White Male VegFest Colorado: Gatekeepers & Institutional Discrimination in the Animal Rights Movement
As I am in Colorado for the summer with fellow vegan feminist Cheryl Abbate, we’ve been keeping an eye on the vegan community, looking for fun stuff to do. I haven’t been to a “vegfest” of any kind since I was a teenager, and Cheryl thought it might be fun to check out VegFest Colorado 2014. But then we took a look at the speaker schedule: Andrew Freeman, Andy Mars, David Robinson Simon, Jeffrey Smith, Marc Bekoff, Paul Shapiro, Virginia Messina, and Will Tuttle. Notice anything strange about this lineup? Seven out of 8 are males…white males at that. Ick.
Others took notice as well on the event’s Facebook page. Sadly, faced with comments on this blatant reproduction of male privilege in the animal rights movement, the organizers simply accused concerned persons of being sexist, misandrist, trouble-making, ingrates that ruin things “for the animals.” The inevitable tone-policing (a favorite tool of oppressors for deflecting blame and dismissing injustice) reared its ugly head. Because if marginalized oppressed people dare make a peep about equality, they better ask nicely and quietly with a pretty please at the end.
The very notion that feminists raising concern about the almost completely male panel of speakers (in a movement that is notoriously sexist) could ever possibly be sexist themselves is amazingly laughable. Under a patriarchy, men cannot be victims of sexism–this is because the institutions of patriarchy are designed to privilege men. This “reverse sexism” trope is a common fallback for sexist groups in the movement, and I am starting to feel like a broken record.
Furthermore, as I explain in an essay I published last year, lamenting “the animals” is a distraction technique meant to falsely reverse victimization. It takes the blame away from those responsible for the problem (almost always persons of privilege) and puts it on the individual drawing attention to the problem (usually marginalized persons). It’s a technique designed to avoid cognitive dissonance and protect structures of inequality. In that essay I explain:
Emphasizing the urgency of Nonhuman Animal suffering (“RIGHT NOW!”) is meant to distract. No time to think, animals are suffering! This trope is invoked to silence criticism and maintain the status quo. Plain and simple.
People using this trope are exploiting the torture and death of Nonhuman Animals to maintain privilege and inequality. Why are you upset about the rape culture animal rights community perpetuates? Animals are suffering RIGHT NOW!
The point of frustration comes from the relentless inability for important gatekeepers in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement to accept responsibility for institutional discrimination. Let me be clear: very few persons today are explicitly sexist or racist. Most individuals today engage in implicit or unconscious prejudice and stereotyping; most of us outwardly hold egalitarian ideals. This is great news on one hand, but on the other, it makes challenging the barriers that remain all the more difficult. Much of the problems facing marginalized groups today result from institutional barriers. This is the culmination of subtle prejudices and discriminations and the cumulative effects of many centuries of state-supported institutionalized discrimination. So, even if we personally don’t feel we are sexist or racist, that does not mean sexism or racism doesn’t exist.
And yet, we are so quick to individualize the problem: “It’s your problem for finding a problem. I’m not sexist. In fact, you must be sexist for suggesting such a thing!” But sexism (and other forms of discrimination) do exist; and culpability must fall somewhere.
In many studies of institutionalized barriers, institutions, organizations, corporations, groups, etc. are often quick to pass the blame. They would love to be more diverse…if only they had more diversity to choose from! For instance, when faced with the gross gender inequality in academic departments, professional associations often merely blame women: not enough women are interested in the field. When publishing companies have been accused of publishing too few African American authors, it’s not their fault, people of color just don’t like to write as much as white people! When companies using sexist advertising are called on their objectification, it isn’t their fault, that’s what the consumers want. Why no women in VegFest Colorado? Not their fault; it’s just men are easier to get! No women signed up!
This is individualizing a systemic problem. Instead of institutions of considerable privilege recognizing their role as gatekeepers, the incredible power they wield in improving representation, and the important role they play in setting standards and values for their audiences, these groups merely blame the already marginalized communities.
In another essay I’ve posted for Vegan Feminist Network on how to be a good male ally–I think it is also essential for men to start taking responsibility for sexism in the movement and use their privilege for good instead of status quo. Men need to speak up about this. Powerful men (like Marc Bekoff and Paul Shapiro) should withhold their services until the diversity is improved. The animals aren’t missing out–the only persons who would miss out are the men who benefit from the celebrity involved in these events. Indeed, the atheist movement has had a similar problem with few female speakers at important events–but the atheist movement has significantly less women to begin with, and they have been able to push back with boycotts and all-female conferences. If the horrifically sexist Free Thinking movement can start making progress on this front, surely the mostly female animal rights movement can do the same.
In a movement that is 80% female, there is no excuse for an all-male or nearly all-male panel of speakers/group of contributors.Of course the problems with diversity at major events is not only a matter of gender equity. The overwhelming whiteness of activist pools and events is an indicator of something much more disturbing that has manifested in our movement. But the majority of our movement is already female, and we can’t even ensure equal representation for women? This should be a serious wake up call.
At the end of the day, I am of the position that these events tend to be colossal wastes of precious few resources (as a matter of animal liberation at least). I recognize that creating community is essential to preserving vegans, but I wouldn’t say this is exactly “for the animals.” The majority of event goers I suspect are not going to be uninitiated people waiting to be converted, they will be people who are already “converted” and looking for something to do like Cheryl and I. These events are nothing more than sites of fundraising, personal entertainment or gain, and celebrity worship. This isn’t “about the animals,” it’s about us. Especially for events that are geared towards encouraging community, we need to take responsibility for the discrimination being reproduced there. A movement that belittles and trivializes the marginalization of human groups will be unwelcoming and ineffective for other animals. End of story.