Why Constantly Questioning Ourselves and Staying Informed as Activists is Key. Interview with Carol
Updated: Apr 16
Carol J. Adams, feminist-vegan advocate, activist, and independent scholar talks about the development of the concepts introduced in 'The Sexual Politics of Meat' since her book was first published in 1990, the dangers of single-issue foci, why it is crucial to constantly educate ourselves as activists, the importance of self-care, and how to stay positive in an oppressive world.
'The Sexual Politics of Meat' was first published in 1990. Has the relevance of the book changed over the years?
I think it's really sad that it's still relevant. You would think that at some point we would get to the place where misogyny did not roam through representations and attitudes and that we were getting closer to equality, but I don't see that.
In terms of veganism and animals, on the one hand, veganism has completely changed since when the book first came out. 'Vegan' was not a term that most people would recognize in 1990. Even in 2000, I was being advised not to name a book with the word 'vegan' in it.
Veganism has lifted the boat in terms of the conversation because so many people have joined in to talk about how animals are treated. But I think in terms of having a feminist perspective on veganism, we still need a whole hell of a lot more work.
Do you think that representations of the sexual politics of meat in the dominant culture and the media have changed?
Representations of the sexual politics of meat are those that show the connection between what I have called 'animalizing women' and 'sexualizing animals'. There is a point where you do not know if you are looking at a pig who is made sexy, or a sexy woman who has been made into a pig. I am constantly being sent examples of the sexual politics of meat. I just received two in the past 24 hours. One of them is advertising an agricultural fair in the western United States. It is of a sexy pig who even has a dating app! On this dating app she [the pig] can look at these other anthropomorphized male animals and make a decision about who to 'date', when of course we know that in animal agriculture, animals don't make choices at all. Animals are not having sexual relations; the females are being artificially inseminated and the males are so-called 'milked' for their semen.
So, the distance between what’s real and what’s represented seems to have gravitated even further apart. In the United States, there are ag-gag laws that keep people in some states from being able to expose factory farms. At the same time, factory farming animal agriculture is using the sexual politics of meat to advertise itself. I don’t see things improving, sadly.
In your opinion, do certain animal rights organizations like PETA also reinforce the sexual politics of meat through their actions and advertising?
In 'The Sexual Politics of Meat', I call animals 'absent referents' because they disappear as having their own lives, needs, and interests. What organizations like PETA prove with the sexual advertisements that use women's bodies is that they do not think that animals can represent themselves. Animals remain absent referents. Although they [PETA] do not have that much power in the dominant culture, in a sense they confirm the sexual politics of meat by the ways they try to influence the dominant culture. They say: 'You can keep your pornography, you can keep your attitudes towards women, just don’t eat hamburgers while you're oppressing women!'. That’s basically it.
But it is not just PETA and sexual advertisements. In the United States, a lot of attention in the past year has been given to the issue of sexual exploitation in the animal rights movement. Some of the same people who were most explicitly exploitative have also argued that the animal rights movement needed to be a single-issue movement. But what does single-issue focus bring us? Single-issue focus contributes to the viewpoint that the needs of women who were experiencing sexual exploitation did not matter - because for them to speak up and expose their oppressors would 'hurt the animals'.
People like Wayne Pacelle, the former head of HSUS, personally benefitted from this perspective in their serial acts of sexual exploitation. It silenced his victims and kept his behavior from being of concern to the movement for the longest time. I think that there is so much in the animal rights and vegan movement that has the tendency to be dangerous, reactive, and regressive rather than progressive. That is a problem.
Do you feel like there is also an issue with the vegan movement being largely represented by white males as leaders?
We have had a problem not only with how the animal rights movement activism is valued, but also with how animal rights theory is framed. There are two parallel problems that benefit men, in particular heterosexual and white men, as leaders.
