#TBT | An Interview With Dr. A. Breeze Harper

Cover for an interview with Dr A Breeze Harper

Not everyone who comes to veganism does so out of ethical concerns, but those who do tend to approach the subject with admirable dedication. However, this very dedication to animal rights and/or welfare can sometimes lead to (or derive from) a blindness to other inequities… It’s all very well to say that “veganism is concerned with the well-being of all animals,” but does that statement reflect the truth of the matter in regards to the human animal? Racism, classism, whiteness, and colonialism are four of the biggest lacunas in vegan literature, as well as the movement at large. Luckily for all of us, Dr. A. Breeze Harper is working to fill that void, and has inspired others in the community to do the same.

What led you to study the intersections of colonialism & whiteness with veganism?

I have always been interested in the phenomenon of race in the USA, and all its discontents. Growing up as a working class black girl in rural white New England, I viscerally experienced anti-black racism, as well as whiteness as the invisible and unspoken norm. For me, the legacies of racialized colonialism are so embedded in everyday life of the USA, that I see it everywhere. I remember first being exposed to 1st and 2nd wave feminism and immediately noticing that the perspective was all about ‘gender-equality’ without taking into account race, racism, and racial formation. It was as if the collectivity of white middle class women who created this canon had NO idea what it meant to be both white and middle class when creating a supposedly ‘universal’ framing of feminism. They simply didn’t reflect on how collectively being recipients of white middle class privilege influenced and affected their sense of social justice issues. I am using this example because I encountered the same thing with the overall white middle class dominated food movement, whether it was vegetarianism, locavorism, or veganism. So, it’s not like issues of race, colonialism, and whiteness are unique to veganism. These issues that I focus on are simply a microcosm of the USA’s societal problems (and denial) when it comes to the relevance of race and whiteness and how it undergirds this country’s consciousness and belief system. Because of my visceral experiences with racism, and noticing the overall whiteness of my K-12 education and Dartmouth College education, I gained a type of literacy in terms of critical race issues, to see how embodied experiences with race, racism, and racialization were affecting the vegan status quo’s sense of vegan praxis. Even more importantly, I saw how most of them had no awareness that their own raced and classed experiences made their praxis and sense of ‘justice’ not universal, but contingent upon their social locations and personal investments.

Not of all of our readers will be familiar with the concept of “whiteness.” Could you give us a Reader’s Digest introduction?

When I tell white folk that I do critical whiteness studies and apply it to my analysis of the popular mainstream vegan media, I usually get the response that they think I’m strictly talking about ‘white bodies’ (bodies that have the phenotypes of euro-anglo white features.) Whiteness is a multi-layered system that does include and privilege ‘white bodies’, but that is only one aspect of it. When I talk of normative whiteness, I am talking about discursive structures and what certain ‘white bodies’ have been expected to perform so they can benefit from this system of normative whiteness. For example, there are hierarchies of whiteness that are connected to ‘proper’ language, religion, socio-economic class, sexuality, and gender performativity. Though someone like Paris Hilton and the working class white girl with blonde hair and blue eyes who grew up in Appalachia both are legible as ‘white’, Hilton’s whiteness is the more ‘proper’ whiteness. Proper whiteness for these ‘modern’ times means you are: middle to upper class; speak the King’s English; are heteronormative; young and able bodied; slender; from a Christian background/upbringing; formally educated with at least a bachelor’s degree. These proper ‘performances of whiteness’ are so embedded in the USA’s ‘common sense’, that the status quo doesn’t even realize it. These performances of whiteness, as you can see, are composed of a plethora of sub-performances that come together to create a specific type of ‘white ideal’ or ‘normative whiteness.’ So, yea, in part it is about a white-bodied person who has those euro-anglo phenotypes, but it’s also about the ideologies and performances those particular types of bodies are expected to perform if they are to be inducted into the whiteness club of the USA and benefit from it. I am interested in how all these facets of ‘proper whiteness’ have changed and come together over time, and [in]visibly embed themselves into the very moral and ethical logical system of the USA, including the ethical consumption philosophy of mainstream veganism.

