Today, we’re talking about intersectionality, allyship, and compassion. Intersectionality is a newly recognized word (only added to Merriam-Webster in April of this year) that is appearing more frequently in online discussion groups and news articles. So what does it mean, and why is this concept important for those of us who consider ourselves activists? How does intersectionality tie into our veganism and our search for a more compassionate future? I turn to Cheyenne, yet another Animal Behind Herbivore, for her thoughts...
Cheyenne is a vegan trans woman living in Portland, Oregon. She has been vegan since she was a teen because of her empathy for animals, and is involved in other areas of social activism as well. She is very passionate about the need for differing perspectives in this ongoing journey towards equality, and the importance of letting people of marginalized groups have the floor when we talk about oppression. Read on to learn Cheyenne’s particular perspective on how understanding intersectionality becomes the foundation of being a good ally and vegan.
Note: Intersectionality is a term coined in the 1989 essay "Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics" by Kimberlé Crenshaw. Crenshaw used this word to specifically outline "the simultaneous experience of the multiple oppressions faced by Black women." This concept can be used to understand different layers of oppression generally, but originated as a tool for conceptualizing the different layers of discrimination faced by Black women. You can gain a fuller understanding of the history of the term and Crenshaw's use of it here.
Cheyenne Talks Veganism & Intersectionality
Why and when did you become vegan? What was your “aha vegan moment”?
I became vegan at 15 because of ethical reasons. It all clicked for me when I understood how horribly animals are treated especially in factory farming settings. After witnessing footage of how animals are treated, their plight became more than conceptual-- it was painfully real. Empathy and sympathy are the crux of my decision to become vegan.
How would you define intersectionality?
As I currently understand it, intersectionality is the reality that systems of oppression are connected and “intersect,” reinforcing and shaping each other. It’s like different kinds of netting enveloping all of society. Some people can pass through most or all of the “netting” without realizing there is anything there, but people from marginalized groups are hindered wherever they go especially if they are affected by multiple oppressive systems (multiple layers of nets).
This also creates different kinds of privilege for each person. For example, I’ll face oppression for being trans, for being female, and for being queer in my life, but I’m also mostly white, able-bodied, neurotypical, and thin which gives me certain privileges in this society.
Intersectionality recognizes those privileges, and shows us that everyone’s fight is connected. No one is free till everyone is free.
Why is it important to understand how different forms of oppression intersect and feed into/off of one another?
I think it’s important because it’s ethically the correct thing to do. If you’re only here for you, and only interested in your personal battle against the oppression you face, you’re emulating the selfish attitude of your oppressors. Without understanding the battles of others, you’ll likely participate in the very oppression you struggle against and/or perform and perpetuate oppression towards a different group.
And practically speaking, not understanding intersectionality means you’ll probably not advance any social justice cause you are part of because you don’t understand the bigger picture. You can’t liberate women if you only fight for a certain kind of woman. You can’t fight LGBTQ oppression if you don’t comprehend that misogyny, homophobia, biphobia and transphobia are connected and often overlap. A weed is connected at the roots, but so many people are cutting off the leaves...
In what ways do you think an understanding of/concern with being intersectional could help veganism as a movement?
I think it would help because it increases understanding of how and why our attitudes toward other animals are the way they are and how they reflect and affect our attitudes toward other humans. The subjugation, enslavement and mistreatment of other animals is a mirror to us. Our cold utilitarian attitudes about the worth of human life based on ability to produce labor is parallel to how we treat animals.
Why is being intersectional crucial to the ideas behind veganism?
For veganism to be more than a dietary choice requires understanding and empathy, and that is absolutely tied to understanding how animal oppression and human oppression intersect, in my opinion.
In your experience as a trans woman, what makes a good ally/activist?
I think it takes a lot of reflection and listening. If you want to help anyone, it needs to be about them more than it is about you. Continue to be a voice for the voiceless and the absent or unrepresented, but when someone from a marginalized group is speaking of their experiences, give them their space and really listen.
Why is it harmful to prioritize discussing one form of oppression over another?
It’s harmful because all forms of oppression are related, and no one kind is more or less important than another. Putting priority on discussing one form of oppression over another is not only shortsighted, but also suggests that some people or beings are more important than others. I do think though, that you can (and probably will) be more focused on fighting certain kinds of oppression, especially if they affect you directly. But we are stronger together, and we should listen, understand, empathize and aid each other whenever possible.
How can a vegan person become a better intersectional ally?
- Listening first and foremost! Listen to the people who you are allied with, not just other allies talking about or for another group.
- Know that not understanding how a group is oppressed doesn’t mean they are not, it means that you have not experienced what they experience, and do not yet understand what that feels like.
- Remember that all people are worthy of equality and do not need to justify that. It’s their right by birth, earned simply by existing. Absolutely reject any kind of “separate but equal” ideology. (i.e. the idea that P.O.C. can participate in society but only separately from white people, or trans people can participate in society but separately from cis people).
- Know that circumstances determine a person's ability to participate in fighting oppression. Some people can’t safely go to protests or rallies, some people can’t be fully vegan or vegan all the time. Everyone is facing different challenges.
- Try to be compassionate and patient, always. Shaming or guilting someone into a cause is tempting but rarely works in the long run. Keep in mind that not everyone comes from the same place, but will hopefully find their way with the right information and encouragement. Everyone is doing their best. Understanding that is truly being compassionate.
We hope you found this interview informative and inspiring, though it may raise a lot more questions than it gives answers. This is a jumping off point-- there are so many more perspectives and opinions to explore. If you are interested, check out The Plant Based Bride’s article “How To Be An Intersectional Vegan,” which provides another vegan’s commentary on and analysis of intersectionality.
- - -
Keep up with "Herbivore Stories" to learn more about our team (the animals behind Herbivore), the issues we are passionate about, our wonderful vendors, our favorite recipes, and much more!