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The “color” of animal rights activism: margenilization, disclusion, tokenism

December 9, 2011

Image | Eleventh Hour Liberation

From Eleventh Hour Liberation
Posted by Tricia Alf

To save the cost of airfare, I traveled home from the Animal Rights National Conference 2011, by way of a popular commercial bus line. Many folks think that riding on a bus for 8 hours is time consuming & sadly think, an inferior form of travel. To me, a plane is simply a bus flying in the air. What’s the difference? No peanuts? Big whoop-dee-do! I had more time than money.

A cab picked me up in front of the hotel where the ARNC was held. I was then taken to the main bus station. The change of scenery was clearly noticeable. I went from a luxurious environment to one that was socio-economically depressed. I sat in the outdoor waiting area, noticing the people around me. They were noticing me as well because the slogan on my sweatshirt stated,

“END WHALING NOW! This Is Not a Request!”.

A young man, a college student, approached me. He asked what bus I was taking, where I was going, etc. After talking for a short time, he asked, “what does your sweatshirt say?”. So, I turned to let him read it. He said, “whaling, what do you mean?” I began to speak of illegal whaling in the Southern Ocean. He stopped me. He responded, “Oh! I know about that, it is really sad what they do to those whales. I saw that on T.V.” We talked for a bit more until I needed to stand in line to board my bus.

Shortly after, while standing in line, a mid-40’s man stood behind me. I backed into him accidentally, which started our conversation. After mild chit-chat with this well-educated man, he saw my sweatshirt & its slogan. He said, “Are you vegetarian?” I replied, “I have been for nearly 13 years, but I am vegan now.” He told me that he had been vegetarian and vegan in the past–wanted to change his diet back to vegan. Of course I encouraged him to do so! I asked him if it was only for diet or due to animal cruelty issues. He told me it was for diet, but he does love animals, too.

I was really excited about these two conversations! I had just left an extraordinary conference & was able to share about animal rights, anti-animal cruelty & veganism! The bus trip was turning out to be quite fun!

After boarding the bus and relaxing, I was hit with a thought like a ton of bricks. I have a degree in Cross-Cultural Studies with an emphasis in African-American History. I am 4 classes short of a degree in Interdisciplinary Studies: emphases in Sociology as well Philosophy (Applied Ethics)–certification in Ethics. Why then, the following issue, the following problem, never occurred to me in depth before this, I can only assume is due to my narrow focus solely on the animals & not enough about the activists, the human factor behind our movement.

The two men I had conversed with were both black African-American men who were genuinely interested in understanding the ills of animal cruelty. Yes, I see color. Clearly they were black males. We who have sight all do so. There is no pretending that we do not even if we wish we didn’t. It is part of what makes us all different and interesting looking–beautiful trademarks of our own individuality…at least the part that can be literally seen.

I began thinking how I was suddenly struck by the lack of black African-American animal activists at the conference I had just attended. I thought about the lack of black African-American animal activists on my Facebook friends list; the lack of black African-American animal activists I know in person; the lack of black African-American animal activists involved in large, well-known animal rights organizations.

I also realized that it wasn’t just the lack of black African-American’s, it was the lack of all people of color in any substantial numbers within the AR movement. Thus, placing those of us “people of color” in yet another “minority” position in a social sector–and I would argue, within a working sector as well.

[Note: When I state “minority”, I am referring specifically to the socio-economic, socio-cultural/ethnic institutionalized minority/majority demarcation that exists in the United States. Additionally, when I state “people of color”, I am referring to those who would classify themselves, or others would classify them as non-“white” (however, Latinos are considered Caucasians, but, of Latino origin, thus “non-white”). Certainly, I know every human has some “color”–flesh. Lastly, I refuse to contribute toward any potential debate about the terms I have used here.]

So, something is wrong. Something is very wrong! Seemingly, the “something wrong” is wrong with the animal rights community, animal welfare/advocacy organizations as a whole. Are animal activists subconsciously excluding people of color from animal rights issues? Or, have we been so narrow sighted, narrowly focused, as I had been, that we just didn’t notice? How did we not realize? Seriously, what in the hell is going on?! I am not attempting to shame the AR community, but I desire to make a valid point and get folks thinking…and then acting for positive change.

