The phrase “Oppression Olympics” refers to arguments and analysis that create hierarchies of oppression, claiming that one oppression is somehow worse than another or that one oppressed group has it better than another. I’ve learned this is not the same as identifying and articulating the concrete differences between various oppressions and their intersections, and that the two should not be confused. In terms of white vegans and their apologists/defenders, they have added animals to this discussion and, as a result, have created ‘White Vegan Oppression Olympics.’ Not only is it now important to insist animals have it worse than human beings, it is a thing to equate “oppressed” animals with oppressed POC by directly comparing animal cruelty to racism.
The qualifying and ordering of struggles and oppressions is offensive enough without the experiences of oppressed POC being depicted as “better” than those of animals. To claim homeless animals somehow have worse living conditions than homeless people simply because domesticated pets in shelters are widely euthanized, is to ignore the fact that homeless folks are systemically abandoned and left to die. I fail to see how the homeless have a “better” or more “privileged” situation, especially when many of them contend with racism. Animal shelters are not utopian spaces and neither are homeless shelters. When white vegans compare POC to “oppressed” animals, or create animal “rights” strategies around the idea that animals are more “oppressed” than POC, they perpetuate racist knowledge production.
I understand that not all vegans are white, and there are many vegans of color who do critical work around the idea of “speciesism.” However, British psychologist Richard Ryder, who coined the term “speciesism” and was the first to compare it directly to racism, is not a vegan of color. This is him, a white male:
Tell me again how “speciesism” and directly comparing it to racism are not white ideas.
I’m not going to entertain the “Vegans of color say XYZ” discussion because I speak from a position of white privilege, meaning it is not my responsibility, place, or right to represent what vegans of color say. Vegans with white privilege might not be the only ones who talk about “speciesism,” but they are the only ones who directly equate “speciesism” with racism. They are not investigating connections between whiteness and “speciesism,” they are drawing explicit parallels between this theory and racism. Devaluing the identities and experiences of POC by saying “at least you’re better off than animals” (like that’s a compliment) or “what you go through is exactly what animals go through” (I can’t decide which is worse), is privileged and violent policing that has no basis in actual lived experience. The minds of animals cannot be inhabited by white vegans, the minds of POC cannot be inhabited by white vegans, and these are two extremely different organs.
When white vegans equate “human supremacy” (aka “spepciesism”) to “white supremacy,” they are saying all human beings are as powerful as white folks in relation to animals and all POC are as helpless/powerless as animals. So which is it? Are POC as powerful as fellow whites when they eat animals, or are they as “oppressed” as the animals they are eating? Or are the animals more “oppressed” than POC? None of this makes sense after a few moments of critical thought. Because white vegans neither experience racism nor live with its negative material consequences, advocacy for animal “rights” does not justify educating POC about racism or white supremacy. Appropriating a struggle we do not live or share is also never justifiable, even if it is done in the name of justice for another issue.
When vegans of color educate POC who eat meat about animal cruelty and “speciesism,” it is their decision to create their own spaces and discourses—this does not necessitate white intervention, opinions, or involvement. I am not in favor of factory farming or animal cruelty, but I do not see the need to devalue the struggles of human beings to insist all of them are privileged when many of them are not. I can also see how the absence of racial oppression in my life would make it easy for me to assume all people are privileged in relation to animals, which would then make it easy for me to assume “speciesism” is identical to racism when I have the racial privilege to compare theories without having to examine how racism concretely and negatively impacts my life. Arguments cannot be separated from the social positions from which they are made. And any theory that suggests humans are all equally powerful is untenable when considered in relation to the very real social inequalities and power differentials in human oppression and privilege.
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