Is there a place in animal rights for a kid from China? - Part III: The Path Forward

Racist fear-mongering over the "Yellow Peril" has driven public perceptions of Asia for almost 200 years, yet very few acknowledge harboring bias against Asians. 

Is there a place in animal rights for a kid from China?  
Part III: The Path Forward

by Wayne Hsiung

(Check out Part I and Part II of this series.)

One of the most striking things about the hateful anti-Chinese rant that went viral last week is that it was, surprisingly…. not racist. Yes, the speaker derided Chinese people for being loud, dirty, and disgusting. Yes, she mocked our most heartfelt and earnest practices, e.g. our commitment to giving our children educational opportunities denied to prior generations. And yes, she screamed profanities at us for failing to assimilate and insisted that we had a duty to become more “American.” But it wasn’t racist because, you see, the tour guide emphasized that she’s “not racist.” 

Too often, thoughtful discussions about race within the animal rights movement are met with a similar dismissal. “It’s for the animals,” we say. “It’s not about race.” Even more troubling, however, is when dismissal turns into outright hostility – even among the people within our movement who wear their anti-racist credentials like a badge of honor. Indeed, at DxE our earnest attempts to start constructive dialogue on race have often been met by untrammeled hatred and anger.

In the first part of this series, I set out the concept of performing whiteness: the elevation of white, Western perspectives, practices, and people over other communities across the world. In the second part, I showed how the problem of performing whiteness has undermined the struggles of both Asians and animals. Today, I want to move away from problems and toward solutions. But as the infamous tour guide’s declaration shows (“I want you all to know that I’m not racist.”), solutions are not easy to come by. They require us to dig deep, think hard, and reflect on our beliefs and behavior in ways that may make us uncomfortable or even angry. But if we can meet the challenge, it will make us better people and activists. So let’s take that journey together.  

Representing the World

I ended my last post with a question: Am I betraying my own heritage, culture and people… betraying my own non-whiteness…. by fighting for animal rights?

Before I answer that question, though, I want to explain why it’s important. In prior posts, I showed how performing whiteness has undermined our ability to gain real traction in communities of color. And this, alone, is a significant fact. After all, perhaps 85% of the people on this planet are people of color. And the most rapidly growing animal killing industries are in India and China, where the people have not, historically, eaten much meat. We cannot change the world, in short, if we are only changing the white world.

But one might say, “People from developing countries can’t be won over at this point. There are too many struggles these people face, and they don’t have time for animal rights. Let’s focus on the low-hanging fruit.”

And there is some truth to this claim. Our ability to change foreign peoples is quite limited… but not because animal rights can’t take hold in a poor country. After all, the main objectives of animal liberation, contrary to conventional wisdom, are not economically privileged. My own parents, who grew up on a quasi vegan diet due to poverty, are one example. But more generally, animal agriculture comprises a tiny portion of the global economy, and is hardly a growth industry. (By my calculation, the value of all the animals on farms in this country is just 1.7% of the US federal budget.) Education (especially of women), technology, and institutions, not resource-and-labor-intensive agriculture, are key to development in the third world.

The reason we struggle to recruit foreign peoples, then, has nothing to do with material deprivation and everything to do with… friendship. That’s the conclusion of a new strand of research that has burgeoned in the past 10 years, network science. And what network science has taught us is this: When it comes to social change, we are affected first and foremost by our immediate peers. Government and public health professionals have struggled for half a century, for example, to determine what drives people to stop smoking, but smoking rates have remained stuck at the same 20% of the adult population.  We’ve tried education, taxes, and replacement products galore. But what social scientists have found is that a single intervention beats pretty much any other in causing even the most stubborn smokers to quit: the smoking norms of one’s friends. If a smoker’s spouse stops smoking, and begins to condemn the practice, an astonishing 67% of people will follow by quitting themselves. And if a single friend stops smoking, the figure is 34%.

Spreading influence through peer networks, in short, is the Holy Grail of social change. And yet this is exactly where we have little capacity when we attempt to change a foreign practice or community. Yet, because of our unspoken commitment to performing whiteness, our most popular and passionate campaigns focus on these areas. In short, we engage in campaigns against foreign practices and communities because they are foreign, and not because they are effective.

