tl;dr: Zip it.
Before I begin, let me say for the record — even though it is obscene that I should need to do so — that Black lives matter very much to VINE Sanctuary and to me personally. As VINE staff and volunteers, as members of our extended community of supporters and advisers, and as members of our personal circles of friends and families, people of African descent are integral and deeply valued. We are appalled to live in a world where one of them — no, one of us — might end up dead because some cop mistook him for a scary “thug” or because she forgot to signal a lane change.
Here at VINE, we have cheered and done our small part to amplify the Black Lives Matter movement not only because it represents an exciting development in activism but also because Black Lives Matter matters. Black Lives Matter says, “you may think these lives don’t matter — but they do.” Black Lives Matter says, “you may think racism is over, but check out these facts — it’s not.” The young people at the forefront of Black Lives Matter say, “you may think you can keep on ignoring us — but you can’t.”
This. Is. Beautiful.
Insisting that lives have value? Drawing attention to suffering and death that would otherwise be ignored? Forcing people to face facts? Refusing to quit doing so? Doing so by mixing tried-and-true tactics with new strategies facilitated by new means of communication?
I think that’s what animal advocates are supposed to be doing. We should be paying such close attention to and expressing such sincere solidarity with Black Lives Matter. This is not some sort of competing struggle threatening to siphon off compassion and respect that would otherwise be available for animals. This is, in many ways, exactly the same struggle.
If Black Lives Matter succeeds in the aim of shaking white folks out of their smug complacency, forcing them to see the racism that still exists while also inducing more respect and fellow feeling for persons whose struggles and sorrows are often invisible to those outside of their communities, that would be a wonderful development in and of itself — and for animal advocacy. We need everybody to be more awake, compassionate, and willing to divest themselves of unearned privileges.
But some animal advocates don’t see it that way. Some express the same clueless petulance as the thousands of non-activist white folks who have hopped on Twitter or Facebook to preach that “ALL lives matter” (as if Black Lives Matter were in some way saying that other lives don’t matter) or otherwise express irritation that Black folks are daring to assert their own dignity. When they do so as vegans or as animal advocates, thinking that they are hiding their racial animus by making their chagrin seem to be about animals, that’s both duplicitous and dangerous.
Before I go on, let me be even more clear. I do think that Black Lives Matters matters as an activist movement and I do think that activists of all stripes (including animal advocates) ought to be supporting and learning from it. Non-black activists in other movements ought to be paying particularly close attention and making changes in their own practices accordingly. I say this not only as an experienced activist but also as someone who has studied and taught about the praxis of social change activism.
But this goes beyond social change theory. This is about the reality that some of the people I hold most dear are menaced every day by the mere fact of their Blackness. This is about their consequent vulnerability to harms ranging from microaggressions through discrimination and all the way to possible murder at the hands of racist police.
These are people I love. This is personal to me.
Last Friday, Sandra Bland was on her way to her alma mater for an interview concerning her new job. I imagine she felt excited, or perhaps worried not to be late. In any event, she allegedly failed to signal a lane change. Within minutes, she was on her face with a white man kneeling on her back as he bashed her head against the ground. Within days, she was dead in a jail cell.
I do not and cannot know the constant state of hypervigilance that is a side effect of being Black in the USA. Nor can I know the steady state of worry that every parent of a Black child must experience. But 20 years ago, a Black boy was born while I held his mother’s hand in the delivery room. At 6, this child informed his mother seriously that he would take over the sanctuary “whenever pattrice and Miriam get too old.” At 17, this young man made a point to take time out of his busy schedule of school, part-time jobs, and fun with friends to sit down and really talk with me when I was visiting for the weekend, saying “we haven’t had time to catch up. What’s going on with you?” — and then really listening.
There are not words to express the physical sensation of wanting-to-riot —the blood rushing to my biceps, the throbbing in my head– whenever I am reminded that he and so many other people I love are endangered — remain endangered, after all of these years of struggle! — because of the color of their skin.
So take that under advisement if you hear (or already have heard) anger in my tone. I am really not down in any way with anybody who feels free to denigrate Black Lives Matter. If I could, I would do as Bryant Terry did when he told anybody who feels like that to just unfollow him on Twitter. But, as a white person, I have some obligation to do the work of intervening in the racism of other white folks. And, as an intersectional organization, VINE has an obligation to challenge its followers to be antiracist, even if that means that we lose followers (and donations) sometimes.
