Anti-Speciesism and Total Liberation. Interview with Yvette Baker.
Yvette Baker is a Los Angeles based writer, social critic, and intersectional activist whose work is devoted to exposing and analyzing the intersections of human and nonhuman oppression. With her activism, she aims to empower the vegan movement as a movement for total liberation. She also dances, even when there’s no music playing.
In this interview, she talks about how her mom sparked her passion for helping others from an early age. She further shares her thoughts on total liberation and why we must include Indigenous sovereignty and the commitment to decolonizing our food system in animal rights and liberation.
Q: Yvette, thank you so much for this interview. Could you tell us a bit about yourself as a person as well as your activism journey?
I'm a self-taught academic and social critic who chose international travel over finishing college. I've had a passion for sociology, specifically race relations and sociolinguists, long before I was aware of what those terms meant. I've only started referring to myself as a 'writer' at age 37 because imposter syndrome is hard to overcome. But some of my earliest memories are moments of challenging societal rules and norms and I’ve always loved to write about them. I'm not sure when I began thinking of myself as an 'activist' but it's fair to say that I've probably always been involved in some form of social justice activism.
I couldn't have been older than 5 or 6 years old when my mom and I would ride around our city (on a public bus) and gather fruits from the trees in the yards of upper-middle-class folx so we could distribute them to homeless folx; a lot of the fruits had already fallen onto the grass anyway. We were financially poor ourselves, but her passion for helping other people in whatever way she could really helped shape my worldview. And watching my mom negotiate with squirrels over the possession of avocados was just priceless. Since then, I've always been someone trying to help; organizing strikes and contesting unjust policies, even when they don't affect me personally.
My animal rights activism began pretty shortly after switching my diet to plant-based, nearing 6 years ago. Unfortunately, in its early stages, it was heavily influenced by what I now refer to as 'mainstream/white veganism.' I was guided by a lot of self-righteous activists who’d take the condescending approach as they’d preach to people that the solution to animal exploitation was simply living as a vegan. The spaces were apolitical and problematic all over the place. But since then, I've spent a lot of time reading, learning, and critically thinking about how animal liberation fits into the overall goal of liberation for everyone, aka 'Total Liberation.' Focusing on how the goals of other movements for justice and freedom intersect with the goals of animal rights activists has really helped me grow. These days, the pandemic has forced me to shift most of my activism to digital spaces. I started posting more frequently on social media -- sort of -- and I continue to support as many grassroots initiatives and sanctuaries as I can.
Q: You describe yourself as an “Afro-Indigenous Anti-Speciesist Abolitionist for Total Liberation”, could you explain what that means to you?
I use that in an attempt to preview what one can expect by following my work online. I think it's important that I highlight both who I am as an Afro-Indigenous "American" as well the liberatory ideals of veganism, where my activism is mainly focused. The latter is too often overlooked while throwing around the term, 'vegan'.
I say, ‘Afro-Indigenous’ because both sides of my family have ancestors originating from Africa as well as the peoples indigenous to the land I live on in the U.S. 'Abolitionist' because I believe that every type of cage should be emptied and abolished. 'Anti-speciesist' because it’s a large part of my ethical/political worldview.
I've found that I can't really trust the term 'vegan' anymore because it's become so convoluted with dietary practices and lifestyle consumerism. 'Total Liberation' is the goal of my activism; I see it as an appropriate Anarcho-communist term for "no one's free until everyone is free".
Q: Do you feel like your heritage and your and your ancestors’ experiences have informed your activism?
100% yes. I was raised by my mom and grandmother, both Indigenous American womxn. Our heritage very much honors interconnectedness and as far as I’m aware, all of our communities have a phrase that loosely translates to “we are all related”. It speaks to the fact that we believe all life forms, including the Earth, to be worthy of respect and care.
I'm constantly working to decolonize as much of my life as I possibly can, activism included. My background makes it a bit easier to step outside and analyze the predominately white lens from which veganism has been promoted in mainstream spaces. And my identity as an Afro-Indigenous, financially poor, neurodivergent person on the LGBTQIA spectrum means that I'm on the marginalized end of several systems of oppression; it would be impossible for my approach to be without an intersectional lens. And it just doesn't make sense for anyone to advocate outside of a consistent anti-oppression framework...unless they aren’t being truthful about wanting to dismantle structural oppression. But beyond that, I use the strength and resilience of my ancestors to keep me going. Thinking and talking about matters of oppression can be exhausting, not to mention the footage of tortured beings you come across. I talk to my ancestors and let them recharge my spirit. 'Total liberation' is an objective that I won't live to see realized and it's a daily struggle to accept this.
