When we attempt to resist or object to the oppression of a particular group sometimes we can inadvertently support or encourage the oppression or degrading of other often oppressed groups. This should never be done unless there is some bizarre and unusual circumstance that seems to call for such activity. Even then…anyone opposing harm to others simply because they are involuntary members of a targeted and minoritized group should absolutely ensure there is no other way to achieve their goal. Because...there usually is.
A few months ago I was in the middle of a situation that potentially promoted just this sort of an instance of oblivious harming.
Last year I helped start a local group of vegans in central Oklahoma as a way of enhancing advocacy for animals as well as a support group for vegan types. Living and advocating for veganism can be an isolating experience and support and encouragement for such stuff can be really welcome and helpful.
The group flourished, they even visited Heartland Rabbit Rescue as a way of supporting local efforts to provide refuge for some of the victims of human oppression. You can read about one such visit in this previous post. A facebook page for the group was created where members could post things having to do with veganism and such and semi-regular meetings and activities took place. As a founding member I did various things with the group including acting as one of the administrators of the facebook page.
One day I saw that a member (another one of the founders) had shared a graphic detailing some purported neglect and cruelty that had occurred at a municipal shelter in a small town in southeastern Oklahoma. Several people there were calling for the firing of the animal control officer because of this badness and they had apparently created a graphic that detailed the cruelty, named the supposed offender and also they had included a photograph of this man.
Obviously no animal should be neglected and/or abused or treated cruelly by an animal control officer...but...it struck me as a little unusual to include a photograph of the individual...especially since the man was African American.
I couldn't remember seeing a photo of an individual (who wasn't a celebrity or who hadn't posted the photo themselves) used in quite that way before and I was bothered by the fact that using the photo meant that his race was specified when...his race wasn't relevant to objecting to cruelty. If the graphic had simply described the man the written description would not have included racial identification...but...the photo meant race and racial stereotyping and all that involved came into play in what was an attempt to publicize and object to what some were saying was a case of neglect/cruelty.
I messaged the person who posted the graphic and asked her to consider removing the photograph...because of the probability that identifying the race of the purported offender ran the risk of playing into the negative stereotyping of African Americans that has been a central feature of U.S.American culture since the 1600s. Knowing the race of the individual involved had nothing to do with protesting against the incident and it was easily possible to advocate for the victim(s) without bringing this information into consideration.
I really didn't think much about it to tell you the truth...it seemed fairly clear cut to me.
Well...not so fast. The person who posted the graphic sort of dug in her heels and...after some exchanges...absolutely refused to remove the graphic in question. I became disturbed enough (and sort of desperate to tell you the truth) that I posed a request to her to remove it as a personal favor to me at least until we could have a meeting of the founding committee where this issue could be discussed and hashed out face to face. She refused and went so far as to accuse me of trying to protect an animal harmer and, apparently because I had sent her some information about historical and current negative stereotyping of African Americans, of being patronizing toward her.
I gotta tell ya the truth I was truly and well flummoxed....very stunned and perturbed. My view was that objecting to the cruelty was something that should be done...but bringing the race of the individual supposedly involved (the other thing is that no one here had any first hand knowledge of this incident...all this brouhaha was relying on some unknown individuals down in this little town...it could have all been unfounded as far as anyone here knew) simply was unnecessary and well...to my mind... wrong. It risked evoking negative feelings and activating negative stereotypes toward/about a member of a minoritized group that has endured centuries of oppression and harm and denigration at the hands of white "freedom loving" U.S. Americans and I could see no good reason for it.
Using the photograph was not relevant to the objecting to the instance of harm so why use it? I was also a little suspicious of the motives of the creators of the graphic since it originated from an area of Oklahoma known as "little dixie"...that area is so named partially because of the problematic racial attitudes that have long existed there but, in truth, those deplorable attitudes have existed historically not only in that part of the state.
Her stance was that she was "colorblind"...(hereafter I will use "color-oblivious") and treated everyone the same no matter their skin color and she would have done the same thing if it was a white person involved.
I was sort of shocked at that idea (I was rather unfamiliar with the term "colorblind") because while it might look sensible on a superficial level...if you think about it a little it is the same as saying that you'll be "age-oblivious" or "sex-oblivious" or "ability-oblivious" in terms of how you treat someone or deal with someone. I apologize for use of the term "blind". Oblivious is a more accurate word to use instead of referencing some lack of physical capability. Unfortunately "colorblind" is apparently a very common term.
You can't just say I'll ignore everything and make the rules the same for everybody no matter what their particular circumstances or history or capabilities or experience is. Life isn't that way except in some abstract and disconnected imaginary universe. It's poor and faulty thinking to operate off of such unrealistic abstractions. This graphic illustrates clearly that, depending on each individual's circumstances, different treatment is needed to ensure that everyone is dealt with fairly. I've written elsewhere about these ideas.
