White people, it’s time to stop letting our uncertainty, confusion, and spineless good intentions trump action. For the sake of this conversation, I am including non-Black people of color in this group. In regards to the Black Lives Matter Movement, we seem to be easily paralyzed into silence or frozen when it comes to doing something meaningful outside of posting to social media, even when we believe racism is a problem that takes action to fix.
I get it. It’s confusing. Should we strive to be allies or accomplices? Should we use our platform to amplify marginalized voices? Or should we use it to speak out with our own voice? Should we publicly share the actions we’re taking to encourage others to do the same, or is this considered to be “performative” or reeking of “white savior” complex? Should we donate to Black organizations and shop Black business? Or is that just an easy way to relieve our own conscience by throwing money at a complex problem? Is self-education enough?
This post isn’t going to address white fragility and the many reasons why, as a group, we are seemingly incapable of talking about race without either becoming defensive, silent, or fumbling over ourselves like embarrassed children, looking for approval. Surely this isn’t every person. But I do think that if you’re engaged in a conversation about race in any meaningful way, especially as a white person, you will misstep. Which is okay. The point is to educate yourself, learn from that misstep and continue to act. Do the work. Rather, this particular post is meant to share with you the “aha” moment I had regarding my own anti racist activism, and how I realized the answer to all those confusing questions is more simple than you think.
I think the first step to unfreezing yourself is understanding why you’ve done little to nothing in the past to change the injustices you see – even if you were previously aware there was a problem. In Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness she explores an interesting phenomenon in human behavior that criminologist Stanley Cohen describes in great detail in his book States of Denial.
“The book examines how individuals and institutions – victims, perpetrators, and bystanders- know about yet deny the occurrence of oppressive acts. They only see what they want to see and wear blinders to avoid seeing the rest. This has been true about slavery, genocide, torture, and every form of systemic oppression… Cohen emphasizes that denial, though deplorable, is complicated. It is not simply a matter of refusing to acknowledge an obvious, though uncomfortable, truth. Many people ‘know” and “not know” the truth about human suffering at the same time.”
She goes on to say that “the widespread and mistaken belief that racial animus is necessary for the creation and maintenance of racialized systems of social control is the most important reason that we, as a nation, have remained in deep denial.”
These points resonated with me because I see similar actions taking place in regards to animal rights and veganism. Many people recognize that animal abuse is wrong – in some states it is even considered a felony to abuse your pet. I encounter many people I would consider completely rational in other circumstances be made “sick” by the overt and obvious abuse of an animal on television, go on to eat an animal that same day, sometimes more than once. We know and not know the truth. We remain in denial because on the surface level we believe outright abuse is wrong, but somehow our daily actions to pay for and support a system which abuses and kills animals on our behalf is not.
As a group, we misunderstand racism as obvious individual acts of outright bigotry – without these in our sights we can remain in denial. We can know racism is a problem and not know it’s a problem. We are unwilling to see the part we all play in racist systems through our complicit or outright purposeful actions maintaining systems that are racist because “we aren’t racist” people. I would like to emphasize that the parallels I am drawing here are simply to help you think about your own rationale and actions, not to in any way suggest that racism and animal exploitation are the same.
I think the other key to moving out of inaction is to move past your fear of being wrong. You may be afraid to act because there are so many mixed messages and differing opinions on what white people should do, and you may wonder why Black people can’t just tell you what’s right. Recognize that this thinking is problematic for many reasons, but for two big ones. One: Black people are not one homogenous entity with one cohesive thought. To expect all Black people to agree on one methodology or theory for activism (or anything) is absurd. To read the thoughts of one, two, or even a handful of Black people and expect their ideas to represent all Black people’s ideas is racist, and not something we would ever expect of a white person. Two: It is not the job of Black people to educate you on your own racism and teach you how to fix it. If this is literally their actual job then by all means pay them for their content and let them help educate you. There are many Black educators and authors out there doing just that. But expecting every Black person to lead you through your unlearning journey, take on your white guilt and emotions, and help guide you to the mythical land of the “woke” white person is a not so subtle form of manipulation and exploitation. Black people have no obligation to work for free, and it is simply not their job to fix our problems for us. It’s our job to do the work inside ourselves and within our institutions.
Okay, so now that we’ve examined our thought patterns critically and read some books about how to be an anti racist, how do we do that?
