A call for action: addressing racism towards Asians in the vegan activist movement:
Trigger warning: discussion of racism.
‘Do you eat dog?‘
Let’s talk about racism towards Chinese people in the UK.
So, growing up as a half-Chinese kid in the UK wasn’t easy, and the all-too-familiar, all-too-dreaded question of ‘do you eat dog?’ came up a lot.
The way that people view the practice of eating dogs in China as barbaric has always been something that confuses me- how is this any different from eating a cow, pig, or chicken?
It is not uncommon for me to receive comments like this when I have challenged such views:
This comment, taken from a vegan activist concerned about the exploitation of dogs in the Lychee and Dog Meat Festival, echoes a dehumanizing narrative about Chinese people, and calls for violence against Chinese people that is justified by this dehumanization. What is striking about this is that such an idea is ostensive of the very same oppression that vegan activists seek to dismantle. Either that or people have been listening to far too much Morrisey. The very idea that violence towards Chinese people is justified because we are a species separate from humans, or as Morrissey put it- a subspecies- is at the heart of justifications of the consumption of animals. Contradictory, I know.
Being Chinese during the pandemic:
Concerns about what Chinese people eat became ever more prominent with the outbreak of Coronavirus, leading to many portrayals of Chinese people as barbaric, uncivilized, and diseased. It doesn’t help that leaders such as Trump have referred to the virus as the ‘Chinese virus’, and his friend, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson has left this unchallenged.
Around the world, Asian communities are being targeted with a rise in physical and verbal attacks towards people who are Chinese or perceived as such.
I’ve been told by someone in hospitality that ‘no offence but my friend refuses to serve Chinese people’ as a result of coronavirus. I, like many others, have dealt with the anxiety of going to restaurants with family, wondering if our seats in the corner of the room were strategically placed away from other customers.
Point of view: you’re out and about and need to use the toilet facilities, so you find one and try and enter, but a man comes out and starts shouting at you- he says there’s only five people allowed in at a time and denies you entry. There is no sign indicating this and the man clearly doesn’t work here. You argue with him, and notice that six people have left the toilets. The man then turns to a lady who is waiting around and says to her, ‘it’s ok you don’t have to worry about getting coronavirus’.
This is not hypothetical- this happened. It is happening.
Imagine walking down the street and having people attack you, spit at you, cover their faces as you go by, laugh, whisper, and jeer. Some of us don’t have to imagine this. Some of us live it.
You would think at least with having to stay home, you’d be safe there. Unfortunately not.
As people turn to social media to stay connected to loved ones during this trying time, some people turn to social media to share their fears and opinions about the pandemic. I noticed that my newsfeed was flooded with people blaming China and Chinese people for the pandemic. I was shocked, but not surprised.
What did surprise me was that many members of a community that I had felt very much a part of- the vegan activist community- were contributing to the problem. This is not to say that racism did not exist within this community unrelated to, and before, the pandemic. As I mentioned, it is not uncommon for me to experience comments such as the one shared earlier. However, the frequency of such incidents, and the amount of people participating in these incidents became a lot more prominent.
Racism in the Vegan Movement: Black Lives Matter (BLM), Anonymous for the Voiceless (AV), and intersectionality:
A particular activist group drew attention to themselves on issues concerning racism during the protests that responded to the racist murder of George Floyd: Anonymous for the Voiceless (AV). AV had criticized the use of a decapitated pig’s head by Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters during one of the protests, and in doing so provoked anger and alienation amongst many people. Whilst I am not condoning the use of animals to protest, it remains a question as to why the use of horses during this protest was not challenged, and why the specific focus was on BLM protestors, at a very important time for the movement. Meanwhile, AV were silent on the racist and systemic oppression that Black people face, until someone on their social media team claimed that systemic oppression doesn’t exist in the West. The ability of AV to place animals at the centre of a conversation about racial justice is a privilege that not all can afford, and a lack of sensitivity about this led to the alienation of people affected by issues of racial justice from the group, the vegan community, and veganism itself- vegans, non-vegans, and vegan activists alike.
Whilst both the post and comment have been removed, with an apology from AV’s co-founders, the organization remains notorious for its anti-intersectional stance on animal rights activism, with much outrage over issues with transphobia, racism, and sexism. Personally, I believe that the path to true liberation is to bridge the divide between the human and animal, recognizing that humans are animals as well. Therefore, the dismantling of speciesism involves the liberation of both human-animals and non-human-animals, an intersectional fight that recognizes the messy entanglements of oppression.
