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Animal rights, human rights: Interlocking oppressions and finding allies

The oppression and exploitation of animals and humans are interlinked. Discrimination and abuse occurs through a process of ‘othering’ by a dominant group to an ‘inferior’ group, whether on the basis of race, gender or species. Katrina Fox looks at how privilege and oppression manifest in social justice movements, and how the more aware we become of our own privilege and oppression, the more we may be able to build alliances and gain allies.

15 May 20111

When I talk about interlocking oppressions, this is based on the theory of intersectionality which, at its most basic, is the realisation that nothing is single-issue.

Animal rights is not just about animal rights. Feminism is not just about ‘women’s rights’. Anti-racism work is not single issue. Queer rights campaigning is not single issue.

The reason why none of these social justice areas are ‘single issue’ is because cutting across all them are a range of issues that involve privilege and oppression.

When we talk about feminism as ‘equality for women’ and that women must not to be discriminated against, we have to ask, ‘Which women?’ My experiences as a white, middle-class woman are very different to a black, working-class or migrant woman.

I may experience oppression as a woman and as a lesbian, but I benefit from white and class privilege.

While we may be conscious of ways in which we are disadvantaged and experience oppression, many of us are unaware of privileges we benefit from.

White privilege

Take white privilege. One of the key articles in this area is Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh, who says “I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious.”

In other words being born with white skin confers a number of privileges that are so automatically assumed that we don’t even recognise them or consider them. Unexamined privilege such as this results in white people often being oppressive unconsciously ie without realising it.

McIntosh has created a useful checklist of conditions that white people – because of their skin privilege generally benefit from, for example:

I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.

When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.

I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.

Of course it’s not as simple or straightforward as that. Other aspects also impact on a person’s ability to assimilate into society and have access to equal opportunities. These include: class, sex, gender identity or expression, able-bodiedness, sexual orientation, body size and of course species membership.

Considering all the aspects

Intersectionality is not about ranking oppressions and making a rush to the bottom to declare who has it worst. All that does is sanction the hierarchies of power that maintain the marginalisation of certain groups of people as well as non-human animals.

It’s about considering all the different aspects tied up with an issue. For example, if you get rid of your leather shoes after becoming vegan and replace them with a pair of synthetic shoes from Kmart, those shoes may be the product of sweatshops and slave labour.

As my friend Stephanie Lai put it in her article and presentation on addressing racism and classism in animal rights activism: “You’re swapping an agonised animal for an agonised person.”

Similarly Breeze Harper, author of Sistah Vegan, an anthology of real-life stories by black, African-American female vegans in the US, points out the problematic use of the term ‘cruelty-free’ to describe vegan products, which although they may be animal-free, may have involved cruelty to humans – in most cases, financially-disadvantaged non-white people who already suffer from systemic racism.

The Ivory Coast, for example, is the leading exporter of cocoa beans to the world market. Yet there are thousands of people who work as slaves, including children, who are subject to extreme abuse and horrific conditions to produce chocolate treats – including vegan ones – for the West.

As Breeze notes in her article ‘Race as a “Feeble Matter” in Veganism: Interrogating Whiteness, Geopolitical Privilege, and Consumption Philosophy of “Cruelty-Free” Products’ in the Journal for Critical Animal Studies (Vol. VIII, Issue III, Special Issue, Women of Color in Critical Animal Studies): “Unless it’s marked in a way that indicates it was harvested through fair and sweatshop-free practices, then how can one know that it is human-cruelty free?”

This is not an attempt to demonise vegan chocolate – I love my brownies as much as the next person, nor to suggest you don’t buy non-leather shoes from Kmart. It’s about critically examining other aspects of an issue in addition to our concerns about animal cruelty; to see what common ground there is between oppression and exploitation of animals and humans, and how to create allies we can collaborate with to attempt to break down the hierarchial power structures that exist rather than reinforce them.


Talking of hierarchies of power, there’s no clear-cut order in the middle, but broadly speaking at the top of the ladder are white, western, middle-class, cis (ie non-trans), able-bodied men, and at the bottom are non-human animals.

These structures are kept in place by a process called ‘othering’ – that is, a dominant group positioning itself as the ‘norm’ and as morally, intellectually and physically superior than ‘others’ who are ‘not like us’ who are ‘only’ X, Y, Z, who are inferior and therefore not deserving of the same rights, equal treatment and privileges afforded to the dominant group.