We should not be surprised, then, when those campaigns fail. Take the white-led campaign to end whaling in Japan. The Japanese activist Tetsuhiko Endo writes that “the international whaling industry makes no more than $31 million a year while major anti-whaling NGOs spend around $25 million. What have whales gotten out of all this anti-whaling money? Hunting rates that are twice as high as they were in 1990.”

What’s the problem? Well, the campaign has made no traction whatsoever in Japan. Endo writes that “for many Japanese, citing whaling as a source of 'national heritage’ is another way of saying ‘I’m not going to let some fat, aggressive White man tell me what I can and cannot eat.’… [I]f the scales were reversed, and it was the Japanese… who were slandering us for eating, say, tuna, most people would feel the same way.” And without the support of the Japanese – without local activists working with us – it is the whales who ultimately lose.

A recent pro-vivisection rally in Southern California had far more diversity than the typical animal rights protest. That has to change. 

But anti-colonial sentiments are not confined to the issue of whale slaughter. (For the record, notwithstanding its often racist messaging, I admire the folks at Sea Shepherd, including Paul Watson, and have had many friends serve on their ships.) Virtually every campaign of ethnic targeting creates the same us v. them dynamics. Whether it's dog meat images that portray "uncivilized" Chinese taking advantage of men's best friend. Primate trapping videos where "barbaric" Cambodians kidnap primate children from their mothers. Or even fur protests that make unusual and derisive emphasis on Asia as the region of origin. All of these campaigns play into racial animosity, shape the way people of color view our movement, and create situations in which a poor kid from China can’t work for animals without feeling like a traitor to his own people. Who wants to side with the bullying white man, after all, against his own family?  The entire movement for animal rights, in short, is discredited within communities of color by anti-foreigner campaigns. 

The problem goes even further than this, however, because performing whiteness does damage within white communities as well. The unusual focus on "minority" issues, and by privileged white folks who know almost nothing of the communities they are targeting, creates a public perception that the animal rights movement is frivolous. The province of bored and entitled white people who have too much money and time on their hands. Country club activism. Not a true social justice movement. Maybe even, dare we say it, a little racist -- which, at least when it is finally acknowledged, is the cardinal sin of the Left. 

Indeed, the distinguished scholars I cited at the start of this series – Donaldson and Kymlicka  – identify performing whiteness as perhaps the single largest stumbling block in our movement’s growth. How can anyone – even white people – take this movement seriously when it’s so inconsistently, incoherently, and arbitrarily attacking foreigners, people of color, and marginal practices while ignoring far larger and worse atrocities occurring in our own neighborhoods?

In short, changing our movement’s race dynamics is vitally important for two reasons. First, we have to represent the world if we are going to change the world because local activists on the ground – with specific knowledge, experience, relationships, and credibility – are the key to real and permanent change. Second, our diversity gives us strength even in the West. It shows that our ideas have been independently discovered by people from all nations and continents, from all cultures and creeds – and therefore gives those ideas global credibility. It shows that we are not just a bunch of bored, privileged, and judgmental white people, but rather an urgent, heartfelt, and international movement to give voice to the animals whose voices have been so heartlessly silenced.

It shows, in short, that our message can change the world.

Easier Said than Done

So if performing whiteness hurts us both at home and abroad, if it stops Chinese people such as me (and countless others) from finding a place in our movement, why don’t we just fix the problem?

The first difficulty is the same one we face as animal rights advocates: failure to take the victim's perspective. Many of the powerful people in the animal rights movement, because they lack the experience of being mocked, bullied, or even violently attacked for their race, simply don’t appreciate the existence of the problem. Like animal eaters, they ignore the victim’s perspective.

The most recent national animal rights conference, for example, included panels on the intersections between animal rights and many other social justice causes (environmentalism, feminism, class issues, etc.). But despite having virtually no faces of color, and being filled with campaigns (including the keynote speaker Paul Watson) targeting foreigners and people of color, there was not a word about race in the original program. It took an aggressive behind-the-scenes effort by DxE (with a few supporters within the conference’s organizing group at FARM) to get a small workshop addressing diversity and racism – a workshop that ended up being heavily attended by people of color and whites alike. Still, though we tried our best, we failed to get even a simple statement in support of racial diversity into the conference’s program.

