This piece was originally published in ArtLeaks Gazette # 5, “Patriarchy Over & Out: Discourse Made Manifest”
It is certainly true that 2018 saw many movements “like #MeToo, Time’s up, #NoDAPL, #TakeAKnee, and #BlackLivesMatter” and that these “have shifted debates about gender and racism out of the violently maintained shadows into international visibility.”
At the same time, academics have for around 30 years been talking about “intersectionality” – a term that Kimberlé Crenshaw coined in 1989, but a way of living and thinking that has existed in some form, probably in all cultures. If you are black and a woman, you already have some experiential understanding of how both race and gender have affected your life without necessarily knowing the academic terminology. The same is true if you are working class and a woman, or queer and disabled, and so forth. Many intellectuals have indicated problems with the atomism and spatial metaphor that the word “intersection” includes. Let’s take a generous and broader view to suggest intersectionality is a theory that demands that we pay attention, think about, and fight not only to one type of oppression, but to recognize there are many. We must also understand that various oppressions and power relations shape our identities, rather than being qualifiers “tacked on” to an already established autonomous human being. One of my own favorite pieces of work that deals with multiple oppressions and how they are foundational is Angela Davis’s book Women, Race, and Class.
Within the contemporary Left, there are some stubborn Marxists and quite a few stubborn centrists too, who believe – despite all evidence to the contrary—that the totality of worldly oppressions and injustices can be reduced to economic class. Thus, they join with the right wing in using the phrase “identity politics” for anything that engages injustices other than those effecting white, straight, cis, normatively-abled, Christian men. But other than these people, the thinking Left knows that the world’s problems are varied, complex and cannot be fought with one-dimensionally. The Left has been won over to intersectionality. Or so we think.
Here’s the conundrum: While there are attempts at intersectional thinking and theorizing, our activism remains – for the most part — single-issue focused. In the abstract realm, we speak about intersectionality as a goal, but our concrete movements are not yet intersectional enough. People join the Black Lives Matter movement or they post about #MeToo, but too often we do not bring up other issues and types of oppression within the circle of that particular movement. Sometimes, we are even shamed for doing so. A person who brings up class in the midst of a queer rally, who brings up feminism at an environmentalist rally, or who brings up animal justice at a socialist meeting – well, they are often thought to be rude. Or worse, accused of “derailing” the cause.
There are growing exceptions to this; I mention only a few contemporary examples within my own immediate experience. (1) The Women’s March in the USA has indeed taken up the issues of racism, heterosexism, ableism, the rights of sex workers, and justice for trans people. (2) Within Black Lives Matter, at the beginning there was a major focus on Black men being shot by police. Then, many women began speaking out about that bias and started writing and speaking about the deaths of Black women and initiated #SayHerName. (3) In my home city of Buffalo, New York, a queer research collective is working on understanding the deep relationships between pets and LGBTQ persons, and are researching themes such as “people organizing to care for pets of ill comrades during AIDS crisis and re-home them when their owners died,” and “pets becoming emotional support animals who help their humans deal with daily ins and outs of historical trauma.” In terms of intellectual projects, there are numerous, but I note a few of my favorite theorists here: Carol Adams, the author of many works and projects that theorize the relations between feminism and veganism including her 1990 groundbreaking work The Sexual Politics of Meat and more recently Protest Kitchen; Christopher Sebastian, who runs the website Striving with Systems that routinely discusses racial, queer, economic, and animal justice; and Vasile Stanescu, a vegan intellectual who’s most recent project discusses “the use of milk and other animal-derived products as symbols of masculinity and racial purity.”
Related to Stanescu’s theme, check out “Wholesome Taboo” by Sarah E. K. Smith; it includes General Idea’s “Nazi Milk”. Here we see a juxtaposition of ‘wholesome values’ that people generally associate with milk with whiteness/blondness, along with the disturbing nod toward fascism.
All activists should be intersectional for both ethical and consistency reasons. Let’s think in the most basic way about what a movement does: a movement calls on the un-persuaded, the comfortable, and the un-radicalized to care about an issue and to provoke a change. An activist within the movement is demanding attention be paid to their call for liberation. This is as it should be. But it should also mean that this same activist can recognize and respond in kind to other calls for liberation. For how can you expect others to listen to your plea of liberation if you do not listen to theirs? A closed person cannot reasonably expect openness from others. It is here that I think all activists ought to be open to listening to all calls for liberation from oppressed groups. Queer activists ought to be open to the call for liberation from Black folks. And vice versa. And poor folks ought to be open to the call for liberation from trans folks. And vice versa. And. As activists we ought to also be open to the call for animal liberation. People who fight against oppression ought to be vegan, or at the very least, must be open to listening with an open mind to the arguments in favor of veganism.
The idea that the human body requires dairy/eggs/meat in order to be healthy has been the propaganda of large lobbying organizations representing those agricultural interests. The nutritional data shows otherwise. For instance, the Canadian government recently took all animal products off of its nutritional guide as being “required” for optimal health. And once we understand that eating animal products is “optional” rather than required, we have to ask ourselves: why are we harming, imprisoning and killing animals for merely our own taste preferences? And why are we doing it when we know it’s a major cause of global warming? And the over-use of water and land resources too?