While all marginalised groups experience of oppression is unique to them and direct comparisons can be problematic, the one thing they have in common with each other is this process of othering which enables covert and blatant discrimination and exploitation, as well as torture, genocide, slavery, slaughter, abuse and cruelty – whether it’s not considering gay, lesbian, queer or sex and/or gender diverse people worthy enough to be able to get married, or sanctioning the atrocities of factory farming or vivisection.

Finding common ground, building alliances and coalitions

Building alliances isn’t easy: it means acknowledging our privileges and making major changes to our behaviour, actions and lifestyles.

As Harper notes: Two things tend to happen when one person goes to another and says, “Your actions (whether they be sexist, racist, homo/transphobic or speciesist) are hurting me, I find them problematic – can we talk about it?”

The first is the person challenged goes on the defensive and refuses to acknowledge that what they are doing is impacting negatively on others. For example if someone tells you you’re being sexist, racist or ableist and you react with ‘No way am I!’ Or if a vegan points out the cruelty farmed animals suffer to a meat-eater, the latter will often react angrily at being confronted with this information.

The second is that person may have an epiphany and then be consumed with shame or guilt at their lack of awareness and for having contributed to the suffering of others.

Either way, it’s important to be kind. We are all on a journey of discovery and enlightenment (or disillusionment! – depending on whether you’re a glass half full or empty person!). We are all impacted by societal power structures and none of us is perfect. Every meat-eater is a potential vegan – or as I saw on Facebook recently, a ‘pre-vegan’.

Suggestions for building alliances: Do’s and don’ts

So, how do we go about finding allies in other social justice movements who we can collaborate with to work for the liberation of both non-human animals and humans?

The following are some suggestions pulled together from my own experience, and others’ tips and suggestions. I want to particularly acknowledge Pattrice Jones, longtime queer, feminist and animal rights activist from the US for her useful advice she wrote in her article Of Brides and Bridges: Linking Feminist, Queer and Animal Liberation Movements in Satya magazine, which is incorporated into this list:

Don’t be racist

It may sound obvious, but many animal rights activists can be both covertly and overtly racist. One obvious example is British singer Morrissey who, when commenting on a news item about the treatment of animals in China, said: “You can’t help but feel that the Chinese are a subspecies.”

Stephanie Lai, who I mentioned earlier is a Chinese-Australian blogger, explains why statements like these don’t help animals in the slightest:

-???????? It assumes that the practice of animal cruelty within a country or a geographic boundary means that everyone of that ethnicity or culture does it.

-????????? There is a refusal to check out your own back yard. Which is not to say that you can’t see what other people are doing and say they can’t do it. It’s acknowledging what happens here and noting that it’s disgusting.

-????????? Statements like this perpetuate the stereotype that animal rights is only for white people.

-????????? It alienates non-white people. Morrissey makes that comment, and I’m like, ‘How many other people in animal rights think that about my culture? Well, fuck them, I’m not going to have anything to do with them.’

-????????? It ignores the existing animal rights movement in China.

Make your promotional material for animal rights or veganism campaigns culturally diverse

Following on from the above: The majority of promotional material by mainstream animal rights and/or welfare organisations features predominantly – if not exclusively – white faces. This perpetuates the stereotype that the animal rights and vegan movements are synonymous with elitist, white, rich people, and invisibilises and disavows the work of non-white vegans and animal rights activists.

This also goes for the majority of vegan ‘diet’ and ‘lifestyle’ books which perpetuate the stereotype of vegan = white, skinny body.

Be wary of referring to people as animals and directly comparing oppressions

For many of us in the room today, it’s tempting to use throwaway comments such as ‘We’re all animals’. Technically we are, but while some of us take that statement at face value as a statement of fact and not insulting or offensive, it’s emotionally loaded for others.

Breeze Harper explained why many people of colour in the US do not ‘get’ speciesism and why they react vehemently to any notion of being called an animal or to any suggestion that the treatment of people of colour is similar to that of animals is because they are suffering from ‘post-traumatic slave syndrome’ (a condition that exists as a consequence of multigenerational oppression of Africans and their descendants resulting from centuries of chattel slavery), and their idea of ‘animal’ is radically different from that of a white person.

This doesn’t mean that all people of colour shy away from making the connections between the oppression and exploitation of animals and certain humans. Showing images of black slaves in her 2009 presentation at Calvin College, Michigan, Nekeisha Alexis-Baker, an African American vegan writer and speaker, made the connections with animal slavery and how racism and speciesism work together.

And Harper notes in her v-blog that it is the same mentality that made it okay to conduct cruel experiments on black women by the ‘father of gynecology’ in the 19th century is the same mentality that continues to allow nonhuman animals to suffer heinous atrocities today

But as white activists we need to be wary due to the historical, colonialist silencing of people of colour’s voices and experiences.