So, here goes…
I began this post several weeks ago, provoked by a particularly problematic tweet from the reliably despicable “VeganRevolution” Twitter account. Shortly thereafter, I received the latest of a steady trickle of outraged responses to my “Thug Kitchen” critique of a few months ago. (If you go to that post, you won’t see that comment. I don’t approve racist rants. We’re not here for that.)
I find that I have the same thing to say to both defenders of Thug Kitchen and the hundreds of vegans who starred or retweeted VeganRevolution’s mockery of Black Lives Matter: Stand down. If you cannot bring yourself to educate yourself sufficiently to speak credibly and inoffensively about race or class, then please –if only for the sake of animals– keep your thoughts to yourself.
We have an uphill climb as it is, if we hope to build a broad and large enough movement to topple human dominion over nonhuman animals. We don’t need you blundering around compounding the difficulty by making vegans seem to be as self-righteously clueless as the stereotypes would have it while simultaneously fortifying the very structures of oppression we will need to dismantle in order to liberate animals.
Do you not understand what I mean by that? Have you never given much thought to what it might take, in a world where the majority of people are people of color, to build a movement that is sufficiently diverse and populous to create substantial and sustainable change in the ways that people treat animals? Have you not thought much about how systems of oppression like racism help to maintain systematic exploitation of animals? That’s more evidence that you need to show some self-restraint. Zip your lips whenever you sense yourself about to make any sort of analogy involving race and especially when you feel the urge to vent your pique at any particular group of people
The most recent objector to my Thug Kitchen critique —a person whose email address includes the word “vegan”– began by saying that “this must be the most ignorant rant of BS I have every heard.” This is a common theme among the people posting the most offensive comments on that blog post. People whose subsequent words demonstrate abject ignorance of the most basic facts about the ongoing history of racism almost always begin by characterizing me as a know-nothing and then proceed to talk down to me from the vantage point of their presumably superior knowledge of race relations in the United States.
Not surprising. A key component of ignorance is not knowing what you don’t know. A key component of modern-day whiteness is the arrogant assumption that you already know everything worth knowing about race. And, much to my dismay, there’s no particular reason –since most vegan/animal advocacy organizations make zero effort to educate their staff, volunteers, or members about the cultural and economic context in which they are trying to create change– why white vegans would be any less likely to be as simultaneously ignorant and arrogant as other white folks.
Which brings me back to my main point, which I will repeat until it sinks in. If that’s you: Zip it.
If you’re white and you haven’t yet made some kind of sincere effort to educate yourself about racism, find other ways to help animals. Create recipes. Hold bake sales. Volunteer your time and muscles for tasks that don’t involve talking to the public. If you do make public pronouncements of any kind (including on your own social media feeds), either steer clear of any topic that touches on race or limit yourself to signal-boosting antiracist activists and organizations by sharing their links. Because anything you write, say, or tweet about race is likely to go very wrong. Perhaps that will be because you are not in possession of important facts. Or maybe it will be because your own unexamined biases leak out.
Let’s return to that comment on the Thug Kitchen critique, which will segue nicely into the problematic Vegan Revolution tweet. The commenter begins by denying that “thug” is in any way offensive, moves on to malign Mike Brown while defending police… and then common resentments begin to be voiced directly:
Bottom line here, White people have to watch what they say and do around colored people at all times, but the respect never goes the other way. You are sensitive if someone appears to be looking at you wrong, and at that moment, the racist nonsense all comes flooding. By no means am I saying that there are no racists, just the simple fact, that colored people wanted equality..Correct? When it was given to them, it was not enough. Now they want more, but they don’t want to earn it. So what do they do? Throw the slavery and racism card.
Sigh. It goes on. And this person, this vegan, wanted that comment to be published, for the whole world to see and perhaps forever associate with veganism.
Apart from the use of the word “colored people” (which I will do her the favor of assuming she thinks is an acceptable derivation of “people of color”), I am struck by the the arrogance (equality was “given to” people of color), sense of grievance (“they want more, but they don’t want to earn it”), and –most of all– utter lack of empathy (e.g., even a token awareness that the “more” people are still marching for includes things like not being shot dead by police because of a broken taillight).
