Photo Source: PETA
In the past few months since I've gone vegan, I've come to realize that to be both Black and vegan is to occupy a very unique social space. To be honest, it can be a terribly frustrating, anxiety-provoking place to be in. To be Black, on the one hand, is to be subject to racial discrimination on a multitude of levels. This isn't something that I'm willing to debate because this is simply fact. This is my lived experience and this is the lived experience of my loved ones and countless Black people across the world. It's been analyzed, researched, studied and written about time and time again, so I tend to view any argument to the contrary as willful ignorance stemming from a deep lack of empathy.
It is emotionally taxing to have to constantly assert that my life matters. It is painful to have to simultaneously mourn the revolving door of bodies victimized by our country's inherently racist systems while being forced to try to prove the very existence of those systems in the first place. It eats away at you, every day, living in fear that you or someone you love is going to be next. It's from these sentiments that the Black Lives Matter movement arose. It is a necessary rallying cry in the face of continued mass incarceration, systemic institutional abuse and neglect, and senseless death. So when people counter with "No, it's not just Black lives, ALL lives matter", it's extremely difficult not to become angry. Because let's be honest, it's an empty, obtuse, willfully ignorant, and unsympathetic response to a necessary assertion about the value of Black lives. To be frank, it's a slap in the face.
So when I see this attitude within the veganism movement, I can't help but feel angry, deeply frustrated, annoyed, and hurt. It's not simply a bunch of animal memes with 'All Lives Matter" slapped across them, it's the anti-Black sentiment from which the phrase popped up. It's the fact that the people posting these memes also believe that Black people are simply whining about nothing, and that the true victims are the poor, helpless animals being abused for food and profit.
It's a direct rebuke and denunciation of a movement that was birthed from a place of true oppression, and it baffles me. It's amazing that there are people that can eloquently tell you about the workings of the systems that allow for animal abuse but then they can't think two steps ahead to see how these very same systems affect human life. Even worse, a true knowledge of history would show that these systems, the barbaric ways in which these animals are treated in pursuit of profit, were perfected on the bodies of my ancestors.
Indeed, slave women were forcibly bred to produce more slaves for the slave master. My ancestors' bodies were used, abused, and discarded based on how much crop, and by extension, money, could be made off of their labor. It's funny because, many mainstream vegan organizations like PETA are very much aware of this, because they use these comparisons to bolster their arguments for why people - and people of color specifically - should go vegan. But here's the problem: that is not their comparison to make.
There's a reason why Black people are still extremely sensitive to being compared to animals. For one thing, the direct comparison to apes has been one particularly nasty way that racists have sought to dehumanize us. But even more than that, despite what many Americans choose to think, the ravages of slavery don't simply exist in some distant past that has no consequence on today. We see the remnants in our mass incarceration system, we see it every time an unarmed man, woman, or child is killed by the state-employed entities that are paid to protect them. And even if we didn't still have to contend with racial discrimination in our schools, in our workplaces, in housing, in our banks, and in so many different facets of our lives, the pain, suffering and trauma experienced by our ancestors is literally ingrained in our DNA.
We also see the ways in which people don't care, the ways in which they show us that they have more compassion for animal death than Black death. We saw more outcry over the death of Harambe than the death of 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones or 12-year-old Tamir Rice. Even in the face of video evidence, we rarely see justice for the deaths of unarmed citizens whose worst crime was coming across the wrong police officer. We've been mourning for centuries, and the mourning still continues.
At the same time, however, it would be extremely disingenuous to simply pretend that the comparisons aren't apt. Because it is true. Just as there are corporations sitting on stacks made off of the forced enslavement of Black people, there are corporations raking in cash using the same tactics and the same type of inhumane treatment on animals. The first time I learned about the forced breeding of cows, I was instantly reminded of law professor Dorothy Roberts' book Killing The Black Body in which she writes:
"Some slaveowners also practiced slave-breeding by compelling slaves they considered 'prime stock' to mate in the hopes of producing children especially suited for labor or sale".
She also states,
"Because a fertile woman was more valuable to her master, she was less likely to be sold to another owner... Women who did not produce children, on the other hand, were often sold off - or worse. Slaveholders, angered at the loss of their investment, inflicted cruel physical and psychological retribution on their barren female slaves".
This thoroughly researched, poignant text then goes on to track the ways in which Black bodies, and female Black bodies in particular, have been continuously subjected to government control through forced and coercive birth control, forced removal of children, and more. As a Black woman, I know what my body and those of the Black women who have come before me have meant to this country. It is a horrific story of pure exploitation, abuse, and control.
That all being said, I couldn't help but feel heartbroken the first time I saw a video of a cow desperately chasing after its newborn calves who were being carted off to make veal. I can't help but be disgusted by the notion that in order to produce dairy milk, cows are continuously artificially inseminated, because only lactating cows who have just given birth can produce milk. When I see the stomach-churning, cramped, unhygienic conditions under which animals are held prior to being slaughtered, I'm not only turned off from the idea of consuming them as food, but I'm also angered at the fact that they're being treated this way at all. It felt completely contrary to my values to denounce this kind of systemic treatment among marginalized human populations and then passively support it just so that I can eat bacon.
To say going vegan has changed me is an understatement because I, too, once believed that animals were beneath me, and I paid very little attention to the horrors of contemporary animal agriculture. But I've seen too much and I know too much. My gut instinct to draw comparison between the treatment of animals and the historical & continued maltreatment of my own people doesn't come from a place of dehumanization or minimization. It comes from a place of pure empathy for other living beings that are also fully capable of feeling anguish, pain, and despair. It comes from understanding the inhumane systems that trade in bodies, human and animal alike, for the sole purpose of corporate profit. The comparison stands because the system has and does continue to treat us like animals, and neither of these abuses are okay.
That being said, when PETA and other popular vegan organizations and individuals draw on the suffering of Blacks, Native Americans, and other historically oppressed humans in order to further their agenda (and noble as it may be, an agenda is still an agenda) it feels exploitative and disrespectful, because it doesn't come from a place of compassion for all. It comes from a place of compassion for animals at the expense of a group of human beings who are still fighting day in and day out to be treated like their lives also matter. This isn't a foundation for progress, it's a continued minimization of our pain. It is misguided and hypocritical. If the goal is to get people to extend compassion to other species, try extending some compassion to your fellow humans first.
My name is Nivea, but you can call me Niv. Proudly hailing from the Boogie Down Bronx. My lifelong passion for social justice issues led me to earn a BA in Sociology from Columbia University. Currently I'm an NASM Certified Nutrition Coach & Personal Trainer with a love of all things plant-based. I'm just here, eating my plants, minding my business, and trying to find a peaceful path in a hostile world.