In this Winter edition of The Expert Series, RAC member, Dr Alex Lockwood, considers the dominance of white male privilege in public life and power and why this is an important issue for veganism.
Two things were not going to change whatever the outcome of the US Election. First, come inauguration in January an older white conservative male who eats meat will be the next president. And second is that—amplified by the nature of the election, and the turmoil that has followed—white male privilege continues to dominate public life and power.
Watching the election unfold has made it as clear as it can be. The behaviour of our (mostly white male) political classes in the UK and abroad shore up a system that benefits them and their supporters, to the detriment of others based on categories such as gender, race, ethnicity, species, sexuality, and others.
But what has this got to do with veganism? Or rather: to think that white male privilege doesn’t somehow also dominate the treatment of animals in our societies is magical thinking. White male privilege continues to be the scourge that all justice activists, including animal advocates, need to reckon with if we are going to build a safe, sustainable, future for all beings. The only path to social justice for animals is by dismantling the systemic injustice that privileges some over others. Tackling white male privilege is animal advocacy.
This could be simply at the pragmatic level: the vast majority of the abuse of animals comes through our food systems, where men do the majority of the killing. There are almost no women working on the kill floors of slaughterhouses worldwide. It is also mostly men who engage in the direct animal-exploitative behaviours they believe confer masculine identities upon them, and the benefits and status such behaviours bring: angling, grouse shooting, hunting, betting on animal sports. It is even men who, globally, purchase more fur products, despite its association with women’s fashion.
Even more so, the majority of animal exploitation takes place where men continue to dominate the bodies of animals through the heavier consumption of “meat” products. Globally men eat around 57 percent more meat than women. Most vegans are women—in the UK, about two-thirds of vegans identify as women, and in the US it’s more like four to one. Veganuary, the campaign to get people to choose vegan in January, attracts around 82-88 percent women every year, and only 10-15 percent men. And the Game Changers film hasn’t significantly shifted that so far.
This is the approach I followed when I interviewed 40 vegan men for research into looking at the obstacles they faced, and overcame, in their journey to following plant-based diets and vegan life practices. I identified three core issues all the men faced (‘all or nothing’ thinking which easily leads to giving up; a lack of both food and gender education to consolidate the will to change; and the threat to their connection with others that the stereotype of vegan living often conveys). I then identified the means by which these men overcame those issues, such as getting educated, finding role models, changing black/white thinking to more experimental mindsets.
I went on the road, talking at more than 50 vegan festivals, art events, and workshops, to share the types of conversation people can have with themselves, or the men they love, to see these obstacles and overcome them. I hope this led to more individuals making the switch to veganism.
In the last few decades, particularly since 2010, most vegan and grassroots animal organisations have focused their campaigns on tackling individual behaviour to shift towards plant-based diets. As I’ve said, we need such campaigns—and to some extent they have worked. Organisations such as The Vegan Society, Veganuary, Challenge 22+, VegFund, and others, have been incredibly successful in shifting many millions of people towards plant-based diets, vegan lifestyles, and saving many millions of animals from suffering within the animal industrial complex.
And yet, globally, meat consumption is growing, and the demand for meat is likely to double or even triple by 2050. Globally, more animals than ever continue to be exploited. While there are many wins along the way—such as the UK’s ban on animals in circuses—the grounds these wins are accomplished on do not challenge the deeper ideological roots of animal exploitation. And the majority of the exploitation continues to be driven by consumption by men.
So why don’t we talk about this more? Why isn’t this the focus of all vegan advocacy? In the last few years, focus has begun to shift (back) to the need for systemic change rather than change at the individual level, one person at a time. (I say back to, because the origins of The Vegan Society are systemic and political.) There is growing recognition of a lack of comparable time and attention given to tackling the collective beliefs that underpin such individual behaviours.
Animal exploitation rests upon the human belief that we are the dominant species. And that belief today rests upon the power and privilege enjoyed by the colonizing white male. But ‘not all white men’ right? Like myself, a white man. But whiteness and maleness are ideologies—they are a set of ideas and belief systems that lead to behaviours. Which means some white men refuse them; and others, such as black men or white women, ascribe to them and benefit (to a lesser degree) from their privileges.
Indeed, like capitalism, whiteness and maleness are self-reinforcing in that they benefit those who practice their behaviours, so conferring greater strength and power on them, to continue to practice those behaviours.
It is the interlocking sets of ideas and beliefs of whiteness and maleness, found in white male privilege, that need challenging. And it is precisely this white male privilege that has avoided attention in our movement. How has white male privilege been let off the hook?
Systemic privilege has been challenged by feminist, queer, postcolonial, indigenous and civil rights movements for the past four hundred years, and not without successes. Yet many—not all, but many—of those working in the animal protection movement continue to be slow to grasp the intersectional nature of systemic oppressions.