The irony is that this would be a disappointing outcome even in the corporate world. Following Nobel-winning economist Gary Becker – who first pointed out that racism simply doesn’t pay half a century ago – large corporations have spent the past few decades trying to create a more inclusive racial environment. Support for racial diversity is now standard practice in corporate missions and codes of ethics. And the largest corporations in the world trumpet their diversity efforts, e.g. Coca Cola, McDonald’s, and Exxon.

Corporations such as Exxon take racial diversity and cultural awareness more seriously than the animal rights movement. 

The grassroots animal rights movement needs to push the powerful people in animal rights to give diversity the same attention. We have to do at least as well as Exxon. The good sign is that key organizers of the conference at FARM and other leaders in the national animal rights movement appear to be taking heed. For example, the coordinators of Animal Liberationists of Color have been promised that there will be a serious attempt to address racial diversity and targeting at AR2015. (Simultaneously, many prominent voices, including Matt Ball and Gary Francione, have pushed our movement away from relatively marginal "minority" practices and towards majority practices in the West.) 

But powerful people are not enough. We also need to challenge culture – the widespread and unspoken assumptions (e.g. that dog-meat is a crime but chicken-meat just a faux pas) that affect all of us, and not just people in power. And that leads us to the second difficulty: the natural human tendency to lash out at criticism. This tendency is particularly stark in activist circles because our movements are filled with passionate people whose self-image is linked to social justice and ethical rectitude.

And, again, DxE has experienced this problem firsthand. In one of our earliest trips down to Southern California in March 2013, I raised what I hoped would be constructive suggestions with a grassroots group called Empty Cages Los Angeles (which subsequently spawned another group called The Bunny Alliance). ECLA was protesting Chinese airlines and the Asian primate trade, and I talked to them about the importance of including Chinese voices in the campaign. But when I made what I thought was a relatively uncontroversial statement – that all Chinese people in this country have had the experience of walking into a white room and feeling immediately undermined and excluded – I was met with a shockingly hostile response.

“You have to acknowledge your privilege as an Asian person. You all have assimilated in a way that other people of color have not.”

This was my first introduction to the concept of Asian privilege, which Bill O’Reilly, among others, is fond of. I disagreed respectfully.

“I think that’s a little bit of a myth. There is no such thing as a model minority – all people of color face discrimination – and Asians, far from assimilating, are actually seen as perpetual foreigners.”

“But you have to admit that, demographically, Asians have more social and economic power,” another person chimed in.

The tense conversation that followed was bizarre. Even in conservative Indiana, where people of color were widely derided, I had never been told that Asians had too much power. The idea seemed utterly absurd to me. After all, Asians are hardly even seen, much less given power. But I’ve subsequently learned that it’s a “thing” in California to hold resentment against Asian people because, despite the overwhelming evidence of continuing discrimination, many feel that we have too many slots at elite universities. Never mind that we’re paid less for equal work, that our children are physically beaten in American schools (the same schools that we supposedly “control”), or that the slots at elite universities, for us, rarely result in elite positions post-graduation.

There’s another layer to this, however, in the context of animal rights. Scholars of racism have shown that the mere act of setting one group against another, in an adversarial setting, generates resentment and prejudice against the “other.” The movement’s overwhelming whiteness and unusual focus on Asian practices, therefore, not only reflect but also actively worsen our discriminatory feelings against Asians. The vicious cycle of antagonistic race relations is fed by white campaigns against Asians even if race is not expressly invoked.

Given both the evidence of widespread discrimination and my personal experiences as a victim of racist violence, I was shocked by the discussion of “Asian privilege.” But I dropped the conversation. One of the things you quickly realize as a person of color is that talking too much about race, especially to a white audience, often has bad results. I privately wondered, though, whether the activists leading the campaign against the Asian primate trade were developing unconscious prejudices against Asians. When you have one race on one side, and the other race on the other, it’s hard to avoid.

