Black Vegans Rock
I am delighted and honoured to bring you the following interview with Aph Ko, the founder of Black Vegans Rock.
Aph Ko was recently nominated in the VegNews Bloggy Awards 2016 for both Black Vegans Rock and Aphro-ism (all links at bottom of post). Aph writes engaging critical texts that span multiple areas of thought and intersecting realities.
Many thanks go out to Aph Ko for taking the time to answer my questions. I am extremely grateful for the insightful and thought-provoking answers below.
Fat Gay Vegan: Can you give my readers an overview of the Black Vegans Rock website and project? When did it start and why did it start?
Aph Ko: Black Vegans Rock is a new digital project that centers on celebrating and highlighting individual black vegans to dismantle the stereotype that veganism is a “white person’s” thing. The project launched on January 4th, 2016. The site is actually inspired by an article I wrote back in June 2015 called “#BlackVegansRock: 100 Black Vegans to Check Out” which was the first list that spotlighted 100 Black Vegans. I considered it to be more of an activist performance art piece rather than a traditional blog post. I created it to make a point: black vegans exist. The mainstream struggle to make veganism “inclusive” is ironic to me because there are SO many vegans of color.
The article was really successful and I was contacted by SO many black vegans who were grateful for the list. A lot of black vegans also gave me names of other black vegans who should be on the list as well. Rather than adding on, I decided to just create a whole new platform specifically dedicated to this mission. I received a grant from A Well-Fed World as well as the Pollination Project, and I hired EastRand Studios to do the artwork and website creation and they did a fabulous job. I wanted to created a space where black vegans could get their projects and stories out to other black vegans to connect. Community is integral to radical activism, so finding other folks who “get” you and have similar experiences can be life-changing.
FGV: Where do you think black vegans fit into the broader vegan scene? Is mainstream veganism constructed to push black people to the fringes?
AK: Well, I think the current mainstream white animal rights/vegan movement employs Eurocentric logic which is why a lot of people of color tend to not vibe with the space. A lot of people of color can’t exactly locate why they’re so uncomfortable in the movement and chalk it up only to representational issues, but i think it’s the Eurocentric logic part. The lack of representation for people of color is merely a symptom of that problem. When we say “mainstream animal rights” or “mainstream vegan” we all already know that “mainstream” is code for “white.” Calling it a “white animal rights movement” is a significant rhetorical move because it calls out whiteness, when whiteness gets its power from being invisible and hard to pin-point. Also, it allows vegans of color to do their own thing rather than having to constantly fight the ‘mainstream’ for inclusion. It reminds me of when white feminism was called out. Rather than feminists of color having to fight the dominant perspective of feminism, we just called it what it was–‘white feminism’–and we moved on and did our own thing. There’s nothing wrong with that. When we don’t call it out, it gives the illusion that the space is for everyone, when it’s overtly not.
So, the white movement just needs to get comfortable with the fact that some black folks aren’t necessarily joining your movement–we’re incorporating veganism and animal rights into our own movements which is why the work looks so different.
The most important thing white folks need to be doing is learning about whiteness and what that really means. We need to stop assuming that the only way white folks can help vegans of color is by making their movements more inclusive. White folks need to learn to see themselves as part of the problem…not only a part of the solution.
For example, we all know what it feels like when someone who eats meat doesn’t realize they are operating through a framework already. They think veganism is a lifestyle and they assume they don’t have a label or need one, however, eating meat is actually a lifestyle as well. It’s not usually called a lifestyle because it’s so normalized, therefore, vegans look “extreme” because we have a label assigned to us. Similarly, when you’re a white person, you are the norm…so whiteness doesn’t need to be marked or called out every minute. That however doesn’t mean that you’re not operating through a racial grammar system every day. So, when people of color use their racial location in their veganism, (like black veganism), white folks get upset because they feel like we’re using a segregationist label, whereas, they don’t see how they are already operating through whiteness every day…it’s just not called out. That’s why everyone laughs when, for example, white folks complain about spaces like Black Vegans Rock or BET. So many folks ask me weekly, “Well, what if I create a White Vegans Rock website?!” I just laugh. I’m like…go ahead and create it and let me know if it looks any different from the mainstream vegan movement…
FGV: How do you as a black vegan view the use of slave imagery, language and historical context within the fight for animals?