It is worth considering whether an anti-intersectional stance is bringing about liberation for animals more successfully than an intersectional stance. People who support an anti-intersectional stance often argue that intersectionality damages activist movements through the dilution of the cause.
Yet, if we are not aiming for total liberation and then are we really dismantling speciesism, or are we perpetuating it? If we are not being intersectional and then how are we being inclusive to the diversity of people in the vegan community- or who could potentially be part of the vegan community? Anyone looking to maintain a good activist praxis should be reflective of their approach towards activism.
Experiencing racism and responses to this in AV:
I’m not going to lie, when I first became vegan, I did what a lot of people do and jumped straight into activism without asking any of these questions. I became a member of AV amongst several other activist groups. For anyone who doesn’t know, AV is set up in ‘chapters’ (local groups) in various locations worldwide, with praxis regulated by the co-founders. As a result of this hierarchical structure, the anti-intersectional approach is implemented by the AV chapter organisers. This has been a problem in my own experiences of participating in activism at a time when racism towards Asian communities has increased.
I have seen a number of vegan activists from my local AV group posting racist and xenophobic anti-Chinese content online. These activists have often shared misleading information suggesting that China and Chinese people are to blame for the pandemic. They have suggested that Chinese people are ‘at it again’ in creating ‘round two’ of lockdown because of their ‘barbaric’ eating practices. Other activists have gone further in claiming that humans are the virus and that coronavirus is Earth’s karmic retribution- a dangerously eco-fascist narrative rooted in white supremacy especially as the people who are affected the worst by the pandemic are disproportionately BAME communities. None of this content is unique to vegan activists, and many non-vegans share such views, but coming from my local community who I had previously felt welcomed into for the most part, it was heartbreaking to see.
Of course, when I have been able to do the emotional labour I have challenged activists whose posts have been problematic, I have received messages such as this:
For someone who is defending their post as what they believe to be ironic and oppositional to racism, this person sure has no problem using the c* word casually in conversation, or perpetuating monolithic portrayals of Chinese people eating animals- and I have no idea why the word Chinese is in quotation marks. There’s a lot to unpack here.
The old ‘I have Asian friends’ pass. It’s good to know this person is aware that not all Asians eat cats and dogs? Aah, now it’s not as ok to use the c* word so it’s in quotation marks, despite having casually said this word earlier. Also am I meant to be thankful that this person did not use this word in their post? Well done.
Whilst some of the activists have removed the posts, others have removed me from social media, or I have had to remove them. However, I have approached the organisers of my local AV chapter with the hope that the racism I was experiencing, and witnessing would be addressed. The first time that I approached the organizers was back in April. I was told that:
“While we can’t from an organisational standpoint comment on anyone’s activity outside of our group page or our events and workshops, I can promise you any instances of racism at any of these will be tackled immediately by myself or one of the other organisers.”
In June, after a conversation in the group page where I commented on AV’s apology about their approach to the BLM protests, I received a message from one of the organisers letting me know that they stand with me on issues surrounding racism, and they seemed genuinely interested in having an open conversation about this. They proceeded to ask me ‘what is the internal racism, specifically?’. At the time, I appreciated that this organiser was trying to understand the racism that I have experienced so that they could attempt to make changes, but it was emotionally exhausting to be asked this. Having to retell stories of racism, and also having to put yourself in a more vulnerable position by identifying individuals is anxiety inducing, and whilst I want nothing more than for the racism to end, should it really be the case that we have to do this so that change can occur?
AV may be anti-intersectional, but they claim that any discrimination or harassment will not be tolerated, and so it really should be the case that there are measures put into place to support this. How hard is it to do the bare minimum and address racism by writing a post that discourages activists from proliferating such views online? How hard is it to set up workshops that let activists know that discrimination is unacceptable? How about a system that supports individuals who want to report such issues without having to feel anxious that they will suffer consequences for speaking out?
At this point, I was upset that no action seemed to be taken, and I made a public statement that ‘I no longer feel like I can stand with the organisation AV, at least not for the foreseeable future’. Although I had truly felt that the organisers I spoke with were well-intentioned. However, I received a message from a fellow activist who also complained about racism in AV and they showed me a conversation with an organiser, in which they had said:
Confused is an understatement. Why was I being asked to describe the racism I experienced if it was already known? I also had not named any names. How can AV be anti-racist and not tolerate discrimination when they refused to recognise that racism perpetuated by activist members online was just as valid a discrimination to address as racism that occurs at one of their events? I was also shocked to see that my experiences were being diminished to beliefs. I didn’t want to deal with this.