Now, normally I don’t let myself get worked up by something that some random person on the internet pops up saying. However objectionable or far-fetched an opinion, some troll will spring up to voice it sooner or later.
But, what I know from years of guiding white people through anti-racist workshops is that these attitudes are extremely common. A significant subset of the U.S. population (including, most troublingly, many young people) believe that racism is over. Because Obama, I guess. And a truly disheartening number of young whites feel themselves to be victims any time any person of color dares to talk about racism. Some even go so far as to accuse antiracist activists of perpetuating racism by talking about the persistence of racism.
There’s a kind of mean-spirited pettiness going on here, an only barely-disguised fear that “more for you means less for me.” I hear this same tone of resentment every time a non-Black person reacts to the simple assertion that “Black lives matter” by presuming this means the speaker is saying other lives don’t matter.
Which brings us to the problematic tweet. As Breeze over at Sistah Vegan pointed out, the Twitter account calling itself “VeganRevolution” recently had this to say:
Let me just say, first, that VeganRevolution is a despicable account. In scrolling through its tweets to get those numbers, I encountered both ableist jokes and sexist rhetoric. I had to use another account to see those tweets, because VeganRevolution has blocked VINE Sanctuary, probably back when we challenged them for running a comic that made fun of sexual assault survivors who don’t like using the word “rape” to describe what is done to cows in the course of forcible impregnation. As I recall the exchange, it was like trying to have a conversation with an AI program designed to “think” with a very limited number of operations and to lash out when flummoxed.
And, I must say that, scrolling through those tweets, I couldn’t shake the suspicion that I might be dealing with a bot… or maybe some people paid by the meat industry in the same way that the Russian state pays people to troll the comments sections of critical newspaper articles… somebody or thing designed to make vegans look ludicrous while ostensibly promoting veganism. Some of the tweets made no sense at all and others seemed entirely random. And then there was the constant stream of self-congratulatory rainbows and faux fist-bumps, which I found it difficult to imagine any one person having the time to create while living any kind of life.
All of which is to say that I find it difficult to expend much effort trying to figure out what the person or people (or bots) behind that account meant to express or do with that tweet. I’m more concerned by the 628 people, presumably mostly vegan, who were moved to retweet an incoherent quip that seems to disparage the Black Lives Matter movement.
Let me disclose something here. While that tweet was being repeatedly retweeted, I was glued to my laptop, clicking back and forth between live streams from my hometown, Baltimore. My heart was in my throat as I watched the high school kids who had gathered for a march at Mondawmin Mall find themselves surrounded by cops who presumed they intended to riot and then did pop off, a childhood’s worth of grief and rage condensed into every rock tossed at the line of helmeted and shielded officers stepping inexorably forward like some sort of robot army determined to assert its authority over their neighborhood. I watched the backpacks bouncing on the narrow shoulders of children fleeing from tear gas, and I worried for their safety in more or less the same measure as I cheered their audacity and hoped that we all might learn something about what is possible when people collectively resist unjust authority.
As day wore into night and the rebellion spread, I continued to wonder and worry. I saw the ebullience of some of the “rioters” and tried to imagine what kind of freedom they might be feeling. But I also felt the worry of mothers whose sons and daughters were in the midst of the melee. I even wondered what the cops were feeling, behind their shields. Were they scared? Angry? Wishing they were anywhere but here? Did some secretly side with the uprising? Did others chafe at the order to refrain from wading in? Were they wishing they could swing those clubs?
That’s empathy, an essential cognitive/emotional tool without which any effort to change the hearts, minds, and behavior of others is doomed to futility.
And so now I am trying to understand how it might be that hundreds of people affiliated with a movement supposedly founded on compassion (fellow feeling) felt compelled, in the midst of so many recent reminders of the precarity of Black life in the USA, to rebroadcast a not-very-subtle put-down of the Black Lives Matter movement
What could possibly be the point of such a tweet? Surely, no one imagines that somebody who does believe that human lives matter more than nonhuman lives might be moved to reconsider that presumption by a tweet that states what seems to them to be a self-evident fact. In other words, there was nothing in that tweet that might encourage a person who believes that every human matters more than any animal to reconsider that belief.
So… convincing people to be vegan, or even to respect animals more than they do, was not the point of the tweet.
