Published on:

January 26, 2015

Racism and Mixed Messages: What's Wrong with Australia's Animal Rights Movement?

By Anna Adey

Violence against animals is considered cruel until it is committed by white people in white establishments; then, it is considered humane.

Firstly, the ideas expressed here are based on what I have observed in the animal rights movement while living in Australia. There are more distinguished speakers who can explore these subjects and problems more effectively than I can--who I will list at the end of this post.

  Demonstration against live export.
Demonstration against live export.

Secondly, it isn’t my intention to offend anyone here. I have friends that both support and take part in the organizations I talk about here. I admire their actions; I know their hearts are in the right place. I support them fully, even if I don’t support everything their groups do, or the messages they promote.

When I first got involved in animal rights activism, I requested some materials from various animal rights groups. (Animals Australia is the main one here.) I received their pack, which contained a bunch of leaflets and stickers on individual uses of animals—fur, leather, meat, and so forth. I thought, Why can’t we tackle it all under one umbrella? Surely it’s a waste of time to spend our efforts tackling individual issues?

I dug deeper and found grassroots groups across the world that delivered an unequivocal message.

There are tons of opinion pieces and analyses of the regressive and unethical tactics of large animal welfare organizations. Less popular is the issue of racism within the movement. If PETA exploits women on the basis that sex sells, then what sells best in Australia is xenophobia. In the country with bumper stickers that say ‘fuck off, we’re full’ and headlines demonizing refugees despite being a land of plenty, it is of little surprise that racism is inherent in many of Australia’s most prominent animal campaigns.

Australia is not unique in this attitude. In my home country, the UK, we demonize the Spanish and the French for bullfighting and consuming frogs and snails respectively while conveniently ignoring our own abuse of other sentient beings.

Even though I had decided to spend my time as an activist promoting abolitionism, I was still undecided on issues such as Stop Live Export, wondering if, should the ban succeed, it might trigger talks of veganism and total animal liberation. On the fence, I joined other activists at the 2013 Human Chain. Everyone had to wear a placard stating ‘I am a......... Still Opposed to Live Export.’

Hundreds of people turned up to support the ban. Many placards stated they were meat eaters, farmers. Should that surprise anyone? Of course not. The issue is what other countries do with “our” animals, not that they are being killed for pleasure or profit. Standing on the bridge, I was confused and frustrated. Why can’t we put this energy towards trying to achieve full animal liberation?

“There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”― Audre Lorde

The 2014 Human Chain rolls round again tomorrow; but this time I won’t be joining. Being an activist, I see a constant stream of single-issue causes and cases of animal abuse in my newsfeed. These days, I am more selective about what I put my name to, preferring to take an intersectional approach to justice. I understand why many people feel compelled to sign every petition. You want to do everything you can to help get these poor souls out of these horrendous conditions.

Just the other day, one particular campaign jumped out at me that I couldn’t shake off.  It was about the dog meat trade in Indonesia. An image was circulated of four dogs tied up in bags on the back of a motorbike, their heads poking out, their mouths bound. One of the pups stared at the camera, his eyes full of extreme terror. He looked just like my dog, Nero. 

My knee-jerk reaction was to sign it; but even if we do convince Indonesia or China or another country to stop eating dogs, without an anti-speciesist message, they will simply replace the dogs with pigs, or chickens.

I think many people are forgetting, or perhaps they don’t know, who is driving the demand for meat in Indonesia. I’ve been to Indonesia four times. On my most recent trip, I spent a month in Bali and Lombok, and ventured out past the tourist areas, spending time in an orphanage and a dog rescue center. Past the areas populated by Western tourists, there are very few animal products. In Ubud, for example, I was paying $1 for tempeh dishes from local warungs. Yes, dog meat is eaten; but to say that that practice is worse than eating cows, pigs or chickens is speciesist.

I don’t hear many complaining when countries such as Indonesia continually expand their McDonalds and KFC restaurants, demanding that more animals be killed. Pointing the finger at Halal methods of slaughter misses the point. We should know better than to keep entrenching the false idea that “humane slaughter” was brought in for anything other than efficiency. Animals are property. Property only has rights insofar as it is useful to the property (slave) owner. The idea that laws will give animals any sort of protection that would not benefit the owner is ludicrous and something we should be constantly smashing, not perpetuating.

Am I the only one who thinks this is extremely sad? A country crippled with poverty under the crushing weight of global capitalism imports animals to appeal to western tastes, and is then accused of cruelty by those same people it is feeding? We have a long history of pointing the finger at Asia and villainizing Asians as cruel and heartless when it comes to animals—while they eat a tiny fraction of the animals that we do, kill far fewer animals than we do, have more vegans and vegetarians than we do. This whole phenomenon reeks of white privilege and Western superiority.