Returning to my story, in the span of less than one hour, I had 2 black men ask me about the slogan on my shirt. When I wear shirts with AR slogans in public, where the majority are white humans, I have never had that happen–never! Clearly, the issue is not that black African-Americans do not care about animals. So then, what is the reason I don’t see more people of color involved in the AR cause? Does the problem begin with those organizing AR causes? Perhaps the answer is intricate in the “nature & nurture” of circumstance from the AR community & its “big hitter” organizers?

The issue I am speaking to isn’t only about black African-Americans. It is about all people who are not in positions of “power”, meaning, those in categorized “groups” of people that are the least represented by those in power. In short, our country is controlled (overall) by those with the most power–that means “white males”. And no, I am not prejudiced against white males. I’m just stating what I deem to be the obvious facts. Women are part of the minority group too. We can all give examples such as Ingrid Newkirk, or even President Obama, however these examples are not representative of the power structure in the grand scheme. Prejudice and racism have not left the building, my friends. As much as we would like to think inequality away from the planet, class & social structures do exist and they most often exist around an ethnic and cultural baseline in America. Those are the facts.

I don’t have the answers, but we need to initiate some critical, vital, serious conversations within the animal rights movement to figure it out–and quick! As you can see, from my limited experiences in a bus station, (and at the ARNC) the AR movement seems to have been marginalizing potential would-be activists, potential would-be vegans.

The conversations need to include how to include & embrace geographical “spaces” within dry bed “Activist Deserts“; through community based needs/interests, also from the standpoint of power issues relating to gender, class, ethnicity (race), culture. If we don’t, we really aren’t the best voices for those without a voice, are we? We simply don’t do all we can, if we don’t do all that we can. Those, too, are the facts.

Additionally, if “we” Abolitionists wish to continue to use comparison of animal cruelty to former (the term “former” debatable) human slavery of blacks in America, I think it suits Abolitionists well to befriend more African-American ARA. How can we genuinely know what we compare when we truly do not know the scope of the issue as it stands currently? How can we compare when we ignore the glaring issues of race suppression that are before us today? We suppress by marginalization & disclusion. Please, let’s walk the walk, of the talk of talk.

If you are a human being “of color” like me, you will “get it” from the onset of this article. You will ingest this and clearly relate. For those who do not, and there is still confusion or even resistance to my claims, there may be an underlying issue of “Dysconscious Racism” occurring. Meaning, not the absence of (race) consciousness, but rather, lack of critical consciousness in regard to the broad scope of issues of racism as is felt, seen, experienced by a “person of color” (Joyce King/via Breeze Harper).

Sometimes we cannot see the forest for the trees. Well, that is, until all the “trees” have been cut down because we didn’t hook on to every possible, potential solution to quell the problem forehand. Or, find one day, the forest is gone entirely.

THE FOLLOWING ARE STRIKING EXAMPLES from ARA, “people of color”, in their own voices on how they feel marginalized, discluded, tokenized:

==“Patrick Kwan, founder and Executive Director of the Student Animal Rights Alliance, said, “At the first demonstration I went to someone asked me ‘Do you speak English?’—and that was in New York City!” He’s gotten these comments from white staffers of “pretty big AR organizations”: “I can’t believe how Asians treat animals” and “I don’t like Asians.” (satyamag)

==“Kris, an African American activist, describes how it feels to experience tokenism: “They haven’t done outreach to the community, but they call—‘Hey we need a black face at the protest.’ I go, but it’s not a unifying way, it’s a marginalizing way of organizing. You’re not one of us, but we need you.” (satyamag)

==“According to Patrick, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is the only major group doing active outreach into communities of color. A PETA employee concurs, “PETA…with its outreach to Hispanics, African Americans, and Indians, has made fantastic inroads into those communities.” PETA assigns several staff members to this work and has two separate websites, one in Spanish and another,, geared toward African Americans. On the other hand, Kris calls it “lip service” when one organization failed to put the “human capital” and provide enough leadership into their efforts to reach the African American community: “Large organizations have no excuse,” says Patrick.” (satyamag)

==“According to [activist] ‘Patrick Kwan‘, there is a preconception that people of color do not care about animals. But, he says, surveys have shown that African Americans are actually more likely to consider vegetarianism than whites after being informed about the plight of farmed animals. Surveys of Latinos and Asians also show positive attitudes toward animal protection.” (satyamag)

==“Another African American activist found people snapped up samples of vegan cooking. A young white woman active in the PETA KFC campaign…The people who show the most interest in talking to us are African American men and women and Latino men and women, and young white people.” (satyamag)


