Category Archives: Racism

Discrimination against people of color

Intersectional Justice conference

This coming March, I will be speaking at a conference on Intersectional Justice in Washington State. I was honored to be invited to present at an event that includes a number of animal rights activists of color, including Aph Ko (whose Black Vegans Rock project I wrote about earlier), Sarah K. Woodcock of the Abolitionist Vegan Society, and lauren Ornelas of the Food Empowerment Project. Also, Christopher-Sebastian McJetters, a fellow member of the Black Vegans Rock advisory board, is one of the conference facilitators.

The stated goals of the conference include:

  • look through the lens of animal rights at a range of social justice issues
  • identify ways in which we can better collaborate between and among movements
  • examine the impact of speciesism on humans, other animals, and the planet.

As intersectionality has become something of a buzzword in social justice circles, it is important to understand the roots of the term. As discussed in a post by fellow activist Ali Seiter, the term was coined in 1989 by black legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw in her essay “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” Crenshaw was specifically  referring to the intersection of racism and sexism faced by black women.

Since then, the term “intersectionality” has been expanded to include all kinds of “isms,” including speciesism. Some feel that this expansion is appropriative, especially when misused by white abolitionist vegans. Some, including myself, have suggested using other words, such as kyriarchy,  to describe intersecting oppressions beyond those specifically faced by black women. Ultimately, though, I feel that the practice of acknowledging one’s privileges, being truly inclusive of underrepresented voices, and avoiding oppression in animal rights messaging is what’s most important, whether or not the term “intersectionality” is used to describe these efforts.

My talk at the conference will be about how to make social justice events more welcoming to trans, non-binary, and intersex people. I’ll also be facilitating a workshop where we will do a “pronoun check-in” and discuss the binary assumptions inherent in gendered greetings and salutations.

I’m excited for this conference, which is the first time I’ve been invited to speak about social justice issues at an out-of-state event. (I did a presentation on cissexism and speciesism earlier this year here in the SF Bay Area.)  My online activism has been getting more attention and is presenting me with more opportunities, which is rewarding for me personally. But more importantly, it is reassuring that more people are being exposed to the message that one does not have to choose between dismantling human and non-human oppression.

Announcing Black Vegans Rock

As promised in my previous entry, I am excited to say more about Aph Ko‘s new project, Black Vegans Rock. The stated goals include:

  • Change the mainstream narrative surrounding veganism
  • Spotlight black vegans who are doing incredible work everyday
  • Stop deconstructing white uncritical spaces, and start (re)constructing more black progressive spaces

I was honored when Aph invited me to join the advisory board, which includes Dr. A. Breeze Harper whose work with Sistah Vegan Project I’ve followed for years, and Christopher-Sebastian McJetters whose writing for Vegan Publishers and elsewhere I also greatly admire. We represent a diverse group of perspectives, experiences, and professions, and seek to highlight that diversity in the black vegan community.

Black Vegans Rock poster
[Image: Black Vegans Rock poster. Logo designed by EastRand Studios.]

The site will formally launch in January. If you are a black vegan and want your work featured, please see the above poster or the post on Aphro-ism for submission guidelines.

Black veganism

This week, black vegan feminist blogger Aph Ko spoke on a Black Girl Nerds podcast about black veganism. As I’ve shared previously, Aph has gotten a lot of pushback, including blatantly racist remarks, for bringing attention to black vegans in an overwhelmingly white-led movement. Many white vegans don’t understand what race should have to do with veganism. Back when I was performing whiteness, I probably would have agreed with them. But now I understand the importance of this effort.

Veganism is seen by the mainstream primarily as a dietary choice for privileged people. I was reminded of this again last night, when my young nephew asked if our harvest feast (not Thanksgiving dinner) was “vegan or gluten-free.” (I was asked this question repeatedly by a fellow chorus member when I brought homemade baked goods to our rehearsals.) I explained that uncle Ziggy and I are vegan for ethical reasons, and that nothing on the dinner table contained animal products. As none of us had allergies or sensitivity to gluten, this substance was irrelevant.

On the podcast, in response to the host’s concerns about the expense of a vegan diet, Aph explained that veganism is a political choice, not a diet. She described dietary veganism as a white-centric approach, with emphasis on expensive foods that center the needs and vanity of the vegans, not the animals. She said, “I would urge people to try to change their mindsets before they try to change their economics.” Then it becomes apparent that you can meet your dietary needs with less expensive whole foods rather than pricey flesh and dairy substitutes.