Q: In July 2020, as the Black Lives Matter movement gained more momentum, you wrote about vegans in solidarity with Black lives. Would you share your insinghts into this topic?
Sure. It was created in hopes that it would function as both a conceptual and actionable toolkit for non-Black vegan & AR activists looking to stand in solidarity with us. The idea was born out of witnessing many non-Black activists drawing attention to themselves during the racial uprisings of that month. They expressed wanting to be effective “allies” while simultaneously admitting that they had no idea how to do that. There were already a handful of viral posts about allyship in general but the few specifically addressing the animal rights movement never really got off the ground. With my background in studying race relations in the U.S. and ability to analyze through a sociological lens, I thought I could add value to the conversation.
It’s structured into 8 sections: Embracing Intersectionality in Activism, Dropping the “Cruelty Free” Narrative, Refraining from Making Harmful Comparisons, Unlearning Oppressive Language, Passing the Mic, Ceasing Support to Organizations that Refuse to do Better, Showing Up, and Being Prepared. All of these headings were elaborated upon but they’re all essentially addressing components of mainstream/white veganism that Black people in particular can find rather alienating.
Q: Do you feel like this increased attention to the Black Lives Matter movement has changed things in the US?
I don't. At least, not yet. Not beyond some increased donations. What I did see happening -- the garnering of more widespread support -- turned out to have been highly performative. There's been a lot more tokenism here -- indiscriminate representation based on nothing more than skin color. A lot of statements of solidarity with no structural changes. I think it's kinda funny that I still have some quite large vegan corporations following me online who hopped on back in June of 2020 and still have yet to engage with me or the other 10 Black people they followed on the same day. Time will tell, but I won't hold my breath.
Q: Along these lines, how can vegans ‘decolonize’ their veganism?
The word ‘decolonize’ gets thrown around quite a bit these days and gets inappropriately used when suggesting that something or someone is in need of being less problematic. Similarly, the term is not at all synonymous with being more ‘inclusive’ or taking an intersectional approach to something.
At its core, decolonization is the process of deconstructing colonial ideologies and structures. So a decolonized version of veganism would look like centering Indigenous voices/communities, supporting them resolutely, and letting them take the lead as we unite our efforts to dismantle the systems that allow nonhumans to remain marginalized beings. And I know that would be a very difficult task for vegans because these Indigenous communities may or may not have animal rights as any explicitly stated focal point in their activism. But what we often fail to realize is how monumental Indigenous sovereignty and decolonizing our food system would be for all beings.
Letting Indigenous wisdom lead the way for our future would do more for nonhuman liberation and more for the reparation of our planet than “veganizing” with “Western” thought and approaches.
Q: How does anthropocentrism, (re)enforce speciesism, capitalism, and colonialism?
Anthropocentrism is a speciesist worldview. So it not only reinforces speciesism by placing humans at the top of a hierarchy, it makes a speciesist society possible and inevitable. It certainly reinforces capitalism because nonhuman animal lives are viewed as commodities and property, bred for profit across several powerful industries. The establishment of corporate capitalism was the precursor to unethical farming methods in general. And as for colonialism, anthropocentrism was and continues to be a driving source. This was a worldview violently thrusted upon Indigenous communities. Industrial animal agriculture itself was not only born of colonization, it was a weapon of war and genocide against Indigenous communities. Animal agriculture was and continues to be a huge contributing factor to the erasure of Indigenous people by the ways of dispossession and land theft.
Q: I know this is a big question, but: How do you think can we achieve “total liberation”? What are some of the strategies that you think will bring change?
