Black vegans and animal rights activists are calling on their white counterparts to embrace intersectionality and create long-term, structural change.
Black vegans and animal rights activists are calling on their white counterparts to embrace intersectionality and create long-term, structural change.
August 26, 2020
Earlier this year, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) posted a Super Bowl advertisement it said had been rejected by Fox. The one-minute clip featured cartoon animals, from bees to bald eagles, taking a knee while the national anthem hummed in the background. It closed on the hashtag “#EndSpeciesism.”
The media spot was an attempt, in PETA’s own words, to “pay homage to Colin Kaepernick and movements rejecting injustice,” but for many viewers, including those of color, the comparison struck an insulting chord. Michael Harriot, a columnist for The Root, called the ad a “despicable but expected” example of “mockery of 400 years of systemic oppression by comparing Black lives to grizzly bears and bald eagles.”
PETA defines speciesism as “the outdated belief that human beings are superior to all animal species.” The campaign—and the sentiment behind it—has offended advocates of color from the get-go. As A. Breeze Harper, author and founder of the Sistah Vegan Project, wrote in a letter to PETA in 2014, “Black people will continue to be treated as animals . . . until post-racial, post-humanist, ‘I don’t see color’ power-holders like [PETA], practice the tenets of Black Lives Matter (along with many other anti-racist movements).”
Racial conflict in the vegan movement isn’t new. But this year’s nationwide protests against police violence and white supremacy have revived this conversation in earnest among white vegan groups, especially those that maintain a single-minded commitment to animal rights. These nonprofits, including the Humane Society of the United States, Mercy For Animals, the Humane League, and the Animal Legal Defense Fund, are largely staffed with white executives and carry out the will of largely white funders and priorities.
Some groups have stood up and spoken out for racial justice or lent their platforms to Black leaders to advocate for change, and examined the ways that their organizations reinforce white supremacy and might evolve. Others are much earlier in a process of learning, and other groups still can’t see the connections between racial justice and their vegan causes.
As those groups ask themselves how—and even whether—to support the movement for Black lives, their answers reveal the early stages of a glacially paced journey away from systems that have often excluded people of color at best, and denigrated their movements at worst.
In the summer of 2018, when the vegan crab cakes at Baltimore’s vegan soul food restaurant Land of Kush made PETA’s list of the nation’s “top 10 vegan seafood dishes,” owner Naijah Wright-Brown was surprised and honored. But then, a week later, the organization put up a giant billboard of a crab on the nearby waterfront, imploring the city’s residents to go vegan.
Racial conflict in the vegan movement isn’t new, but this year’s nationwide protests against police violence and white supremacy have revived this conversation in earnest among white vegan groups.
When this gesture ignited a billboard war between PETA and a landmark Baltimore seafood restaurant, Jimmy’s Famous Seafood, Land of Kush found itself implicated in the debacle. Wright-Brown says PETA then “wanted Land of Kush to take it a little further.” She declined, but was left feeling like PETA didn’t understand the challenges she faced as a Black business owner.
“Land of Kush is not in that position in Baltimore to be having these types of debates,” she said. “There’s already a racial civil war going on out here . . . we don’t want to add to it.”
Wright-Brown isn’t alone in this experience of alienation. In a 2018 survey that asked about burnout among animal rights activists, all the activists of color interviewed cited racism in their organization and the broader movement as a reason for their departure from the movement.
“When I first got involved in the animal rights community, there were hardly any Black people . . . and never any discussions of human rights,” Black vegan organizer Gwenna Hunter told Civil Eats. She came to veganism slowly, first for health reasons, and then after watching online videos about the dairy industry.
The deeper she got into the community, the more one message came through: “‘Veganism is about the animals, because they’re voiceless. Human rights issues should not be discussed,’” she said. She often found herself cut off when she brought up Black Lives Matter, and thought, “It’s crazy that nobody wants to have these conversations.”
Prominent Black celebrities from Beyoncé to Venus and Serena Williams have publicly championed a vegan diet in recent years, including high-profile Black athletes Colin Kaepernick and Kyrie Irving. But it’s notable that while white celebrities are often vocal about their veganism for environmental or animal protection reasons, vegans of color overwhelmingly cite heatlh as the prime motivator for their change in diet. And while white vegans saturate the cultural spotlight—including celebrities like Alicia Silverstein and Joaquin Phoenix—8 percent of Black Americans identify as vegan, making them nearly three times more likely to eschew animal products than any other group of Americans.
