Why Our Biographical Identity Matters

Our biographies matter. That is to say, our race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, cultural beliefs, gender identity, sex, sexuality, socioeconomic class, citizenship status, (dis)ability, and so forth all matter. The intersection of these biographical characteristics makes up our biographical identity, and our biographical identity matters because it not only gives description to who we are, but it also gives description to our relationships to others.

Often we are encouraged to act as if our biographies — that is to say, our identities — don't matter. The emphasis is on being "objective," or to appeal to the so-called "mainstream" or "general public." This is, for instance, the "main point" offered by one essay on activism by the leader of a nonhuman advocacy nonprofit, which states, "I believe we have an ethical obligation to recognize and set aside all of our personal baggage and to perform an objective analysis of both the pros/cons and costs/benefits of our choice of focus, our choice of tactics, and the example we choose to present to the public."

Suggesting we "set aside all of our personal baggage" invalidates the importance of our biographical identity. This encourages us to ignore the power dynamics and social oppression that exist in our society. For instance, when race is seen as "personal baggage" we are encouraged to be "colorblind" — that is, "racially objective" or "race-neutral." We are encouraged to judge people by their character, and not by the color of their skin. But the color of our skin, whether we are a person of color or White, is a part of our biography and our identity. Failure to take our race and the race of others into account wrongly presumes racism and White supremacy can be ignored.

Those of us who are White rarely identify ourselves by our race and usually feel uncomfortable when others do. We'd much rather think of ourselves as "normal" or "just people." As a White person living in a White supremacist society, I'm privileged in that I don't need to consider the color of my skin. However, if a person of color points out racism or White supremacy, then that person is often accused of "playing the race card" — that is, attempting to bring race into an objective situation. This is due to assumptions of universal Whiteness that frame how my White biographical identity is seen as "objective," while framing the biographical identity of a person of color as "personal baggage." Of course, race is always at play in a White supremacist society, and only White people can afford to assume otherwise.

In another essay on activism by a vice-president of another nonhuman animal advocacy nonprofit, it is claimed that "we marginalize ourselves" if we recognize our biographical identities, stating, "If we make veganism and animal rights a package deal that includes other issues, it will be easier for others to dismiss us." The essay goes on to praise a number of reactionary, right-wing politicians as "some of the best advocates for animals."

Again, this ignores why our biographical identities matter. A White, male, able-bodied, cissexual, heterosexual, upper/middle-class, Christian, citizen, can ignore his biographical identity. This is because society is structured around privileging this biographical identity as "normal" — that is, "objective" or "mainstream." But a person of color, female, disabled, transsexual, queer, working-class/poor, non-Christian, and/or non-citizen, has a biographical identity that is already marginalized — that is, already dismissed due to social oppression. As such, the essay reinforces the dominance of a certain privileged biographical identity by blaming people with oppressed biographical identities as somehow marginalizing themselves.

The premise of both essays is to encourage us to ignore our biographical identities in order to make addressing the worst abuses of nonhuman animal suffering our single focus. Given this call for self-sacrifice, it is not a shock that both essays come from writers who are White, male, able-bodied, cissexual, heterosexual, upper/middle-class, Christian, and citizens. As people with highly privileged biographical identities both authors can easily afford to ignore the importance that their own biographical identities play in social oppression of others and focus on a single "objective" issue.

However, as the bloggers at Vegans of Color remind us, most people don't have the luxury of being single-issue. The subtext of the two essays on activism is to falsely frame the biographical identity of anyone who is a person of color, female, disabled, transsexual, queer, working-class/poor, non-Christian, and/or a non-citizen as a threat that competes with nonhuman animal activism. These are the biographical identities that we are asked to sacrifice. We are encouraged to believe that oppression of these biographical identities is insignificant compared to what other animals experience. Yet, whether our biographical identity is oppressed or privileged, and it's usually a mix of both, it is too important to ignore. In reality, this isn't about these oppressed biographical identities competing with nonhuman animal liberation. Rather, what is being argued in these essays is that we maintain the existing social order, or so-called "mainstream," in which biographical identities that are privileged by the oppression of other biographical identities continue to go unacknowledged.

Re: Why Our Biographical Identity Matters

Great post. Thanks.

I really appreciated what you had to say about the "we marginalize ourselves" comment. As you mentioned, it appears to be a perspective from someone who comes from a position of privilege, and certainly someone who doesn't see the margin as a place of power, inspiration or value sensu bell hooks. Unfortunate. Worse still, probably some denial going on there. Concern about being "othered" while speaking and living and working to challenge speciesism - the epitome of "othering" - somehow just doesn't make much sense to me. So we should ditch "baggage" but it's ok to keep ego front and center? I don't get it.

A healthy dose of standpoint theory would do us all some good...and you've done just that here. :) Thanks again.



Re: Why Our Biographical Identity Matters

Great essay of yours. Of the argumentative highlights, I liked this observation of yours:

"In reality, this isn't about these oppressed biographical identities competing with nonhuman animal liberation. Rather, what is being argued in these essays is that we maintain the existing social order, or so-called "mainstream," in which biographical identities that are privileged by the oppression of other biographical identities continue to go unacknowledged."

I think we really don't see the crucial role of individual voices (that would be as a constructive side biographical identity aspect), to inspire minds and souls, to inspire the thinking of those people who we consider to be the mainstream; instead, it seems we are often catering to society as-a-mainstream, exactly by ignoring individual potentials and creativity.

It seems that the ideal of a „mainstream“ - in the sense of a positive assumption of that layer of society which we consider to be the „mainstream“ -, doesn’t get questioned enough in the vegan and animal rights discourse.

In regards to an avoidance (!) of the potential constructive impacts of biographical identity on animal rights or vegan activism:

I think this also has something to so with loosing an „individual face“ in mass society. If we want to allow creative approaches towards finding solutions for ethical problems, we have to let the individual aspect count. (That would be a practically applied pluralism.)

I personally have the impression as if individual creativity doesn’t play too much of a role in many animal rights or vegan campaigns.

Congruent with that, nonhuman animals seem inasmuch to be seen as de-individualized as the people are seen that make up society. But I think with all living beings one always should focus on the individual’s power.













Re: Why Our Biographical Identity Matters

Really good post. Finally, the frustration I've felt towards white animal rights activists has been properly articulated. It especially pissed me off to hear Bruce Friedrich of PETA say something to the effect of, "You are merely the messengers; to have an identity of your own is downright selfish, because it distracts from your message."

That said, I do suspect that such comments are well-meaning, albeit deeply ignorant. Rather than let the issue of biographical identity fragment the already-small animal rights community, we must embrace this opportunity to open up dialogue with our fellow activists about the value of biographical identity.

Does anyone know of animal rights groups which DON'T view race, sexuality, etc. as "baggage"? Deep Roots Sanctuary sounds promising, but I've never been there or anything.