Stretching Intersectionality to Include Animal Liberation

by Paul C. Gorski

Most of my activism, including my teaching and writing, has focused intently on racial and economic justice. However, as I have written previously (see "The Animal Rights Awakening of a Social Justice Activist" for the short version or "Consumerism as Racial and Economic Injustice" for the longer, thicker version) more recently I have begun to see interconnections between human exploitations, non-human animal exploitations, and environmental exploitations. In other words, I have begun to see how the oppression and liberation of non-human animals and the degradation of the natural world more broadly are related to the oppression and liberation of humans. 

If "intersectionality" speaks to the ways in which human identities--race, socioeconomic status, gender, and sexual orientation, for example--intersect and inform each other, I've come to believe that there is a sort of meta-intersectionality. I use the term meta-intersectionality to refer to the interconnecting roots of human, non-human animal, and environmental exploitation and liberation.

This semester, because I have the coolest job in the world, I'm teaching a class called Animal Rights and Ecofeminism that explores these intersections.

I know that for some of the people who are accustomed to reading my books or essays on racial and economic justice the notion of animal liberation presents a bit of a challenge, even if they can get behind other social justice movements. So I want to share a short excerpt from one of the readings I'm using in my class--an essay that provided me with a new angle on intersectionality, racial justice, gender justice, and animal liberation. The essay was written by Tashee Meadows and appears in A. Breeze Harper's groundbreaking book, Sistah Vegan, in which women of color write about their relationships with veganism through a sort of meta-intersectional lens. If you're struggling to find fantastic narrative intersectionality, I dare you to check out this book.

In her chapter Meadows talks about her realization that animals actually resist their exploitation, and how that's a critical point of connection for her as somebody who has experienced and resisted oppression. She wrote:

They resist. At the stockyard, bewildered calves try to turn around and run away, only to be beaten and prodded in the face, anus, and anywhere in-between. The pigs who don't get off the trucks are dragged and thrown off. Those who resist being confined to small metal cages are hit in the head with pieces of wood, metal piping, electric prods, and anything else that the workers can get their hands on. Chickens fight for their lives as they are shackled in the killing plant before having their throats cut. These beings resist at every point of their captivity and torture. They surrender only to the force used against them.
She starts the next paragraph, "We, too, should resist."

Meadows reminds us that all sentient beings, including non-human animals (and I use "non-human" because the notion of "animal" as separate from "human" is, itself, a social construction), who are being oppressed know they are being oppressed. All sentient beings resist torture, confinement, and other forms of oppression; their resistance is evidence of their awareness. All sentient beings recognize when they are being tortured and confined. All sentient beings feel pain and research is increasingly showing that all sentient beings--yes, even fish--experience anxiety, distress, and physical pain in ways that are very similar to how humans experience anxiety, distress, and physical pain. 

So when I used to eat meat, that meant that a sentient being experienced a lifetime of conditions that guaranteed anxiety, distress, and physical pain so that I could eat what I wanted to eat. As an activist, as somebody who always looks for ways to resist, this excerpt gave me a different window for considering animal liberation through a meta-intersectional view of social justice that incorporates human justice, non-human animal justice, and environmental justice as intimately linked movements.

There are myriad reasons, I know, that people choose not to make those connections. There is the "eating meat is cultural" explanation, although virtually nobody in the world, other than people who do not live near vegetation that can be cultivated for food, ate meat every day, much less at every meal, just three or four generations ago. So if that's culture, it's new culture and a real win for meat, poultry, and seafood industries, which generally are among the biggest human, non-human animal, and environmental exploiters globally. 

Then there's the affordable protein argument, which has been debunked in several recent studies. (See an interesting conversation about this here, on the Vegans of Color blog.) What is true is that all food is more expensive for people in many low-income communities and that healthy food is less accessible in those communities because people in them often do not have access to the types of stores that middle class and wealthier people shop in order to save money, like Trader Joe's. This is another intersecting social justice issue too rarely incorporated into conversations about racism and poverty. The result is that the most cost-effective, most easily-available proteins in high-poverty communities are meat proteins. The beauty of a meta-intersectional perspective is that we can look at this problem in its deepest complexities, recognizing how violence is distributed across multiple spheres. 

Still, I wonder whether, for some--not all, but some--of us folks in the social justice world, the uneasiness about conversations regarding animal liberation and environmental justice, even when it's filtered through a racial and economic justice lens, is an issue of self-perception and entitlement. I want to perceive myself as doing good, not doing harm. I want to perceive myself as anti-oppressive, not oppressive. But, like other people who are oppressive and don't want to imagine themselves as oppressive, it is easier to minimize the conversation or reject it outright than to engage and consider the ways we perpetuate oppression.