First, is the way the history of the animal rights movement is told - in such a way that foremothers disappear (or we could say: are made into 'absent referents'). In the 1960s we had articulate women like Ruth Harrison ('Animal Machines', 1964) and Brigid Brophy ('The Rights of Animals' in the London Sunday Times) identifying issues about the experience of animals. Peter Singer's 'Animal Liberation' (published in 1975), in fact evolved from a book review he did of an anthology that was inspired by the writings of these 1960s women. Then, in his book, Peter Singer writes, to paraphrase, that 'first, we had black liberation, then we had gay liberation, then women’s liberation, and now it is time for animal liberation'. He says that as though they were teleologically fulfilling each other, like: 'Oh, we used to have those issues, but they been solved'. But that is not the case. This contributed to the idea of animal liberation as a single-issue movement.
There was a strong eco-feminist movement in the United States and Australia at the same time that 'Animal Liberation' came out - a movement that made connections among social oppressions - yet in the animal movement, we end up with these single-issue approaches. Therefore, eco-feminists like myself and others have to constantly be in dialogue with what tends to be a regressive attitude - an attitude that implies that we do not have to care about these things [social oppression], that either they are solved, or they are about humans and we need to stay focused on animals, or 'they' [oppressed humans] have a 'voice', and animals do not; or whatever is thrown out as a reason. Instead of being able to say that they are interconnected oppressions, and if there are interconnected oppressions, we cannot solve one without solving the others, we once again hear the drumbeat of the single-issue movement. What we end up doing in the animal rights movement is that we make all the other victims of oppression absent referents; they disappear, and we have this single focus. It's inaccurate, it's unjust, and it is self-defeating.
The second thing that we need to note is that women's status has always been lower than men's, not only in society, but in the animal movement. We know that it is harder for women to be heard than for men. Especially in the 1980s, when the animal rights movement was coming into its own, the media was not paying attention to many of the women in the movement. I heard examples of a woman who was president of her local group and a man was vice president. The local newspaper came to talk to them and immediately turned towards the man, assuming he was president.
Jim Mason, who has done a great book on interconnected oppression, [An Unnatural Order: Why We are Destroying the Planet and Each Other, A Manifesto for Change], discovered in the 1980s when he travelled to various places to support local grassroots animal groups, that the women who had been doing the work were so happy to see him because they told him, 'Now maybe we can have the local media listen, because they won’t come here for us!'. It wasn’t just that we had a problem in the movement; the problem in the movement reflected and was reinforced by a problem in the dominant culture.
We also have a notion - a very ableist, sexist, racist notion - of who accomplishes things. Someone like Wayne Pacelle, who is handsome and articulate, is seen as the person who can represent the movement, rather than having grassroots movements with decentralized and changing leadership. This reinforces the dominant way of accomplishing animal issues, which then empowers men and reinforces their unique role in the movement, although we know that 75-80% of the movement is women.
How can we challenge and counteract this dominant way of accomplishing animal issues within the vegan movement?
First of all, we have got to stop saying we are the 'voice of the voiceless'! It is ableist. Animals have voices; it is just that they do not have our language and we are not listening. Referring to animals as voiceless creates a hierarchy of whose needs come first.
It implies that we have to care for those who do not have voices and therefore those who do have voices do not need us. This creates a dualism or dialectic of focusing our interests and efforts only toward those who are ostensibly voiceless.
For example, in the United States there was this discussion about the NFL football player Michael Vick, who was convicted of dog-fighting. On a national radio show, someone who was an activist for animals claimed - regarding the importance of working for animals - that battered women had voices, but those dogs did not. What the hell? First, why is it even oppositional, especially when you know how many times battered women are kept or continued to be harmed by the batterer by harm to animals they cared for and loved? But it also positions 'voice' as though it carried power. But one of the effects of oppression is silencing those who have voices.
The second part of the problem in the framing of the issue is that 'we have to do this for animals'. And this is something I think DxE participates in: Everything has got to be for the animals (see this blog-post for more information). Where are our boundaries? If everything is measured by it being for the animals, it creates an inimical and regressive standard that does not acknowledge our needs for self-care and our need for boundaries. The boundaries are lowered if someone who is exhausted still says, 'I got to go to this meeting, I have got to go to this protest; it’s for the animals'. This does not acknowledge that even if I am out 20 hours a day, helping the animals, I am never in my lifetime going to be able to do everything the animals need.