If the graphic doesn't make clear the error in thinking "equal" is the same as fair...think about something that's impacting every child in this country that attends public school. Some time ago the amazing effort called "standardized testing" was implemented under the guise of the theory that it was somehow "fair" to subject all children from a state to the same set of tests.
Hey...everybody is tested with the same questions...great...right? Wrong...it's wrong because all schools are not equal. Some districts have much more money and resources than others...much better and newer textbooks, more experienced and skilled teachers, better science laboratory facilities and on and on and on. It's also wrong because you're also presuming all children have much the same family and socioeconomic environmental support and circumstances. If you want to give standardized tests without ensuring standardized education as well as standardized external situations for the children...you're simply confusing equality (same tests) with justice or fairness.
The person welded to the notion of "color-obliviousness" refused to remove the post...so...I took it down and told her what I had done and would discuss it at the next meeting and if the consensus was that I was in error...then the post could be reinstated. I was looking forward to hashing this out in person with her...and with the group...because you well know how hard it is to have some sort of dialogue...especially one where there is disagreement...via electronic venues.
The next committee meeting occurred and she did not attend. I was all prepared with handouts and arguments and and and...wouldn't you know it...she didn't show up. The attending members listened to my viewpoint but...I could see by the rather strange glaze in their eyes that they really didn't "get" what I was saying. Which was disheartening since, not only did it seem readily apparent to me, I had also explained this situation to several people that I knew and each of them quickly saw what I was driving at. The people on the committee did not seem to do so although they didn't object to my objecting and removing the post. Just FYI, everyone on the committee has white skin...as I do...there was no committee input by anyone from another racial group.
Advocating for our sister/brother Earthlings can be done without purposely or inadvertently engaging in oppressive or denigrating or harmful behaviors toward groups of humans that have been historically (and currently) oppressed. It's just not necessary and...if you're genuinely opposed to oppression...you don't do it...or even get close to it.
If you don't want to advocate for oppressed humans...fine...most vegans don't because that's not where their passion is. But, if you can't figure out how to champion non-harm to non-humans without promoting injury or degradation toward oppressed groups of humans, maybe you should be living vegan...and not advocating.
Some vegans seem to be unaware of the fact that a white supremacist or a Nazi (pretty much the same thing) or a misogynist could also be vegan. Being vegan is not some sort of blanket get out of jail free card that means someone is not a bullying a**hole that you wouldn't want to be near or share a home, community or society with. It only means they are trying to avoid harming Earthlings who are not human.
Sometimes vegans (and I admit to having occasionally flirted with such self elevation) seem to become so impressed with their, admittedly admirable, choice to refrain from harm to unhuman Earthlings that they start thinking that they have some universal and permanent exemption from behaving poorly. I'm not at great risk of such self-aggrandizement because my wife graciously often points out when I'm being a jerk. Just because you advocate for a great cause doesn't mean you can't cause unnecessary harm to others.
Some groups who advocate...PETA comes to mind...have a long and (to me) depressing history of being really cavalier and unthinking regarding recreating oppressions in their ostensible quest to advocate for animals. They (trigger warning...the links go to offensive photos) use racist and sexist memes often in their advocacy and I find that sort of stuff to be deplorable and self-defeating. No vegan needs to be complicit in supporting the culture of oppression if they can avoid it.
My stance is that if you can't advocate for a harmed group without offending or harming other traditionally harmed groups...then maybe you don't need to be advocating.
You should stay 40 miles away from anything that even hints at the reproducing of oppression. We live in a culture (western European) that has hundreds of years of history of routinely setting up situations where harmed groups have tried to resist harm to themselves by inflicting injury on other historically harmed groups...when...it's not necessary.
Maybe you should go somewhere and do some hard thinking about what your motives are because something is seriously whacked in your thinking, to me anyway, if you're asking for compassion for one group while engaging in gratuitous and/or unnecessary harm or negative stereotyping toward another oppressed group. That's incomprehensible. It's ugly and unnecessary and simply doesn't need to be done.
I'm beginning to think that this sort of bizarre scrabbling between harmed groups is one of the main obstacles to getting onto a path toward a way of living where fairness for everyone is the standard.
The further away from this incident that I get...in terms of time...the more it dismays me that the committee members...including the posting person...were/are seemingly oblivious to this. It's so similar to trying to educate a non-vegan about veganism who doesn't "get it" that it is uncanny.
This situation left me in one of those really uncomfortable places where something seems glaringly obvious to me...and yet this something seems to be invisible to some...or am I missing something? Feel free to chime in here.
The graphic in question stayed off of the facebook page...but...I had one member of the committee furious at me and another three members looking at me as if I had grown a 2nd head. Jeez. Another post will be necessary to delineate subsequent developments...because it got weirder...and not in a fun way.
Please be aware that I'm writing only about myself and the few members of the founding committee. Nothing negative is implied about the group itself or the purposes of the group. Advocacy for our sister/brother Earthlings is a good thing...even if the humans involved might have differing perceptions and/or viewpoints. It's all a learning process...or at least it can be.