AK: Personally, I don’t mind the imagery, I definitely mind the context and I mind who is sharing this imagery and why they’re sharing the imagery. Oftentimes well-intentioned activists share it while not completely getting the connection themselves. I would argue a lot of white folks share this type of imagery which again objectifies black activists who are already vegan who are more than capable of talking about the connections between animal oppression and black oppression.
You can’t just slap an image of a lynched black person next to a slaughtered pig (without a proper framework or explanation) and try to act like placing these images side-by-side is going to do anything. We’re relying way too much on imagery in our movements, rather than critical thinking. A lot of animal rights activists don’t even really get how these things connect, so we’re supposed to expect people who eat animals to get it? There’s a proper way to make these connections, but placing two brutalized bodies next to each other without an analysis (especially of the perpetrator) isn’t necessarily making a ‘connection.’ It’s layering them on top of one another and then expecting the public to do the work.
When I see folks sharing “comparison” imageries I get what they’re trying to do which is why I’m not offended, it’s just that they can’t back up what they’re doing with logic that makes sense to people which is why I generally don’t think they’re effective (especially when used on social media sites).
As I always say, people weren’t shocked into eating meat, and they won’t necessarily be shocked out of it. We need to start appealing to critical thinking and invest in changing the frameworks people use to normalize meat consumption, rather than shock tactics that don’t do anything for anyone. There’s a real way to talk about speciesism and racism, but employing sloppy connection-making skills under the guise of intersectional analysis is a disservice to non-human animals as well as the rest of us who are experiencing racial terrorism.
FGV: Why should non-black vegans read the content on Black Vegans Rock?
AK: I think it’s important to be exposed to different perspectives and different ways of producing knowledge. Diversity shouldn’t only be a representational skin-deep superficial thing…we also need to have diversity in terms of knowledge production, so it would be advantageous for anyone to check out what Black vegans have to say in any space or on any platform, not just Black Vegans Rock.
FGV: Black Vegans Rock appears to draw a lot of strength and support from collaborations with other active black vegans. How important is collaboration to the project and did you always plan for it to be a multi-voice approach?
AK: The collaboration is the core of Black Vegans Rock. It’s a community-centered space. I definitely wanted a multi-voice approach because I personally wouldn’t be vegan without some of these advisory board members (who are influential to me). I don’t stand alone–I stand among many brilliant black vegan scholars, activists, entrepreneurs and thinkers. I also LOVE reading the submissions that I get from black vegans. I am currently learning a lot myself from their perspectives. The site focuses on black vegans and their thoughts every single day and that’s how I want it to be. I want readers to be inundated with black vegan thoughts and narratives.
FGV: What can non-black identifying vegans (such as me and most of my readers) do to make the vegan community a more diverse and inclusive space?
AK: There’s no need to try to make the vegan community diverse. Ironically, the movement I’m in is extremely diverse. Non-black vegans (I feel like we’re actually talking about white people here, lol) are more than welcome to read our literature and to have conversations, but understand that representational diversity comes when the mainstream starts to value non-Eurocentric knowledges…and I don’t know if that will ever happen anytime soon because the mainstream has a tendency to co-opt knowledges from people of color. It’s actually happening now. A lot of the ideas that vegans of color are coming up with and writing are being taken and re-packaged by white people which can be a bit irritating.
It seems like only white folks are struggling with trying to make their spaces diverse when so many vegans of color exist which is a bit perplexing, lol. In fact, almost all of my friends are vegans of color so I am usually puzzled when I hear that white folks can’t create or find diverse movements. We don’t necessarily want cosmetic diversity which means white people still run the show and their ideas are prized, and black and brown faces are just superficially added in to make it look “inclusive.” The most important thing is to realize that vegans of color exist and we have been organizing for quite some time. We might not be joining the mainstream movements because we’re too busy organizing our own. So, take the time to spotlight what vegans of color are doing, and discard the narrative that we need to make the mainstream white movements inclusive, because we don’t. What we need to do is have plural movements because the more voices and perspectives we have, the better. Making white movements ‘diverse’ or ‘inclusive’ is a different project–one that has nothing to do with alleviating animal oppression but strengthening white supremacy…and white supremacy harms animals so we need to stop going in that direction.
Explore more writing by Aph Ko here.