Oppression in the Background

On sunday, brownfemipower made a very insightful comment on the Vegans of Color blog. In her comment, BFP makes two major points: 1) there is no shortage of insensitivity in our society towards the oppression of people of color; and 2) exposure to extremely violent images of others being oppressed does not translate into respect for those who are being oppressed. These are both important points that deserve further consideration by vegans and other nonhuman animal advocates.

In the original post, Breeze Harper asks if Sarah Palin, who is featured in a video laughing and sipping coffee while being interviewed with turkeys being killed and held captive in the background, would be "comfortable, interviewing in front of a plantation of enslaved African children working to harvest 'her' cocoa on the Ivory coast?" In her first point, BFP rightly question the implicit assumption that such insensitivity to the oppression of people of color is not going on. In fact, it's not hard to imagine a similar interview taking place while the oppression of people of color is taking place in the background because they're a regular occurrence in the media.

For instance, consider the fact that during his 1992 bid for the presidency, Bill Clinton flew to Arkansas to personally approve the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a mentally disabled Black man. Now, as far as I know, Rector was not actually being killed in the background of any interview, but Rector's execution was no less the intentional backdrop to any interview Clinton did during that visit to Arkansas. I think the lack of compassion and connection to the immediate oppression of others is no less real in the case of Clinton than it is in the case of Palin.

As the Clinton example hopefully helps illustrate, violence doesn't have to be visible in the immediate background to be a part of the immediate context. By extension, I think that the oppression of people of color is an immediate part of the backdrop for nearly every interview of a politician. How many times in the last two years of campaigning for the presidency did the candidates laugh and sip coffee while U.S. policies on immigration, the war on terror, prisons, welfare, healthcare, reproductive health, military, "free trade," and so on and so on were literally having an immediate impact on the lives of people of color. In their numerous interviews with reporters they all showed a lack of compassion and connection to the immediate oppression of others by ignoring the suffering of people of color in Latin America, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and throughout the world including right here in the United States. Suffering that was backgrounded while they laughed, sipped coffee, and discussed their plans for the nation. There was one obvious exception however, the Green Party presidential ticket's Cynthia McKinney and Rosa Clemente both made it a point to bring the oppression of people of color to the foreground as they discussed the issues. But it's like BFP says, nobody actually seemed cared enough to cover theses issues.

This leads into BFP second point, which was in response to a number of commenters who complained that the killing and captivity of the turkeys in the background of the Palin interview was too tame. BFP says:

As a person of color who has seen ALL of that happening to other people of color, as a woman of color who has seen that violence happen to other women of color, who has experienced that violence–I can only hope that the people who are wanting the "real" violence to be shown are kidding.

If we are going to change the world to a *true* cruelty free world for all animals, than we have to consider–would we wish and hope that more violence could be shown against Iraqi's so that we can gross people out enough to stop the war? Would we hope that women of color being raped by police could be taped so that we could squick people out and stop rape against women of color?

We wouldn't dream of using that sort of tactics for humans–for the simple ethical reason that it is a real fucking being that has to be hurt and violated so that we can achieve our goal. Being dependent upon showing violence so that we can end violence? COme on. And especially when it comes to animals—people aren't going to change their minds and suddenly care about and activelly protect animals because they're grossed out.

And as we've seen with violence against women being videotaped and shown in courts or published across the internet, more often than not, people either get off on that shit or think that the women 'deserved it' or "enjoyed it".

It's just doesn't make any organizational sense, AND it's so so so SO not centering the needs of animals on any level. It's centering activists need to get people to stop eating animals. If anything, this video *exposes* the problems with the animal rights movement more than anything else–because in all, this is not a terribly 'cruel' way to die–Which shows that you don't really have to stop eating meat to stop violence against animals–you just have to find more human[e] ways to kill animals. What would happen if AR folks instead of placing all their eggs in the "make it really gross and they'll stop eating it" wrestled with more complicated organizing ideas like, 'how can we increase the value human's place on the lives of animals?" Or something along those lines... .

BFP is saying something very important, but her point seems to be a hard one for many people to grasp, especially nonhuman animal advocates who depend on the exploitation of violent imagery. As BFP points out, this does not tell people they need to stop exploiting other animals. The subtext of focusing on the most violent imagery is to suggest that an idyllic farm scene is not oppressive, or at least not oppressive enough to be concerned about. And that is the subtext of all the comments that said the backdrop to the Palin interview is not violent enough. It would seem folks who have been grossed out by bloodier imagery are also lacking a compassion and connection to the turkeys being killed and held captive in the background, which they seem to find more tolerable.

Likewise, must it be enslaved children on the Ivory coast for us to be outraged, what if the interview was done in front of a field of tomatoes being picked by migrant workers in Immokalee, Florida? It's likely that most viewers would fail to realize the true significance of the exploitation going on in the background. The violent oppression that is the exploitation of im/migrant workers by the U.S. agri-food complex and government immigration policy cannot easily be picked up by a video camera. However, if we need to see an overseer out in the field whipping a child worker before we take the situation seriously, then it is us who lack connection and compassion. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "White America is not even psychologically organized to close the gap — essentially, it seeks only to make it less painful and less obvious."

The important point isn't whether one group of humans or other animals when compared to another group of humans or other animals suffer more from their exploitation. Suffering shouldn't be framed as a competition or a hierarchy. I think what should really concern us is that because one form of exploitation appears less painful and less obvious it is considered more "humane" or acceptable, and that subsequently the oppression gets ignored and pushed into the background. Obviously, neither people of color nor other animals are valued if their oppression is in any way ignored or otherwise reframed as tolerable. As long as we're insensitive to the least of their oppression, we are insensitive to their oppression as a whole.

Re: Oppression in the Background

I'm really glad you posted this comment and some follow-up. I read the original post but never saw what BFP said. Thanks for this.

Re: Oppression in the Background

I am (also) really glad you posted this (I have seen bfp's post though ... wondering how one ... wondering otherwise too .

It's a real good idea to re-discuss important issues brought up somewhere else.

Great posting!