I’ve been working at answers for years now but I'll do my best to keep my thoughts concise: The shortest answer, and the most direct strategy, would require nothing short of a revolution, overthrowing governments and forcing our oppressors to relinquish power; a mass rebellion against capitalism. But a more immediate strategy would be to create more productive and much less defensive dialogues with other social justice movements who share many (or even just a few) of our anti-oppression goals. We must be willing to align ourselves with liberal and leftist movements, not only because we should be consistent in our anti-oppression activism anyway, but also because the animal rights movement is tiny and we need growth and support. But we’ll also need to be willing to learn and listen. Our “vegan moral baseline” can’t continue prohibiting our alliance with other groups. We stand to learn so much from other movements (as they from us), like BLM, in the ways you see them show up in support for other groups and protests and events that don’t necessarily affect them directly. The solidarity doesn’t go unnoticed and has been reciprocated. Ultimately, we won’t achieve total liberation unless we’re working together in as great of numbers as possible.
Q: Which projects are you currently involved in or have been involved in the past? Could you briefly tell us what they are about and why they are important to you?
I’m currently involved in a project of my own -- creating a vegan wine directory. Plant-based wine lists already exist -- ones that indicate wines free from animal products having been used in fining or filtering the final product. But none have taken into account the nonhumans or their byproducts used in the production of the wine. I’d also like my list to take the vineyard workers into account. Many are heavily exploited and/or not receiving proper wages and I just don’t feel as though a wine should be labelled as “vegan-friendly” until they’re considered. I’ve been a passionate wine drinker for a long time so the project is at least 50% self-serving. But with this endeavor requiring a degree of in-person research/investigation, the COVID-19 pandemic has nearly halted my work.
Other than that, living in Los Angeles, I’ve always had the opportunity to directly help many community members without homes. I’ve donated and helped distribute food, clothes, and toiletries with many small and large organizations. Chilis on Wheels and L.A. Food Not Bombs (click here to find out if there is a Food Not Bombs chapter in your area) do great work, the former even making food for protestors. And about 10 years ago, I got into the habit of putting together my own care packages to distribute to any homeless neighbors. I don’t have much money so sometimes it takes me a while to put together a decent number of materials, but I’ll often come across friends or acquaintances that are in possession of brand new or nearly new items they’re not intending to use. Unfortunately, there’s never a shortage of those who are in need of the packages.
Q: Would you share some of the people, books and projects that inspire you?
The work of Gloria Watkins, who uses the pen name, “bell hooks” was my introduction to challenging my sociological imagination; she really helped me develop my ability to critically analyze. I’m very inspired by the history of the Black insurrectionary anarchist group, MOVE, who were fighting for animal liberation in the ‘70s. Also, The Combahee River Collective, which inspired a book called, ‘How We Get Free’. The work of Aph and Syl Ko (who co-wrote the book 'Apro-ism - Essays on Pop Culture, Feminism, and Black Veganism from Two Sisters') has been inspiring, as well as the work of my friend Kristy Alger, who just released her first book, ‘Five Essays for Freedom’. Christopher Sebastian is fantastic as well.
I’m most inspired by perseverance in people. Waking up day after day on the short end of a cut-throat, capitalist society isn’t easy and most of our heroes never make it into the news. Truly, anyone who finds the strength to keep going, refusing to trample over other people along the way -- they inspire me to no end.
Q: What brings you joy?
In no particular order: Wine tastings, my taste in ceramics, pretentious restaurants, talking with old friends, writing, dancing, clogs, my ancestors, taking baths, bonding with nonhumans, Ethiopian food, subtle head nods from Black strangers on the street, dried flowers, animal rescue stories, Russian accents, rats, naturally-dyed linen, the houseplants that I haven’t killed, music from the ‘80s and ‘90s, brightening someone’s day, rewatching old horror films, chatting with elders, estate/garage sales, crooked teeth, flea markets, mushrooms, my mom, spicy cocktails, passionate kisses, rainy/cloudy days, Eucalyptus essential oil, key lime pie, nachos, and a sexy hot sauce.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to add at this point?
Enough from me!
You can find Yvette and her writings on Instagram @vegan_abolitionniste
This interview was carried out in written form via e-mail correspondence. We thank Yvette for taking the time and effort to answer these questions.
The bracketed text in italics was added by India.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed and informations provided 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 note that people change and so do their opinions. We kindly ask you to be mindful of that when reading articles and/ or past statements that are referenced in this interview.