By Kassy O | August 15, 2017

While I often feel energized when I get together with a group of fellow animal advocates sometimes it feels challenging.

At this year’s National Animal Rights Conference I experienced a microaggression.

A white male pushed through the banquet crowd approached me and said: “Hey, you would be the right person to ask this: Why aren’t there more African Americans at the conference?”

I wasn’t wearing a staff shirt pinning me as an organizer, so I can only assume that he asked me this because I was the closest person of color to where he was standing. This is problematic for a number of reasons including:

1) I’m not a Black person, and

2) I don’t represent Black folks or all people of color (POC).

As you can imagine, this was a very uncomfortable situation.

Unfortunately, this was not a unique experience. During the one panel at the conference aimed at discussing racial inclusion, a Latina woman shared a similar story. She said that on the first day (and this was her first conference) a white attendee approached her randomly and asked in broken Spanish, “Why don’t Latinos care about animal rights?” And went on to say, “You have to bring more Latinos to the conference.” The woman expressed confusion and frustration.

Sadly, I know many more POC who have had similar such experiences.

And this year was not unique. At last year’s National Animal Rights Conference, leadership a well-established animal rights group spread a rumor about me, claiming that I did not identify as a person of color. This was then repeated by another advocate publicly during a panel. I confronted the organization’s leadership about this and said it was not only extremely inappropriate, unprofessional, and racist, but could tarnish my reputation and was hurtful. They responded with an email that generally stated: “Oh, I must have heard you wrong then,” and told me to “let it go.”

These types of experiences are commonplace for most people of color in the vegan movement, but they shouldn’t be. It’s not okay to ask people to speak on behalf of entire communities. It’s not okay to make assumptions about what language people speak based on how they look. It’s not okay to talk about how people identify behind people’s backs. We are a social movement that needs to be better to each other and we need to learn how to talk about–and deal with–race.

The National Animal Rights Conference and the animal rights movement should be a safe space for everyone. Unfortunately, racism, tokenization, microaggressions and people of color being under-represented in the animal rights community is a problem that needs to be acknowledged and addressed. For us to succeed, the animal advocacy movement must be racially inclusive and that means we have a lot of work ahead of us.

 

Encompass Note:

Part of the reason we posted this blog was to highlight the experience of POC in predominantly white spaces.

Encompass exists to be the bridge and explain what POC feel/why and help them feel comfortable to join the movement while also elevating them into leadership positions.

We also are serving as a resource for the more mainstream (and predominantly white run and led) organizations to understand why having a more sophisticated understanding of race is important to our bottom line of helping animals, and how to concretely fold this into the culture of their organizations.

We work from a positive point of view as much as possible. In this case, Encompass has heard repeated frustration from activists at the National Animal Rights Conference. We wanted to use this as a learning opportunity.

Of course, while there were many positive experiences at this conference, many POC don’t feel comfortable attending it because:

1) They are made uncomfortable by microaggressions (definition: a statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group such as a racial or ethnic minority).

2) They do not want to be put in the position of explaining race relations to white people — they want to enjoy the conference at face value, just as white folks do.

Most of these experiences/microaggressions come from a place of ignorance and this is a problem we can solve.

At Encompass we want to help shine a light on why these types of moments are difficult for POC and help pave a path forward. We’d love to see a conference where POC and white folks equally feel comfortable in addressing the issues at hand: animal exploitation.