Trigger Warning: Post discusses racism, sexism, and a number of other discriminations as well as the movement's defense over attitudes and tactics that engage them.
I grew up in a small town in rural Virginia. The Confederate flag was constantly present in my life. Some people hang the flag on their porch. Lots of "good ol' boys" have them plastering their trucks. My classmates regularly wore t-shirts featuring the flag to school. Civil War heritage is a huge thing in Virginia as well, probably because most of the war was fought in our state. I am and always have been a history nerd, and I even participated in Civil War living history events and "reenactments."
In graduate school as a young woman, the flag came up in discussion in a sociology theory class. The professor was using it as an example of how symbols become socially constructed and can have different meanings. He asked us who in the room was not offended by the flag. I am embarrassed to say, I was the only one that raised my hand. I was also the only person from a rural and poor background in the class (poor people where I come from don't go to college, and they sure as hell don't go to graduate school). I was acutely aware of that. I think like many who defend the flag, when outsiders criticize it, it is taken as another attack on poor, working class Southerners who, to be fair, still live with a substantial amount of structural classism. I believe I said something along those very cliche lines of, "It doesn't mean what you think it means. I don't see it as racist."
That happened over 10 years ago and I still remember it vividly because I am mortified by it. I thought I was thinking critically, but I was really just thinking about myself. But it's not about me is it? It's about how others are hurt by it. It's about the systems of oppression that are still ongoing, still disadvantaging, still costing lives.
Deep down, Southerners are not ignorant of this meaning. We know it's not just about Southern culture and working class pride. I remember just a couple of summers ago I was tubing the river in my county. I got ahead of the group and while I waited on the banks for my party to catch up, two older men, strangers to me, came up to me and started a conversation having recognized me through their friendship with my late father. While we were shooting the breeze, one of them made an off-hand comment about how they used to have a rebel flag hanging up on a tree by the river entrance to keep n*****s away. We didn't know each other, but I was white, which made them feel comfortable acknowledging this implicit meaning.
|South Carolina's state capitol building was flying a Confederate flag until protesters removed it and pressured lawmakers to eventually remove it permanently.|
For those keeping an eye on the news, the terrorist attacks on Black churches have inspired renewed contention over the flag's use, which has, in turn, inspired white defensiveness and counter-mobilization.
This is where I believe the ongoing controversy over the flag speaks to vegan mobilization. With the growing attention paid to the role of intersectionality politics in anti-speciesism spaces, there has been a lot of push back. Beyond the excuses ("We have to focus!" "Animals are suffering more!"), much of the resistance has to do with advocates taking personal offense when their approach is criticized: "I'm not racist! This tactic doesn't make me racist!" "This has nothing to do with violence against women!" "Speciesism is just like the Holocaust, that's how it really is!" etc.
But here's the thing:
When we engage tactics that simulate the rape of women or show images and sounds of cows being raped as a scare tactic, we look like sexist jerks.
When white activists publish cookbooks from a stereotyped "thug" perspective and keep pushing the book despite protesting, we look like racist jerks.
When we insist over and over that veganism is "easy" when for so many living under structural oppression it absolutely is not easy, we look like racist and classist jerks.
When we belittle transgender persons for advocating for transgender liberation instead of prioritizing speciesism, we look like anti-trans jerks.
When we criticize obesity and post billboards mocking women of size for looking like "whales" with the intention of shaming them toward veganism, we look like sizeist jerks.
Who wants to join ranks with jerks?
|It doesn't mean what you think it means? Image from the Diane Jones food blog.|
Importantly, many abolitionist vegans engaging these problematic tactics have been exposed to patient explanations from people actually living under the oppressions themselves as to why these tactics are problematic. Yet, these vegans continue to defend these tactics with gusto, insisting that they aren't sexist/racist/classist/sizeist/anti-trans for doing so. Instead, vegan feminists are accused of reading too much into it, taking it too seriously, or looking to start trouble.
Advocacy isn't about our interpretation, though, an interpretation that inevitably comes from a position of relative privilege for a movement that is largely white-identified and middle-class. It's about the interpretation of those who are being hurt by our rhetoric, attitudes, and behavior. It's about those living with the consequences of our ignorance. Furthermore, if our goal is to grow our movement, shouldn't we be more concerned with the interpretation of others rather than our own? Isn't that the point of a social movement, to resonate with our audience?
Back in the 80s, Tom Petty went on his "Southern Accents" tour with a huge Confederate Flag hung behind the stage. After South Carolina voted to remove the flag from its capitol building, Rolling Stone asked Petty for a comment on his past behavior. I think his response sums up the problem with privileged whites and their ignorant protection of hate (intentional or not) rather well:
...when they wave that flag, they aren't stopping to think how it looks to a black person. I blame myself for not doing that. I should have gone around the fence and taken a good look at it.A number of abolitionist vegans might consider the same.