The issue remained unspoken about between me and the organisers for some time. Until now. I noticed that I’d been removed from the online group- and even though I knew I didn’t want to participate, there was a troubling thought in my mind: was I removed for publicly speaking about AV and racism? I had noticed that other members who decided to not participate any further had not been removed and so it certainly felt this way. I messaged the organisers and they have told me that this is not the reason at all and it is simply due to me not wanting to volunteer anymore. I asked why what has happened has not opened up conversations about racism, and they told me that a lot has changed and that the people involved in the BLM post and in the social media team who I mentioned earlier no longer work at AV.
This is of course some good progress.
They reiterated that there was nothing that could be done without any more information about the specifics of racism within AV being shared. After seeing the message to a fellow activist, I was even more anxious about sharing any sort of specifics.
A call to action:
This is my response to everything that has happened- to share as much of my experience as I’m willing to– and a critique of what has happened with a call for action.
So how can we improve our activism? I truly believe that an anti-oppression, total-liberation approach is the best; and this must be intersectional. Whether you’re fighting for animal rights, protesting against racism, or smashing patriarchy, spaces to protest can’t be inclusive unless they are intersectional, and if they’re not inclusive, and then we alienate potential allies and existing members of our communities, in addition to perpetuating the very oppression we seek to dismantle. We need to be reflective of our practice as activists and show up for those we stand with.
Until AV addresses the many problems that need to be addressed- which go beyond racism- and then I won’t stand with them as an activist, but I hope that they can make the changes necessary to allow for people like myself to feel safe within activist spaces.
My intention in writing this was not to be divisive but to share my experiences of racism and activism, so as to critique mainstream activism practices and in doing so open up a conversation about ways to improve our activism. We need to form solidarity with one another against oppression in the fight for total liberation within and beyond the animal rights movement.
If anyone is interested, myself and a few people that I know are looking to set up a horizontally structured and intersectional vegan activist group.
The information provided in the link below was compiled by Beth Leigh, a friend and vegan activist who wished for this to be shared to highlight some of the issues within AV:
Other examples of racism from vegan activists- AV and non-AV activists.
Do All Lives Matter?
Racism in 2020 towards Asians has increased globally, but most people have been silent. The systemic oppression of Black people occurs everyday, and yet it took the gruesome murder of George Floyd going viral for people to take action. Of course, there are many who have been speaking up about these issues for some time. This short poem reflects and expresses my personal feelings about these issues. It is not a poem to breed any hate, but to express frustrations, and the want for people to genuinely ‘stand by’ people of colour, (POC), and Black Asian Minority Ethnic, (BAME) individuals everyday.
“It is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist” – Angela Davis. Right now, many are protesting against systemic oppression in support of Black Lives Matter, often using techniques in defence against police brutality inspired by those techniques used in Hong Kong. People are using leaf-blowers, umbrellas, and traffic cones to defend themselves against teargas! I was speaking to family about the HK pro-democracy protests, and one of them said to me, “when I first came to the UK, I thought it was going to be different, I thought, ‘here is a place of freedom’, but here is just as bad”. Our family has experienced much racism here in the UK, and due to the outbreak of coronavirus, this has become more so for all Chinese appearing individuals. When BAME and POC face much discrimination, and then we really need to ask ourselves ‘do all lives matter?’, and yes they should. However, the reality is that not all lives are given equal value, and are systemically oppressed. Not all people treat BAME and POC as equal.
So what can we do?
– challenge racism everyday.
– show solidarity on social media, and beyond this.
– protest (although right now be super responsible about this, and realise that the ability to protest is a privilege in itself).
– donate to the people, organisations, and grassroots movements affected by and/or fighting to put an end to racism.
– Educate yourself if you are a white person, and don’t expect POC and BAME individuals to do this for you, we don’t owe you an explanation or the emotional labour.
– Listen to and support POC and BAME individuals in everyday life.
– Check your privilege.
– Write to MPs.
– Sign petititions.
– Find creative ways to do activism, and build communities and safe spaces.
All Lives Can’t Matter until Black Lives Matter.
Follow these links for more information and actions in support of #blacklivesmatter and against racism: https://docs.google.com/document/d/10… https://blacklivesmatter.com/ https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/life… https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsand… https://greenandblackcross.org/guides…
Music in video: Algorithms by Chad Crouch, from the Free Music Archive, CC BY.