The point of that tweet, if not to troll for followers by roiling up controversy, was to express pique, resentment, discontent with the spectacle of Black people asserting their own right to exist. And that’s nothing other than racist ugliness.
Now, let’s be real: Of course it’s true that many –probably most– of Black Lives Matter marchers do assume that human lives matter more than animal lives. That is the default assumption that it is our business to change.
But in Boston and Baltimore and I am sure many other cities, Black Lives Matter marchers have included loud, proud vegan animal advocates, both Black and non-Black. Those are the people who understand that compassion is not a finite resource to be jealously guarded but, rather, a renewable resource that becomes more plentiful each time it is exercised.
They are the people who are in the best position to encourage participants in the Black Lives Matter movement to extend their sphere of concern to include nonhuman animals. When you, as a vegan or animal rights activist, broadcast statements that scold or deride the BLM movement, you are making their jobs much, much harder.
But, again, actually promoting veganism was never the point of that tweet.
Which reminds me to say, one last time: Make up cupcake recipes. Work a well-paying job and donate the proceeds to animal-oriented non-profits. Volunteer your muscles or your time for tasks that don’t include talking to the public. But do not, repeat: DO NOT feel free to vent your spiteful feelings about people of color, or immigrants, or welfare recipients, or any other group of people as a vegan or as an animal advocate. To do so is to place your own petty resentments above the desperate needs of nonhuman animals.
And pu-leeeze be especially careful not to vent your own resentments under the guise of advocating for animals. Because why? WE CAN SEE THROUGH YOU. You think, “Aha! I’m making a subversive point about how little people care for animals.” The rest of the world sees a privileged person using animals at a pretext to vent their prejudices.
Now, look: I know –I know– how hard it can be to retain empathy for people as a class when you daily confront the violence that people visit on non-human animals. If you’re somebody who is just done with people due to the emotional ravages of rescuing and caring for their nonhuman victims, nobody can tell you to feel otherwise. But the thing to do then is recuse yourself from any activism that requires you to have empathy for nonhuman animals too.
So, I’m not telling you you have to participate in a Black Lives Matter march. I am telling you to STFU about BLM and any other social justice movement until such time, if ever, as you regain the capacity to experience empathy for human beings. When you catch yourself about to say (or retweet) something shockingly callous, if not cruel, toward people: STOP. Zip it. If you feel the bile boiling up, go somewhere nobody can hear you and rant all you want about how you don’t give a fuck about any human beings except to wish that we all die as soon as possible, so as to spare the planet and other animals any more suffering at our hands.
If that’s not you, if you are perfectly capable of caring about some people but you find yourself miffed by Black Lives Matter or some other social change movement and feel yourself tempted to justify that mean-spirited feeling by reference to your supposedly superior compassion for nonhuman animals, then I am here to tell you that there is bias hiding behind your self-righteous pronouncements. I understand that it can be very difficult to see such ugliness in oneself, but you must make an effort to see it so that you can root it out.
You can do it. Remember how awful it felt when you realized that you had been doing things that hurt animals? You lived through that, and you came out the other side with more internal integrity.
Don’t make a spectacle out of it. Don’t tweet or Facebook it. Just sit with this question: Why does Black Lives Matter bother me? What stereotypes about Black people might I be harboring? How much do I really know about Black history, about present-day racism, about white privilege?
Don’t act like the people who refuse to take your Why Vegan? brochures, rejecting new information and assuming you already know all you need to know. Do be the person you were when you let yourself learn things you didn’t want to know about animal abuse. That same courage and willingness to confront discomfort will carry you through and inspire you to learn what you need to learn about racism, and then you won’t have to “zip it” any more.
Coda: I hope I haven’t just done what I am always encouraging activists not to do, making myself feel better by preaching to the choir. I know that our blog subscribers and others who fully support VINE’s intersectional approach to animal liberation don’t need this lecture. But the Thug Kitchen post, and some other past posts, have taught me that people do find their way here that don’t already agree with us. I also know that our followers on other social media, where I will share this, include people who support the sanctuary as a sanctuary without necessarily subscribing (or even knowing about) our social justice stance. So, I’m going to go ahead and hit “publish” and hope that at least one vegan activist reads this and reconsiders their former dismissal of racial issues.