Don’t be classist or ableist

Lai reminds us to recognise that some people can do more than others in activism. Speaking specifically about animal rights activism, she points out that not everyone can come to a rally or action or fundraiser, either due to lack of finances or because of a disability (physical or mental) or both.

And while veganism can certainly be done on a budget, it’s also true that it may be cheaper to buy a McDonald’s so-called Happy Meal than it is to buy organic, fair-trade healthy food items. It’s better to make helpful suggestions on how someone can buy and/or make healthy vegan food cheaply, than to make judgemental assumptions about why they are eating certain foods if you don’t know their personal circumstances.

Don’t be sexist, homophobic, transphobic, fatphobic, ageist or whorephobic

Back in the ’70s and ’80s there was a much stronger link between white, western feminism and animal rights and an acknowledgement of the links between the two. However, some of the eco-feminist theory of that time was associated with radical feminist rhetoric, which was often anti-porn, anti-sex work and transphobic.

Blanket generalisations that all porn is bad, all sex workers are victims whether they know it or not, and undergoing surgical and hormonal treatment to transform your sex or gender is unnatural have alienated many feminists, especially queer feminists and young liberal feminists and feminist sex worker rights advocates. The unfortunate result has been the relegation of animal rights and feminism into the ‘old-school’ basket and a focus on more ‘hip’ and ‘trendy’ topics like raunch culture and body image.

Conversely, arguably animal rights groups such as PETA have also played a part in the disengagement of feminism and animal rights due to their adverts and campaigns that are viewed by many to be sexist and fatphobic, featuring only white, skinny, conventionally attractive young women.

In both camps there are passionate animal rights activists and vegans, but both groups are in agreement about females’ right to reproductive autonomy and to be protected against non-consensual bodily violation, so these are areas where there is potential for mutual understanding between feminists and animal rights advocates.

We can highlight practices in which female farmed animals suffer through forcible insemination and perpetual pregnancy, such as that suffered by dairy cows, pigs in sow stalls and battery hens (in addition to all the other horrific conditions they are forced to endure), as well as drawing attention to footage taken by animal rights activists showing the sexual abuse of female farmed animals by abbatoir workers.

Do your homework

Before approaching potential allies, make sure you know who they are. Make it your business to learn about the history and current status of their social movement, how they analyse and respond to the problems they seek to solve, and what words they use to talk about the world as they see it.

See it as an exchange, not just about us getting them on board with our cause. If you want people to come on board with and learn about animal issues, you have to be prepared to do the same with their issues.

Start small

The easiest way to initiate a coalition is to show up to support the efforts of your potential partner on some issue about which you agree (whether or not this issue is directly relevant to animals or veganism). That way, you’re not a stranger when you initiate a coalition.

So, for example, members of a local animal rights group might make contact with a local queer rights organisation by putting up posters for marriage equality rallies or similar activities. One great way for animal advocacy organisations to make friends quickly and easily is to supply vegan food for such community activities.

Work together

The next step is proposing shared work on some issue about which you and your potential coalition partner already agree. While you are working together on something that is not a source of conflict, trust grows and cross-fertilisation of ideas naturally occurs. Then (and only then) you can begin to talk about the things about which you disagree.

In so doing, you must be as open to what they want you to learn as you hope they will be about what you want them to learn.


? Do refer to your own veganism as an expression of your commitment to peace and freedom for everyone.

? Don’t expect people to immediately see the connection and change their diets overnight.

?? Do remember how much work you needed to do to unlearn the things you were taught about animals.

? Don’t forget that you will need to do at least as much work to unlearn the things you’ve been taught about sex, gender, race, ability, class, sexual orientation and so on, as others will have to in relation to animals.

? Don’t try to build coalitions and work with other movements if you are currently so angry at humanity that you can’t work harmoniously with people who have not (yet) embraced animal liberation as a goal.

? Do understand that working in coalition means you will not agree on every point.

This last point is particularly pertinent and I would refer you to an excellent post by blogger Beppie on feminist website Hoyden About town called Register for self-service experienceIntersectionality: Addressing the Squishy Bits.

The squishy bits, according to Beppie, are:

“the areas where we have to acknowledge that there is no “perfect” response to every situation. That some, or maybe all, of the solutions we adopt to address some forms of privilege will inevitably reinforce other types of privilege. That sometimes people can end up feeling more marginalised as a result of these solutions”.

Recognise the ‘squishy bits’ but keep trying

I’ve come up against some squishy bits recently in regards to a feminist conference that was held in Sydney last year and an upcoming one at the end of this month in Melbourne in which me and some other animal rights advocates have been arguing for the conferences to be catered entirely vegan.