I feel that a lot in the animal rights movement has been framed by white men's attitudes and white men's position of privilege and that for us to truly have a what’s been called 'intersectional movement', men have to start listening and stop framing the definition of activism in the movement.
Speaking of intersectionality, how can we work towards creating a more inclusive movement?
First of all, I am very wary of the term 'intersectional', now everybody is using it. The term was coined by feminist legal scholar, Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989.
Intersectionality is not something that originated from recognizing connections between movements, its purpose was to recognize the unique situation of women of color who are constantly experiencing gendered racism and racist sexism. You cannot dissect them and say: This was a racist thing, but that was a sexist thing; they are intersecting. I did not know the term [intersectionality] when I wrote 'The Sexual Politics of Meat', as the book was completed at the same time Crenshaw's article came out. In that book, I used the term 'interconnected oppressions' to show how oppressed people and animals become intertwined absent referents under the dominant culture.
For us in the animal rights movement, we need to recognize how the oppression of animals is tied to colonialism, to patriarchal attitudes, and to white supremacy. We need to make our work be part of a challenge to colonialism, white supremacy, and a patriarchal society. We cannot eliminate what is happening to animals without recognizing the context in which the oppression grew up and from which it gets its legitimization.
It was colonialism that brought cows to the United States. It was colonialism that deemed that dairy milk was a superior food although the majority of people in this world cannot digest it. Some, like Lauren Ornelas of the Food Empowerment Movement, have argued that we should call those who cannot digest milk 'lactose normal', rather than pathologizing their 'lactose intolerance'. When we look at how the inability to digest lactose was abnormalized rather than starting from the proposition that that is what is normal, we need to perceive how we have an example of colonialism, white supremacy, and animal oppression intersecting.
When we as activists start from that position of interconnected oppressions, we are starting at a different place. We would no longer say that we have to be the 'voice of the voiceless' and that 'we have to do everything for the animals'. I want to challenge this structural dominance that is constantly making beings absent referents, and thereby making them disappear. And I'm not talking only about animals.
Recently, a group of us - Julia Feliz, Meneka Repka, Carolyn Bailey, and myself - authored a Vegan Bill of Consistent Anti-Oppression. We explain, 'It is imperative that vegans understand that vegans from different communities experience veganism differently from one another, particularly due to intersecting oppressions that they cannot leave at the door simply because they are engaging in veganism/Animal Rights.'
In your opinion, which forms of activism are best suited to challenge these structural dominances? What are the tactics that we should avoid and why?
I think the fact that the vegan movement is in part a boycott is a really strong thing. We are boycotting foods and other commodities that arise from oppression. I like boycotts; I think boycotts are good. The fact that dairy milk producers are struggling because plant-based milks have skyrocketed in popularity - that’s good.
I often notice that the kind of tactics that I favor are the ones that are frequently put down by 'leaders' - who are often self-appointed - who decide that we have to do it a certain way. I think that learning to cook as a vegan is important. When we reach out to other progressives, we have to help them see how veganism can be a part of their lives. One of the best ways we can do this is by knowing how to cook and by cooking good foods. I see that as sort of underground tactic. I also think that open rescues are good. We know that open rescues were developed by a woman in Australia: Patty Marks. I also think that the use of drones of factory farms – if you can do it – and exposing what’s going on is important.
However, I do not think that people need to watch videos of animal cruelty. If you have seen it once, you've seen it. Here in the United States some say that 'if the animal experiences it, we have got to see it'. Well, no. If we know what is happening, we don’t have to constantly watch these upsetting videos. I think one the things those videos do is to tire us out; they exhaust us. They unleash so much emotion that we feel no control. I think those are disempowering, rather than empowering.
I look to groups who make connections as examples of the kinds of activism we can be doing. I also think we haven’t even conceptualized all the ways we could be activists because the movement was so patriarchally-conceived during its inception.
