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June/July 2005
Racism and the Animal Rights Movement
By Sheila Hamanaka with Tracy Basile


Here are some concrete steps we can take to build a diverse, anti-racist movement.

• Talk about it. Be open and listen. Make
anti-racism a top priority. Seek mentors. Set goals. Ask diverse groups how they work on it.

• Get anti-racist training. We’ve all had a lifetime of racism. It takes time, attention, and study to undo it. It’s a transformative, rewarding process. For an online curriculum on whiteness, go to For an excellent, free guide to anti-racist trainers visit Anti-racist trainers with a power analysis:

• Take responsibility. “If everyone is responsible, no one is responsible.” Assign someone, a real go-getter, to take leadership. And not just the person of color!

• Strategize with diverse groups. Activists are thinkers. They’ll see the global connections between animals-agribusiness-food-health-labor-immigration-environmental racism. They want to be healthy and ethical, too!

• Be thoughtful when planning campaigns.
Arrest is quite a different experience for people of color in a racist criminal justice system. It’s expensive, and dangerous. If you’re an immigrant, it might mean deportation. Support people who hang back and always have choices.

• Write diversity into your Mission.
This will make everyone sit up and take notice.

• Think: location, location, location. Where is your meeting held? How about in a free, accessible location in a diverse neighborhood?

•Table in neighborhoods of color. White people can do this, too. Network and translate your materials. PETA has a website in Spanish:

• Co-sponsor events with diverse
Be creative! Go outside the “same ‘ol, same ‘ol” box. Check out ethnic, career, and social groups, too. Many Asian, South Asian and African people and eastern religious groups are vegetarian. Also take note where you advertise your events.

• Practice affirmative action.
Set goals
and be accountable. Look at your city, strive to reflect it. Start at the top. Share power. If you want a diverse membership, have a diverse staff. Power in numbers: it’s very stressful for people of color to be alone amongst white people, even nice ones! Hire for talent and enthusiasm, not experience. —S.H.

The author would like to thank Patrick Kwan for many of these suggestions. Thanks also to Cat Clyne.

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.
— Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Why Talk About Racism?

We love animals. We hate racism. So what’s to talk about? In fact, two South Asian activists I interviewed both felt that they had not experienced any overt racism in the animal rights (AR) movement. Yet, like the peace and environmental movements, the AR movement is predominantly white and middle class. Andrew Rowan, a VP at the Humane Society of the U.S., said surveys indicate the AR movement is “less than three percent” people of color. In April, 316 people from over 20 states attended the first Grassroots AR Conference in NYC, but the people of color caucus numbered only eight. If no one is racist, why is the movement largely segregated?

Is it “us” or “them”?
Most of us want to be inclusive. But why? Is it because it is the “right” thing to do? Because then our march would look like a beautiful rainbow? Because we have to be diverse to get funding? Pattrice Jones, a white AR activist who has a page about racism at states, “The fact is that a predominantly white movement will not and indeed cannot bring about animal liberation.”

Jim Mason, a well-known white AR activist and author of An Unnatural Order (reprinted by Lantern Books, 2005) which looks at the history of racism as part of “dominionism,” agrees. He feels the imbalance “keeps AR from being a mass movement. It adds to the perception that it is just another trivial concern of the comfortable classes, which repels people who might otherwise be involved.”

But is it just looking white that keeps people of color away from the movement? Or are white activists who lack awareness making people of color feel uncomfortable?

Patrick Kwan, founder and Executive Director of the Student Animal Rights Alliance, said, “At the first demonstration I went to someone asked me ‘Do you speak English?’—and that was in New York City!” He’s gotten these comments from white staffers of “pretty big AR organizations”: “I can’t believe how Asians treat animals” and “I don’t like Asians.”

Kris, an African American activist, describes how it feels to experience tokenism: “They haven’t done outreach to the community, but they call—‘Hey we need a black face at the protest.’ I go, but it’s not a unifying way, it’s a marginalizing way of organizing. You’re not one of us, but we need you.”

Are AR Organizations Serious About Outreach?
According to Patrick, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is the only major group doing active outreach into communities of color. A PETA employee concurs, “PETA…with its outreach to Hispanics, African Americans, and Indians, has made fantastic inroads into those communities.” PETA assigns several staff members to this work and has two separate websites, one in Spanish and another,, geared toward African Americans.

On the other hand, Kris calls it “lip service” when one organization failed to put the “human capital” and provide enough leadership into their efforts to reach the African American community.

“Large organizations have no excuse,” says Patrick.

Do People of Color Care About Animals?
According to Patrick, there is a preconception that people of color do not care about animals. But, he says, surveys have shown that African Americans are actually more likely to consider vegetarianism than whites after being informed about the plight of farmed animals. Surveys of Latinos and Asians also show positive attitudes toward animal protection.

Olivia, who grew up in the projects and lives in Spanish Harlem, reports that people eagerly take her flyers. Another African American activist found people snapped up samples of vegan cooking. A young white woman active in the PETA KFC campaign noticed that “older white men never take our flyers. The people who show the most interest in talking to us are African American men and women and Latino men and women, and young white people.”

