Vegan Praxis of Black Lives Matter: One Piece of the Puzzle

Vegan Praxis of Black Lives Matter: One Piece of the Puzzle
By Saryta Rodriguez

(En Español aquí.)

UPDATE: Since the writing of this piece (April 2015), it was announced on September 30, 2015 that a class action lawsuit has been filed against Hershey and other chocolate companies for relying on child labor. Details here.

I had the honor of attending the Vegan Praxis of Black Lives Matter web conference this past weekend (April 24-25, 2015). While there was a plethora of outstanding presentations and speeches at this conference—not to mention insightful commentary from attendees—I’d like to focus on just one for the sake of this piece. (I was excited to learn at the end of Day One that there is an intent to compile the material from this conference into a book, which I will immediately buy and read seven times. So you can get the full scoop then, or reach out to the group directly.)

When one considers the myriad facets of the conference’s title—the vegan practice of black lives matter, or, how racism and speciesism are related not only intellectually, but also tangibly—it’s tough to talk about just one. I think the simplest facet to digest (pun intended) is food. Lauren Ornelas, founder and executive director of the Food Empowerment Project, and conference host Dr. A. Breeze Harper, editor of Sistah Vegan, spoke about intersectionality from the lens of what we eat, using chocolate as their primary example. Lauren spoke of how chocolate is often obtained via the kidnapping and enslavement of African children, and noted that many of the companies that engage in this loathsome practice produce chocolate bars that are labeled “vegan” and/or “cruelty-free.”

Details revealed at the conference about abuses committed on many chocolate farms included:

• that children are kidnapped at young ages to commence their slavery,
• that they are often beaten for not working quickly enough,
• that they endure vicious 12- to 14-hour work days,
• that they are forced to carry huge sacks of cacao and endure other physical burdens too great for tiny bodies, and
• that they are locked in at night.

In 2000, the BBC reported that hundreds of thousands of children are being “purchased from their parents for a pittance, or in some cases outright stolen, and then shipped to the Ivory Coast, where they are sold as slaves on cocoa farms.”

The report estimated the children’s workweek to be 80-100 hours long, and added that the children are underfed and denied education.

Animal liberation is human liberation, and while many activists and philosophers say this, few actually live it or do anything demonstrable to reinforce it. Many nonhuman animal activists habitually shy away from talking about the plight of humans, for fear that it will distract the public from the plight of nonhuman animals. This very notion is in fact racist, and the reason the Black Lives Matter movement is so essential: African children being enslaved in order to create chocolate bars, whether those bars contain animal byproducts or not, matters. It’s worth talking about, and if we want to claim to be intersectional in our activism, we MUST take the time to address these issues. Black lives are not a “distraction” but a precious resource that is quickly dwindling.

At bottom, a chocolate bar achieved via human exploitation is not vegan at all, no matter what’s on the label. Veganism is about respecting the lives of all sentient beings, and companies that either receive cocoa beans from or otherwise financially support exploitative operations do not fall in line with this ethos. Same goes for many a coffee company.

A slide from this part of the conference pretty much says it all:

sweet denial

As liberationists, we balk when people react this way to the news that calves are taken from their mothers to produce dairy products, or that hens are genetically manipulated to produce more and more eggs. Why, then, should we give anyone a pass when it comes to whether or not they support child labor? Children are animals, too; so talking about them isn’t engaging in a new issue but rather acknowledges the fact that these issues are one and the same. There is one overarching issue: the notion that some lives matter and others don’t. All that ever changes in this equation is who matters and who doesn’t.

Yes, it’s annoying. We liberationists already spend ample time reading labels and researching companies, but it’s worth the extra time and effort to ensure we aren’t exploiting humans either. If we’re gonna talk the talk, we need to walk the walk. We need to stop being married to our own convenience and take intersectionality seriously. No one is free until everyone is free. Being conscientious about whom you get your chocolate from, or your coffee, or your anything-at-all, is a relatively easy way to contribute to social justice. You don’t need tons of money or a PhD; all it takes is compassion and willpower.

Intersectionality isn’t about working with other activist groups, tokenizing the POCs (persons of color) in one’s own group or employing the right rhetoric on social media. It’s about recognizing the fundamental truth that all forms of oppression are related, and by accepting one of them, we—intentionally or otherwise—legitimize all others. Racists aren’t liberationists, and food produced by enslaved African children is not vegan.

In closing, please take a look at FEP’s chocolate list and check in regularly for updates on those companies that have not yet responded to public or private inquiry. If we apply enough pressure to them, sooner or later, they’ll have to do so. Challenge yourself not only to believe in or understand intersectionality but also to truly live it—to lead by example.

 

 

 

All content © Saryta Rodriguez, 2015

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