A few months later, when I saw a video of an office disruption at a Chinese airline in which a group of mostly white activists streamed into an office and screamed “Leave Town” at the Chinese people inside, my heart almost stopped. As someone who has had exactly those words screamed into my face, my body’s fight-or-flight response was triggered. My first thought was to send an angry email to the organizers. But after sleeping on it, I felt that the issue could not be pushed too aggressively. It was early in DxE’s history -- indeed, before DxE even officially existed -- and we were trying to build alliances rather than create enemies. So after sending a polite message suggesting that the campaign could be re-framed, and asking the organizers to try to put forth more Chinese voices in support of the campaign, I dropped the issue. These were, after all, systemic issues, and it made no sense to pick on one particular campaign.

If only things were so easy. The consequence of the comments I made about the targeting of Asians was a hostile response the likes of which I have never seen in my 15 years as an activist. A horde of activists lashed out at us for "racism" against whites. And prominent white supporters of the campaigns that I privately criticized, including Amy Love (Empty Cages LA), Jordan Act (The Bunny Alliance), and Jake Conroy (SHAC7 defendant), took it upon themselves to engage in a 1.5 year campaign of racial one-upsmanship and character assassination (including referring to me as “disgusting,” barring me from demonstrations when I offered to join as an olive branch, and mocking DxE activists at every opportunity in social media) that I can only compare to the hatred that I felt growing up in Indiana. Mutual friends have relayed to me that the supporters of the Asian campaigns took it upon themselves to show to the world that they are not, in fact, racist – and to “destroy DxE” for daring to suggest otherwise. Virtually every week another strange rumor or allegation comes out, and unlike many expressions of social media hostility (which are inevitable as our platform grows), the campaign appears to be organized and has actively interfered with our work, including nearly causing a Seattle speaking event to be cancelled because of my alleged connections with racists and white supremacists.

Among the many false allegations against DxE: 

Attempts to build better racial understanding are often met with violent opposition, such as this post on the author's Facebook page. But unapologetic racists are a small part of the problem. 

Rumor: DxE took money from the wife of a white supremacist, and Wayne has close ties to such groups. (Amy Love, Jordan Act, Jake Conroy)

Truth: If it sounds absurd – after all, DxE is organized primarily by people of color – it probably is. In fact, we hardly know the woman at issue, a close friend of Amy’s named Melissa who lives in Southern California, and Melissa ironically blocked all of us after the rumor came out because she thought we were the source. DxE did not even exist as a fundraising entity when we met her briefly in August 2013.

Rumor: DxE has silenced and excluded people of color. (Jake Conroy)

Truth: We had some unfortunate conflict between two community members – one Jewish, and one Persian – but did our best to hear out the genuine concerns about racism raised by both sides and still welcome all parties to the conflict to our events.

Rumor: DxE refuses to work with other groups, is exclusive, and divides the animal rights community. (Jake Conroy)

Truth: We’ve worked with and promoted IDA, Animal Place, Animal Liberation Victoria, and countless other groups across the world. Even the leaders within the movement whom we most disagree with, e.g. Bruce Friedrich, seem pretty ok with our approach to conflict.

Rumor: DxE doesn't have a real concern for anti-racism because some of its members have shown support for anti-Asian campaigns. They are just hypocrites. (Jake Conroy)

Truth: This
one is also a little hard to take seriously, given the number of Asian people in our organizing group. (Do we really have to defend our authentic interest in not having our own families murdered?) But it’s true that many of us – including yours truly – have attended demonstrations addressing Asian practices. What our critics fail to understand, though, is that DxE does not operate as they do. When we see a problem, we try to show solidarity with other campaigns and reshape them from within. (And we often succeed.) We don’t immediately set out to destroy those who are different from, or disagree with, us.

Rumor: Wayne is a member of the Illuminati, or a mole for Chipotle/the CIA. (Anonymous Portland activist, as conveyed to one of our organizers)

Truth: Sigh. 

One of hardest things about these rumors is that the source of many of them, Jake Conroy, is a long-time activist whom I respect immensely. But Jake has been a big and vocal supporter of two campaigns that DxE has politely (and privately) questioned: against the Asian primate trade, and against the Japanese whale/dolphin slaughter. A well-known and extremely intelligent activist, and someone whom I share many close friends with, Jake was one of the first people I reached out to when I moved to the Bay Area. He’s a genuine hero to many in the animal rights movement, and justifiably so, as he served 4 years in prison for his work on the SHAC campaign.