We’ve been speaking up for the animals, and some women of colour have raised issues about how that may be disrespectful towards some people of colour and prevent them from attending; it raised issues around different cultures’ views of animals and of white people imposing restrictions (in this case dietary) on people of colour. I wrote about these issues here.

But, as Beppie rightly notes, that doesn’t mean we stop trying and stop having these conversations because while we may not agree, we may learn things we may otherwise have not.

It’s risky making the effort to make new friends and allies – we may be rejected from the outset, we may form bonds then fall out over our differences, we may experience disappointment, anger, frustration, betrayal.

But we may also experience joy, trust, love, contentment, excitement, passion and connection.

Ultimately we’re up against monolithic cultural and societal systems that are invested in maintaining the status quo in which the elite benefit from the oppression of others – both human and nonhuman animals. Collective voices are louder than a lone few. So take a risk and reach out.

Suggested further reading:

Intersectionality 101: Sexism, racism, speciesism and more by Kelly Garbato

Addressing racism and classism in animal rights activism by Stephanie Lai

Why animal rights are (still) a feminist issue by Katrina Fox

Stop using nature as a rationale to oppress animals and disabled people by Sunaura Taylor

Black female slave vivisection and nonhuman animal experimentation: Intersecting oppressions by Breeze Harper

Racism versus speciesism: A moral battleground? By Katrina Fox

Take your anti-racist animal rights activism some place else by Breeze Harper (video)

Specieism, sexism and racism: The intertwining oppressions by Nekeisha Alexis-Baker (video)

Of Brides and Bridges: Linking Feminist, Queer and Animal Liberation Movements by Pattrice Jones

The Gay Animal by Nathan Runkle & Our Hen House (video)

Blogs dealing with interlocking oppressions: Animal Rights and Anti-Oppression and Vegans of Color.

Katrina Fox is the editor-in-chief of The Scavenger.

This article is an edited version of Katrina’s presentation at the Sydney Vegan Expo 2011 on 1 May.







+1 #2 Alex Melonas 2011-05-19 15:49
@v Barnes: This is a very long comment. Your empirical claims are contestable. The weight of the evidence, anecdotal & empirical, strongly suggests that human animals qua human animals can satisfy all their nutritional needs w/ a vegan diet. (See the American Dietetic Association's meta-analysis, for instance.) That's the baseline: human animals do not need to eat animals, as a nutritional matter. Of course there is variation across this population, but the crucial moral question is: for those who are not statistical outliers and can live healthily as a vegan, what justifies their exploitation of animals? On this point, you don't muster an argument.

Moreover, your claim about land use is also contestable. Like most, you compare standard methods for producing plant protein w/ "organic," or holistic methods for producing flesh protein. So there's a bias built-in from the beginning. But more importantly, the latest UN report on environmental damage and resource waste re: our exploitation of animals for food strongly suggests that on the scale you are discussing, eating animals is inherently unsustainable. But again, as to the relevant moral question, in those areas where veganism is an option, e.g., the US, what justifies the choice to cause unnecessary harm and death (by definition) to nonhuman animals?
0 #1 v. Barnes 2011-05-15 20:31
Talk about looking at the others as others. The article doesn't talk about the inflexible attitudes of vegans who think everyone must eat as they eat. Well not everyone can get their protein from plants. In fact 2 out of every 5 adults become gluten sensitive as they age and cannot digest protein from plant material. With a diet devoid of animal fats, vegans seem unlikely candidates for heart disease. But new research suggests that people who eat only plant foods may lack nutrients vital for cardiovascular health. Vegan diets tend to be low in iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids, according to a review of dozens of published articles on the biochemistry of vegetarianism, published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. As a result, vegans tend to have high blood levels of homocysteine and low levels of HDL, or “good,” cholesterol. Both are risk factors for heart disease, notes the study’s lead author, Duo Li, a professor of nutrition at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China.Dr. Li found that vegans also have a high platelet volume, which is associated with heart attacks, and increased platelet aggregation – a clumping of platelets that can lead to blood clots. “From our study, I do not encourage people to be vegan,” he says.
The research compared data on vegan populations worldwide. Dr. Li found that many vegans, especially in Asian countries, are against taking supplements, often for religious reasons. “We’re trying to encourage vegans to balance their diets,” Dr. Li says, “and for vegan families, especially with infants, you definitely should take supplements” to compensate for nutrient deficiencies.