Effects are intersectional. Global warming has been exacerbated by speciesism (the belief that another being’s interests don’t matter simply because they are from a different species – the meat and dairy industry has had a huge impact on global warming) and global warming will affect the poor in much more devastating ways than the rich. When we go vegan, we are not only fighting speciesism, we are also fighting economic and environmental injustices. We are also fighting sexism within speciesism because humans take advantage of female animal bodies more than male bodies. We use female animal bodies as a means to our own ends. We repeatedly get them pregnant (and impregnate them without their consent) so that we can steal their milk, we force them to lay eggs more than they normally would so that we can take their eggs.
Racism and speciesism intersect too: many governmental agricultural departments have stated that dairy and meat are necessary to a healthy diet. Of course, we all know now that they aren’t: contrary to the propaganda, dairy is not necessary in order to have strong bones and meat is not necessary to have a protein-rich diet. Yet, because the ideology of many cultures has gone against the science of this, millions of people consume dairy believing that we must do so in order to have a “well balanced” diet. Meanwhile, it is estimated that about 75% of African American, 70% of Latinx/Hispanic, and 80% Indigenous North Americans are lactose intolerant. It makes no rational sense to think that the breast milk of another species would be nutritionally necessary for a completely different species. Yet many people believe this, and in the cases of lactose-intolerant persons, believe it despite what their own bodies are telling them. Within the context of the USA — a government with a brutal history of racism that is still run by majority white men and for white men’s interests — continues to subsidize the dairy industry, and continues to spread the propaganda that dairy is necessary to be healthy. Yet, this directly harms the bodies of around 50% of the American population, many of whom are people of color. These are just a few ways in which – within the concrete world – we cannot escape injustice being intersectional. Our activism should be intersectional because the effects of injustice definitely are.
But when vegans engage in activism, they don’t usually bring up issues of race, class and sex. They should. And when anti-racists engage in activism they should also call attention to issues of sexism, classism, and speciesism. When feminists and queer activist engage in racism they should also call attention to issues of class, race, and species. Anti-capitalist activists are particularly bad at being intersectional in my experience – from the sexism of “Bernie Bros” to widely accepting the derogatory phrase “identity politics,” to uttering the blanket statement, “well, there is no ethical consumption under capitalism.” So, what, then all consumption is equally bad and therefore, no careful ethical decisions need be made? GTFO.
It is high time that intersectional approaches be taken in our theories and in our praxis, as artists, as writers, and – most importantly — as human bodies in the world, where bodies and the acts they carry out affect other bodies in the world.
The original call for this ArtLeaks Gazette stated: “While 2017 has been celebrated as the year of women, queer and trans people, 2018 has witnessed the devastating rise and legitimization of a virulent right-wing backlash around the world. Championing the role of collective whistleblowers, movements like #MeToo, Time’s up, #NoDAPL, #TakeAKnee, and #BlackLivesMatter, have shifted debates about gender and racism out of the violently maintained shadows into international visibility, expanding and negotiating questions of civil courage, testimony, and solidarity. Formulating and testing strategies to fight against the culture of harassment, toxic masculinity, and racism ingrained in our societies, empowerment movements increasingly come up against right-wing conservatism and left-wing patriarchal models that perpetuate inequalities and violence pervasive within institutions, the private sphere, and beyond. ArtLeaks Gazette #5 calls for contributions that analyze concrete practices and campaigns, and which engage theoretically and intersectionally with relevant issues related to queer, feminist, racial, and economic justice.” ↩
David McNally wrote on this topic in the book Social Reproduction Theory, edited by Tithi Bhattacharya. ↩
“A growing number of Black Lives Matter activists—including the women behind the original hashtag— have been refocusing attention on how police brutality impacts black women and others on the margins of today’s national conversation about race, such as poor, elderly, gay, and trans people.” See “Women and Black Lives Matter: An Interview with Marcia Chatelain ↩
From Stanescu: “‘White Power Milk’: Milk, Dietary Racism, and the ‘Alt-Right’” The Abstract states: “This article analyzes why milk has been chosen as a symbol of racial purity by the ‘alt-right’. Specifically, this article argues the alt-right’s current use of claims about milk, lactose tolerance, race, and masculinity can be connected to similar arguments originally made during the19th century against colonialized populations and immigration groups … this article documents a pattern between an earlier time in which anxiety over falling wages and increasing domestic immigration focused on issues of meat and dairy consumption and current anxiety over stagnant wages, fears over immigration, and a reassertion of the consumption of milk and dairy as a proxy reassertion of white privilege. ↩
Thanks to Jasmina Tumbas for calling my attention to this. ↩
For full statistics, see several articles on the theme in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition including particularly “The Acceptability of Milk and Milk Products in Populations with a High Prevalence of Lactose Intolerance” by N.S. Scrimshaw and E.B. Murray. ↩