Today I wanted to talk about this concept of neo-liberal whiteness and how it impacts mainstream vegan activism, and how one enacts their vegan ethics primarily in the U.S.A., which is a culture based on capitalism and consumerism.
There’s this rather new movement over the last two decades: green capitalism – how you can enact change through buying. So what I wanted to give people a brief synopsis of is, this talk is a larger part of the work that I had done when I was a doctoral student at UC Davis. And my dissertation basically analyzed how neo-liberal whiteness and race consciousness – all these components of race – operate within veganism.
So I specifically am a critical race materialist. So what that means is in a nutshell: I want to know how social constructs around particular food objects and foodstuffs can tell me about racial power dynamics, and in particular, whiteness. So what I did for my dissertation work was I looked at three shopping guides: I looked at PeTA’s “Vegan Shopping Guide”, Queen Afua’s “Sacred Woman”, and then the Food Empowerment Project’s “Ethical Food Choices”. And for this talk I’m going to focus more on PeTA’s “Vegan Shopping Guide”.
So, with PeTA’s shopping guide, I found that this was important to start off with because PeTA basically sets the standard for how vegan ethics and animal compassion and rights are talked about, not just in the United States but globally it would seem. And what I found particularly interesting about their approach to food ethics and animal ethics is, in their “Vegan Shopping Guide” they ask people to, of course, buy particular vegan food objects in which no non-human animals have been exploited, right? But then at the same time while looking closer at the guide I realized how they market and how they teach people how to consume is largely one-dimensional and largely focused on making sure that product doesn’t have animal products in it, but there isn’t really further analysis or, you know, a seed for thought for people to think of the human laborers that may have actually been exploited.
So what I looked at was how PeTA uses what I would say a superficial understanding of racism and how it means to be anti-racist, and then intersecting this into their new campaign “Never Be Silent”, which took place in 2012. And what happened was Ingrid Newkirk prefaced their new campaign with a letter that focused on Trayvon Martin’s murder. I’m not sure how many people are familiar with Trayvon Martin but he was a teenager that was killed while walking around in a white gated community. He had gone to a convenience store to pick up some snacks while we was watching TV at his father’s place and he was killed by one of the people that lives there and was securing the neighbourhood and it has been a very heated, controversial issue because it was thought that because he is a black male that he was automatically racially profiled by this community security person who ended up shooting him and getting away with it. A few months later – I’m sorry, a few months ago, there was a trial and the person who shot the child got off. So, Ingrid Newkirk prefaced her letter for the “Never be Silent” campaign talking about how we can never be silent about particular atrocities, you know, and Trayvon Martin really reminds us that we can’t be silent when we see things that are happening that are unjust.
So she’s hinting that Trayvon Martin kind of is the epitome of what racism looks like. And then the campaign also talks about how one should also be mindful of animal suffering and then you can click on a video and there’s a long video of just showing non-human animal suffering. So what I found interesting about this was that when you look at the “Vegan Shopping Guide”, and you look at how PeTA would like you to purchase, PeTA doesn’t actually think about racism beyond indirect racist acts such as racial profiling, lynching black people, black people being enslaved. So for them racism is this overt direct, almost individual thing that people do.
When you look at the products that they actually promote and ask that you buy so you can make the world a place of less suffering, this tells a different story and this is what is most interesting to me. So I looked at – there’s many products but I looked at two of their products specifically. The products that they promote: tomatoes products, such as Amy’s pizza and Tofutti pizza pizzaz, and then I also looked at the cocoa products that they promote as cruelty-free, such as SoyDelicious products.
And I also engaged with more systemic and structural understanding of neo-liberal whiteness and racism. So by this I mean, what does racism look like when we’re not actually looking at individual acts but looking at it in terms of structures, and how can we engage more with this as consumers and understand the impact that we have and how we actually collude with it. So for PeTA, they promote tomato products as cruelty-free, and why, because there’s no animals involved. But one has to actually understand why is one able to have access all year long, year round, in North America. And what PeTA fails to do is understand how their relationship to the commodity chain is actually upheld by racist structures such as NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and tomatoes exist easier and cheaper for North American consumers because of NAFTA. And NAFTA is part of this whole neo-liberal economy in which particular racist and sexist stereotypes about particular populations are necessary so we can get these cheap, accessible products as North American consumers. So, the history of the tomato, if you understand why we get it all year long, NAFTA has made it possible for particular spaces, agricultural spaces, to allow racist and sexist stereotyping of indigenous females in Mexico who are treated horribly, these horrible conditions where they’re sprayed with pesticides and they’re not given the resources they need to thrive while they’re harvesting.