Ethical vegans aren’t immune from racism either, sadly, as Aph discussed in the podcast. Those who think that talking about black veganism is a distraction from “saving animals” really ought to check their privileges. We need to build awareness of why more black folks should be animal rights activists, and should be welcomed into the movement.

On that front, Aph is developing a new web site, Black Vegans Rock, which will debut in January. I’ll be writing more about this exciting development, so stay tuned!

No thanks for the slaughter

My partner Ziggy and I have cooked a vegan Thanksgiving meal together almost every year since we met in 2001. It’s a tradition we’ve looked forward to in the midst of a very busy work season where he gets few days off. We’d spend the whole day preparing a feast of Tofurky and all the trimmings – mashed potatoes, biscuits, pumpkin pie, the works – invite a friend or two over, and gorge ourselves.

While doing this, I was always aware that the origins of Thanksgiving were not the colonialist fantasy most of us were taught in grade school. I saw the occasion simply as an excuse to eat enormous amounts of tasty food. But last year I became aware that the true story of Thanksgiving is even darker than I imagined. See this video (transcript available) by Kat Blaque:

After reading that our beloved holiday commemorated a massacre, I could no longer look forward to this feast. Even though no dead bird was at the center of our table, the blood of slaughtered indigenous humans just as surely left a stain.

I spoke with Ziggy, and we decided to still have our traditional dinner, but not invite anyone, figuring that it was still a rare day off for him and we should celebrate our time together. I rationalized that having pasta that night instead wouldn’t have done anything to help the situation. But I did not post photos of our meal or otherwise publicly celebrate the holiday.

This year, Ziggy wanted to invite some relatives for the holiday, so the issue became more important. We spoke again and we’ve agreed to shed some of the traditional trappings from the meal, including the Tofurky, and make it clear that we are having a harvest feast and not celebrating the historical Thanksgiving holiday. I no longer believe in making compromises for family or friends when it comes to veganism, so I don’t see why we should do so when it comes to human rights issues either.

Too many vegans will make compromises this week, however, and sit at a table with a dead bird at the center in the name of “family harmony.” Would they do so if the centerpiece featured the corpse or a cat or dog?  For those (non-natives) having vegan Thanksgiving dinners, would they feel the same way about this holiday if they learned that it commemorated the slaughter of their own ancestors?

US-American history is rife with bloodshed and oppression. Our culture of killing that encourages us to smile and laugh while we eat the bodies of others is the same culture that encourages white bodies to subjugate brown bodies. Breaking the cycle of slaughter requires people to take a stand, even if their actions and opinions alienate them from friends and family. Holiday time or any other time, speciesism and racism have no place at the table.

What not to wear for Halloween

[Image: Drummers wearing face paint march in a Dia de los Muertos parade.]

Halloween is not one of my favorite holidays. I’m really not into the occult, I don’t much enjoy playing dress-up, and most mass-marketed candy is not vegan (and, in the case of much vegan chocolate, possibly unethical). Lots of people do enjoy this holiday, however, and will be celebrating this weekend. Some are likely still deciding what costumes to wear.

Unfortunately, many will choose to wear a costume that is insensitive or downright offensive. Such people will often decry concerns for cultural appropriation and oppression as “political correctness.” But asking people to be aware of the impact of their clothing choices is simply asking them to treat others with respect.

Here’s a primer from Kat Blaque on why cultures are not costumes:

And a spoken word performance by Raven McGill about white people who thought it was funny to put on blackface and dress up like Trayvon Martin:

Finally,  some more thoughts by Kat Blaque on what’s wrong with the costume based on Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover:

With infinite choices of what to wear on Halloween, there’s no reason to parody someone else’s culture, ethnicity, or gender identity. “Free speech” does not mean freedom from the consequences of that speech. For those who live every day with oppression, the negative impact of converting their lives to costumes is very real.

ETA: Also see this article with suggestions on how to talk to someone who is wearing a Native American costume.

Happy Indigenous People’s Day

[Image: Dancers wearing masks and colorful dresses perform at a Dia de los Muertos event.]

I no longer recognize Columbus Day. I haven’t since I moved to Berkeley in 1992, the same year that city declared October 12 to be a Day of Solidarity with Indigenous People. For some cold reality about Columbus and his legacy, check out this Everyday Feminism comic about European colonizers, and this article about Indian boarding schools.

As I posted the day before Independence Day, this country was founded by and for the benefit of  white heterosexual cisgender theistic men, on lands stolen from indigenous people, with the forced labor of black slaves. To right the wrongs, we need a revolution. ETA: In the meantime, here’s a guide from Black Girl Dangerous on how to celebrate and take action on this day.