Let’s say that the live exports from Australia to Indonesia do stop. What then? Wouldn’t that be a landmark victory? Let’s take a look. If Indonesia doesn’t get its animals from Australia, it will get them from China or Brazil. Or begin breeding its own. None of these are exactly causes for celebration. Let’s also not forget that there are Halal and Kosher slaughterhouses in Australia (but nobody complains about Kosher methods of slaughter, because it’s much more popular to hate Muslims than it is to hate Jews these days).

In slaughterhouses that do stun, we also know that at least 10% of the time it does not work and animals are killed while fully conscious. To also pretend that animals are not subjected to absolute torture in Australian slaughterhouses is racist. And If they are not put onto boats, they will still be put onto trucks around Australia in extreme weather conditions. Again, nothing to pop corks about; it’s simply a matter of replacing one atrocity with another. The same number of animals will be exploited and killed. The only thing that will change is the way the supply is delivered.

Non-vegans who supported the ban will go home more confident than ever that they are “humane” animal users; and so it continues. The message that we can be ethical consumers of animals goes deeper into our consciousness. The regulationists get to call their efforts a success.  Animals Australia is heralded as a champion of animal rights- despite the fact that they publicly declare that they are not a vegan organization and don’t oppose the rearing and killing of animals. They expand their reach and their membership base, solidifying their stance as the ‘voice for animals,’ all the while continuing to confuse the public about what Animal Rights really means.

When Animals Australia says there is evidence of “abuse” in Indonesian slaughterhouses, how does that not reinforce the idea that everything else- the enslavement, the mutilations, the killings- is not abuse? They congratulate supermarkets and McDonalds for planning to phase out caged eggs, thanking them for making “compassionate choices”, as if putting them in a bigger cage frees them from a life of misery. They are equally, if not more so, responsible for perpetuating the humane myth as the exploitation industries themselves. Bans will come and go while animals are property. Until we make serious attempts to dismantle speciesism, banned uses of animals in one part of the world will simply be taken up in another while demand remains the same.

All oppressions share the same roots. People of color are often targets of campaigns and are often underrepresented in the animal rights movement. The most popular campaigns we see are against dog meat, dog fighting, cockfighting, bear baiting, bullfighting, whales and dolphin slaughter— things Caucasians don’t usually engage in (and when they do, it is not met with as much vitriol as when people of color are doing it).

There is nothing wrong with highlighting the uses and abuses of animals, as long as the message is one of liberation and is anti-speciesist. Otherwise the use will just shift to another species or type of use. Some say that taking part in campaigns for single use bans is worth it because it inspires some people to give up all animal use. With a clear, abolitionist message these same people can be equally inspired, but to reject all animal exploitation rather than certain types. All it is doing is adding to the confusion about animal ethics and perpetuating the existing speciesist paradigm. The root issue is speciesism. Let’s address that, not only the symptoms of it that are convenient for us.

“My argument is not that we should condone what other cultures do; my argument is that creating single issue campaigns that sensationalize what people of color do is racist. It reflects white privilege and the ability to judge others as lesser and protect the in-group sense of superiority. It's offensive to marginalized groups and this is why our movement is overwhelmingly white and has historically had huge difficulties building links to other movements and attracting diverse populations.” – Corey Wrenn, The Academic Abolitionist Vegan

We have to take an intersectional approach to fighting injustice. Social problems, such as speciesism, sexism and racism are intertwined and must be fought together. We cannot dismantle oppression using the same tools we used to create its existence. We must not fight for the rights of one group while holding back another. Revolution does not happen in stages, nor is there a hierarchy of suffering. We must be willing to acknowledge our privileges and prejudices, to ensure we are not alienating anyone or acting with selective compassion. Let’s hack away at the root of oppression, increase awareness of institutionalized social problems, build coalitions, and work together towards social justice for all sentient beings.

For in-depth discussions on the issue of race and the animal rights movement:

The Color of a Movement

Animal Liberation, Tokenizing 'Intersectionality', and Resistance Ecology 

Important articles on race and the movement:

Is there a place in animal rights for a kid from China?

The Sistah Vegan Project

On Moral Relativism, Post-Racism, and Animal Liberation 

For more on intersectionality:

The Vegan Hip Hop Movement

Let’s Evolve

Vegans United Against All Oppression

For more on single issue campaigns and welfare reforms:

The Abolitionist Vegan Society

Low-Hanging Fruit: Political Appropriation of AR Sentiments

Picking the Low-Hanging Fruit

Gentle World- Making a Killing with Animal Welfare Reform