Understanding the Intersection of Oppressions

By Mark Hawthorne

Photo: Tara Baxter

It was shortly after the 2012 murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his killer George Zimmerman that activists Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi co-founded the Black Lives Matter movement. Created to call attention to the anti-black racism permeating the United States, the movement was intended to widen the conversation around state-sponsored violence to include all of the ways in which black people are systematically disempowered. This tactic to (re)build the black liberation movement has helped bring attention to the many black men, women, and children who are extrajudicially killed by police or vigilante law enforcement. Black Lives Matter shines a light on the deaths of Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Andy Lopez, and many others.

It didn’t take long for the words “All Lives Matter” to appear on social media, which at best could be perceived as a misguided an attempt to be inclusive, or worse, a tool to dilute and derail the conversation taking place about racism in the United States. For example, conservative politicians used All Lives Matter as a way to evade the discussion about racial inequality, while some animal advocates used it as an attempt to include nonhuman lives in the debate.

In doing so, “All Lives Matter” managed to simultaneously appropriate and negate Black Lives Matter—it was read by some as “Black Lives Don’t Matter.” Alicia Garza explained in one interview that “changing Black Lives Matter to All Lives Matter is not an act of solidarity. What it is is a demonstration of how we don’t actually understand structural racism in this country.” Black Lives Matter responded on Twitter with “So…if you really believe that all lives matter, you will fight like hell for Black lives.”

Sistah Vegan Project founder A. Breeze Harper was interested in what this could look like, particularly among vegan activists who purport to value all lives—both human and nonhuman. She coordinated a conference in 2015 called the Vegan Praxis of Black Lives Matter to bring together prominent vegans, scholars, and community organizers. The online event used black feminist queer theorizing to understand how black people have been structurally, systemically, and institutionally excluded from justice and power, and how this affects or should shape vegan philosophies. The conference focused on how the “post-racial” attitude that dominates the mainstream extends to veganism; namely, that many ethical vegans who condemn the power structures responsible for the exploitation of animals don’t see how these same power structures also create suffering for humans who belong to any group regarded by others to be of lesser value based on their race, gender, sexual orientation, class, physical or mental ability, etc.

The event was well-attended, and it served to further expand the growing awareness of how various forms or systems of oppression interact—what legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw termed “intersectionality” in 1989. From conferences and books extolling collaborative methods of activism, to individuals and nonprofits taking an interdisciplinary approach to social justice problems, it seems the field of intersectionality is growing, helping activist movements extend their reach and understanding of the common objectives shared across different movements.

Feminism and the Animal Liberation Movement
Illustrating intersectionality within the animal liberation movement is Carol J. Adams’ The Sexual Politics of Meat, in which she argues that, like white privilege or male privilege, humans have species privilege, and she draws an unmistakable line between the consumption of animals (literally) and the consumption of women (visually). When the book was first published in 1990, right-wing reviewers held it up as the latest example of political correctness. Today the book is deemed groundbreaking in its approach to feminist-vegetarian critical theory and is required reading in gender-studies classes.

Patriarchy, Adams argues, is a gender system that is implicit in human/animal relationships, and feminism inherently extends to animals. Moreover, Adams observes, while we regard the personal as political, what we eat or wear is often considered private, and the response from some women is, “I want my eating of animals to be a private decision.”

It was while she was a grassroots activist in the 1970s and ‘80s, working on issues of racism, sexism, fair housing, and with migrant workers and victims of rape and domestic violence, that Adams made a startling connection. “During these years I was incubating The Sexual Politics of Meat and trying to figure out how it was intersectional,” she says, “though at the time I called it ‘interconnecting oppression.’ That’s when I began noticing the number of batterers who kill animals.”