While the vegan population is more Black than the country writ large, most vegan nonprofits with multi-million-dollar budgets cater nearly exclusively to animal-focused audiences, a practice that vegans of color have long emphasized systematically alienate communities of color. This dissonance demonstrates to LoriKim Alexander, an organizer of the Brooklyn-based Black VegFest, that “anti-Blackness is wholly embedded in the system of white, ‘mainstream veganism.’”
In recent weeks, educational tools explaining the role of white supremacy in mainstream veganism have been shared in progressive social media networks, as well as vegan-specific accounts. This slide deck, for example, was liked by 10,000 people, while this post from 2019 was recirculated on a radical platform and received 7,000 likes. For a few weeks following the murder of George Floyd, lists of Black chefs, educators, restaurants, and writers abounded in the vegan world.
Meanwhile, BIPOC activists have renewed longstanding calls for solidarity within the community. “If vegans can have love and adoration for cows, they can love within their species,” Black VegFest organizers wrote in a document that listed “7 points of Allyship for the White Vegan Community in Defense of Black Lives. “If Black vegans can practice intersectionality, white vegans can, too,” it read.
Mainstream, white vegan groups often weather storms of criticism without taking serious steps toward change. Alex Bury, a white vegan who has worked in fundraising at some of the largest mainstream animal rights nonprofits, including the Humane Society of the United States and PETA, says that’s a typical approach. When the Movement for Black Lives and reckonings on sexual harassment have been in the news in the past, Bury says, “they made some nice posts and memes, but that was it.”
The modern vegan movement came to life during World War II in Birmingham, England, with the founding of the Vegan Society, which waged campaigns against cruelty to animals, particularly horses, mules, and oxen. By World War II, Western society was powered by motorized equipment, and animal advocates pivoted to focus on farms and laboratories. “It was always about the animals,” explains Victoria Moran, founder of Main Street Vegan and a best-selling cookbook author.
Moran has been vegan since 1983, and was mentored by a co-founder of the American Vegan Society. For decades, while white vegan culture moved into the mainstream, racism wasn’t seen as relevant to the problems that vegans wanted to solve.
“A lot of white people who considered ourselves liberal, and open-minded, and certainly not racist—we were kind of oblivious,” Moran told Civil Eats. “The idea that there was institutionalized racism that we were part of and had benefited from, we didn’t know that, until the last four or five years . . . I’m not proud of that, it’s just the facts.”
Meanwhile, Black communities have used food activism to rebel against injustice since colonization. As Black VegFest’s Alexander put it, “Our grandparents, our great grandparents, our mothers, fathers, siblings—they’ve always brought [vegan traditions and food culture] to us. But whether we’ve been able to hear, through the white noise—literally—is a different story.”
“If you’re marketing specifically to white folks, you’re effectively saying, ‘We’re the only ones that matter.’”
In the last decade, Breeze Harper, Aph and Syl Ko, Bryant Terry, and others have introduced BIPOC leadership to the vegan mainstream, teaching social justice frameworks while offering up recipes that have helped their audiences re-interpret the history of Black cuisine through a plant-based frame. Some white vegan circles have been heavily influenced by these new narratives, while others maintain that racial justice has nothing to do with ending cruelty to animals. And yet, say Black vegans, until white vegan groups approach their audiences differently, the movement will continue to alienate BIPOC members by default.
“If you’re marketing specifically to white folks, you’re effectively saying, ‘We’re the only ones that matter,’” says Alexander.
In some corners of the vegan world, there are signs that meaningful change might be in the offing, even if groups aren’t being clear about exactly how, or when.
“We are eager to become an animal rights and anti-racist organization while also being realistic that this may be a difficult shift for some,” Mercy for Animals (MFA) President Leah Garcés wrote in a recent statement on anti-racism. In the statement, the group draws a connection between the impact of factory farming on animals and impact on meatpacking workers (many of whom are refugees) and communities of color that have long been impacted by meat production.
MFA is enlisting Breeze Harper’s Critical Diversity Solutions to introduce third-party accountability, as well as releasing concrete goals and metrics around diversity and inclusion in the “coming weeks and months.” The statement uses ideas and language of allyship not found in the organization’s three-year strategic plan from 2019, which alludes vaguely to diversity but does not contain the words “race,” “racism,” or “white.”
But change doesn’t come all at once. The organization’s mission statement—“We exist to end the greatest cause of suffering on the planet: the exploitation of animals for food”—has yet to be revised.