Exploring my roots

[Image: Blackberri, a man with long gray locs, white knit cap, and multiple pieces of jewelry, sings while playing the guitar.]

Yesterday I went on a field trip with Animal Liberationists of Color to the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco. A docent and intern guided us through the exhibits, which were very educational to me. The docent began the tour by showing us a video graphic of the migration of humans from Africa to other parts of the Earth. She showed that as a result of the migration to South America, the most common language of black people is Portuguese, followed by Spanish, and then English.

We then went on to view the featured collection, Portraits and Other Likenesses. As a photographer, I had always thought of a portrait as a posed picture of one or more people, so it was interesting to see different interpretations of this idea. One was an artist’s depiction of her grandmother’s 1970s-era living room, with Soul Train playing on the TV, brightly colored furnishings, and a lipstick-stained cigarette sitting in an ashtray. Another was a series of pages printed in the style of antebellum newsletters about the life of the artist, Glenn Ligon, a gay black man born in 1960.

One of the most popular pieces in this exhibit, especially with children, is the Soundsuit, a creation by Nick Cave, a dancer and performance artist:

One of the reasons I wanted to visit this museum was that I’ve been concerned about a certain subset of black people who are promoting the mindset that homosexuality is destroying the black family, and that being gay or trans is a “white thing.” I felt that this cisheterosexism had no basis in pre-colonial African culture. I spoke with the docent and intern about this, and they agreed.

Our museum guides were also very interested in the purpose of our group. We explained that we are activists who seek to dismantle racism in the animal rights movement. The idea that veganism and animal rights are “white things” is not true, as Aph Ko discussed in a recent article for Everyday Feminism. I gave the intern links to Sistah Vegan Project, Aphro-ism, and my own blog, which she wrote down eagerly. She told me that her mother never allowed her to visit zoos when she was growing up, as she said that no one should be in a cage.

I look forward to learning more about African and African-American culture. As I’ve written previously, exploring my roots has been both difficult and rewarding. I’m fortunate to live in a place where I can be respected as a queer black trans person, and to have friends who support me and my desire to liberate all beings.

The city for the pay

[Image: The San Francisco skyline lit up at night, featuring the Bay Bridge and the Transamerica Pyramid.]

Last night I attended a talk by Alicia Garza, co-creator of BlackLivesMatter, on gentrification in San Francisco and the impact on queer* and trans communities of color. I didn’t take photos or take notes, wanting to fully concentrate on her words (and those of her interviewer, professor Nancy Raquel Mirabal, and the audience questions). So I only jotted down some notes from memory afterward.

Garza noted that San Francisco is now the – not one of, but the – most expensive city in the United States. You could literally buy a castle in France for the price of a San Francisco apartment. As I said in my earlier post about gentrification, I have no trouble believing this, having seen the astronomical rise in rents and real estate prices in the 12 years I’ve lived here. She explained that queer and trans people come to live here to be our authentic selves, but we’re now being priced out, as we cannot compete economically with our hetero and cis counterparts.

Queer and trans people face job discrimination, even here in San Francisco. Only those who conform to cisheteronormative standards have a chance of competing. Being a person of color on top of being queer and/or trans just doubles or triples the challenge.

Garza, a native resident of the area, described the changes gentrification has brought to the city, including the loss of black residents, especially black families in the Hunters Point area. She said the black population of San Francisco is now down close to three percent. Blacks are encouraged with respectability politics to cooperate with these city planning strategies, which have been in motion for quite some time.

On this anniversary of 9/11, Garza said that it’s no coincidence that Fox News pundits have been referring to BlackLivesMatter activists as “terrorists.” “Hate group,” “criminal organization,” and “murder movement” are other phrases I’ve found Fox using to describe the BLM movement. It speaks volumes about the entrenchment of white supremacy that disenfranchised people speaking out for their rights and lives can be branded in this fashion.

One observation Garza made that stuck with me is that under capitalism, everything and everyone is a product. Like myself, she believes that we cannot have true reform under a capitalist system. “Shinier, nicer” capitalism is still a tool of exploitation. I’ve been exploring socialism and anarchism and trying to determine what system is the most likely to bring lasting peace to all beings. I’ll write a  longer entry on this subject in the near future.

I’m glad I attended this talk, even though it made me angry, even more than I already was. I’m very fortunate and privileged to live in this city, but I’m really uneasy about it. I don’t like living in a place where only rich people are welcomed or wanted. I’m dependent on my spouse’s income and on our rent-controlled apartment so I don’t have the option to move right now, but I can at least bring more awareness to the inequality, racism, and cissexism in this supposedly ultra-progressive place.