Adams soon discovered the linguistic concept of the absent referent and realized that it also applied to meat-eating, dairy production, and egg production. It is a concept animal advocates have referred to when trying to bring feminists into the animal liberation movement, since animal agriculture manipulates and exploits the bodies of female animals for eggs, milk, and breeding babies for meat, but it’s not only Big Ag. Nearly every form of animal exploitation uses the female of the species (though males too are exploited based on their gendered differences). Pigeon-racing enthusiasts use hens as a reward for the fastest males, for example—or take advantage of the hens’ instinct to get home to their clutch of eggs as quickly as possible. Female marine mammals held in businesses like SeaWorld are forcibly inseminated to produce more money-makers. Even an archaic “sport” like horse fighting—practiced in parts of Asia—is not immune. Here men manipulate female horses, injecting an in-season mare with hormones to keep her in heat and tethering her to the center of an arena, where two stallions are provoked into pummeling each other for the “right” to mount her. Terrified and injured by the stallions, the mare may be turned over to a dozen enraged males in a single day of competition.

Not surprisingly, men dominate the world of animal exploitation. Sexism and speciesism have common roots in a patriarchal system of oppression in which men control women and animals, subjugating them both. In such a patriarchal system, no female—human or nonhuman—is seen as having ownership of her body. Those with privilege and power not only confine and manipulate other female species for human pleasure, but often deny full rights and freedom to others based on biases. Critics like Kimberlé Crenshaw and Carol J. Adams argue that thinking holistically about how these and other forms of oppression interact can result in collaborative strategies for finding solutions. “As long as the human/animal border is patrolled so vigorously,” Adams says, “speciesism will always attach itself to oppressions of disenfranchised humans, because part of oppression is to push the human away from the notion of what a human is—and in our culture, that notion is modeled on the white, upper- and middle-class male.”

The Issue Is Being Single Issue
Building on this premise have come other intersectional thought-leaders, including A. Breeze Harper, ecofeminist Marti Kheel, VINE Sanctuary co-founder pattrice jones, Food Empowerment Project founder lauren Ornelas, and Vegan Hip Hop Movement founder Kevin Tillman. They recognize that a lot of animal rights activists ignore or disregard campaigns beyond animal liberation, believing their efforts should be focused exclusively on the plight of animals used for food, entertainment, research, etc. Our grandparents called this kind of myopic attitude “Not seeing the forest for the trees.” Today we call it being “single issue,” and every major movement has members who practice it.

Being single issue is boycotting Canadian “seafood” until Canada stops killing seals.

Being single issue is using sexist imagery to promote an anti-bullfighting campaign.

Being single issue is buying vegan chocolate made from cocoa beans grown in Western Africa. The chocolate may be free of animal products, but cocoa plantations in Western Africa are notorious for using the worst forms of child labor, including slavery. This is one reason I am so heartened by the work of Food Empowerment Project (F.E.P.), which has spent the better part of the last decade raising awareness about the companies that use “slave” cocoa and getting many to switch to sources that don’t exploit or harm children. “There are so many social justice issues that intersect around food, and child labor is among the most heartbreaking,” says lauren Ornelas. “It’s a deplorable example demonstrating that just because something is vegan, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s cruelty-free.” In connecting other issues, F.E.P. also advocates for the rights of farm workers, raises awareness about environmental racism and corporate malfeasance, and works to get access to healthy foods in communities of color and low-income communities. “We understand that it would be a mistake to merely address one problem when so many overlap.” F.E.P. organizes an annual school supply drive for the children of farm workers, for instance, collecting hundreds of backpacks, notebooks, pencils, calculators, and other supplies and delivering them in person to migrant farm worker families in the Bay Area. “We organize events such as this to thank farm workers,” says Ornelas. “California’s farm workers pick fruits and vegetables that are sold all over the country, but these workers are victims of some of the worst abuse that capitalism and racism have to offer.”