Another self-defeating attitude is that people of color are too busy organizing around civil rights or other issues. But, as in the white communities, only a small percentage of people are active. There are still millions of others out there.

The Big Picture
It’s one thing for a white person to pass out vegan flyers. But attempts by white AR activists to set the agenda for other cultures bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the historical pattern of suppression by dominant nations. Instead of exporting “democracy,” AR activists are exporting their cultural concepts of the proper relationship between human and nonhuman animals.

Let’s step back for a moment from what may seem to outsiders like a tempest in a teapot. Okay, the AR movement needs to be more diverse, but what’s all the fuss about? Can’t we all just get along? I opened with a quote from Sun Tzu because as we see it, we are engaged in a battle for life. For the compassionate, it begins with the lives of more than 52 billion land animals slaughtered globally every year, and expands to the lives of millions of humans lost to the wars and privations of a vastly unequal society where “darker” and “poorer” are often synonymous. Causing or benefiting from this situation are powerful militarized states, multinational corporations, and an intricate web of civil and penal institutions so heartlessly interlocked they are often referred to in popular culture as one entity: “The Machine.”

It’s an unequal battle. Animals have no power. Defending them are pockets of Indigenous peoples and a small AR movement. The same could be said for every injustice: small groups confronting gargantuan tasks, and sometimes, each other. Indian writer Arundhati Roy sagely notes what she calls “the N-G-O-ization of the movement.” (NGO = Non-Governmental Organization.) Governments and corporations, lacking roots in communities but needing to stem social unrest, toss out thousands of carrots to activists who otherwise might have channeled their anger into revolutionary movements. Closer to the ground and quicker on their feet, they can perform social services more efficiently than huge government bureaucracies. They tend to the sores of social injustice like overworked allopathic doctors: treating the symptoms while, some observe, the patient dies.

“Racism = Racial Prejudice + Power” — The People’s Institute
Given the sheer might of “The Machine,” you’d think everyone would be talking about how to get power. After all, it is power that keeps animals oppressed. But is power just a numbers game? When a million people demonstrated for peace in New York in February 2003 I was struck by two things: how white the crowd was, and how the next day everyone was gone and the war in Iraq proceeded. David Billings, a white anti-racist trainer with The People’s Institute and historian of the grassroots movement says, “Nowadays we know how to mobilize, but not how to organize.”

Racism is a powerful tool of disorganization that has been used against potential allies for centuries. It justified the European invasion, enslavement and genocide of Native Americans and Africans. Many immigrant European workers and landless peasants traded their class consciousness for the fabricated notion of “whiteness” and were rewarded with land grants and a chance to share in the profits of slavery. Even now textbooks hide the long history of African, Indigenous, and multiracial rebellion.

The mid-19th century saw the rise of the Abolitionist movement as whites joined in; a few privileged whites also formed the humane movement, which advocated for animals but ignored the plight of slaves. Historically humane education was upheld as a means of cultivating moral values amongst white children, especially boys who would become tomorrow’s leaders.

Is today’s liberal commitment to help those less fortunate rooted in this same racist, missionary tradition? Well-meaning whites, sometimes armed with the comment “I do not see color”—which often causes people of color to smile inwardly—continue to build essentially segregated organizations because to them overcoming racism is still about cultivating moral values and not sharing power. Whereas to oppressed peoples of color, race has always been about power. They do not fight for social justice to make white people feel better about themselves.

“The Machine” also understands that race is about power, and its generals also read Sun Tzu. Much the way the suffering of animals is invisibilized, so too is the suffering of peoples of color and Indigenous peoples. Beneath the radar of mainstream media, these groups more often get the stick instead of the carrot. David Hilliard, one of the founders of the Black Panther Party, recounted in his April ‘04 interview with Satya, “some 40 are still in prison, 28 of us were murdered.” They were killed because they were black and wanted “Power to the People,” not because they were vegetarian. In Colombia, almost 4,000 labor organizers have been murdered in the last 15 years. In one state in India, 4,000 farmers committed suicide between 1999-2004 in desperation over free trade and privatization policies.

This is a far cry from most large AR organizations, which model themselves after corporations and in fact are characterized by the same “institutional racism”: no matter how colorful their brochures, the vast majority of positions of power are held by white people, albeit nice ones who like animals. According to one activist, outreach to communities of color is approached like a marketing challenge, not as a desire to share power. A corporation is a legal person, but without a mind. As such, no one is accountable for de facto segregation unless someone is stupid enough to use the “n” word.

The People’s Institute, in its Undoing Racism workshops, asks social workers and other participants “Do you make money off the poor?” One by one, people nod their heads. Is it possible that AR workers—from the CEOs of large nonprofits who may make a third of a million dollars, to grassroots grunts who make minimum wage—are making money off of animals? The People’s Institute states: Any organization that is not intentionally anti-racist inevitably benefits white people.

Where Will We Find Power?
Language to the contrary, white people are the “minority” on the planet. As the minority it only makes sense to want to hook up with the majority with great urgency, as if billions of lives, and the future of the earth itself, were at stake. Global agribusiness, which feeds “The Machine” will only be undone by a powerful global movement.