* In her talk, Garza used “queer” as an umbrella term roughly synonymous with  LGBTQIA+. I recognize that not everyone under that acronym has reclaimed the word “queer” from its roots as a slur. Normally in my blog I use the word “queer” only to describe my own sexual orientation or to describe other individuals who explicitly identify with that term.

Stop ranking oppression

[Image: Section from a panel of a Robot Hugs comic. Words at the top read “No one benefits from being told that their pain is unimportant, or non existant!” Below the words is a scale with a lighter weight reading “Not Harm” and a heavier weight reading “Harm.”]

Today’s Robot Hugs comic in Everyday Feminism is one of the best I’ve seen all year. Please read it now before continuing.

Done? OK. This is what I’ve been dealing with in the year and a half or so that I’ve been involved in animal rights activism. I’ve written here numerous times about the racism, sexism, cissexism, and other human oppression that is either ignored or exacerbated by animal rights activists in the U.S. It’s driving people like me away from activism, and this is not OK.

Often the micro-aggressions faced by activists from oppressed groups (or by those speaking for other oppressed groups) are far more subtle than being told to “shut up.” It frequently takes the form of being told that non-human animals suffer far more than any human. Whether this is true or not, it is still a silencing tactic.

Silencing people who speak up for oppressed humans does not save more animals. It simply strengthens the perception that animal rights activists don’t care about humans. Some activists indeed proudly admit that they don’t care about humans, as they are misanthropists and hate everyone. Many of them deny their own privileges while saying this. Gary Yourofsky comes to mind.

Part of why I have not committed to taking on a more active or formal role with any animal rights group is that I’ve been continually disappointed by the ongoing oppressive language and tactics of other activists. (Coping with depression and fearing the police are my other reasons for being less active.) I do want to be a voice for the animals, and voices are stronger when raised together than alone. But I don’t like being associated with people whose views I find abhorrent, even if they don’t reflect the sentiments of others in the group.

So I will take this opportunity to remind people that while I occasionally participate in animal rights actions and share the writings of various activists, I am independent and speak only for myself. I do not support or condone any views or activities that are oppressive to other humans. I acknowledge my own privileges and mistakes, and ask to be called out if I make statements that are harmful to those in marginalized groups.

This does not mean that I pledge to never say anything that offends anyone. As a queer black trans person, my very existence is offensive to many. I make no apologies for moderating my own spaces as I see fit. Do not confuse calling out oppression with tone policing. I am a pacifist, but I am not passive.

As I’ve written before, a “vegan world” that continues to elevate the voices and needs of able-bodied cishet white men above all others is not a world I want to be a part of. While I will never go back to eating or otherwise exploiting animals – as to me they are people, not property – I will not continue with organized animal rights activism if that means setting aside the concerns of marginalized humans. I am not abandoning the animals, I am abandoning humans with toxic mindsets.

Black trans liberation

[Image: Banner reading #BlackTransLivesMatter Day of Action 8/25/15. Behind the words are black and white photos of trans women of color who have been murdered.]

Today is #BlackTransLiberationTuesday, a day of action to call for an end to the epidemic of violence facing black trans women. I’ve written previously about this state of emergency, and the importance of trans people telling our own stories to dispel the ignorance and myths that lead to anti-trans discrimination and aggression.

Black trans women are particularly vulnerable to violence as they face multiple axes of oppression. Even those who “pass” – i.e., meet society’s cisnormative assumptions of what a woman should look like – have to deal with everyday racism and sexism, which impacts their access to education, employment, health care, and housing. They are affected by the same media bias and police profiling as black cis women. Some turn to sex work to survive, with all the inherent risk and stigma that entails. Many end up as victims of the prison-industrial complex.

Repeating the names of our fallen sisters is one way to emphasize the urgency of the situation. But we must not merely pathologize black trans women. We need to celebrate them. We need to celebrate those who can transition, and those who cannot. Those who live as openly trans, and those who do not. Those who are disabled, and those who are not. Those who are straight, lesbian, bisexual, queer, pansexual, asexual, or any other orientation.

Here are the stories of two living black trans women who don’t have the celebrity profile of Laverne Cox:

Alena Bradford is a woman living in Georgia. Economic circumstances forced her to move back in with her mother and live as a man.

Kat Blaque is an animator and vlogger, who speaks frequently about racism and sexism. She illustrated the story of her life and gender transition.

Get to know black trans women. Don’t solely mourn their deaths. Celebrate their lives.