“Why do we need black anything, how about just not mention race? Why do black people incessantly need their own everything?”
In the summer of 2015, black decolonial theorist and independent digital media producer Aph Ko wanted to celebrate black vegans’ contributions to the animal advocacy movement and to foster a support community not only for those living a vegan life but also for those who were curious but lost in the overwhelming whiteness of the movement. Her article, “#BlackVegansRock: 100 Black Vegans to Check Out,” was published on Striving with Systems and subsequently shared by the Vegan Society on their Facebook page.
What followed were hundreds of comments (including the one quoted above) that Aph describes as “post-racial, racist, and offensive” in her new book, Aphro-ism: Essays on Pop Culture, Feminisms, and Black Veganism from Two Sisters (Lantern Books, 2017). Although she did receive positive feedback that ultimately led to the Black Vegans Rock project, Aph was consistently attacked for “derailing the purpose of veganism,” and being a segregationist all while promoting humans over “butchered animals.” Four pages of comments are included in the book she co-authored with her sister, Syl Ko.
Among a dozen others – including chefs, athletes, activists, and scholars – the NhRP’s Steven M. Wise endorsed Aphro-ism pre-publication:
Syl Ko provides a crucial perspective to the movements seeking to secure rights for humans and nonhumans alike. As she so eloquently demonstrates, we should not treat human beings like ‘animals’ any more than we should treat animals like ‘animals.’ Syl’s scholarship challenges us to reassess the standing social order and work toward a more just world.
The upending of the standing social order is at the heart of the collection of essays, with an eye on a new social justice roadmap for humans and nonhumans.
Reimagining a just world
Aphro-ism reflects the sisters’ online and very public dialogue on racism, the “animal situation,” misogyny, and white supremacy in the eighteen months following the backlash from “100 Black Vegans.” Their conversations – at times philosophical and didactic, historical and revolutionary – crack open the deep challenges facing social justice movements to an even greater degree now, in the Trump Era, not with a pic axe but with a sledgehammer. And for all the right reasons.
As Carol J. Adams, a self-described “anti-racist white vegan feminist” and author of The Sexual Politics of Meat, notes in the “Afterword”:
The activist self of the 1980s could not have anticipated the developments of these past few years: the numbers of African Americans killed by the police, the overt racism of an entire political party, a man who becomes US Attorney General despite a racist record. But the two women you’ve just read would have anticipated these developments. At this time we need the clarity of thought and incisive words of writers like the incredible sister duo, Aph and Syl Ko.
While the dismantling of the system of privilege – the Eurocentric, white male system – is their ultimate goal, Aph and Syl adeptly and convincingly make the case that the oppression and exploitation of nonhuman animals is directly linked to the oppression and exploitation of women, black, brown, and indigenous peoples. Until activists begin to reimagine the theoretical tools for change, they argue, the superiority of “whiteness” will continue to oppress anyone less-than-white. For Aph and Syl, this reigniting of our imagination begins with black veganism – not just a framework for black people but rather a methodological tool “designed to relocate the animal question to a new and fresh space to find new and fresh answers as well as to benefit any oppressed being.”
Aphro-ism emerges as the antipode of a colorless (read: white) vegan movement, embracing the rise of multitudinous individual voices and experiences needed to break the chains of oppression for all:
Instead of privileging only one way of talking and doing something about a problem—an inclination that erases and silences other voices in the process, by the way—why not acknowledge how our own lived situations help us reframe and re-understand the problem? Why not forge connections between the oppressions we face with the oppressions other groups face, whether human or not, in order to see the big picture? Why police each other when we could be learning from each other? (Syl & Aph Ko)
The two sisters are quick to acknowledge they don’t have all the answers. But in identifying the distinct and historic (bloody) roadmap of European colonialism, their approach to addressing what they call the “animal situation” – the oppression and exploitation of animals – is closely linked to addressing the oppression and exploitation of non-white, non-male, non-European peoples.
It’s a roadmap, in their opinion, that needs recalibrating not just for women and people of color but for the whole of the animal world.
What does it mean to be an “animal”?
Whether on the evening news or a true crime documentary, the word “animal” can often be heard to describe a criminal: a human-animal binary that juxtaposes offenders – lesser-thans – against the rest of humans. The explicit meaning is easy to grasp: no human would do such a thing, so s/he must be an animal.
But denoting (and treating) a human as an “animal” or one with “animal qualities” is not just for criminals. It’s also for humans whose ancestry isn’t European white. The dehumanization of non-white, non-European races and ethnicities has reduced vast numbers of humans to object status, thereby legitimizing their treatment as objects within a hegemonic system founded on strict race, class, and gender codes.