The truth hidden by Eurocentric media is that some of the most dynamic, holistic political organizing on the planet is happening in the “developing” world. You should know these names: Vandana Shiva, Wangari Maathai, Alfredo Palacio, Evo Morales, Lula da Silva. Twelve thousand landless peasants recently marched in Brazil. The 2004 World Social Forum (WSF) in Mumbai, India drew 200,000 people. Across the street was another forum for groups excluded from the WSF for political reasons. Some were militant revolutionary groups, some weren’t. The 2005 WSF in Porto Alegre, Brazil heard Hugo Chavez, the President of Venezuela. Chavez, a former military officer, is an advocate for the poor and landless. If the AR movement wants power, it should study how President Chavez got it. It should join in on the ground floor of the global people’s movement, which is inherently anti-agribusiness, to become part of the agenda.

Maybe, just maybe, power lies with the powerless. Asked how he would build a united front with Indigenous cultures that might eat animals but who live in balance with nature, Jim Mason replied: “I would start with campaigning to insure their survival—the survival of their native lands, their natural habitat, their traditional ways of living. The dominant cultures that are destroying the living world will—if they ever wake up—need to draw from the older cultures to make the changes in thinking needed to stop the destruction and develop a culture of balance with nature.”

The dominant white culture also writes humane history. It starts with European philosophers and reform movements. Native concepts of human equality with, or even inferiority to, animals are omitted. Indigenous cultures which do not divide humans and animals into classes, into exploiter and exploited, do not have the need for the concept of “animal rights.” Tiokasin Ghosthorse, producer of “First Voices” (WBAI, 99.5FM Thursdays at 10 a.m.) calls for “nature rights.” Onondaga elder Oren Lyon says the term “human rights” is a misnomer.

In 1999, AR activists tried to physically stop the Makah people in the Pacific Northwest from resuming their whale hunting after an endangered species ban was lifted. Kent Lebsock, Executive Director of the American Indian Law Alliance, said non-Indian activists focused not on commercial whalers but on people who were reclaiming their traditional way of life. It was taken as a racist act of cultural suppression. “They showed a lack of understanding of what we have experienced in the last 500 years.” Lebsock said, “During the incident, every Indian person I spoke to thought the Makah were right.”

This bitter, complex dispute has many lessons. One is that there is a potential for alliances with progressive, traditionalist groups which already exist within these communities, and which could use the access to media, etc. that privileged whites often have. Because racism in the movement goes unaddressed, we all lose and the animals lose.

By contrast, the Buffalo Field Campaign (BFC) serves as a role model for how to build alliances between cultures. It was co-founded by Rosalie Little Thunder, a Lakota woman elder, and Mike Mease, a white filmmaker, in 1997 when the Montana Department of Livestock killed nearly a third of the 3,000 buffalo who live in Yellowstone National Park. Activists maintain a year-round vigil to protect the buffalo, and Native people come to the vigils to perform ceremonies and support them with prayer.

Moving Forward
Roman Sanchez, a Latino/Afro-Caribbean diversity trainer, has been with BFC for five years. “I do workshops on whiteness and racism. In those workshops I tell people this is not an attack on you, this is talking about the system… The system that exists today is hurting everybody.”

It’s because the system is hurting everybody that the AR movement must embrace these kinds of campaigns, local or global—where the interests of labor, the landless, small farmers, Indigenous peoples and the environment intersect. But the key, the pivotal point is how to embrace other people, how to share power. Sanchez says, “It’s about respect for all people. We are all connected to each other. Unless we can respect each other this brutality is not going to stop.”

The leaders of the AR nonprofits must be held accountable. They are the gatekeepers who will determine how many people of color will get in and whether they will hit a glass ceiling. The challenge is to avoid tokenism, to hire for talent, not experience. After all, if you require a long AR resume, chances are the person will be white.

For white activists, this might mean listening to people and not rushing in to set the agenda or the tactics. For example, in a racist society getting arrested is a different experience for people of color.

Sanchez says, “It’s dangerous when you take an extreme this-is-the-only-way-things-can-change point of view. You turn people off. A lot of people of color are struggling to survive. It’s those people who hold the power who need to work for change in themselves. They need to ask people of color, “How can I help you? How can I be your ally? What is it that you need from me?’”

“I’m definitely a very Caucasian male,” says Mease, who reflects the respect Sanchez talks about. “I know how important the buffalo are to the culture of Native Americans. Rosalie instilled in me that we all have spirituality, we all have worth, we all have meaning and it doesn’t matter what color or walk of life or background we come from, anyone can make change and anyone can represent the buffalo if they do the true work. She’s empowered me to know that it didn’t matter where I came from or what color I was, that if my heart were true, and my work showed the truth, then I had the right to be here.”

Sheila Hamanaka is a children’s book author and illustrator. She has studied anti-racism with The People’s Institute and is a member of the Justice and Unity Campaign of WBAI. Her books include Grandparent’s Song, All the Colors of the Earth, and The Journey: Japanese Americans, Racism and Renewal. She is currently working on an animal liberation novel for children. Tracy Basile is a freelance journalist who also teaches animal and nature courses at Purchase College, SUNY, and Pace University.


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