Wednesday, March 4, 2015

On Vegan Arguments from the White Mindset

I just received an interesting email in response to one of my more widely read posts that addresses getting "called out" on an admittedly insensitive piece I wrote back in 2013. In short, I had complained about how, after explaining that I was vegan, many people would respond by claiming they are lactose intolerant, and therefore, we were on the same level. In a nutshell, I had been pulling on the "moral superiority" assumption of going vegan for the "right" reasons, reasons that inevitably reflect my white privilege and my privilege as someone living in the West.

Furthermore, it is important to recognize that Nonhuman Animal rights and welfare are ideas that were originally fostered in order to separate whites and Westerners from the supposedly immoral, inferior, and brutish people of color living at home or abroad in the colonies. So, it is essential that we remain critical of using arguments of moral superiority given this context, especially because social inequality is still impacting the life chances of communities of color and colonized regions today. Racial oppression is not a thing of the past--it is still just as present and insidious today. We should be wary of maintaining the ideologies of moral superiority given this reality.

Here is what my reader offered:
Being lactose intolerant isn't the same as being vegan period. I know two (white) people who are lactose intolerant. One flat out said "I think animals are meant to be used" and the other, for about a year, regularly tried to goad me into annoying speciesist arguments. 
Even if somebody were to go vegan for their own health, and every heath vegan I've ever come across, is not a strict vegan, even just diet-wise, this still would not imply they didn't buy non-vegan shoes, used other non-vegan products, supported animal use for other people, etc, etc, etc. So on the basis of morality, even IF somebody is a strict health vegan and never cheats, they'd still be using animals in other ways and promoting animal use outside of their diet. 
If you were a slavery Abolitionist fighting against human slavery in the North and some white guy said "Hey, I don't have any slaves, I don't wear cotton and none of the products I use have any connection to the South or the slave trade," but he saw nothing wrong with slavery per se, didn't object to slavery, would go out of his way to say he doesn't have any moral problem with it, etc" would you, as a slavery Abolitionist, be like, "Well okay, I guess we're on equal footing, I'll move along..." 
NO! It's the same thing with health vegans or people who are lactose intolerant. Just because they can't consume dairy, doesn't mean they don't condone dairy consumption or animal use in general, if they aren't active participants in it. Having people actively support animal use, or at the least, be indifferent to animal use, isn'texactly where I think we want to be. 
With that in mind, I think it's justified to be annoyed by people who chime in that they're "lactose intolerant" when veganism comes up. At the same time, I would not feel comfortable arguing with the ostensibly health oriented vegan from South African from Harper's piece, and I could see vegans po-pooing and tut-tutting because she's not specifically animal rights oriented. I think more tact and reflection would be useful when engaging vulnerable populations. 
In summation, I want to be able to be annoyed with dietary people chiming in when veganism is brought up, but I don't want to disparage against them. Tough balance.

This was my response:

I think my piece needs to be understood within the context of power and privilege in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement. So often we make our arguments without recognizing how disadvantaged groups are ignored in our theoretical musings (this is what I did). We speak in generalities, and those generalities are meant to relate to "people like us." The result is that white privilege is protected, and vulnerable groups are further marginalized. For instance, your example of an anti-slavery abolitionist meeting someone who claims to be abolitionist just because they are not a slave owner presumes that the other person is white, but what if that person were African American? You are creating the rules for a white world with white participants, ignoring how people of color experience the situation and how they are ignored in the dialogue.

If someone says they are lactose intolerant as a white person and I am interpreting that statement as a white person and I am thinking in my white mindset, I might understandably have a problem with the false equivalency of lactose intolerance and animal activism. However, this is not a white world--other people live here too. When I am a white person thinking in this white mindset, I'm ignoring people of color who do not have the same privileges as me. They may not have the privilege to go vegan (perhaps they live in a food desert), and they likely already feel marginalized and alienated from the movement given its long history of engaging racism and ignoring the interests of communities of color. This means that my comments will be interpreted within that context of a seriously racist and exclusionary movement.

My point is, this issue is more than making an argument for argument's sake; we have to be cognizant of wider movement trends and how non-white people are experiencing veganism. As a person who writes for a blog with a diverse audience, it is a shame that I made that argument without considering how people living under structural oppression may be hurt my presumptions.