But Jake is also, to be blunt, very uninformed when it comes to race. In private conversations with both myself and a co-organizer (Priya Sawhney, an immigrant from India who has shared powerful stories of racial oppression with mainstream media), Jake has indicated that he feels discussions of anti-Asian sentiment and racial diversity in the animal rights movement are, in his exact words, “playing the race card.” Campaigns targeting Asians, he has instructed us, are not about race. Case closed.

In multiple meetings in which we've attempted to address the issue, I haven’t seen in Jake any interest in trying to understand others’ perspectives, to understand what it feels like to live your entire life wishing you had another person’s face and skin, and to have the people who have always been placed above you screaming at you with frightening levels of hostility. Moreover, while privately condemning us for “playing the race card,” Jake has gone out of his way to attack DxE publicly for supposed failings of intersectionality and for silencing people of color. That’s right. The same person who threatens and attacks us for playing the race card also alleges that we are silencing people of color.

We know that Jake and his allies have specifically reached out to people of color to try to mobilize them against DxE. When I wrote to Jake privately raising a concern about campaigns against the Asian primate trade, instead of considering whether there might be some legitimacy to my concerns, his group’s immediate response was to write to a Chinese person to seek out token support. How do I know? The Chinese person they wrote to was a friend of mine who immediately forwarded along the message back to me, with a puzzled comment, “What the heck is all of this about?” I could only shake my head.

We further know that they have attempted to torpedo DxE events by reaching out to folks working with us and spreading rumors about our supposedly racist connections (even after repeatedly ensuring us in person that the bad behavior would stop). Non-DxE activists in Seattle and Vancouver, among other places, have written to us warning us that there are people within the movement seeking to destroy DxE -- and having some success at doing so. 

Faced with criticisms of their own practices, a group of primarily white activists threatened to "out" three DxE members -- all women of color -- for participation in a Taiji slaughter campaign. 

And we finally know that all of this appears to have been started with a simple conversation about being Asian in America. Jake recently wrote to me and Priya dismissing our concerns about racism against Asians and warning us that, if we continued on this path,  “things are going to get messy.” He then sent a photo of Priya and two other DxE members, Danielle and Damayanti -- all people of color, incidentally – at a Taiji slaughter protest under a banner that said “Shame on Japan." 

Both Priya and I perceived this as a threat, and surprise, surprise, the photo was posted publicly by Jake’s roommate the next day on Facebook, along with a comment condemning racism within the movement. The irony of singling out the only three people of color at a huge Taiji demonstration for racism would be funny… if it weren’t also so incredibly hurtful and false. In fact, what the photo (which was taken long before DxE even existed) leaves out is that all three women got into a dispute with the organizer (who provided most of the signs) about anti-Japanese messaging at the protest, and attempted to hand out information targeting Western abuses of animals, as well. 

The important point, however, is not in the specifics. The important point is that this entire episode reveals how deeply problematic and shallow our race politics often are -- even, and perhaps especially, among those who are nominally interested in anti-racism. Are we a movement that will start taking race seriously, and address concerns about race with open-mindedness and integrity? Or are we a movement that sees race politics as some sort of game of hot potato that can be tossed back and forth in a competition of racial one-upsmanship?

The former approach offers us a path forward. The latter perspective will only continue the disturbing trend of performing whiteness.

I believe that our movement can do better. We can have serious and constructive discussions about race that do not devolve into hateful personal attacks and rumors. We can build bridges even where there are serious disagreements about strategy. And we can start making a movement for everyone – not just the white folks who have traditionally dominated our ranks. But it starts with a willingness to engage in dialogue. So Jake, Amy, Jordan, I will ask you again, instead of attacking people in DxE with rumors in the wind, let’s sit down and talk instead? The animals – and all the other oppressed peoples of this earth – deserve at least that much.
The Bigotry Within

What the past few decades have taught me is that the bigotry that lies within is the most dangerous to making true progress for the oppressed. Those who actively attack animals or people of color openly and publicly, e.g. Glenn Beck, are not much of a concern. The attention – and bad reputation – they give to discriminatory beliefs is wonderful fodder for our movements. The more troubling thing is when people who insist they are not speciesist or racist – the animal-lover who raves about the humane meat at Chipotle, or the avowed “anti-racist” who actively engages in racist campaigning – support these violently oppressive systems… and then just as violently attempt to destroy those who raise a serious and heartfelt concern.