Recently, VINE Sanctuary offered some really helpful suggestions in their email to supporters, called 'Just Start Somewhere', which I want to quote here. They suggest:
Make a list of all the things you think somebody ought to be doing. Are you in a good position to do or help with any of those things?
Make a kind of inventory of your own skills, talents, knowledge, and other resources. Is there an organization or project that could use your particular gifts? If so, that might be what you're in the best position to do right now.
Speaking of position, please do think literally about location when you're making your inventory. Is there a local grassroots group you could join to do work in your own community? Doing so might allow you to make a bigger impact than anything you could do online and also would bring you into contact with actual people, some of whom are probably wrestling with the same questions that vex you.
In order to avoid demoralization, make sure that the things you decide to do include at least one thing that surely will make a difference to somebody. All of our long-term strategies for change are always speculative. By including some direct action, we can be sure that all of our efforts have not been for naught.
Along the lines of empowerment and disempowerment, what can we as vegans and activists do to increase empowerment?
I think we need to recognize that the choice of veganism every day is a choice for food justice, and against climate change, and global warming. We need to affirm our individual acts. I think that it does not end with individual acts, but it does begin there. In the United Sates, groups like Food Empowerment Project and A Well Fed World are making the connection across oppressions. They are working with farm workers and recognizing that the oppression of those who harvest and prepare our food is an important aspect of vegan ethics.
I think the work of Thrive Baltimore as well as Brighter Green are two other great examples of approaching the issues from a recognition of interconnections. We should further support groups like VINE Sanctuary who are consciously a LGBTQIA organization and are making connections amongst oppression and are thereby making it explicit that there are these kinds of commitments to equality.
Vegans in the United States should consider involvement in the Black Lives movement as well as the anti-gun ownership movement, the anti-prison movement, and the reproductive choice movement. A militarized police force, gun-ownership, and hunting - and control of reproduction - in particular are so closely tied to phallic identity. In our Bill of Consistent Anti-Oppression, we offer suggestions for making the vegan movement more inclusive.
Why do you think vegans have sometimes failed to also get actively involved in other movements including but not limited to the ones you mentioned, and how should we go forward as a movement?
There is a very interesting concept from the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, who talks about 'eating well'. As vegetarians and vegans, we perhaps think that we have done enough; we are 'eating well'. As a result, we don't have to think about anything else. After all, we think, we aren't eating animals or animal products. But we're never done! There is no stage of perfection that we are achieving, or that we can achieve. We constantly need to be questioning and resisting a sort of a passivity about our decisions. We need to learn how to expand our own understanding of what's at stake in terms of veganism. I think what I want from the vegan movement is a progressive vegan movement, a responsive vegan movement, and a social justice vegan movement.
How can we improve our understanding of these topics to ultimately make the vegan movement more progressive? Could you name some of those whose work you consider to be crucial?
In terms of listening, the essential thing is reading vegans of color. There are websites, there are books, there are podcasts, there are videos. I’m talking about an active engagement with the most exciting development that is happening in veganism and that we should recognize when it gets silenced and how it gets silenced and when especially white men go after those who are articulating a vegan perspective as people of color. We have to make an active choice to constantly stay informed.
One of the things vegans should be doing is reading books like 'Aphro-ism: Essays on Pop Culture, Feminism, and Black Veganism from Two Sisters' by Aph Ko and Syl Ko, 'Veganism in an Oppressive World: A Vegans-of-Color Community Project' edited by Julia Feliz Brueck and 'Sistah Vegan: Black Female Vegans Speak on Food, Identity, Health, and Society', edited by Breeze Harper. In one of her talks, Breeze Harper talks about white fragility. This is a concept identifying how 'The insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress', as Robin DiAngelo explains in an article (and now a book) on 'White Fragility'. Whites in the movement have to confront when they deploy white fragility, becoming so defensive, because of a priori white privilege, that they cannot hear what is going on. That's an act of silencing.