And this is an acceptable narrative that indigenous females are closer to the land that they can endure these horrible conditions. So NAFTA basically upholds these types of narratives. They don’t actually contest it. And then the women who actually pack those tomatoes, they’re mestisas, so they’re paid ten times more than the indigenous women in the fields that are harvesting these tomatoes. And the mestisas are in the packing plants, and the mestisas are light-skinned, more Anglo-looking Latina or Mexican women. So they’re paid more, they’re valued more.
So, one may not actually see the connections that I’m making so easily but the point of what I’m trying to do is that when PeTA promotes that to enact your animal compassion all you have to do is buy a product that is marked “cruelty-free”, throughout the entire vegan guide they don’t actually talk about more in depth what it means to benefit from these racist, sexist, I guess poverty-inducing structures, such as NAFTA that allows many of the privileged who can follow the PeTA guide to have access to these foodstuffs, and at the expense of exploited human labourers. So I know PeTA’s focus really is the non-human animal rights component, but the matter, when I did my dissertation research that they don’t mention anything about questioning this whole concept of cruelty-free past non-human beings being exploited, really speaks to what I would consider and many others who are doing this work around ethical food and consumption really speaks to how neo-liberal whiteness shapes society’s organizations, such as PeTA or just America in general. That relationship as a privileged consumer to the commodity chain. PeTA structures their strategies, their outreach, with the assumption that everybody has this white, middle-class North American relationship to food, that they will never be in these spaces of domination such as the women that pick the tomatoes.
And another product that I analysed that PeTA promotes: SoyDelicious products, chocolate products, and a lot of people who are in America do not realize that like 70% of the world’s cocoa is harvested by enslaved African children in the Ivory Coast. So that’s not necessarily cruelty-free of course. But PeTA promotes not just SoyDelicious chocolate products, but also Hershey and Nestlé’s products, as long as there are no animals in use then they actually deem that as cruelty-free. So what this does again is reinscribe the notion that it’s a single issue and that in order to enact one’s sense of animal rights and justice all you have to do is buy something that has been marked as vegan and approved by PeTA and you don’t have to think any further. So, PeTA doesn’t actually, once again, engage with the fact that cocoa has been a huge issue in terms of human rights violations and you know I can see for where other products that people don’t hear much about that are being brought to the table in terms of fair-trade and sweatshop, but things like coffee and cocoa over the past, probably ten years, it’s been getting a lot of media exposure.
So for the mere fact that PeTA doesn’t even talk about this in their vegan guide as a way for their patrons to consider what cruelty-free looks like beyond just “oh there’s no dairy in this chocolate” but you should ask, you know, Nestlé and Hershey to make sure that they no longer source their cocoa from child slavery. I think that really says a lot. And it really says a lot about to the depths of what PeTA is willing to do in terms of changing oppression. So I feel like after doing the social science research and looking at PeTA and that “Vegan Shopping Guide” that there tends to be this ease in which one can give up their speciesist privilege more than they can give up their consumerist privilege and their capitalism, their capitalist privilege.
So by that I mean it seems like one can easily say that they can just give up the privilege of consuming animals and consuming animals products, like that’s easy, but I think the larger thing is that it’s not as easy for PeTA to be more intersectional in their approach of cruelty-free and start questioning those corporate kitchens, those corporate companies that engage in human exploitation and benefit from, you know, racist, sexist structures such as NAFTA so these foods can come to us vegans as cruelty-free. And in addition to that, much of the leadership in organizations like PeTA are primarily lead by a demographic that I would consider white or light-skinned with middle class or upper class relationships to the food system to resources. So that in itself, when you come in with that particular type of background, and not being very critical about it, tends to kind of reproduce structural oppression even if one doesn’t consciously want to do it.
