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Deconstructing White Privilege in the Animal Rights Movement.

Deconstructing white privilege in the animal rights movement.

by Corey Wrenn.

Of late there have been many interesting articles surfacing that have challenged the white-centric approach to vegan outreach and the advancement of nonhuman animal rights.*   Some welfarist organizations have engaged in blatantly racially insensitive campaigns (PETA’s Holocaust campaign immediately comes to mind).   Kim (2011) rightly warns that these stunts can have disastrous political implications for our outreach.  However, there are other more invisible instances of racial insensitivity in our activism that should be addressed.

First, let me be clear, I am not insinuating that the abolitionist approach or any other animal rights approaches are racist.  The abolitionist approach in particular promotes a strict adherence to nonviolence and rejects all forms of oppression.  What I am addressing is an invisible privilege and a certain insensitivity that is systematically alienating many nonwhite populations and limiting our outreach.   This is done in two significant ways.  First, the nonhuman movement is framed in a way that normalizes and privileges white experience.  Second, the language and presentation utilized in our outreach excludes underprivileged populations.

The primary issue with our outreach is that is reflective of the white experience and alienates nonwhite experiences, world views, ways of understanding, and mechanisms for attitude and behavior changes.  The nonhuman animal rights movement takes a generalized, universalistic approach that unconsciously equates appropriate outreach with the white perspective.  Harper (2010) often criticizes the idealized image portrayed by organizations as one that normalizes the thin, white body, which necessarily alienates people of color and nonwhite body types.  She also asks us to be mindful of racial and class-based geographical and financial restrictions to accessing healthy, vegan foodstuffs.

Harper takes issue with the rights-based approach to promoting veganism.  I think it’s hugely problematic to advocate for nonhuman animals with a health-centered approach, as it inherently undermines the equal consideration we owe nonhumans and prioritizes human animals.  This is speciesist, and the change it incurs will not be meaningful or lasting for nonhumans.  However, I do believe she has a point in highlighting our need to recognize which issues are more or less salient to a diverse audience.  Harper notes that food and health are strongly linked to a history of colonization and current systems of inequality.  For that reason, she advocates a health-based approach to veganism.  Again, I am critical of any approach to veganism that deemphasizes the oppression experienced by nonhumans.  But, what we could take away from her research is the need to recognize that academic approaches that emphasize the oppression of one minority group (nonhumans) while ignoring the influence of ongoing oppression of the minority human audiences we are targeting could mean a lack of salience.  It could even be off-putting.

Veganism, and nonhuman animal rights, in short, could easily be discredited as a “white problem.”  This phenomenon is not only being voiced by academic people of color, but it’s also surfacing in popular media.  The television show Portlandia, for example, stereotypes veganism and a concern for nonhuman animal welfare as a characteristic reserved for affluent white yuppies.  A recent skit on Saturday Night Live, titled, “White People Problems,” also reinforces this idea.  It depicts activists as naïve, rich whites who are overly concerned with the origins of their dinner, while incredulous nonwhites laugh behind the scenes.   Nonhuman animal rights, in other words, is not resonating with many people from different backgrounds.  Instead, nonhuman rights is seen as a white issue that is completely detached from nonwhite realities.

What seems to be most pertinent to the abolitionist approach is the highly academic nature of the literature and the arguments.  For instance, the Humane Research Councilreports that a professional analysis of popular nonhuman animal rights literature found that most of it reads at the 11th grade level at best, or beyond the college level at worst.  The problem is that the average American reads at the 7th or 8th grade level.  College students, on average, only read at the 12th grade level.  This study did not include abolitionist literature, which I would imagine would score far worse in readability.  What this means is that our literature is inaccessible to the majority of the American population and even college students.  And, if one controls for race, the reading level drops dramatically.  This is because, as a group, nonwhites in the US have limited access to good education and experience other forms of institutionalized racism that restricts their potential.  So, while our literature excludes much of our audience in general, it disproportionately excludes nonwhites.

Demographically speaking, the nonhuman animal rights movement is dominated by educated, affluent whites.   This lack of diversity is a red flag.  Given this, we are obliged to take a critical look at our outreach efforts in an effort to recognize why many groups of people are not being reached.  Certainly, there are many complicating factors to explain the differential support for nonhuman animal rights, and many of these factors are out of our control.  But, our language and our presentation can be controlled.  A one-size-fits-all approach to outreach is simply inappropriate.  Our movement is dominated by white activists and white voices—something is awry.   It should by high on our list of priorities to ensure that our outreach is sufficiently inclusive and sufficiently effective.  When our resources are so limited as it is, we cannot afford to waste any more time, effort, or money on outreach that is not reaching its maximum potential.  A critical reflexivity is likely going to entail some professional market research, sociological and psychological qualitative research, and the standard practice of collecting feedback.  It’s also going to entail special attention to the nonwhite voices already speaking in our movement.

I realize that my own articles are guilty of these shortcomings.  As I am an academic with the intention of reaching a largely academic audience, I write what I know and in a style that is reflective of my training.  But, we must be cognizant of the fact that much of our potential constituency is nonacademic.  What’s more, academia itself and in general is highly reflective of white values and norms.  And, despite diversity outreach programs, academia still tends to exclude nonwhites.  In lieu of this, we should encourage and promote, where appropriate, the works of academic people of color, nonacademic people of color, and those from a variety of backgrounds and experiences.  This is a high-priority task if we expect to challenge the lack of diversity in our movement and reach the greatest number of potential constituents.