“We know there are areas we can do better in both messaging and programs to make our movement more inclusive and welcoming to people of color,” a spokesperson at MFA told Civil Eats. “We are listening to people of color within the animal movement, educating ourselves, and looking for where we can do more to foster an anti-racist culture in our movement.”
Gene Baur, founder of Farm Sanctuary, has also recently recognized the overwhelming whiteness of the group’s membership. “[Racial justice] is an area that has been of interest to me personally, but one that has not been pursued, and frankly, that I didn’t have as deep an understanding as I do now [in light of recent events],” said Baur, who founded the organization in 1986. “So I am learning throughout this process.”
Farm Sanctuary is in the midst of a strategic planning process, and while there’s “nothing concrete” yet in terms of commitments to offer, Bauer says the group is making progress, and he is “very optimistic about the direction we’re going in.”
Baur is proud of his communications team, which has made notable use of its platform, sharing space to encourage BIPOC leaders to advance Black Lives Matter messaging and education. “Our members have been used to seeing pictures of cute animals running in the field. Which is fine, and we will continue to do that. But we’re going to do more than that. The way I see it is that we’re transforming to a new level of impact, a broader anti-oppression effort.”
In response to questions from Civil Eats, PETA provided a statement saying its staff members had participated in Black Lives Matter protests and donated to the organization, and that PETA has “always believed in the power of protests, pushed for equal rights, and equal consideration for all, and stood for an end to injustice.”
Activists and allies all point to one obstacle as the largest barrier to reforming animal rights organizations in favor of addressing larger systems of oppression: the people who hold money and power in the animal rights fundraising community are primarily white men. These insular, mega-rich donor circles and executive teams are the primary resistors to expanding the scope of the movement.
A blog post on racial justice from the Humane League summarized the problem succinctly: “Large animal protection organizations in the U.S. are predominantly white, as are their boards, major supporting foundations, and most influential donors.”
The Humane League has received $17 million since February 2016 from Open Philanthropy (OP), a large-scale animal welfare funder. OP has given more than $123 million to vegan causes in that same time frame, and it almost exclusively benefits white-led, white-owned advocacy organizations, media groups, and colleges and universities.
“There’s a lot of [vegan] donors out there who simply do not want to see anything about Black Lives Matter; they think it takes away from animals.”
Mercy For Animals has received nearly $10 million from OP since 2016, almost $8 million has gone to Animal Equality, and $6.5 million has benefited the Good Food Institute, a cell-based meat promotion group. OP’s program director, Lewis Bollard, was not available for an interview with Civil Eats, though his team shared a statement signed by other white funders committed to addressing the problem of philanthropic whiteness.
These pipelines create barriers to opening the organization to the cause of racial justice, say insiders. “There’s a lot of [vegan] donors out there who simply do not want to see anything about Black Lives Matter; they think it takes away from animals,” said Alex Bury.
After two years consulting independently with large animal rights donors, Bury has re-directed her energy into trying to help rectify the white vegan movement’s racial shortcomings. She’s now vice president of development at Vegan Outreach, which does grassroots outreach to communities with high potential for converting new vegans (mostly in college towns) and is now working to support communities of color by delivering thousands of free vegan meals sourced from businesses owned by people of color whenever possible. She also sits on the board of Womxn Funders in Animal Rights, a small group of fundraisers and philanthropists that works to funnel money to small, women-led organizations with diverse leadership teams, prioritizing projects “by and for communities of color.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, this work has expanded, emphasizing direct funding of vegan, BIPOC-owned restaurants and food businesses to help them provide free meals to their communities. Organizations like A Well Fed World have raised money with similar priorities and models.
This work squares with the expressed needs of BIPOC leaders. Frustration with foundations that fund large white organizations to work in communities of color and bypassing work on the ground by and for members of those communities, a cadre of leaders from a dozen organizations published “An Open Letter from BIPOC Leaders in Food & Agriculture to Food Systems Funders.” The leaders decried what they saw as “a pattern of paternalistic practices that entrench our marginalization, reinforce a culture of white supremacy, and devalue the knowledge and genius in our communities.”
The letter included model fundraising methods and organizations, recommending that funders “invest in unrestricted multi-year grants and move towards using a participatory grantmaking model with BIPOC-led orgs from and doing work in BIPOC communities.”
No-strings-attached funding is a show of true allyship, as BIPOC vegan activists have made clear. As Black VegFest founder Omowale Adewale recently told Mercy For Animals, real support needs to come “without any quid pro quo.” His colleague at Black VegFest, organizer Nadia Muyeeb, put it his way: “We are not looking for any saviors. We want allies who listen to us when we say we need resources and respect our Black spaces.”
