Book Review: Aphro-ism - Essays on Pop Culture, Feminism and Black Veganism from Two Sisters
Updated: Apr 28
There are countless vegans of colour, but you wouldn't know that from looking at the standard representations of vegans in the media and the movement. They are frequently only included as tokens of diversity if indeed they appear at all. In the United States, for example, African Americans are the fastest growing vegan demographic. But Black vegans aren't widespread in the US alone.
In the UK we have UK Vegans of Colour, started by Esme Carr (London Afro Vegan), who was frustrated by the lack of representation and diversity in mainstream veganism. She and fellow activists organised the Black History Edit event in London in October 2019. And Wedaeli Chibelushi has also written an interesting article titled The Complexities of Being Black, British and Vegan for Vice.
But what does race have to do with veganism? Isn't it all about the animals? Before we start, I'd suggest you read this excellent short article Why White Vegans Like Me Should Listen to Black Veganism. (Full disclosure: I am a white vegan myself, so I may get stuff wrong. I've included a long list of Black vegans at the end of this review--I suggest you check them out to hear their perspectives.)
In Aphro-ism, the Ko sisters argue for the value of listening to perspectives that are often ignored by our mainstream culture, like those of vegans of colour. (In fact, racism is one of the leading causes of burnout among non-white animal activists.) And while they agree that veganism is about the animals, they have suggested a different and revolutionary way to view their oppression: one that doesn't ignore the core reality of why we exploit them. For example, much of the time, our arguments for veganism are about similarity--how can we treat animals this way when we know they are so like us? How can we listen to footage of pigs screaming in gas chambers and then walk into the shops to buy a bacon butty? In fact, our appeal to similarity can even backfire: sometimes the fact that we are so like other animals is used to justify their abuse, as with vivisection, especially on our fellow primates. (Why experiment on non-human animals to learn about human biology? Because they're so similar to us.)
We can also recognise the futility of arguments for similarity when we see how we treat other human beings. If sameness was the deciding factor for moral consideration, bigots would change their minds when presented with scientific evidence, but they don't. We would not see widespread, institutionalised oppression of other humans across the globe. Similarity--or difference--is not the issue.
So the Kos suggest that we must look at oppression from a different angle, arguing that the very concepts of 'The Animal' versus 'The Human', which came about as the result of colonialism, are the problem. (In fact, I really should use the term 'non-human animal' throughout this post; I'm not doing so simply for ease of reading.) We take for granted our current definitions of 'animal' and 'human', but they have not always existed as we conceive of them today. (Animal rights and disability activist Sunaura Taylor also covers this in her excellent book Beasts of Burden. You can read our review here, where I discuss the issue of conceptual colonisation in more depth.)
The Ko sisters explain how animals and humans who don't fit the Eurocentric ideal of a white person, especially a cisheterosexual white man, have been placed conceptually into a subhuman, non-human or animal status, and this is what justifies their exploitation. They are rendered an out-group, therefore maintaining a system of Human Supremacist logic that not only excludes animals but also much of the human population. This means that while people of colour and non-human animals are placed into this category by default, white people can be placed there as well. Our culture recognises that biologically, humans are animals, but we treat animals and humans as opposites of one another. This is despite the fact that the other species on the planet do not share any single characteristic other than simply not being human. The Eurocentric ideal human (male, wealthy, white, etc.) sits at the top, all non-human animals are at the bottom, and other humans are slotted into the hierarchy between the two. To be clear, none of this is to imply that anybody at the apex of the hierarchy is at fault, nor should they be viewed as an opponent to equality; this is a deeply systemic phenomenon and we must all work together to tackle it.
Oppression, the sisters argue, is not based solely on race or gender or species, but the concepts of 'animal' and 'human', and any social justice movement that ignores these shared roots cannot ultimately succeed. Read Aph's article The Feminist Case for Veganism or watch the video Dear VEGANS...We NEED to Talk... by Seb Alex, who is from Lebanon. This article gives a good explanation of why breaking down the human-animal binary is an understandably sensitive issue for people who are involved in non-vegan human rights work but why it is necessary for total liberation. In fact, studies show that refusing to accept animals as worthy of moral consideration actually makes us more hostile towards other human beings, not less.
