way female animals are treated. However, rape analogies are obviously not helpful when trying to build with feminist organizations, especially since such analogies are simply used for shock value. If these white vegan men cared so much about women’s rights then there would be more women in higher positions in vegan organizations. Instead, women’s bodies are used as a way to attract attention. Sexist ads are frequently utilized by vegan and animal advocacy groups without considering their implicit participation in forms of oppression.
A world in which racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, and other forms of discrimination and oppression are simply committed by vegans instead of non-vegans is not really a better world than the one we live in now.
Consider this quote by Alphonse de Lamartine: “You don’t have two hearts, one for humans, the other for animals… You either have a heart, or you don’t.”
This quote is often used by vegans and animal rights activists to rightly show that our empathy needs to extend to non-human animals. However, these people often forget that the key point is the statement that you either have a heart, or you don’t. If you only care about animal rights but don’t consider the rights of people of color, LGBTQI people, religious minorities, women, disabled people, and the lower class, then you clearly don’t have a heart.
We don’t all have the time to dedicate ourselves to every cause in the world, and it’s perfectly fine for me if you focus on one thing. However, if you cannot support the other causes by direct action please don’t display any behavior that reinforces the oppression of marginalized groups.
Who Are Privileged White Vegan Men?
The underrepresentation of vegans of color in vegan media outlets directly contributes to the belief that veganism is a white cause. The fact that there are hundreds of vegans of color who are very active but never spoken about testifies to the fact that for the vegan movement to choose you as their poster child you better be white and male, or, if you are a woman, you better fall into white standards of beauty which can be taken advantage of to “help the cause.” When veganism is represented largely by white men or attractive white women, this doesn’t allow other people to feel like they could become part of the vegan movement. Here, I should also mention the fat-shaming that has become an epidemic in the vegan community.
Intersectionality helps people who are privileged in some ways and not in others understand the concept of privilege. A white woman doesn’t have the same privilege that a white man has. A poor, gay, white man might be able to understand that he has white privilege but not class privilege. When people understand that nobody is saying they’ve had it perfectly easy they can begin to understand how much more difficult it is for a black, transgender, overweight woman.
Where’s the relevance to veganism in all of this? Vegans need to understand that non-human animals are not the only ones that are suffering.
Veganism is becoming more and more consumerist which is antithetical to the fight against classism. What many vegans don’t realize amid all their hopes for changing the world for the better is that the amount to which veganism has become a commodity will, in fact, change very little even if the entire world population went vegan. In a capitalist system, that would still mean that people of color would have to work to sustain the lifestyle of white people. People of color would continue to have less access to food because rich white people would want more variety. Women would still be sexually exploited (PETA do a great job of showing how much vegans love to objectify women). So with all that, what’s in it for the underprivileged people of the world if they go vegan?
It is, therefore, important to listen to the voices of vegans of color and learn from them, rather than trying to control “the movement.” Intersectionality is not something that should be hijacked by white men to appear more hip, it means to step back and listen to those people who are dealing with oppression and discrimination. It is not the time to appropriate the term intersectionality which was coined by black feminists and simply use it to make veganism more approachable. If the concern for other oppressed groups is not real it isn’t worth much. If you are only willing to support Black Lives Matter to convert black people to veganism you are being dishonest.
Analogies to rape, genocide, and slavery are appropriating the struggle of oppressed groups for white vegan men’s savior complex. These analogies send a very clear message to black people, women, Jews, and other oppressed groups: “We will use your suffering to promote our own values because we live in a society where marketing is everything, and shocking images build a following. We don’t care about you or your struggles unless we can use them for our own goals.”
Whenever this kind of behavior is criticized, people are being shut down, accused of racism themselves (!!!) and told not to divide vegans, when the real division comes from those who are sacrificing fellow humans for their own cause. Ironically, the same people who call meat eaters speciesists, care very little about members of their own species.