Veganism is, in a way, an anti-oppressive movement… But it tends to see oppression as occurring in a narrow human/animal binary. I don’t think most vegans feel like that’s an issue. Can you explain why it is?

Depends on what part of veganism. I see the popular mainstream media representations of veganism as a one-dimensional issue: “it’s only about the animals and I don’t need to think about things like race or my 1st world privilege.” But, then again, the mainstream USA is dominated by white middle class ‘post-racial’ status quo who, vegan or not, are collectively taught not to think about oppression from an intersectional angle – particularly when it comes to looking at how race, whiteness, and [neo]colonialism shape their concept of veganism. And there is a plethora of critical race and critical whiteness scholarship that talk about why white middle class dominated social justice movements tend to be one-dimensional or create ‘easy’ binaries of what is “oppressive” and what is not. I am assuming if you grew up experiencing the privileges of ‘proper’ whiteness, you are most likely not going to have in your consciousness, critical reflections around injustices of racism, poverty, 1st worldism, or ableism. So, when you (if you are someone who grew up in privileged spaces of whiteness as a ‘white-bodied’ person) enter a social movement that is already dominated by a white middle class ‘common sense’, you are surrounded by other folk who have had similar privileged experiences and only see animal liberation as a narrow social justice issue that has no connection to a USA society (and I know all readers are not from USA, but I’m speaking from USA) in which racism, white middle class ideologies, sexism, classism, ableism, and sizeism undergird the contemporary moral fabric.

I’ve really enjoyed your discussions on exactly how “cruelty-free” veganism is… Especially with many vegans (including myself) enjoying imported products that are not fairly traded… What do you see as the issue with labeling vegan food “ethical” on the basis of veganism alone?

The issue I see is that most vegan folk of the status quo in the 1st world (and I am writing and speaking to an audience of North Americans) don’t fully understand how ‘cruelty-free veganism’ is not possible in a globalized capitalistic world. I think more education and definitions of ‘cruelty-free’ need to be articulated using a capitalist world-systems analysis. For example, I disagree that tomatoes are ‘cruelty-free’ even though they are vegan. If you sit down and read Tangled Routes by Barndt, you’ll read how NAFTA and structural racism-poverty-sexism actually make it possible for North Americans to have access to tomatoes all year long. The people who harvest tomatoes (even organic) are usually non-white and poor immigrants who work in ‘cruel-conditions’ so vegans can have access to their vegan pizza, or vegan ketchup, etc. So, it’s not that I have a problem if a vegan still chooses to eat a vegan tomato product, but I have issues with the lack of transparency of how the vegan food actually got to your plate. Marking it as ‘cruelty-free’ elides the possibility that human beings may suffer in order to get that product to you. I actually feel that framing a vegan product as ‘cruelty-free’ creates a one-dimensional “it’s only about the animals not being exploited” approach to vegan consumerism. I know there are products that are vegan out there that are organic, fair-trade, and sweatshop and human exploitation free, but that is small compared to the products out there that are not.

If you look at PETA’s Vegan Shopping guide on their website, they promote a plethora of items that ensure your kitchen to be ‘cruelty- free.’ But the products are filled with sugar, chocolate, produce, etc that are sourced by a significant number of companies that are incredibly cruel to human laborers, or source their ingredients from other companies that are cruel to the human laborers harvesting these ingredients. Nestle and Hershey’s source their cocoa from West Africa; from child slave labor. PETA advocates Nestle and Hershey without making this transparent. And even though PETA never claims to go beyond the animal issue, to leave this transparency out of their shopping guide, to me, frames vegan consumerism within a white middle class and neo-liberal understanding of justice and veganism. If you want to be directed to a pro-vegan organization that makes these issues transparent, check out the Food Empowerment Project that looks at veganism and animal liberation from a multi- justice framework, making transparent racism, classism, and sexism within the food commodity chain.

One of the biggest criticisms of veganism is its classism. Many can’t afford a sustainable vegan diet because of a lack of money or time (and time is too often left out of conversations about classism). Is veganism a viable option for those who aren’t middle class, especially when concerns over human ethics get involved (as in fair-trade), or in colder climates?

