The Assumption of Universal Whiteness

On the Vegans of Color blog, Johanna posted about "Engaging" POCs in AR Work? in response to the program for an upcoming animal rights conference that includes sessions on "Engaging Ethnic Minorities (African-Americans, Latin Americans, Asian-Americans)"; "Commonality of Oppression (commonalities of oppressing animals, children, women, others)"; and "Engaging Other Movements (health, environment, hunger, women, justice, peace movements)."

The titles for these sessions illustrate what Ana Clarissa Rojas Durazo calls "an assumption of universal whiteness." In her chapter "We Were Never Meant to Survive," in The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex (South End Press, 2006), Durazo writes, "The existence of 'special' and 'non-white' programs emerges from the logic of the liberalist project of multiculturalism." I think "Engaging Ethnic Minorities" is indicative of such special/non-White programming. Durazo continues:

Multiculturalist ideology is a remnant of the early-20th-century mode of studying ethnicity, which were modeled on the experience of white European immigrants who, through processes of assimilation and acculturation to dominant culture, became new white Americans. Although this model is mute on the issue of race – a silence which is part and parcel to the project of whiteness – it often conflates the experiences of communities of color with the experiences of white European immigrants. ...this organizational strategy actually displaces race from the broader analysis – effectively ignoring the power structure of white supremacy and the structured subjugation of people of color... By adding programs ostensibly designed to serve the needs of a given community of color, the larger organization avoids direct accountability to that community. In other words, the organization's own white supremacy remains intact and fundamentally unchallenged.

That the "Commonality of Oppression" and "Engaging Other Movements" sessions don't identify people of color, as johanna points out, only proves this point. Durazo explains:

Further, as this example illustrates, the larger organization's white supremacy clearly shapes all its work, programming, and decision-making, including its 'specific' projects. ...multicultural organizational structures collude with white supremacy ... namely because this logic enables organizations to dismiss the centrality of racism in all institutions and organizations in the United States.

I know exactly what Durazo is talking about; I experienced it first hand when I was working in the non-profit sector as a staff writer. It was actually the reason I left the animal rights organization I was working for.

When a co-worker and I attempted to acknowledge the centrality of anti-racism and economic justice to organizational advocacy, specifically in the planning of a new vegan project, we were met with hostility from management. Simply recognizing low-income people and people of color was taboo. Management insisted on language like "inclusive" and "diverse" that wouldn't challenge White supremacy or capitalism. I see the same thing in the program being offered for the upcoming animal rights conference.

I think Johanna is correct to say that "engaging" is about recruiting POC and not actually working with POC. Rather than addressing oppression with POC, "engage" seem to suggest further exploiting POC. There are different definitions for "engage," none of which I find very empowering. The session can actually be read as: "To obtain the use or services of ethnic minorities." In which case the session is a perfect reflection of White supremacy. While the organizers more likely mean "to win over" or "to involve" it is still about doing to POC, rather than working with them.

The inherent Whiteness of the logic of "engaging" is called out in Joselle Palacios's comment, "I don't need to be 'engaged.' I'm here. I am engaged. And what?" It is either assumed that POC need to be won over or involved, or, if POC are already engaged in this sense, then it is assumed the POC need to be put to use. Either way you cut it it still reeks of White supremacy.

In spite of one session neutrally titled "Commonality of Oppression," the conference is not geared towards an anti-oppression framework. Counter to what I've been saying in this blog, the conference includes "vegan" as a dietary/consumer supplement to activism.

Things would be different if people understood veganism as anti-oppression, which it really is. In this case, a session on "How Vegan is Enough?" would not focus on consumer habits, but rather on the need to re-center POC and low-income people. Since veganism is anti-oppression then "an assumption of universal whiteness" and "ignoring the power structure of white supremacy and the structured subjugation of people of color" is obviously not vegan enough.

BTW, there are no sessions even playing lip service to low-income and working-class people. But with registration starting at $120 we're not invited to participate in the first place.

Hey, thank you for this post

Hey, thank you for this post -- it is great, & I appreciate the added knowledge/experience you bring as someone who used to work for an AR nonprofit. (I, too, am a former & burnt-out nonprofiteer -- not for AR stuff, though -- & I was gleefully awaiting the publication of the INCITE book [I was still at my last nonprofit job at the time -- a place they claimed was progressive but was considering applying for a grant from Wal-Mart!!!!] because I was sure it would validate all my rage, & it did, & then some!)

Re: Hey, thank you for this post

The Revolution Will Not Be Funded came out right as thing in my job were getting unbearable. When I finally quit I was so traumatized that I put off reading the book until just this last month. I glad I waited; I'm sure if I read it when it first came out it would have been too painful to get through. But now it's my favorite book. It really helped me make sense of why a self-proclaimed "progressive" organization could be so reactionary and destructive.

The class analysis in Paul Kivel's chapter, "Social Service or Social Change?," really hit home for me as someone coming from a lower-class background and trying to do social change work under people in the managerial class.

Regarding the $120 price

Regarding the $120 price for the conference, which could preclude some people with lower incomes from attending...What would be some practical solutions to that issue? I think FARM did allow for a certain number of people to get paid at the conference, or to receive a discount in return for helping out, but I don't know the details.