Once these big conversations about race started happening on such a widespread scale I was fortunate enough to have had a lot of the theory and education pieces at least somewhat in place to prepare myself for what comes next. In other words, I was confident enough to have these conversations and share my thoughts on racism publicly because I had been doing the inner work for a long time. I had settled into that uncomfortable feeling of being wrong a lot. However, I felt that beyond reading books, sharing resources on Instagram and talking with my circle of family, friends, and clients (many of which share similar opinions), I was at a loss on how to be effective – how to take action. Then something just clicked.
Activism is activism.
The parallels I’m about to make aren’t meant to be exacting, so just take a moment to let me explain. I decided that the best way to be an anti racist advocate are much of the same actions that I take on a daily basis to be an effective animal rights advocate. Am I saying the movements are the same? No. Am I comparing people to animals? No. Do I understand that there are many reasons why comparing the two movements is problematic? Yes. BUT what I understand even more clearly is that I am not comparing the movements themselves, I am simply identifying that the few principles of activism that I use in my vegan life can easily be translated into actions that support anti racism in my everyday life as well. So let’s break those down.
Over the last sixteen years, I’ve come to the conclusion that when working within a capitalist framework, the most effective way to enact change is to pay for it. When enough people make consistent small changes in their routine spending this will alter what products companies offer, what advertisements we see, who gets hired and makes more money, and the list goes on. When I first became vegetarian, tofu was the only “protein” option anywhere. It’s amazing what over a decade of plant based buying did to change our options, help small business, the planet, animals, and our own health. I find that once you change your spending habits, discussing your choices with everyone (and anyone) gets easier. Until you’re comfortable simply engaging in conversation about veganism or anti racism, you now have a simple way to show support, and lead by example. Your choices matter. Every single one.
Because being anti racist or plant based aren’t things you can win at, or “finish” then it can be logically concluded that participating in these movements should constitute a lifestyle – a way of living. A journey that will evolve forever. Once we’ve decided to know, instead of claiming to know, then it is our duty to intentionally allow these frameworks to guide us as we move through the world. It should influence our moral compass, our daily purchases, and our daily actions.
Here is the example I sketched out to help you visualize how easy these changes are, and how much of an impact they can have. This may seem repetitive, but that is my intention.
As a vegan (or a non-vegan) what can I do in my routine life that is sustainable to enact long term change in regards to animal rights, my health, and/or the health of the planet?
Shop at grocery stores that carry vegan options and tell people about it.
Buy cruelty free cosmetics and talk about them.
Shop from vegan specific brands and share them.
Follow vegan creators.
Subscribe to vegan publications and tell people about them.
Watch vegan documentaries and talk about them.
Read books about veganism and share them.
Cook vegan food and tell people about it.
Talk about it.
Do you see a pattern forming here?
When I was having a difficult time understanding my role in anti racism, I sat down and wrote out all the ways I think we can enact positive long term change as regular citizens, other than voting on a ballad and keeping ourselves informed.
Shop at Black owned businesses and tell people about them.
Buy cosmetics created by Black makeup artists and talk about them.
Shop from Black brands and share them.
Follow Black creators.
Subscribe to Black publications and tell people about them.
Watch documentaries about anti racism and talk about them.
Read books written by Black authors and share them.
Weave these choices into your daily lifestyle.
Talk about them.
This may seem like an overwhelming amount of work in the beginning, however, if you are truly committed to producing real change, you’ll do it. Over time your small actions will add up and just translate into you living your life. It will become routine and normal. I also want to make it clear that by sharing and talking about your new discoveries and purchases, I mean in whatever way big or small you feel is natural to you. Though, I will say that this may feel uncomfortable in the beginning. I remember the first time I distributed PETA pamphlets and stickers at my high school it felt scary, like I would be judged or ostracized. And while some people may have made fun of me or talked behind my back, I instantly stopped caring because I knew in my heart that what I was doing was right. That feeling has guided me through every awkward situation or challenging conversation during the last sixteen years. That is what I love about making real, tangible changes in your daily lifestyle. Just by leading by example, you will change those around you in some way.
Sometimes I wear a vegan t shirt to work just to get someone to think; sometimes I write entire blog posts about a topic. Some days I speak out on social media – but most days I just live my life normalizing veganism, which in turn normalizes it for others. I think that the most effective way to live an anti racist life is similar – change your daily habits to truly reflect your values, believe the world you see is possible to create, and normalize that behavior so others will feel empowered to follow.