“Some organizations, they fund you and then they wanna tell you exactly what to do, and that’s not my mindset,” said Land of Kush owner Naijha Wright-Brown, who is also a speaker on vegan issues and leader of the Black Veg Society of Maryland. “Look y’all—we’ve been colonized for centuries, and nobody is going to tell me . . . how I’m going to be representing my promotion of the vegan movement . . . that was a big problem.”
Land of Kush—which Wright-Brown runs with her husband—benefitted early on from a grant from A Well-Fed World, and the partnership worked because, in her words, “they wanted to support more marginalized communities and organizations led by people of color,” and gave the funding and got out of the way. “I love animals too, [but] we have other social issues that are equally important in our community.”
Wright-Brown also feels positively about writing for Jane Velez Mitchell of the vegan media platform Jane Unchained. “She’s totally for the animals, she won’t deny that,” Wright-Brown said of Velez Mitchell, but “she’s allowed me to have [conversations that center black and brown communities] without telling me how to do it.”
But these types of dynamic appear to be rare. Ultimately, when white leaders refuse to include other aspects of social justice into animal rights movements, Alex Bury sees it as inherently linked to questions of ego. “When white men help animals . . . the animals, will never threaten their status or power or money or jobs,” says Bury. “But if they help people of color or women, it could mean the white men would have to share their money and leadership positions with others. . . . That makes people in power very uncomfortable.”
Aryenish Birdie’s consulting firm, Encompass, works primarily with animal rights groups that have an interest in hiring more people of color and engaging them in the movement. Encompass also convenes a global community of BIPOC animal rights activists called the “global majority caucus,” now over 100 people strong.
Birdie says her client base has quintupled since the George Floyd uprisings, but with her work with upper-level animal rights executives “very much at the early stages of providing racial literacy,” she estimates that real transformative progress is still about a decade away. “We need to be moving towards accountability,” Birdie said. “There are a lot of animal groups that have a good amount to apologize for, and we should be doing that to truly make amends with communities of color if we want to talk about embracing them.”
In order to fund her own work, she faces the “extra obstacle” of convincing powerful funders that diversity and inclusion efforts will ultimately help animals. Most of her funding comes from animal rights funders, and while she tells granters that not only is inclusivity work the right thing to do, opening the movement will also help animals eventually by building the movement’s power. This pitch has a difficult time competing with organizations who say they’re helping animals more directly, Birdie says.
While funders and executives are having tough conversations, rank-and-file members of the vegan movement have taken the opportunity to engage each other in conversation on racial issues, asking what race has to do with animal suffering, and what to do about it.
“If everybody goes vegan, it’s not like there’s not gonna be racism anymore,” says organizer Gwenna Hunter. A month ago, Hunter started a Facebook page called Vegans for Black Lives Matter. The conversations that came out of the impromptu community have been difficult, but Hunter is encouraged. “Now, to see the solidarity, I’m like, ‘This is the vegan community that I knew and loved, that I thought I was a part of.’”
Kyla Marie Cruz, a white vegan who runs trainings on anti-racism and white supremacy in the animal rights movement in eastern Michigan, first told Civil Eats in late June that “an overwhelming amount of people interested in doing better and being better through anti-racist work and true allyship.” But a few weeks later, Cruz had already seen “some of the fervor is dying away for many of them.”
“It’s going to feel hollow if organizations and individuals don’t follow through.”
She has also noticed that “just as many are doubling down on their stance that the movement should remain singularly focused. Many of those willing to have conversations and be open to change are still unwilling to more critically examine the movement as a whole and the ways in which the existing frameworks we are operating within are, in many ways, shortsighted and harmful.”
Black leaders on the ground are clear about their expectations. “There are some who are trying to push the movement forward by examining what allyship actually means, reasons why they’re coming to allyship, and actually practicing what they preach,” Black VegFest’s LoriKim Alexander said. “But it’s [only] coming now, on the heels of thousands of thousands of deaths. It took so much pain and suffering to get to this point.”
She’ll believe in real change when she sees it. “It’s going to feel hollow if [organizations and individuals] don’t follow through,” she said.
Update: Soon after this article was published, Mercy for Animals publicly updated their mission statement to read, in part, “Mercy For Animals exists to end one of the greatest causes of suffering on the planet: the exploitation of animals for food.”
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