Progress on these issues requires us to address the bigotry within our movements – and not just without. And that is a painful process. I know this because I went through the process myself. For most of my life, I hated being Chinese. I looked at the few Chinese people I grew up with with contempt. I went out of my way to avoid Chinese foods, culture, and people. And I accepted the values imposed on me by the dominant American culture – that playing football was more important than math, that success could be measured by individual accomplishment rather than community empowerment, and that charisma and talent were more valuable than nose-to-the-grindstone effort.  In short, I was performing whiteness.

Even after readings in college politically awakened me to the world of anti-discrimination (and ultimately, anti-speciesism), there was a difference between my stated values and my emotions. I still felt embarrassed, for example, when I walked through the din of Chinatown. I felt disgust when I saw another video of Asian people hurting animals. And I felt ashamed when I looked around me, in the social movements that I was working in, and saw nary a colored face.  In the recesses of my mind, I secretly still feared that, perhaps, white people truly were better than the rest of us.

DxE has transformed that. The theory that I never dared to test – that animal rights activists could be found on all nations and continents, and from all cultures, races, and creeds – has now been tested, and we have passed with flying colors. I now realize that I never should have worried at all. We can speak proudly for animals – and for our own people – and be confident that we can find allies of every race. No more apologies. No more begging. No more fear and shame. Liberation is born from confidence and honesty, from shining the light of truth onto even the darkest recesses of the human condition.

If I could go back, then, to my teenage self… to the self-loathing Chinese boy, I would share three lessons that I have learned, lessons that I think the entire animal rights movement can apply.

The first is that oppression is, in fact, everywhere, and that we don’t have to be scared or ashamed to admit this. It’s in the unthinkingly violent Chinese man who skins a dog without a second thought. It’s in the angry white bully who pummels a poor Asian kid in a gym class in Indiana. It’s even in a radical anti-racist activist who has spent her entire life thinking about justice but, somehow, doesn’t have any non-white friends. The reason for this is that oppression is systemic, not individual; and as individuals who are fundamentally shaped by the systems in which we live, we can’t avoid the system’s impacts on our beliefs, on our behaviors, and even in our most basic emotional reactions. (For example, having grown up in America, the Western preference for dogs may remain forever imprinted in my mind. Though I love hens dearly, I fear that I will never emotionally respond to a chicken the way that I respond to my dogs Lisa and Natalie. That is speciesism.)

The second lesson is that contesting this oppression is hard, and requires a constructive and open-minded outlook. Performing whiteness – the elevation of white and Western perspectives – is in fact just one instance of deep and insidious discrimination. Performing maleness. Performing straightness. Performing humanness. Each is an equally important frontier of social justice. When our most basic assumptions about life – that traditional American practices are superior, that men are stronger or smarter than women, that alternative sexual behavior is disgusting, or that meat is just “food” and not the body of a murder victim – are dictated by unspoken systemic bias, we have to dig deep into ourselves and think hard about our own beliefs and behaviors to uproot discrimination and make real and permanent change.

Animal rights activists come from all nations and continents, all cultures and creeds. And we are speaking with one voice for animal liberation. 

The third and most important lesson, however, is that there is hope in the intersection of all of these struggles, and in the progress that has already been made. My father never became a leader, but he still survived in a country that, just a generation ago, barred everyone of his race from entering its borders. My mother never became a math professor, but she was an astonishingly successful small businessperson in a state where both Asians and women faced obstacles that I can only imagine. As our movement grows, it touches people across the world, and relates the animals’ struggles to their own. When we recognize the commonality of oppression, we also recognize the commonality of liberation. We recognize that direct action is, in fact, everywhere. And in the brilliant connections that are made, we will light the path to liberation.