The Ko sisters argue that drawing comparisons between members of oppressed groups--showing memes of a slave in chains beside a zoo elephant in chains, for example--misses the point as well as being potentially insensitive and alienating to potential allies. This connection between these two types of individuals doesn't come from how they are treated. We are focusing on their literal, physical bodies and their biology when we should be focusing on what makes such ill treatment possible: the fact that conceptually, they are citizens of a space of the Other--the subhuman. The point is not that such comparisons are mistaken or inaccurate, but that they fail to bring out the root of the problem. This is one reason they can be alienating.
I thought this was an excellent book and very thought-provoking, so I definitely recommend it to my fellow animal rights activists--especially since there's a lot I don't have room to discuss here! I haven't even mentioned many of the topics they discuss--from the necessity of decolonising our thinking (not just what that means but how we might go about doing it) the objectification of women and how it relates to our exploitation of the natural world, social media and the rise of influencer activism--the book covers a lot. In the meantime, that's more than enough from me!
Below are some Black vegans whose work I've learnt a lot from, including additional info about the Ko sisters. It goes without saying that there are a range of arguments and beliefs below. I've also included Syl Ko's presentation which gives a fantastic explanation of Black Veganism, including why it's much more than being Black and vegan.
Part of coloniality's tasks is to ensure that certain futures remain unimagined, that certain ideas remain unthinkable so that it seems that whatever we have now is all we have to work with. (Syl Ko)
Aph Ko and Syl Ko
Racism as Zoological Witchcraft (Aph Ko's other book, also recommended)
'Animality, the sisters claim, has become a racialized weapon of white supremacy. This is because the equation of Black people to animals by use of colonial language has allowed for their dehumanization. Just as animals have been forced into a space of “subhuman” by the white supremacist patriarchy, so have racialized peoples.' A Seat at the table with Syl Ko: A discussion on Black Veganism (article)
Vegan America: A Conversation with Syl Ko 'We think there's something wrong with the framing of the issue.' (video, 2 min.)
Christopher McJetters Sebastian:
Sebastian's focus is on how human relationships with other animals shape our attitudes about race, sexuality and class. He's written so many excellent articles on his blog that it's hard to choose just one! Exploring Radical Veganism is excellent, as is In Response to Harriet Hall: The White Saviour is You, Not Joaquin Phoenix. I'd really recommend checking out the whole archive. His Facebook page is also very thought-provoking, though you have to have an account to see it.
He's been a speaker at multiple conferences and events, so there are plenty of videos of his speeches on Youtube. Here are two particularly good ones: Intersections of Justice: Building an Inclusive Animal Rights Movement (38 min.) and Exploring Connections between Black Liberation & Animal Liberation. (22 min.)
Dr A. Breeze Harper
The author of the landmark book Sistah Vegan, and a leading expert on diversity, equity, and inclusion, Harper has spent her life fighting for justice. You can read more about all the work she has done at her homepage or read her blog posts here--for example, check out The [White Racist] Vegan Playbook.
Toliver works for PETA and you can read a brief bio of his becoming vegan here. Among other things, he's written an excellent article titled Why Vegans Should Support the ‘Black Lives Matter’ Movement.
Author at Sentient Media and the author of What I’ve Learned By Applying an Antiracist Framework to My Animal Advocacy (The entire collection of anti-racist essays at Sentient Media is worth checking out.)
Author at Species Revolution, with a series of articles including No, Veganism isn't Racist, You Are and 6 Reasons Non-Black Vegans Need to Show Up for Black Lives
Lifelong revolutionary activist, civil rights leader, feminist, anti-capitalist and all around radical, Davis is nothing less than a legend...and she's vegan too!
Lastly, I also recommend checking out all the educational resources at Encompass, an excellent organisation working to foster racial equality in the animal rights movement.