I have always wanted 'The Sexual Politics of Meat' to be anti-racist in its feminist theory and I tried to make that explicit in my book, for instance, discussing the racial politics of meat in Chapter 1. In 1995, I wrote an article about the politics of solidarity, speculating that some vegans and animal right activists were willing to deal with their privilege over animals but not their white privilege or their male privilege - and hiding this privilege behind their animal activism. (That book has just recently appeared in a new edition). Since that time, I have tried to continue to stay informed. I am currently reading 'A Critique of Black Reason' by Achille Mbembe, 'What White Looks Like: African-American Philosophers on the Whiteness Question', edited by George Yancy, 'Jefferson’s Pillow: The Founding Fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patriotism' by Roger W. Wilkins, 'Women of Color and the Reproductive Rights Movement' by Jennifer Nelson, and 'Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States by Carl A. Zimring'. The fact is, the effort to understand and confront one’s white privilege is an ongoing one.
Clean and White in particular talks about environmental racism, which in part refers to how huge factory farms are placed near low income people and people of color. It also describes how blacks in the United States were the ones being hired to clean up and how the dirt that is associated with sanitation got associated with African Americans. (Remember that Martin Luther King was assassinated when supporting Black sanitation workers.) We need to recognize how all of this helps to perpetuate the environmental racism that’s a part of animal agriculture. (Who do we think is cleaning up slaughterhouses after midnight each night?)
I'd be remiss not to discuss my latest book, co-authored with Virginia Messina: 'Protest Kitchen: Fight Injustice, Save the Planet, and Fuel Your Resistance One Meal at a Time'. It will be released next month. In that book, we devote chapters to misogyny, climate change, food justice, and compassion. We trace the role of colonialism in spreading meat eating and dairy consumption. We have a chapter on 'Dreaming of an Inclusive Democracy' that looks at the race- and sex-based definitions of the 'citizen'. We draw on the work of Kevin Young, in 'Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News', who argues that race is a hoax. We explore how regressive politics of our time uses animality to maintain social oppression by characterizing disenfranchised people as 'animals', 'beasts', etc.
You made it clear that you have always wanted 'The Sexual Politics of Meat' to be anti-racist in its feminist theory. Was this conviction sparked or reinforced by any experiences in your own personal life and as an activist?
In terms of my own life, while I was struggling to write 'The Sexual Politics of Meat' in the 1980s, I was a grassroots activist, working around welfare and poverty issues. I started a hotline for battered women, I started a soup-kitchen, and I was part of organizing a suit against a federal governmental agency and a local city for racism in housing policies. During the whole time that I was trying to articulate the theory in 'The Sexual Politics of Meat', I was on the ground experiencing a racist world in my community. It was just shocking that in the 1980s, people could be that racist. If the Carol from back then could see the world now, she would be - she is - absolutely shaken.
I mean, during the lynching period, which went from the 1890s to the 1930s, people of color were lynched at the rate of one every four days. But right now, it appears that a black person is killed by the police more frequently than that. This is the point made by historian Isabelle Wilkerson in Jesmyn Ward’s edited collection, 'The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race'. Wilkerson writes, 'It seems the rate of police killings now surpasses the rate of lynchings during the worst decades of the Jim Crow era. There was a lynching every four days in the early decades of the twentieth century. It’s been estimated that an African American is now killed by police every two to three days.' This is immoral. Racism is now profoundly more disturbing, especially with a racist like Trump as president and playing to his core audience: white racists.
Photo credit: Benjamin Buchanan
You have now repeatedly mentioned that you feel like issues related to and caused by oppression are not improving and indeed getting worse. How do you still manage to keep a positive outlook on life and your activism?
First, you need to know how to walk away from it all - if you can. I'm in the privileged position that I can literally walk away from it, by walking the dogs in my life. This daily activity is a really important thing for me. I also listen to audio books so that I am constantly - while I'm out exercising physically - also nurturing my mind as well. Right now, I am listening to two books: 'Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America' and 'The White Power Movement: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America'. And when my mind is tired, I listen to mysteries! I also love to read poetry and writings about poetry.