Single-issue activism fails because focusing on one social justice issue excludes and marginalizes other people and groups, and it denies us a clearer perspective of injustices and how we can create solutions. It also robs us of important coalitions and solidarity with other movements. I am reminded of a story Joyce Tischler, founder of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, once told me. In 1981, Joyce learned that the U.S. Navy had shot and killed more than 600 feral burros at its Weapons Testing Center in China Lake, Calif., and planned to kill 5,000 more. Joyce wasn’t even sure what a burro was, but she spent an entire night typing a series of pleadings arguing that, under the National Environmental Policy Act, the Navy could not kill the burros without preparing an environmental impact statement. It took eight months of work, but eventually she won the case. A little help from environmental groups would have been nice, Joyce said, but they considered the animals “pests” who were eating endangered desert plants. (The environmental justice movement has a long history of regarding animal liberation as outside the concern of environmental ethics—or perhaps groups have feared how embracing the animal cause would impact their image and fundraising. In a sign that may change, however, Rainforest Action Network recently began to publicly acknowledge the devastating toll animal agriculture is taking on our planet.)

I am not suggesting that focusing your efforts on a specific campaign within a specific movement is a bad idea—clearly that’s what Joyce was doing for the burros. What I am saying is that it’s important to recognize the larger systems of power and inequity at play and take those into consideration when devising effective strategies.

Overcoming Barriers
Some organizations mobilizing for change believe that taking a position on a struggle outside their comfort zone—such as an environmental group helping an animal rights group or, perish the thought!, advocating a vegan diet—could alienate their supporters who might feel conflicted about the issue. Yet doesn’t it seem probable that having a wider circle of compassion and considering a broader range of inequities would attract more members, even as some with a narrower view depart?

Erika Cudworth, senior lecturer in politics and sociology at the University of East London, where she focuses her research on intersectionality, puts it this way: “The left activists who join a hunt sab[otage] group because they are aggrieved at the cultural expression of class privilege, or they relish an opportunity for some direct action, may well find that hanging around with animal activists leads them to think about the exploitation of animal labor in the meat and dairy industry. So alliances can help activists from various groups to understand entangled oppressions and perhaps be more open and flexible in seeking possibilities for solidarity.”

But it’s not that simple, argues Claire Jean Kim, professor of political science and Asian American studies at the University of California, Irvine, and author of Dangerous Crossings: Race, Species, and Nature in a Multicultural Age. She believes people worry that if they broaden their analytic lens or political effort, they are in danger of diluting the struggle they care most about. “There are a lot of people who, when you bring up race, say, ‘Yes, but that’s a human issue, and I’m really concerned about animals,’” she says. “People have a tendency to grab onto one issue—they invest in it emotionally and intellectually—and that’s what they’re comfortable with. Any other issue can look like it is threatening the centrality of the issue they care about.”

Moreover, says Kim, just because there are connections among different forms of oppression doesn’t mean they are equal. “What intersectionality does is put everything on the same level playing field, saying these are all equivalent things—domination of women, animals, nature, people of color. The question becomes, are certain forms of domination, historically and in the present, worse than others? Is the suffering and the violence greater in some forms than others? People don’t want to talk about this openly, because it seems like it’s setting up a competition among oppressed groups, but I don’t think that all forms of domination are equally salient, equally fundamental, or equally horrible. Asian Americans are privileged relative to blacks, for example. And I believe white women do not have it as bad as black men—one is subjected to patriarchy and the other is subjected to racial oppression. There’s a difference.”

A. Breeze Harper, who speaks widely about race, feminism, and food, observes what is arguably an even bigger obstacle. “I don’t want to generalize everyone, but in my experience with mostly white-identified activists within veganism, food security, or food justice, they have to let go of their ego and accept that when people of color say that whiteness is the problem, they need to listen, not get defensive. The challenge is to get them to understand that unless they pick up a book or go to a workshop that teaches them critical race literacy skills for a post-2000 age, they’re probably not going to understand deeply what the problem is in terms of why their own work is not more inclusive or they’re not on a path as an ally or building solidarity.”

If we ever hope to unlock the interlocking systems of oppression, acknowledging that we can’t effectively address one social justice issue without considering the others is the key.

Mark Hawthorne is the author of Bleating Hearts: The Hidden World of Animal Suffering and Striking at the Roots: A Practical Guide to Animal Activism. He was a Satya contributing writer from 2004 to 2007, and he is a volunteer with Food Empowerment Project. You’ll find him tweeting @markhawthorne.