Friday and Saturday, Calvin College held their third annual Wake Up Weekend! event hosted by the College’s Philosophy Department and a variety of student groups. The weekend featured a number of speakers addressing animal advocacy issues, including oft-neglected issues of race and gender and how those topics relate to animal rights. While the vegan brunch and chili cook-off was great, this talk was the highlight of the weekend for me!
Thinking and Eating at the Same Time: Reflections of a Sista Vegan
Michelle Lloyd-Page, Dean for Multicultural Affairs at Calvin College, shared stories of what it means to “eat like a vegan” as an African-American woman, and the stumbling blocks and victories she has faced in her own community and family.
Living in Muskegon Heights, a predominately Black community, Lloyd-Page spoke of not only the availability of vegan food and organic produce, but also what it means to make the choice of rejecting meat and dairy products. She explained that for many low income African-American families, like those in her neighborhood, being able to work enough to afford such a luxury as chicken, is a large step. When many families see this as a luxury, telling them what they can and can’t have is an action directly tied to race, privilege, and education.
She went on to explain that people of color often make the assumption that becoming vegan is just as simple as cutting something out of your diet and then replacing it with vegetables and other healthier plant-based alternatives. The problem with this approach, she has learned through experience, is that you are taking away their perceived “staples” and long-standing traditions associated with them such as various Soul Food dishes. This is problematic for white people to not only think it’s only a matter of simplicity associated with a vegan lifestyle, but also to deny the strong cultural and identity ties to meat eating, as well as saying “I’m telling you what you can and can not eat”, when African-Americans have been told that by white people for generations.
Beyond cultural associations to meat, Lloyd-Page also talked about what it means for her and how it feels to be a Black woman and be vegan. For example, popular conceptions of veganism almost always exclude people of color. She explained that if this movement wants to reach out to other people, we have to have these conversations about race and even gender, otherwise it will stay white. In turn, she spoke about her own experiences in her community of being accused of trying to be white, be better than everyone else, be perfect, and leaving her own traditions and roots – something that most white vegans may have not even considered before.
While race is often ignored by the animal rights movement, Lloyd-Page spoke with insistency that our approaches in engaging in conversations about veganism have to be careful but can be done successfully. She explained that we have a problem when “white college kids will save a chicken, but not a starving child.”
For example, telling someone they should eat something outlandish that they have never heard of and can’t find in their neighborhood, might not be as good of an approach as making traditional recipes vegan and talking about the many health benefits of becoming vegan.
Lloyd-Page concluded her portion of the panel by explaining that all oppressions are linked together and that we cannot just fight animal cruelty alone, we have to fight them all or else we are not acknowledging their connections, thus allowing them to continue.
“Speciesism, Sexism, and Racism: The Intertwining Oppressions”
The second panelist, Nekeisha Alexis-Baker, recent graduate of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary and co-founder of Jesus Radicals, was segued nicely by Lloyd-Page’s closing remarks on the importance of recognizing the interconnectedness of the oppression of people and animals.
Alexis-Baker began her presentation by showing a projected picture of herself smiling and holding a baby raccoon, Edward, she had rescued and became friends with. She told of her own experience with Edward as teaching her how we treat non-human animals and what that implies of our society in general. She discussed the ideologies of racism, sexism, and speciesism, and how they all use a process of “othering” which not only allows for the mistreatment of animals and humans, but makes this classification socially acceptable.
During this discussion–through the lens of slavery–Alexis-Baker went on to incorporate the mistreatment of women as well. Through images she explained the level of desensitization our culture has adopted when it comes to cruelty, the many forms it takes and ways it is carried out, the legacy of the past, and how that has allowed us to glorify this mistreatment.
An example that was discussed was the comparison of African-American slaves to cattle. She explained the acceptability of shackling, branding, whipping, and breeding slaves was due to the fact that they were seen as the equivalent of cattle–solely raised for consumption by white people, particularly white males. This is especially true in the case of lactating Black women who continued to be wet due to nursing their own children and being forced to feed their “master’s” children as well. Alexis-Baker strongly stated that here there was no difference in the status of a Black woman, nor the status of a cow, because clearly they were both being bred and used to be subservient to their “master”.
In addition to this cattle/slave relationship, she also highlighted the fact that this “situation”, if it could even be simplified as such, of people of color who have been dominated by white men, could not even be considered oppression at the time, because only humans can be oppressed, and the status of a slave was below that–it was one of a non-human animal.
The link between slavery and the mistreatment of non-white humans today, to the mistreatment of animals was explained wonderfully and described in the most “easy to understand” terms when Alexis-Baker said, “They are desired, dismembered, and devoured, both figuratively and literally” they are both “…valuable in satisfying the male” as well as being “interchangeable bodies between non-human animals and women, both being objects.”
Sexism and Speciesism
She explained how this touches almost everything in our culture, even to the point of being incorporated in to the well intentioned animal rights movement at times. An example of this was a projected picture of a scantily, if not naked, clad woman in a suggestive pose with cuts of meat drawn all over her body.
The image, put out by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), was intended to invoke shock to the viewer by comparing the consumption and dismembering of animals and its acceptability, to the unacceptability of a person being treated in the same manner. While the intentions may have been good, in the end PETA chose to portray a young, thin, white woman to seduce the viewer into understanding their message.
Alexis-Baker emphasized the problems behind not noticing the intertwining of oppressions. In this situation women were being oppressed, while animals were trying to be freed. Her conclusion, along with Lloyd-Page’s, was that no one is free when others are oppressed. For Alexis-Baker, this means realizing that being vegan is one way to deal with these oppressions, and that as a Black woman, she has no choice but to strive for a liberation that involves everyone.