==“Another self-defeating attitude is that people of color are too busy organizing around civil rights or other issues. But, as in the white communities, only a small percentage of people are active. There are still millions of others out there.” (satyamag)

==“Historically humane education was upheld as a means of cultivating moral values amongst white children, especially boys who would become tomorrow’s leaders.  Is today’s liberal commitment to help those less fortunate rooted in this same racist, missionary tradition? Well-meaning whites, sometimes armed with the comment “I do not see color”—which often causes people of color to smile inwardly—continue to build essentially segregated organizations because to them overcoming racism is still about cultivating moral values and not sharing power. Whereas to oppressed peoples of color, race has always been about power.” (satyamag)

==“Language to the contrary, white people are the “minority” on the planet. As the minority it only makes sense to want to hook up with the majority with great urgency, as if billions of lives, and the future of the earth itself, were at stake. Global agribusiness, which feeds “The Machine” will only be undone by a powerful global movement.” (satyamag)

==“It’s one thing for a white person to pass out vegan flyers. But attempts by white AR activists to set the agenda for other cultures bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the historical pattern of suppression by dominant nations. Instead of exporting “democracy,” AR activists are exporting their cultural concepts of the proper relationship between human and nonhuman animals.” (satyamag)

==“It’s because the system is hurting everybody that the AR movement must embrace these kinds of campaigns, local or global—where the interests of labor, the landless, small farmers, Indigenous peoples and the environment intersect. But the key, the pivotal point is how to embrace other people, how to share power. Sanchez says, “It’s about respect for all people. We are all connected to each other.” (satyamag)

==“The leaders of the AR nonprofits must be held accountable. They are the gatekeepers who will determine how many people of color will get in and whether they will hit a glass ceiling. The challenge is to avoid tokenism, to hire for talent, not experience. After all, if you require a long AR resume, chances are the person will be white.” (satyamag)

==“Sanchez says, “It’s dangerous when you take an extreme this-is-the-only-way-things-can-change point of view. You turn people off. A lot of people of color are struggling to survive. It’s those people who hold the power who need to work for change in themselves. They need to ask people of color, “How can I help you? How can I be your ally? What is it that you need from me?’” (satyamag)

Animal Rights National Conference 2011


See More: Eleventh Hour Liberation

the color of blood
when it hits the
air, red
the color of the sky
when it smiles,
but it is grey
when it has some
rain to do
the color of feeling
is transparent and clear
love beats like a rainbow
so real and sincere♥

Karen Lyons Kalmenson

7 Comments leave one →
  1. karen lyons kalmenson permalink
    December 9, 2011 4:47 pm

    the color of blood
    when it hits the
    air, red
    the color of the sky
    when it smiles,
    but it is grey
    when it has some
    rain to do
    the color of feeling
    is transparent and clear
    love beats like a rainbow
    so real and sincere♥


  2. Christy permalink
    December 10, 2011 5:45 pm

    I have given this some thought. I do think the AR community as a whole needs to some soul searching.


  3. December 11, 2011 6:34 am

    I am a person of color and a vegan for 30 years and have never encountered racism. When we focus on the issues of race we are taking the onus off the real victims- the non human animals that humans of ALL races murder with impunity.
    Again to include peta in non human animal rights issues is giving credence to them as an animal rights group which they certainly are not.


    • December 11, 2011 6:20 pm

      And, the article is about inclusion & how to be the most effective in our movement that we can be (without marginalizing). It’s not about focusing on racism, per say.


  4. December 11, 2011 5:54 pm

    Hi Nancy. It is remarkable that you have never encountered racism. Certainly a positive for the direction we, as humans, want to go. I do wish that your experience was the overall experience for people of color, who do consistently experience racism (overt or subconscious) in general and potentially in the AR movement. Since veganism was founded on the principle of total liberation for all sentient beings, I think race & inclusion is indeed an important issue to discuss. Even as a person of color, I implore you to consider how many friends you have in the vegan and animal liberation movement. If the genuine answer is “not many”, then we have to admit, this is an important issue. We need all the people on board in this fight that we can get. We cannot afford to dismiss the fact that the majority of people in ARA on all levels, are not people of color. I think that is the basis of conversation we need to be having. As far as Peta is concerned, the article is merely stating how a “big hitter” organization (operative word, “organization”), is one of the only large orgs actively attemtpting to be inclusive of people of color. However, as the article indicates, they are not doing a very good job at it. As “Patrick” in the article states, “It is lip service”.



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