On Animals, Gender, Race, and Optics
An animal liberation group I was formerly involved with, Direct Action Everywhere (DxE), is making headlines this week, for all the wrong reasons (as usual). One of their activists, Aidan Cook, stormed the stage and grabbed the microphone from Senator Kamala Harris while she was discussing the gender pay gap at a San Francisco forum. Cook barely got any words in before the mic was cut off, they were blocked by the moderator and removed from the stage.
This action has been condemned from both inside and outside of animal rights communities. The optics of a white male-presenting person literally taking the mic from a black woman, at a forum moderated by another black woman, do nothing to dispel the notion that animal rights movements are dominated by privileged people who care more about non-human animals than oppressed humans.
While I in no way wish to defend this particular action or activist, there are some nuances that have gone missing or under-reported in the understandable outrage at this stunt.
For one thing, Cook is non-binary, not a man, and goes by they/them pronouns. As a non-binary person myself, I am quite familiar with being misgendered, so it’s important to me to honor the authentic identities and pronouns of others regardless of my personal feelings about the person inhabiting them. I fully understand why most people assume Cook is a man given their presentation, but seeing folks refer derisively to their “man-bun” does irritate me a bit (as does any such term that presumes hairstyles should be connected with specific genders).
For another, Harris is not particularly representative of black women in the U.S. I don’t say this because she is biracial; Barack Obama and I are biracial as well, and having one non-black parent does not make any of us less African-American. I say this because Harris is wealthy, and (like most favored Democratic politicians) enjoys far more privilege than the average black voter that she courts. Progressive blacks and others have also criticized her prosecutorial record as San Francisco District Attorney and California Attorney General as being harmful to black and brown folks in particular.
Regardless, the optics of this action are that a white man stormed the stage where a black woman was speaking and literally, albeit very briefly, took away her power of speech. This is what got reported in the news, not the message of animal liberation. As effective activism, it was horribly ill-conceived.
It is not at all surprising that critics would focus on the power dynamics of race and gender rather than the intended message. This event was not focused on animals or food. But even when DxE has interrupted more directly relevant events or speakers, their message has not often been conveyed coherently.
A few years back, a DxE member shouted at Anthony Bourdain while he was giving a talk in San Francisco, accusing him of eating dog meat. The activist’s words were inaudible to most of the audience, however. And while news stories did report on Bourdain’s angry reaction, they didn’t really touch on the larger issue of animal liberation. Most US-Americans are already opposed to eating dogs, but from an ethical vegan perspective, these animals are no different from chickens, pigs, or cows.
Recognizing the inherent worth of all farmed animals is why I headed this story with a photo of a cow and not a screenshot of the (failed) animal rights action. This movement should be about our fellow animals, not ourselves. And yet, activists like Cook are hailed as brave and heroic by their comrades, who accuse critics of their actions of being divisive, armchair activists who are not doing anything to help the animals.
From my perspective as a queer black trans vegan, marginalized vegans are under no obligation to “do something” for the animals, particularly if that “something” is a risky stunt of questionable effectiveness. And we have every right to criticize actions that we perceive as racist, sexist, or otherwise oppressive to humans. My experiences with animal rights activism have left me feeling jaded and angry, not empowered and hopeful.
For my part, I will continue to support the work of animal sanctuaries like PreetiRang (pictured at the top) and VINE, and the work of vegans of color* like Aph Ko of Black Vegans Rock (I manage the BVR Instagram page), A. Breeze Harper of the Sistah Vegan Project, and lauren Ornelas of the Food Empowerment Project. Like DxE activists, I do want animal liberation. But I don’t expect to live to see a vegan world, and I don’t feel that stage-crashing events where black women are speaking will get us there any faster.
*Note that I speak only for myself in this essay; I have not read nor sought the opinions of any of these women on this DxE action.