I’ll make this short. I think access to a varied healthy diet in the USA, is contingent upon racial-class and geographical location and privileges. Vegan or not, the demographic that has the easiest access to healthier food, period, are the collectivity of white middle class to upper class people in the USA. In my opinion, I think veganism can be a viable option for those who aren’t middle class and aren’t affected by environmental racism, but not all. There are working class and communities of color in the bay area (California) that are working together to bring healthier foods to their communities. Such communities are so negatively affected by food deserts and corporations and ads that purposefully target people of color and poor communities with unhealthy, junk, and cheap food options. I think being a vegan as an socio-economic and racial minority in the bay area could be achieved a little easier than in other parts of the country in which there is yet to be any type of community organizing around getting healthier foods to impoverished neighborhoods, vegan or not. But you have to understand, race and class affect ALL aspects of healthier and more viable lives in the USA. Being white and middle to upper class in this country usually means you have the best chances of getting proper health care, the ‘best’ education, will live in the healthiest neighborhoods, have the highest income, etc.

You’ve faced a lot of opposition in your work. I’m thinking of a claim that you were an “angry asshole looking for racism with a chip on her shoulder.” Where do you think these reactions come from, and why are they so intense? I get the sense that it has to do with the “colour neutrality/ blindness” that’s so encouraged within the progressive community.

I have faced opposition really only from post- racial white middle class vegans who are “single issue” and are so invested in their racial-class privilege (at the unconscious level in many cases) that they simply cannot admit that white privilege, race and class still matter in the USA. But you see, I got this opposition my entire life as ‘that black girl’ in an all white school K-12 system, and largely white economically elite Dartmouth College of the mid 1990s, and my mostly all white classes at Harvard. I was “that black girl” who always wanted to point out the ‘obviousness’ of how my peer’s sense of morals, justice, logic, etc were from the subjective experience (not universal as they all thought) of living a life of multiple levels of privilege. When I first proposed the Sistah Vegan book in 2006, the CFP made it to the veganporn site (not about porn, just general vegan issues). The idea was attacked because most of the white middle class identified vegans on there simply couldn’t see the need to reflect on how race and gender can affect one’s vegan consciousness. They also bashed my use of the term ‘sistah’ and black english and Ebonics. Instead, the content of the call for papers was made out to be ignorant and pointless and many thought it is ridiculous for people to ‘band together due to skin tone’. The comments on that forum were perfect examples of vegans who were one- dimensional, could only sympathize with the suffering of non-human animals, but could not extend this compassion to understanding how their lack of awareness around white middle class normativity contributes to the suffering of certain non-white and working class people.

As you’ve said before, “whiteness” doesn’t necessarily need to be reproduced by white bodies – although I think it often is. How can vegans (of all kinds) help to purge the movement of its structural racism? Does it have to start individually, with awareness of one’s own biases and positionality, or are their structural changes we should be tackling head on?

I am not an expert on this, so this is just my opinion. You can’t make people who are invested in their privilege and in denial, purge the movement of normative middle class whiteness. As a matter of fact, this goes for anyone who just can’t accept that they are benefiting from whiteness, ableism, sexism, ageism, specieism, 1st worldism, heterosexism, anti-trans, etc. What I simply do is plant the seed of resistance in folk’s head. Whether they want to let it grow or not is on them. I think a lot of white middle class people who come to me and say they just don’t know what to do about incorporating anti- racism into their lives are often and in part lying to themselves. Most of them have access to the internet and can go onto Amazon.com and type in keywords like “intro to anti-racism’’, or ‘intro to critical whiteness’’, etc and come up with a plethora of books to help them on their way. There are also plenty of blogs and websites dedicated to teaching the white middle class collectivity about their whiteness and the negative effects of their post-racial ‘there is no racism, we have a black president” attitude. I researched and educated myself when I was told that I was ignorant about my part in benefiting from a society that upholds structural ableism, for example. I didn’t get defensive or angry. I didn’t become paternalistic and tell that person living with disabilities that they are making it up in their head that they are discriminated against, despite there being the American Disabilities Act. I shut up and I listened to them.