I am reminded of when I keynoted about consumerism and racism at the White Privilege Conference and afterward overheard a couple people who are very well-respected in the social justice world dismissing my discussion about inhumane (oppressive to humans, non-human animals, and the environment) clothing companies by saying things like, "What are we supposed to do, make our own clothes?" The root of a comment like this is precisely the same as the root of comments I often hear from students who are new to conversations about issues like racism and sexism. 

In a conversation about misogynistic jokes I might here a male student say, "What are you saying, that I can never tell any more jokes?" In a conversation about racism an occasional white student will say, in effect, "It's like I can never say anything because whatever I say will be interpreted as racist." These are classic responses by which people in a privileged class try to reposition themselves as victims, as people who are being forced to "give up" something to which they're entitled. What does it mean to feel entitled, paraphrasing Jennifer Hickman, to behaving in ways that deny living creatures their vital needs, such as lives without unnecessary pain, to satisfy my trivial needs if I have other options?

I recognize, of course, that I am a white heterosexual middle class man in the US, and that I have what might be called the "luxury" of looking beyond the relatively meager forms of oppression I experience personally--that my attempt to connect these oppressions could be considered, in and of itself, a symptom of my "privilege." I recognize, as well, that part of the privilege is, in fact, having a wide array of options, being able to afford to take any of many non-conforming routes, being able to walk to farmers markets and large grocery stores rather than only having access to a corner store. 

Meta-intersectionality graphic by Paul Gorski.
It is notable, though, that the leading voices around the world making these connections are women of color. I'm betting that the fact that women of color are leading the charge, connecting animal liberation with racial, gender, and other forms of liberation, also is one of the primary reasons that this sort of meta-intersectionality has not been taken more seriously in broader activist and scholarly circles.

I do realize that some people reading this will dismiss it as purely a post about veganism, because that's another way conversations about animal liberation are sidestepped or minimized. The vegan movement itself often is seen as a privileged white person's movement. However that's an historical misunderstanding. 

Vegan culture in the US, like the animal liberation movement, does include a fair amount of self-congratulatory white people who, in all their white liberalism, opt out of addressing issues like racism and poverty. But the veganism-anti-oppression movement in the US was not fomented by and currently is not driven by white liberals. Rather, it is an outcome or result of other intersecting movements including womanism and ecowomanism. We should take care not to confuse the propensity of well-meaning white people to elbow their ways to the front of the room, making sure they're the ones who end up with the press and adulation, with the reality of where the true roots of these movements lie. 

The most radical, anti-racist, anti-poverty, anti-all-forms-of-exploitation parts of the vegan community in the US and globally, and the most important voices theoretically and on the ground when it comes to the relationships between animal liberation, racial justice, and gender justice in particular, are almost entirely, as far as I can tell, those of women of color.

In the end, though, this is not about veganism. It's about the elimination of violence and colonization in all of its interlocking forms. It's about liberation from consumer-capitalist systems--from destroying our health and souls and communities in order to make the wealthiest people and corporations wealthier. It's about doing the least harm and the most good in every possible way. When it comes to animals, that means, whenever possible, that I must resist all of the systems that exploit them, even if those systems once served my trivial needs to eat, seek entertainment, or clothe myself in ways that create suffering for other sentient beings. That, in essence, is ecowomanism.

I haven't stopped doing racial and economic justice work in order to do animal liberation work, as should be clear to anybody who looks through my Facebook posts or browses the LeHa MoGo blog. Rather, I deepen all of my work across justice issues when I recognize and respond to these intersections. It's not an evasion, but a deepening.

As a closing thought, I want to offer this: if imagining or relating purely to the exploitation of non-human animals isn't enough, consider that the same industries and corporations that make (mostly white male) wealthy people wealthier through the oppression of animals also are very skilled at oppressing the most marginalized human communities. I'll give you one guess as to where the grossest, most disease-ridden, most chemical-filled products of industrialized farming end up. From the labor point of view, the workers on industrialized farms disproportionately are low-income men of color, and they have among the most dangerous, disease-inducing jobs available to anyone, anywhere. And, of course, industrialized farming has been named by some scientists as the leading cause of climate change in the world--more so even than transportation.

Here, then, is the meta-intersectionality, and why fighting for the liberation of non-human animals also means fighting for the liberation of oppressed humans: Who faces the most immediate brunt of this environmental impact?

I'll give you a hint. It's not wealthy white people.

Paul C. Gorski is the Founder of EdChange and an Associate Professor of Integrative Studies at George Mason University where he teaches in the Social Justice and Human Rights programs. For more of his writing visit the EdChange.org. For free resources on educational equity visit EdChange.org/multicultural. To contact Paul directly email him at gorski@edchange.org.

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