Take George Washington who in 1783 rationalized the extermination of American Indians by describing them as wolves deserving of ‘total ruin’. Or Frederick Douglass’s personal account of how he and other enslaved children were fed on plantations:
Our food was coarse cornmeal boiled … put into a large wooden tray or trough, and set down upon the ground. The children were then called, like so many pigs, and like so many pigs they would come and devour the mush; some with oyster shells, others with pieces of shingle, some with naked hands, and none with spoons.
Or The Eternal Jew (1940), a Nazi propaganda film, that portrayed Jews as rats needing to be exterminated. Or women, whom Donald Trump has called “fat pigs,” “dogs,” and “disgusting animals.” Most recently, after the London terrorist attacks, U.S. Representative Clay Higgins of Louisiana posted on his Facebook account, “Not one penny of American treasure should be granted to any nation who harbors these heathen animals.”
In each of these cases, the human – be s/he brown, black, non-Christian, or non-male – becomes a palimpsest upon which acts of violence and genocide are sanctioned (if not celebrated), for these humans are no better than animals.
“The human–animal divide is the ideological bedrock underlying the framework of white supremacy,” Syl explains. “The negative notion of ‘the animal’ is the anchor of this system. ‘White’ is not just the superior race; it is also the superior mode of being.”
This Us and Them construct is a convenient way of disenfranchising (and ultimately killing – physically or symbolically) any living being who doesn’t look or act according to the ideal form of whiteness. That includes homo sapiens of non-white, non-European origins and any other nonhuman species in the animal world.
Aph adds, “’Animal’ is a category that we shove certain bodies into when we want to justify violence against them, which is why animal liberation should concern all who are minoritized … as long as animals are oppressed, as long as ‘animal’ means something degrading, we will never be set free.”
To upset this closed moral system of “universalized whiteness,” the Ko sisters encourage their readers to reclaim “the animal” within. Reappropriating “the animal” means refusing to accept the moral categorizations that separate humans from nonhumans and to deny the objectification of nonhuman animals as things put on this planet for human exploitation, abuse, and enjoyment. This, they believe, is only possible when we in turn work together, embracing diverse individual voices and experiences, to destroy the colonial foundations of racism and misogyny.
Black Veganism: it’s never just about the animals
The authors of Aphro-ism challenge what they call the “myth” of veganism as a “peaceful, nonviolent, intelligent, and evolved” way of (white) life. Offering examples of how vegan minorities are often depicted as having “transcended” their race, Aph and Syl seek to dismantle this “racialized narrative.” They provide a stringent critique of the homogenous “it’s all about the animals” movement that portrays vegans of color as finally having rejected violence and exploitation, for this narrative silences other motivating factors that may lead people of color to veganism. It’s those individual voices and lives the Ko sisters seek to include in the movement.
In her essay, “Vegans of Color and Respectability Politics: When Eurocentric Veganism is Used to Rehabilitate Minorities,” Aph calls out white media platforms for framing stories about guerrilla gardeners such as Ron Finley without exploring the systemic racism, capitalism, and white supremacy driving brown and black folks to address their communities’ health and food crises.
A native of South Los Angeles, Finley began planting gardens in his community to provide access to healthy foods to the overwhelming number of people suffering from diabetes and other food-related illnesses. Finley’s LA situation isn’t an anomaly: over 26 million Americans, a large majority of whom is non-white, live in food deserts.
In Finley’s Ted Talk, which has garnered nearly 3 million views, he draws the connection between access to whole foods and black activism:
Funny thing is, the drive-thrus are killing more people than the drive-bys … I got tired of seeing this happening. And I was wondering, how would you feel if you had no access to healthy food, if every time you walk out your door you see the ill effects that the present food system has on your neighborhood? I see wheelchairs bought and sold like used cars. I see dialysis centers popping up like Starbucks. And I figured, this has to stop. So I figured that the problem is the solution. Food is the problem and food is the solution. Plus I got tired of driving 45 minutes round trip to get an apple that wasn’t impregnated with pesticides.
For Finley, it’s not about the animals driving him away from fast-food chains and into the soils of a community garden. It’s about the survival of his family, friends, and neighbors – survival that requires fighting white supremacy and its structural systems of poverty. But that doesn’t mean his work is any less important in reducing the number of animals going to slaughter.
In highlighting Finley’s efforts – and how white culture has often depicted him – Aph calls for the incorporation of ideas, struggles, experiences, and philosophies of Black Life into the vegan movement. The pro forma window dressing used to prop up black and brown folks for the sake of a “diverse” movement holds no regard for how the individual thinks, feels, creates, or struggles.