In addition, every day my vegan cooking reminds me of my commitments, while affirming them: it's delicious, it's healing, it’s nurturing. When I come home after walking the dogs and drink my home-made soy-coconut yoghurt, the day is good, and then I can do my work. Self-care is really important and being able to walk away and say 'I've got to take care of myself' is a part of this self-care. We are animals too! How do we care for other animals if we do not care for ourselves? That took me a long time to figure out.
I also feel the joy of being connected to other people. In the 1980s I felt like I was all alone; I was in upstate New York, trying to think through the thoughts of The Sexual Politics of Meat. I felt like a failure as a writer. Why was it taking me so long to figure this out? I felt insecure. I did not know if I was ever going to be published. Was I ever going to figure this out? I felt lonely; I was not in a city and I’m trying to figure out these radical ideas. When I told people that I was writing a book about meat eating and masculinity, you know, people would be like, 'What the hell?'. I call those my 'wilderness years'.
Sometimes I would like to go back to that person and just say, 'You are not always going to feel so alone. Keep with it and you will have the most amazing relationships and friendships and learn from so many wonderful people around the world.' In fact, I did keep with it (obviously), but still I'd like to reassure that Carol that no matter how hard it was, it was going to be okay. (I guess this is how I do that!) Even then, I had good food, companionship, and a sense of purpose. There is a quote from Vaclav Havel, who said, 'Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.' In other words: We are doing these things because they are important. If we are able to change the world, that's good, but even if we don’t, the reason why we are doing this is because it is important to do so. I guess that is what conviction is.
This is a wonderful quote to end on. Thank you so much for your time and the interview. Is there anything else dear to your heart that would like to share at this point?
Anti-racist feminism is a gift that keeps on giving. Everybody thinks they know what feminism is, and feminism has suffered from so many appropriations and misunderstandings. But if you think of anti-racist feminism as this glowing theoretical approach that believes in the transformation towards justice for all, including the earth, the environment, and animals, then this feminism is what helps us make sense of a cruel, oppressive world. And so, with feminism, you don't lose hope, and you also have understanding.
Literature and further reading:
Adams, Carol J. The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory. 1990. 2015.
Adams, Carol J. Neither Man nor Beast: Feminism and the Defense of Animals. 1995. 2015.
Adams, Carol J. and Virginia Messina, Virginia Messina, Protest Kitchen: Fight Injustice, Save the Planet, and Fuel Your Resistance One Meal at a Time. 2018.
Belew, Kathleen. Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America. 2018.
Brophy, Brigid. The Rights of Animals. The Sunday Times 1965.
Brueck, Julia Feliz. Veganism in an Oppressive World: A Vegans-of-Color Community Project. 2017.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé. Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum. 1989. 1:8.
DiAngelo, Robin. White Fragility. The International Journal of Critical Pedagogy. 3:3. 2011.
DiAngelo, Robin. White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. 2018.
Harper, A. Breeze. Sistah Vegan: Black Female Vegans Speak on Food, Identity, Health, and Society. 2009.
Harrison, Ruth. Animal Machines: The New Factory Farming Industry. 1964.
Kendi, Ibram X. Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. 2016.
Ko, Aph, and Syl Ko. Aphro-ism: Essays on Pop Culture, Feminism, and Black Veganism from Two Sisters. 2017.
Mason, Jim. An Unnatural Order: Why We are Destoroying the Planet and Each Other. 1993.
Mbembe, Achille. Critique of Black Reason. 2017.
Nelson, Jennifer. Women of Color and the Reproductive Rights Movement. 2003.
Roger, Wilkins. Jefferson's Pillow: The Founding Fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patriotism. 2000.
Singer, Peter. Animal Liberation. 1975.
Wilkins, Roger W. Jefferson's Pillow: The Founding Fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patriotism. 2001
Yancy, George. What white looks like: African-American philosophers on the whiteness question. 2004.
Young, Kevin. Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News. 2017.
Zimring, Carl A. Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States. 2016.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this interview are prepared to the interviewee’s and the interviewer’s best capacity and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of The Vegan Rainbow Project itself. Please also not that people change and so do their opinions. We kindly ask you to be mindful of that when reading past articles and/ or statements that are referenced in this interview.
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