This has resulted in too many examples where allyship with, say, anti-racist groups and the benefits to be accrued from intersectional systems thinking to lift all boats, have been called out by animal rights activists as ‘diluting’ the animal message or ‘prioritising people’ at the expense of ‘the real victims’. Such a lack of understanding of the ways in which oppression operates (seen in responses to the Black Lives Matter movement with All Animal Lives Matter placards and memes) is counterproductive. It stands in the way of justice movements tackling together the root structures that maintain all exploitation, including animal exploitation.
That is, the structure of oppression in society operates in ways that denigrate ‘othered’ groups together. One mechanism of oppression, say against women, works to strengthen all other oppressive mechanisms in society, say against animals. For example, capitalist systems of production render those outside the “human” as consumable products, as for example “pieces of meat” or “chattel/cattle.” As the Kent-based scholar (and RAC member) Corey Wrenn argues: “In a capitalist system, power is concentrated through the exploitation of vulnerable groups, and this vulnerability is exemplified in ‘meat’. Meat in this context refers not only to the butchered flesh of nonhuman animals but also the fragmented flesh of human women. … Power rests on the consumption of feminized bodies, human and nonhuman alike.”
This is because “meat” foods, says scholar Jeffery Sobal, represent “ethnicity, nationality, region, class, age, sexuality, culture, and (perhaps most importantly) gender.” Numerous works have identified the ways in which foods are gendered as either masculine or feminine. As Sobal puts it: “Animal flesh is a consummate male food, and a man eating meat is an exemplar of maleness. Men sometimes fetishize meat, claiming that a meal is not a ‘real’ meal without meat. Men often hypermasculinize meat in male rituals. For example, men dominate meat cooking competitions, such as barbecue contests, and are the main contestants engaging in eating competitions, which often focus on meats.”
Masculine dominance also shapes food practices within the home and marriage, with evidence that “men’s food preferences dominate family food choices” and provide a “patriarchal dividend” that “both reflect and reproduce wider patterns of male dominance and female subordination.”
The life privileges that are unquestionably accepted and enjoyed by white men is the single largest reason for the exploitation of animals, women and people of colour we see today. White male supremacy is the most entrenched social ideology used to define humanity; this is so much so that other humans who are not white, Western men are easily ‘othered’ into lesser categories, often ‘animalized’. This is clear in the treatment of Black African-Americans, ongoing in the disproportionate killings of black American men, their continued relative economic poverty, and their likening to animals. This has been discussed most recently in the wonderful book Being Property Once Myself: Blackness and the End of Man, Joshua Bennett’s exploration of the simultaneous valuation and sale of animals and enslaved people.
The onus is on us, then, to counter the ideologies of whiteness and maleness that continue to be exercised to the benefit of (predominantly) white men in Western countries such as the UK and US. It is why, as a white man, I wrote the chapter on ‘veganism and gender’ in the forthcoming Handbook of Vegan Studies, edited by Professor Laura Wright. As Laura said to me: “Until straight, white men decide that they are willing to stand up to other straight, white men … and call them out for their racism, sexism, speciesism, and homophobia, then this is where we are, and this is why most men aren’t vegan. I can talk all day about veganism, but who cares? I’m just a woman.”
Most men aren’t vegan. Most women aren’t either—but many more woman are, and even many women who aren’t vegan still eat considerably less meat, hunt considerably less animals, and kill considerably less animals, than men. This is because the ideas of femininity or womanhood are not constructed around the domination of other beings—indeed, women are part of those ‘dominated others’ in the ideology of white maleness.
There is no way, therefore, to explore vegan advocacy without also exploring the role that gender plays. We can continue to look at it in individual lived practice. But we must also tackle the structural causes of exploitation at the societal and ideological levels. We must change not only behaviour, but the beliefs and values those behaviours rest upon.
In The Patterning Instinct, the author Jeremy Lent analyses what he calls a “cognitive history” of the belief pathways taken by Western societies to reach the point we have today: facing health, soil, climate and ecological emergencies, much of which has been driven by ten thousand years of agricultural sedentarism and the domestication of animals. These pathways are “locked in” to our societies as orthodoxy—they have become over time ‘true facts’, even though they only started out as beliefs (e.g. that human lives are more special or valuable than nonhuman animal lives).
Locked in ideas are stubborn to change. And they do not change quickly when approaching individuals in society one by one. That kind of work has its place. But the “ideological lock-ins” of whiteness, patriarchy and the domination of animals, resulting in the unsustainable global food system we have, are intertwined, powerful and relentless. It will take systems thinking, and system change, to bring about the vision of the world we wish to see. That vision cannot come about while animal protection groups stand apart from the wider social justice movement. As animal advocates, we must give as much of our time, if not more, to tackling the systemic causes of animal exploitation as we do to the individual lifestyle change.
We should begin with white male privilege. This is not a dilution of the animal message. In white male privilege lies the greatest threat to all animals, in the farmed system and free living. So there lies our greatest challenge. Animal activists must not ignore the power of white male privilege any longer.