That’s not to say Aph hasn’t faced resistance from the black community when she attempts to draw similarities between animality and race. When a movement has long operated within an anti-racist framework, new concepts and ideas can be threatening and confusing. But she sees this confusion as a necessary step toward reimagining the social justice movement. Drawing from a talk by Angela Davis, Aph warns activists that clinging rigidly to a movement’s viewpoints and methodologies reproduces the very oppressive, colonized behavior they are fighting to dismantle. “Part of activism is finding yourself in a new space of confusion, allowing yourself to step into new conceptual terrain … Confusion is usually a symptom of decolonizing yourself from the mainstream system.”
While some anti-racist activists may not see any connection between the oppression of animals and the oppression of humans, some animal activists see a superficial connection. The dissemination of images of human slaves (blacks) in bondage alongside animals in bondage, Syl argues, is often done by those who “tend to be dismissive of or resistant to views in which animal oppression and human oppression are thought about together and in the same spaces with the aim of taking to task racism, sexism, speciesism, ableism, and so on—or coloniality in general—in tandem.”
In the end, it is about humans
For the Ko sisters, Black Veganism, in all its messiness and ongoing evolution, offers new methodologies to anyone committed to social justice. The central takeaway from Aphro-ism is that being a follower is no longer an option, and it’s up to humans — individually and collectively — to change the colonized ethics of humanity. What’s necessary to liberate nonhumans and humans from oppression and exploitation is a new, yet-to-be-charted roadmap.
Black Veganism calls for critical, disruptive thinking to dismantle white supremacist society. In turn, anti-racist and animal activists are called to vacate the comfortable spaces they’ve long (separately) inhabited to end exploitation and oppression of both humans and nonhumans. Aph and Syl call on social justice movements to come together, feel confused, be angry, get in each other’s faces. But most importantly, to engage in a dialogue and listen to each other – much like they do in their conversational essays.
It’s a dialogue that seeks to reimagine humanity through the anti/decolonial tradition. Pitting humans against humans is engrained in the colonized system; pitting humans against animals is part of the same system. To reimagine humanity requires changing the way we talk about humanity, which has been viewed for centuries through a Eurocentric colonial lens. Per Peter Singer, specieism (the act of elevating one species, in this case the homo sapien, above all others) has enabled collective humanity to exploit animals for the perceived betterment of humankind.
Aph and Ko challenge this notion, arguing that an interconnected human bond has never been achieved. If it had, they maintain, human rights violations would no longer plague the planet. Continuing on a path that either elevates humans to devalue animals or devalues humans to elevate animals keeps humanity tethered to constructs erected by and for the colonized state. As long as the animal/human binary exists, so, too, shall injustice, senseless killings, and exploitation.
Aphro-ism is not an easy read. Nor is it meant to be. At times, the reader will pause, reflect, and conclude: isn’t this simply repeating what I read in the previous essay?
And s/he wouldn’t be wrong. There is repetition. Each essay seeks to peel back the layers of colonialism, exposing the binary system at work across all social justice movements. But the repetition is needed to begin to not only to see things differently but to think differently. Aphro-ism slowly, methodically, begins to shift one’s worldview before knowing it has happened. What Aph and Syl Ko offer is an epistemological revolution — a revolution that rejects what has been justified and rationalized by white, male kingmakers.
In one of her final essays, Syl offers a challenge:
“In fact, their [nonhumans’] situation and who they are is tied to the larger, grander narrative that establishes who is human and innately valuable and who is not—a story that is not and never has been based on biology or biological facts. What will their situation be and who will they be when we find the courage to transcend the West’s monopoly on storytelling and begin to tell a new story about and for ourselves?”
Transcending the West’s narrative requires cooperation, collaboration, and acceptance of one another — respecting the methods of all social justice activists.
Among those noted in Aph’s 100 Black Vegans list are Coretta Scott King and Dexter Scott King. Dexter turned vegan (becoming “self-righteous” about it for a time) and introduced his mother to veganism. In an interview with Vegetarian Times in 1995, he talked about the spiritual nature of not eating animals, “If you’re violent to yourself by putting things into your body that violate its spirit, it will be difficult not to perpetuate that onto someone else … there is a connection between how you live life and how you treat others. It starts with the individual.”
From the individual to the collective whole a revolutionary shift can be accomplished. To embrace the multitude of voices and experiences is to embrace the writing of a new, nonviolent story.
Lisa Rainwater is the NhRP’s Campaigns Director. Previously she served as Communications Director and Campaign Manager of Move NY; Executive Director of The Catskill Center; and Policy Director and Indian Point Campaign Director for Riverkeeper, among other positions. Lisa holds a doctorate in German Studies from the University of Wisconsin (magna cum laude), an M.A. in German from the University of Oregon, and a B.A. in German and Psychology from Winona State University.