Thursday, September 5, 2013

Everyday Vegan Racism: Language of Privilege or Language of Color?

Someone brought to my attention one of the patterned ways whites respond to claimsmaking made by people of color in the vegan and Nonhuman Animal rights movement.  I've not seen it so much with my websites, as the identity of the women writing for me are relatively obscured.  But I've definitely seen it in response to Breeze Harper's work, as her image often accompanies her posts, so it's more difficult for people to default to the mental image of a white writer.  In following her blog and her posts in Facebook communities, it is apparent that a lot of white-identified persons like to pick apart her language and how she presents her ideas. Instead of engaging what she had to say or what literature she was pulling on, people simply want to criticize her use of "big" and "confusing" words.

What gets me about this is that I use those very same words (neoliberal, whiteness, ideology, systems, oppression, discrimination, patriarchy, etc.) and I rarely, if ever, have people posting in response chastising my choice of words.  Like Dr. Harper, most of my posts are accompanied by my avatar--my white face.  My white stamp of approval on the language I use.

We should be mindful that people of color in academia (and any disadvantaged groups for that matter) balance a tightrope between two worlds:  Trying to achieve acceptance in the white, upper-middle class, privileged world of academia, and trying to maintain credibility in the lower class, disadvantaged world many of these persons come from.  When I passed my comprehensive exams for my Ph.D. program, for example, I came home to rural Appalachia to share the good news with my family.  Without any hesitation whatsoever, one of our family friends immediately told me: "Don't get above your raisin's."

Sociologist Patricia Hill Collins writes often on the difficulties of marrying academic work with community involvement.

If I have trouble navigating both worlds as a poor white woman, imagine the added difficulty of keeping one foot in a racially oppressed and impoverished community and the other foot in a white, male, moneyed academic space.  Academia is a subculture all its own, one that is difficult for at-risk groups to penetrate.  For those of us who do make it (accruing significant debt that will saddle us for the rest of our natural lives and surviving unimaginable stress), nothing is more hurtful than people dismissing those efforts.  Seriously, the United States has upheld over two centuries of direct and indirect discriminatory policies against people of color intended to keep them uneducated.  Why?  Because education is power, and a capitalistic, patriarchal, white supremacy certainly doesn't want people of color (and poor persons, women, etc.) getting any of that.

Harper holds a Ph.D. from the University of California, Davis and a Masters from Harvard University, so all that hard work and training suddenly means she's alienated from her constituency?  Hm, strange, because Peter Singer, Tom Regan, Gary Francione, Richard Ryder, and countless other vegan "heroes" all have similar qualifications and also utilize academic language to the delight of their many white fans.  So, what gives?

I don't know, but I use a lot of the same language and share her exact arguments on this blog all the time as her work has been immensely influential to my own.  Nobody ever comments berating my language as too abstract, too academic, or too confusing.  However, I do tend to attract a lot of wary-of-feminism know-it-alls who insist that my language is abrasive, drunk, irrational, hysterical, and indicative of mental illness.  I'm insane and loony.  I'm just looking to "climb my way to the top" or get attention, and I'm uneducated, gossiping and bickering.  I suspect this is directly relevant to my gender.  Lots of men engage critical discourse in Nonhuman Animal rights and they largely escape these insults and accusations that are steeped in a long history of female oppression and misogynistic rhetoric.  Does that mean the ideas we represent are bad?  Heck no, because men steal them all the time.  People in power just don't want a marginalized individual from an oppressed group talking about their oppression in an intelligent and convincing way; that is a threat to their power.

As is so often the case, people of privilege enter the conversation by insisting that their worldview is the default worldview.  Remember vegan advocate James McWilliams who, being a middle-class white-identified male, announced from the rooftops that sexist tactics in advocacy were okay and that worrying about too many oppressions (i.e., the oppressions facing people not so lucky as himself) was too confusing and overwhelming?  And then remember how a few women stepped in to call him on this nonsense, only to be victims of a misogynistic cyber-attack?  And then a few men came in to repeat those exact same feminist sentiments, and they were treated as legitimate responses and earned no backlash?

The social identity of the messenger matters.  Furthermore, academic language is the language of privilege--when we detect persons who have been traditionally excluded from those spaces of privilege harnessing that language, we suddenly become dismissive and skeptical.  I think that many times, it's not that the language is too difficult to understand, it's that we can't understand (unconsciously or not) why people of color have access to this language.  It's like a woman as a heart surgeon or a police officer, suddenly their social identity makes us suspicious of their ability to do the job well.  Hey, vegans, do better.  Try to address the ideas, not the person presenting them.

P.S. Dr. Harper's first annual Sistah Vegan web conference will take place on September 14th, I will be there and hope to see you there as well!  Lots of amazing presenters and absolutely amazing and critical work being done--please join us and let's make this movement more inclusive and stronger.  I have a really good feeling about this meeting. :)