Harper, B.  2010.  Sistah Vegan:  Food, Identity, Health, and Society:  Black Female Vegans Speak.  Lantern Books.

Harper, B.  2010.  “Race as a ‘Feeble Matter’ in Veganism:  Interrogating Whiteness, Geopolitical Privilege, and Consumption Philosophy of ‘Cruelty-Free’ Products.”  Journal for Critical Animal Studies 8(3):  5-27.

Humane Research Council.  2011.   “Readability of Vegan Outreach Literature.”

Kim, Claire Jean. 2011. Moral Extensionism or Racist Exploitation? The Use of Holocaust and Slavery Analogies in the Animal Liberation Movement." New Political Science 33(3): 311-333.

Nocella, A.  2012.  “Challenging Whiteness in the Animal Advocacy Movement.”  Journal for Critical Animal Studies10(1):  142-154.

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Dr. Steve Best has been writing about this for many, many years,  and I agree with much of what the author here repeats. Further, ARZone has been suggesting for years that:

A one-size-fits-all approach to outreach is simply inappropriate.  

It's encouraging to see other advocates also coming to learn the importance of recognising this, and, hopefully adjusting their own advocacy with this understanding.

Dr. Best, in his Manifesto for Radical Liberation: Total Liberation by any Means Nec..., speaks extensively about white privilege in the animal advocacy movement, and makes some interesting points, including:

"The pluralist and contextualist approach central to our position absorbs the partial value and validity of vegan abolitionism, but without the debilitating dogmatism and disabling rejection of effective tactics simply because they do not conform to an ancient code or utopian ideal that only serves to strengthen oppression and to reassure oppressors they have nothing to fear from an “opposition” movement. It abandons single-issue fetishism and the complacency of class and racial privilege in favor of diversity, solidarity, and bridge-building with those most economically disadvantaged and politically marginalized. Only in this way, can the profound importance of veganism and animal rights be recognized and respected by a social majority; only in alliance with other struggles can its revolutionary potential be realized."


"Despite some talk of capitalism, commonalities of oppression, and alliance politics, Francione ultimately pushes a simplistic, single-issue “go vegan” approach pitched to a white, affluent, privileged, Western audience, with no intent to engage people of color, working class families, the poor, or China and India – the world’s most populous nations now in rapid transition from maintaining traditional plant-based diets to embracing Western diets rooted in consuming “animal products” including flesh, milk, and eggs."

Dr. Mary Martin also speaks about the language used in outreach literature, and the current difficulties that could be faced if those who we should be targetting in our outreach, are not comfortable with the literature we are using. Dr. Martin holds a doctorate in applied linguistics, and spoke on this in her recent ARZone podcast.

So, while a great many advocates for other animals had come to realise some of the problems spoken about in this article some time ago, it's very encouraging to see others, who have previously criticised such theories, coming to understand the relevancy of thinking critically about such issues. 

This free two-part test takes a few minutes (15-25), but will assess your reading level.

Ms. Wrenn cites the paper: "Moral Extensionism or Racist Exploitation? The Use of Holocaust and Slavery Analogies in the Animal Liberation Movement" by Claire Jean Kim (2011) and says that Kim "rightly warns that these stunts (i.e. those of PeTA) can have disastrous political implications for our outreach." However, there is no such warning in the paper at all. This is the conclusion the author actually reaches in her paper:

I have argued in this paper that PETA’s use of Holocaust and slavery analogies can be defended on moral grounds but critiqued on political grounds. This analysis is limited to this particular instance of using Holocaust and slavery analogies in the animal liberation movement, since the impact of analogies depends at least in part upon the answers to the questions of why, when, where, by whom, to whom, and in what context. When activists and authors evoke these analogies internally, within movement circles, they may produce a positive effect of strengthening activists’ shared identity and commitment. But PETA’s analogies were deliberately and confrontationally public and it was their publicness—and the risk that the exhibits’ images would reinforce anti-Semitic and anti-black notions—that deeply worried some Jewish and black leaders and created the potential for alienating potential allies of the animal liberation movement.

Whatever one can say of the conclusions reached in the paper, it is a gross oversimplification and overstatement of them to say that the author "warns that these stunts can have disastrous political implications for our outreach."

In addition, a casual reader of Ms. Wrenn's article might think that Kim shares Wrenn's characterization of PeTA as a "welfarist"  organization, but Kim explicitly does not. Kim acknowledges that PeTA is an abolitionist organization, a fact which is central to Kim's analysis. Moreover, Ms. Wrenn ignores completely the argument in the paper against the use by advocates for other animals of analogies to slavery and abolition. Perhaps because Ms. Wrenn identifies herself so closely with an "abolitionist approach" it would have been inconvenient for her to mention that dangers of using those analogies, but it would have lent her article much needed credibility. 

thanks Adam

I turned out to be too dumb even to complete the very first question on the test. It asked me to click on the speaker icon and then choose the sound from a list. My speakers were silent, and could not be persuaded, even after some struggles, to participate in the test.

Billy Lovci said:

This free two-part test takes a few minutes (15-25), but will assess your reading level.

Ha! yeah I got a lot of those wrong. It's like a super distorted "SHHURR!!!" and the choices are chur, shir, sure, sirr - ???? three of them seem like they work to me... ??? what's the objective? to choose the correct US spelling of the distorted blasting voice? :) 

They said I was a genius, but I lied and told the program I was 4 years old. :D

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