Decentering Whiteness: At the Root of Nonhuman & Human Animal Liberation

BY Julia Feliz

In 2019, I released “Veganism of Color: Decentering Whiteness in Human and Nonhuman Liberation” as a conversation specifically meant between Vegans of Color and other People of Color. It was always meant to be a resource for us, by us in an effort to undo the damage that the mainstream vegan movement continues to do to Nonhuman Animal Rights/Liberation in a time when the movement still does not seem to acknowledge that centering nonhumans means to address the oppressive hierarchies also tied to otherized humans. Plainly stated, nonhuman animals have been a tool of whiteness, and whiteness is something that remains invisible to most white and other non-Black vegans and non-vegans.

What is whiteness, anyway? Whiteness, as explained by bell hooks (1994) is invisible to white people. Its invisibility is the very reason why the mainstream vegan movement continues to harm rather than achieve what it set out to accomplish. White vegans and non-Black vegans remain unaware and yet complicit in a system that thrives on a hierarchy based on race, a concept brought with colonialism and enforced for about 500 years across Turtle Island and beyond. Whiteness allows those who fall within the racial categorization of white to automatically perceive themselves, their experiences, perceptions, and behaviors as the societal norm. Thus, everyone else outside this norm in their behavior, language, customs, perceptions, etc. are automatically delegated to lower levels of the supremacist hierarchy that upholds society. Nonhumans typically fall beneath racialized people –except in the Animal Rights and mainstream vegan movement. Here, the movement ensures that nonhumans occupy a space above racialized groups; however, they are still placed beneath whiteness. Therefore, we see a different type of hierarchy, but it is still dictated by whiteness itself when the mainstream movement is unable to recognize that its actions continue to decenter nonhumans while centering those that benefit most from whiteness as the standard.

The intricacies of this conversation are why I discouraged white vegans from reading the book for fear that their inability to recognize whiteness as a key component within themselves meant they could not recognize themselves as intricately connected to the oppression of their own species and of all others. I would hope, with the note Carol J. Adams, included before the first chapter, “A Note to White Vegans”,  that mainstream vegans would redirect themselves to “Veganism in an Oppressive World” in which Vegans of Color explain to white mainstream white vegans just how to create a movement that is efficient, just, and truly centered on nonhuman animals. The book attempted to be a resource that would gently guide white vegans towards understanding the world of veganism beyond their own point of view. Note the keyword “gently”, as the same knee jerk reaction experienced by nonvegans is comparable to the fight or flight reaction that shuts down conversations around race. It is not so much cognitive dissonance because one need to become aware of something deeply to an extent that faces them with a dilemma. The result will be either ignored or turned into change. However, most non-racialized people avoid the difficult conversations tied to whiteness. There is a fear, guilt, shame, resistance to it. And yet, as James Baldwin warned in 1965, we will not move forward if white folks and non-white folks are not able to openly discuss whiteness without the dynamic that currently exists that prevents even white communities from having the discussions within their own spaces. The same is exactly true for the mainstream vegan movement.

When George Floyd was murdered, I decided that I could not continue to build bridges that had become apparent were being crossed by only one side and in one direction. The bridges were understood by those still excluded in most part by mainstream veganism while white vegans (along vegans from movements centered on whiteness, including the LGBTQIA+ community) remained unaware of the interconnections – often invoking claims of their oppression for being vegan and often even fighting back against a supposed cancer called “intersectionality”.

Intersectionality, coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, has become akin to a curse word in the movement when it is a term not even applicable to it. Intersectionality was coined and explained by a Black woman in order to help make sense of the compounding forms of oppression experienced by other Black women, as well as other Black, Brown, and Indigenous women and people of other marginalized genders (MaGe; coined by Crystal Michelle). Intersectionality gave meaning to the invisible hierarchy kept in place by whiteness. Unfortunately, the term became just another term co-opted, reimagined, misinterpreted, misused, and taken from a marginalized group by a movement committed to the liberation of nonhuman animals and yet unaware of the intricacies that connect nonhuman and human oppression. And yet, as a vegan, the term applies to me and my lived experiences as a Brown skinned, mixed race (Black and Indigenous/AfroBoricua), Two spirit person to help me understand my place on the hierarchy in which nonhumans are at the very bottom while whiteness is at the very top as dictated by our current societal views.

Along my own journey, I understood that when it comes to change, we must understand our history, interconnections, and then decide if we are ethically comfortable with them or not. In order to understand the roots of both my oppression and that of nonhuman animals, I had to decenter whiteness, understand the history, and painfully, admit to myself that I had a certain amount of privileges over fully Black people due to the safety and advantages automatically given to me because of my lighter/ Brown skin under a society drenched in anti-blackness.  I recognized I also had similar advantages even within several of my other identities. Therefore, I became aware of “my place” and committed to consistent anti-oppression as the only way to move forward.

Before this, in my vegan infancy, like other activists horrified at the unveiling of the consequences of conformity, as soon as I had identified an ethical dilemma, I had propelled myself forward towards attempting to “help” “fix” the “injustice” without understanding much of it beyond the shallow. If we are willing to admit it, we clearly see that this creates a cycle that often creates more harm than good, as the oppressive system fails to be demolished from the roots upward. Rather, individuals unaware of their own history, their place on the hierarchy, and their connections to intersecting forms of oppressions merely reproduce supremacist hierarchies within social justice movements themselves. The reality is that you, as an individual, are at the root of both human and nonhuman animal liberation and oppression. To treat address the system by confronting yourself and your role in all of this is to begin to decenter whiteness.

I do hope that, one day, the bulk of the mainstream movement will be ready for the information in “Veganism of Color” itself. I hope this day is soon because the mainstream vegan movement is beyond late, and yet, it is never too late to commit to consistent anti-oppression and work on undoing the harm it has done in safeguarding whiteness itself “for the animals”. At the same time, I do hope non-vegans will decenter whiteness and be open to the book as well in an effort to understand how our oppressions are tied under it.

To continue this conversation, you can sign up for vegan-specific workshops via AntiRacismClassroom.com and begin understanding your role in nonhuman animal liberation. Vegans can also learn about movement-specific issues that need to be addressed via ConsistentAnti-Oppression.com, and of course, there’s always “Veganism in an Oppressive World” (Julia Feliz Brueck 2017) as a step-by-step guide for mainstream vegan activists and when you’re ready, “Veganism of Color: Decentering Whiteness in Human and Nonhuman Oppression” (Julia Feliz Brueck 2019) and several more resources found on SanctuaryPublishers.com.

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