There’s an old song by Melissa Etheridge called, I Could Have Been You. The lyrics to the chorus are this:
I could have been you
You could have been me
One small change that shapes your destiny
If you want the proof
Cut me and you’ll see
I could have been you
You could have been me
From the first time I heard this song in 1995, those lyrics have stayed with me, often coming to mind when I read or witness any form of injustice or abuse, whether inflicted upon humans or animals. Needless to say, I carry a lot of white guilt too. And while I had no more control over the colour of my skin or the country and circumstance to which I was born into any more than anybody else did, I frequently wonder why I got to have it so good compared to so many others.
I am a Caucasian, heterosexual, cis female (meaning I identify with the gender I was assigned at birth). Like so many girls, I experienced sexual abuse as a child (don’t worry, I’ve dealt with it and can talk about it) and like many grown women (if not all), have experienced sexual harassment, been spoken to as though I were an idiot, had my opinions dismissed, have made less wages and been given less opportunity than my white, male counterparts in the workplace. I’ve only had two incidents of racism in my 41 years of living and I feel stupid even calling it that because both times I was more taken aback by the rarity of it rather than the actual words. I’m telling you this to illustrate that while I can personally speak to certain forms of oppression and “isms” because I’ve experienced them, I certainly cannot speak to all of them; what I haven’t experienced first-hand I can only hope to draw parallels with the ones I have in order to empathize with others as best as I can.
Despite my own struggles, I’ve still had it very good. I was born in England, raised in Canada and despite my parent’s tumultuous marriage and being raised in the Pentecostal church (I’ve not quite dealt with that one), my parents loved me and provided for me. I had an education, friends and opportunities. When I turned 16, I was able to drive and when I turned 18, I got to vote – no questions asked. I was allowed to get a job, wear what I liked and never had to fear my house being bombed, my family being kidnapped or had to suppress my attraction to men. I only ever had to learn one language and only ever had to grow up in one country. In many ways (despite having a vagina and not a penis) I was – and still am – the status quo.
While I was raised to have a social conscience, it was very much from the white, Christian perspective i.e., we should help those “less fortunate” and go on mission trips to “help” communities by showing them how to live a more Western way. We sponsored children of colour overseas through Christian organizations who could only participate in these programs if they also allowed the gospel to be preached. And while I know how well-meaning and deeply committed many people in the church were to these “causes” (myself included at the time), a lot of it only served to make us feel better in the end; to feel that we were (supposedly) living according to Christ’s example as opposed to creating concrete and lasting social change for the people who’d been oppressed by us and our religion in the first place. Charity is great but it only treats the symptom not the cause, and a lot of those acts of Christian faith were charity. I’m kind of embarrassed by the entire thing now although it wasn’t all a waste – I’m grateful I was at least exposed to the conditions in which other people live and not kept entirely ignorant of the world around me. Of course the world in which animals lived and died – God’s creatures – was never considered much less addressed.
It wasn’t until 2012 that I began to see our patriarchal society – and my role within it – in a new way. When a beloved temp agency I’d been with for years closed their doors, I got to experience working with other employment agencies. I’d been with other agencies before but I never had to deal with them full-time. It was an eye-opener. I’d never been treated so badly by an employer. I’d been treated like a number by a company before but never as though I were altogether invisible. I quickly came to realize this treatment among my colleagues who were new to Canada or of another skin colour was an everyday occurrence, one they’d already been dealing with their entire lives. A year later, I went vegan and my former worldview erupted even farther apart. Within a relatively short period of time I began to understand what linked oppression was and the part I’d had to play in it. Whether knowingly or not, I had perpetuated the status quo just by expecting a certain level of treatment and opportunity that is simply not a given to those with a different nationality and skin colour than me. As for animals, I’d never even considered them as being more important than my taste buds. Such is the subtle world of white entitlement.
Now that I’m vegan, I’ve come to notice something within the animal rights movement: a lot of vegans – at least the ones who seem the most prolific – are white. Naturally I share in and support their passion for animal rights and for being vegan. But one thing I got caught up in early on because I heard it from other vegans and then said it myself was the statement, “It’s never been easier to go vegan.” When I would say this, I didn’t yet realize that this often only pertains to people living in certain areas with more access to vegan options and who also have a reliable income to support that change. And who typically fits that criteria? White people. So I no longer say this. If I do speak to going vegan being “easy”, I make sure to keep it confined to my own transition rather than making a general statement that assumes everyone else will have the same experience.
A person who really helped me to see this is the founder of the Food Empowerment Project, lauren Ornelas. I’ve never met her but her organization and the resources on their website were instrumental in helping me learn the issues around animal treatment and she opened my eyes to another aspect of what she calls “food justice“: a lot of people, in particular people of colour who are typically paid less and therefore live on low, if not poverty wages, simply do not have the same access as more affluent communities do to fresh fruits and vegetables. It’s a big problem. In fact, in the recent documentary I watched called, Plant Pure Nation, there’s a term for this: food deserts. It’s when there is nothing for miles and miles but sprawling concrete, fast food chains and liquor stores, despite being in a big city. I’ve noticed this in Toronto too, the city where I live. Go to a low-income neighbourhood and you will find an increase in pawn shops, cash advance stores, beer stores and little-to-none fresh food markets (the white people are also harder to spot). In a thoughtful blog post lauren Ornelas wrote back in January, Why Every Vegan Should Support Living Wage Campaigns, she encourages us to avoid this sort of language about going vegan, and “…if we want people to go vegan, we have to do more than just encourage them to do so. We need to help make it possible for them to actually do it.”
I’m not writing this to increase any sense of white guilt (“Too late!” – Caucasian you) but as a white person who tends to be favoured above others simply for the colour of my skin and where I was born, I need to be careful about whose experience I’m talking about when promoting a vegan diet. I need to be mindful that when I use the term “cruelty-free” that I clarify no animals were harmed because the people who pick most of the fruits and vegetables I buy are migrant labourers – exploited, underpaid and most certainly not working in cruelty-free conditions. I need to realize that “the less fortunate” are actually “more oppressed” (hence their lesser fortune). Above all, I need to make sure that rather than giving my pity and charity which usually only makes me feel good, I am using my voice and financial means in a way that supports and participates with marginalized groups in their already-rallying cries for justice. Vegans are often quick to (correctly) point out the contradiction of people who care for dogs but don’t think twice about eating cows. But we as a movement – especially one based on ethics – also need to be careful that we don’t miss another contradiction: speaking up for the animals who make up our food while forgetting the people who are denied the option of eating anything else because they too are being exploited and used.