Do the research. Transformation is not supposed to be easy, but you can do it if you let go of your ego and don’t get defensive. We who are involved in anti-speciesism social justice work were also unsettled at first when learning that, by being a human means that we were complicit in the suffering of non-human animals (that is, if you were like most people in the West and grew up in some way shape or form, exploiting non-human animals). It can be traumatizing and disturbing to think that you were a ‘good person’ all this time, and then a HUMAN being confronts you about your ignorance, whether it was your whiteness, your ableist attitude, or your heterosexist ideologies. It has to start individually and YES, you will piss off a lot of friends and family who are not only sick of hearing you talk about speciesism, but will be sick of you talking about ‘white this’ and ‘white that’ privilege. It’s not easy, but I ask that white people take the responsibility and do this hard work, as non-white people have been doing it as part of survival, since colonialism, and it’s not our jobs to educate you for free all the time. You have the resources, you have the internet, you have access to information that can decolonize your brain and help you be part of the solution. You may never be 100% able to get rid of the horrible effects of racialized colonalism that have influenced your consciousness (as a matter of fact, no one can do this), but you can try, be prepared for it to be challenging; that is the beauty of transformation. Be compassionate to yourself and to others who want to help you. Here are a few of my favorite titles below:

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States. 2nd ed. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006.

Frankenberg, Ruth, and ebrary Inc. White Women, Race Matters the Social Construction of Whiteness. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

Lipsitz, George. The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics. Rev. and expanded ed. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006.

Sullivan, Shannon, and ebrary Inc. Revealing Whiteness the Unconscious Habits of Racial Privilege, American Philosophy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006.

Tochluk, Shelly. Witnessing Whiteness : First Steps toward an Antiracist Practice and Culture. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2008.

Yancy, George. What White Looks Like : African- American Philosophers on the Whiteness Question. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Wise, Tim J. White Like Me : Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son. Rev. and updated ed. Brooklyn, NY: Soft Skull Press, 2008.

What has been the most rewarding part of taking on this project?

I love receiving emails from people who simply convey to me that something I have written has really touched their hearts, helped them to see certain types of injustices they couldn’t see before. I also love receiving emails from women of color who thought they were the only ones in their mostly white departments or organizations who saw how ‘race matters’. Encountering my work has made them feel like their experiences are not an isolated case. I love helping to direct them to the plethora of critical race and black feminist scholarship out there that helps support their perception and helps them figure out how to navigate their work or school environments. I also am thankful for the many people who have contacted me to help me when they listen to my videos and will hear sometimes that I am overwhelmed or just really sad about what to do when I encounter weeks or months in which I get nothing but static and resistance to my work.

Finally, do you have any advice for people who are trying to make veganism more than a single-issue cause? How can people keep their head up with so much resistance and, sometimes, anger?

Everyone is unique with how they try to transform their consciousness. It has been helpful for me to not focus on veganism, but on all types of social justice work. One can’t understand veganism as a social justice movement without reading about all ‘-isms.’ I understand veganism better by understanding environmental racism issues, ableism issues, the anti-prison industrial complex movement, problems of neo-liberal capitalism, etc.

Most of us get bummed if heavily involved in any type of social justice activism; Pattrice Jones talks about this in her book Aftershock. She is an awesome vegan activist and anti-racist activist who wrote about how to deal with the trauma of being a social justice worker, particularly in a world in which racism and speciesism are the norm. Personally, I have found solidarity and support because I have had the privilege of living in an area in which there are a lot of people of color and white allies who support the work I do as an anti-racist justice activist and scholar. I have also had the privilege of having access to the internet so I find solidarity by joining groups like Sistah Vegan Facebook page and a plethora of blogs and forums that have anti-racist activist throughout the world that can support and talk to each other, like Vegans of Color.

Editor’s Note: To find out more about Dr. A. Breeze Harper, you can find her here:

Website | Facebook | YouTube

Sistah Vegan Project

Website | Facebook | Twitter | tumblr

This piece was originally written by Kira Petersson-Martin for the sixth issue of T.O.F.U. Magazine, which you can purchase in the online store for whatever price you want, including free.

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