So, PeTA has been accused numerous times of being racist, of being sexist, of being transphobic, heterosexists, when they do their outreach campaigns. And, I think about seven years ago PeTA had their animal liberation campaign going throughout the country. And they had images of non-human animal suffering positioned next to images of human suffering such as black people who had been enslaved, the Holocaust, and black men who had been lynched. And the NAACP became very upset with these images and they told PeTA that they felt that these images were racist, and Ingrid Newkirk’s response to that was “Well we’re all animals, so get over it”. And I thought that in itself, you can come from different angles, but that in itself was a very white-privileged relationship to the construction of “animal”. And by that I mean, collectively in North America and most white-settler nations have never had the experience of not being human while people of colour, such as black people, if you understand like the negative connotation to being an animal in the colonial sense, being called an animal is something that black people are not collectively going to be comfortable with because they’re still trying to be seen as we’re not animals, we’re not beasts, but we’re actually humans and we’re sentient beings, and we suffer and we want to be considered that.
So, Newkirk’s particular response, depending on what angle (some people thought the NAACP was being speciesist in their response, other people did support NAACP, other people supported Newkirk), but my emphasis or my analysis isn’t necessarily on who was wrong or right but if you were to look at ways of analyzing those responses through, you know, if you look at it through a post-humanist response Newkirk’s response makes sense. But then I also started questioning to what extent is her response a cover for post-racialism. So, when you say “we’re all human, get over it” to a group who has had a completely different relationship to animals and being animalized, and being animalized within the colonial sense and then that justifying their exploitation, her comment doesn’t make any sense and it doesn’t create a more productive way of engaging with communities that have a completely different relationship to not just animals but food. You know, black people’s relationship to the commodity chain – as having been the slaves to produce products for four or five hundred years to benefit a largely white constituency.
These things are never really addressed and have not really been addressed with PeTA, and you can see that from Newkirk’s response from seven years ago when she says “we’re all human just get over it” thinking she’s being post-human when in fact it’s just a post-racial response. And then you can see when you look at the “Vegan Food Guides” and most recently the campaign “Never be Silent” which she prefaces, you know, this is what real racism looks like: Trayvon Martin, and you know, that distances her and PeTA from being considered “real racists” because a “real racist” racially profiles a young black man and shoots him. A real racist doesn’t collude with NAFTA, doesn’t create vegan food guides that benefit from NAFTA and other forms of globalized capitalism and structural racism that keep mostly white, northern middle-class consumers on top of resources, of food and the ability to these vegan products versus those that are mostly non-white and poor throughout the world living in the global south have a different story in how they are exploited, how their land is exploited to bring even cruelty-free foods such as tomatoes, cocoa, palm oil.
So with that said, I know I only have twenty minutes, but the point of my work is to really understand what does is it mean when we want to enact our, you know, our activism through buying power, and we follow particular guides, especially these popular ones from PeTA, that tell us these foods are cruelty-free? How can we start questioning what that means when we are part of the system of capitalism, even green capitalism? Profit is the number one goal for most of these corporations, and can PeTA really question capitalism and not lose their sponsors or their patrons, lose these corporations that may offer a few vegan items but overall they still perpetuate cruelty, and they still perpetuate more structural forms, more globalized forms of racism and whiteness that are actually hard or not very legible to most people who only understand “real racism” from a Jim Crow era – that being “real racism” is when you lynch a black person or when you racially profile someone.
So, my work really looks at these structures, these systems and, understanding how neo-liberalism is packaged to us even when we think we’re being cruelty-free, even when we think we have the best intentions, and I say “we” largely as those in the north, which is largely middle to upper-class people. So that’s what my focus is on is how do we get beyond being marketed that, how do we begin to create a critical literacy around consumerism that is marketed to us that is supposed to be ethical, and what does that play in our role as people who are animal, non-human animal advocates, and as vegans who for the most part we enact that justice through our “buying power”.
Dr. A. Breeze Harper is the director and founder of the Sistah Vegan Project. Her emphasis in the the intersections of critical food studies, critical race studies, and black feminist theorizing. She received her PhD from the University of California, Davis and is currently a Research Fellow in the Human Ecology Department of University of California where she is currently researching key black male vegans who use hip hop and decolonial methodologies for their health, food, and environmental activism. You can follow her work at www.sistahvegan.com.