This article talks about racists attittudes but glosses over their racist social justice agenda to deprive human beings of a right they still give to all meat eating animals and that is the right to consume food that is nutrient rich in meat protein. This food is balanced with all essential nutrients and VB 12 whereas plants do not supply VB12 unless they are moldy or covered in bacteria that make VB12. Sea plants that might have a little B12 are not consistent nor are they regulated sources of B12. Vitamin B12, for instance, is only naturally-occur ring in animal cells and yeast or mold cells. Since vegan sources of vitamin B12 are scarce, vegans must be vigilant about getting enough of this essential vitamin. This is an arduous task, made more difficult by the fact that some vegans altogether avoid yeast or bacterial products. These people must rely upon fortified foods and supplements. A popular argument against veganism is that heavy reliance upon artificial nutrient sources (vitamin pills, fortified foods, etc.) is an unhealthy practice. These people believe that nutrients should be delivered to the body in their natural packaging, which just isn’t feasible on a strict vegan diet. Several children from vegan parents in England and the US have died in the last five years due to the restricted diets and lack of proper nutrients. As for obesity that started when vegetable oils where introduced. Before that we relied upon natural meat fats. 75% of the plaque in your artery comes from vegetable oils, the other 25% comes from meat fat. Eating lean meat, chicken, eggs, fish etc. is considered a very healthy way to eat and is recommended for growing children and pregnant women. To go against biology is really very stupid. Eating a strict vegan diet without educating yourself can end in death. As for having enough land to feed the world plants that is also bogus. We already farm all arable land. Grass fed meat is sustainable and good for human beings and the planet as the cows do not kill the plant and they give us a balanced diet that actually improves heart health if you don't consume vegetable oils which are known to clog arteries. Plant foods, including seaweeds, do not provide adequate B12, according to Vesanto Melina, a registered dietitian in Langley, B.C., and co-author of Becoming Vegan. In fact, blue-green algae contains an analogue of B12 that interferes with B12 absorption, she says. “It can fool the body.” Dr. Jenkins, a vegan for many years, says he monitors various indicators in his blood “and when it dips low, I start taking supplements again. Can the whole world monitor their blood weekly to ensure they get enough nutrients? Thats an expensive proposition when all one has to do is eat lean meat three times a week. Yes, some people do over eat and we know the less food consumed the better, but limiting oneself to the least nutritious foods available is ignorance at its worst. Expensive organic food, blood tests, and processed vitamins is the world of the rich and not the world the majority of the people on this planet even know about. 12 million children die each year from lack of protein and these children have access to vegan only foods. This fad will fade as it has in the past because it is built upon a tissue of lies. Some people can eat a vegan diet but so many more cannot and growing children should never be on a vegan diet as it is so easy for them to become nutrient deprived. Infants especially since they require large amounts of dense nutrients to grow their brains and nervous system. They do not have an adult size stomach to consume the large amount of plant material needed to ensure they have the proper amount and balance of nutrients to grow properly. So many vegans and vegetarians have had to quit because of becoming ill on a vegan diet. Note that the animal rights people try to shut these people up at their own conference when several vegans tried to introduce the notion that some people might need to eat meat and should eat small amounts. These people were attacked by the animal rights brigade. I have seen nothing but hatred and violence from animal rights vegan pushers toward people who must eat meat or prefer to eat meat for their own health. The height of stupidity are those who try to force their cats and dogs to eat vegan only. That is animal abuse at its worst and that was started by HSUS who tries to make money off everything to do with animals. They claim the moral high ground when in fact the harvesting of plant crops also kills billions of nesting birds, small animals, and insects.
A pasture has a full balance ecosystem, whereas a plowed field for plant crops is barren land at every harvest and remains that way until new seeds are planted and then every possible tactic is tried to keep all species from eating the seeds or the plants. So when cows only graze off the tips of the grass and walk among the small animals slowly sharing natural fertilizer with its own food and the small animals and insects as well as its water which is the more natural system. As for stockyards that only comes for some during the last few weeks of their lives in small places across this country. Every portion of the cow is used but those billions of small animals are wasted in plant harvesting. Vegan and animal rights true believers are not very big on critical thinking they just latch onto the last fad line of the movement without checking the facts or doing any research. The vegan diet is the diet of the rich who have the money to buy expensive organic foods and processed nutrients and special foods not grown in this country but necessary to supply the nutrients found in meat. This diet is not practical nor is it useful and in time will be shown to be damaging to the body. Talk to any former vegan or vegetarian who went back to eating meat. It is clear its not practical for the population due to costs of suppliments and the cost of testing to ensure you are getting the nutrients necessary. In fact most people cannot afford these suppliments or the food products grown and shipped in from other countries.

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