Show Up and Shut Up: White Animal Activists and the Racial Justice Movement

Black Lives Matter 2014 Protest at Mall of America (Bloomington, MN)

Black Lives Matter 2014 Protest at Mall of America (Bloomington, MN)

By Kim Socha

A Voice for the Voiced?

There is a scene in Spike Lee’s 1992 docudrama Malcolm X in which Malcolm is approached by a young, blonde, white woman who lauds his work and asks what she can do to become part of the “cause.” He responds briefly by telling the eager-to-help woman that there is nothing she can do … and he stoically moves on, swatting her away as one would a fly buzzing in his ear. I always loved that scene, even back in 1992 when I wasn’t an activist of any kind. I still recall my friends and I laughing at that exchange with an attitude akin to “Take that, b*tch.” (I use the edited expletive because it honestly represents our attitudes at the time. We thought it was funny, but we certainly weren’t yet critical enough to understand why.)

Over twenty years later, as an activist predominately in the animal rights/animal liberation (ARAL) movement, I have more than once found myself, as that white woman, asking people of color (POC) what I can do to help the “cause.” (Why is “cause” is quotation marks? Because one group’s “cause” is another’s daily life experiences. To me, that word has come to diminish the lived realities of the oppressed, so I prefer the terms “movement” or “struggle.”) As the questioning white woman, I have often failed as an ally within other movements, especially racial justice. I’ve put my foot in my mouth, among other figurative places, quite I few times. I’ve tried to help and wound up feeling like a fly buzzing in someone’s ear. In other cases, I’ve been schooled—sometimes gently, sometimes harshly—in how to be a better ally. To wit, it was a Black man who called me out for using the word “cause,” saying something like, “This isn’t a cause, Kim. This is my life and this is my son’s life. And we are under daily siege by a racist criminal justice system.” Lesson learned, although not understood. I will never understand what it is to be a POC. I will, however, continue to show my support for racial justice. When I am wanted, I’ll stay. When I am not wanted, I’ll go. When I don’t know if I am wanted, I’ll ask.

And to those in the ARAL movement who ask me how they can become involved in the modern movement for racial parity, my advice will always be three-fold. First, why are you asking me, a white person? Second, just show up and shut up. Finally, please don’t bother getting involved unless you really give a shit. Next time a news story breaks about a POC being killed by a police officer, or officers, take your pulse. Does it race as much as when you hear of a nonhuman animal being abused? Does it race half as much? A quarter? Does it race at all? If your interest is based on anything other than actual frustration, compassion, and/or rage for humans under attack—as opposed to street cred, a desire to appear intersectional, or to pad your activist portfolio, don’t even bother showing up.

As to shutting up, white animal rights activists act as proxies for beings who don’t speak their oppressor’s language. While other species are certainly not voiceless, as some mottos go, they are clearly silenced behind the prison walls we’ve built for them. In other words, many of us are used to giving our opinions, talking and chanting loudly, and holding court at ARAL conferences and via outreach. That type of white (verbal) hegemony is not useful, indeed it is counterproductive, in the modern civil rights movement. The current fight for Black liberation—as most clearly demonstrated via Black Lives Matter—is not lacking voices of those who are actually part of, not allies of, the struggle. But is shutting up as easy as it sounds? Perhaps not, because like it or not, always being the voice of a movement builds one’s ego, even amongst the most professed “the animals come first, I come second” activist. Thus, becoming a white ally for racial justice will mean accepting that not everything is about you, your feelings, and your experiences. Let me give you an example.

I recently helped organize an event about misogyny and sexism in the Hip Hop movement. No, Hip Hop is not only for POC, but race was a clear aspect of this panel discussion. During the Q & A session, a young white woman, a b-girl, went into a bit of a diatribe about how she has always felt most comfortable around Black people. They’ve always been her friends, and she does, in effect, feel part of that community. One of the four panelists, a Hip Hop choreographer, eventually stepped in and asked, “Is there a question here?” The answer made me squirm in my seat as much as did the woman’s profession of a sort of trans-racialism. She wanted the Black panelists to tell her what she could do to be more accepted in the Black community. My co-organizer gave a perfect response, explaining that while the b-girl’s question was valid, this particular evening was about issues of sexism, misogyny, and race; it wasn’t about white people’s problems. No one was saying her concerns didn’t matter, but that night wasn’t about her concerns. (A similar explanation is given when people question the name “Black Lives Matter,” lamenting that all lives should matter.) Conclusion, and here’s where I’ll sound a little cruel: the evening in question was not the time for a blue-eyed blonde girl (or any white person) to ask Black people to make her feel better about being white. She should have just shut up.

Once When I Showed Up …

In December 2014, I was arrested for misdemeanor trespassing (amongst two other charges that were eventually dropped) at a Black Lives Matter (BLM) protest at the Mall of America. I wasn’t an event organizer, nor am I an active member of Black Lives Matter Minneapolis. Rather, I was one of about 1500 to 3000 people, the estimates vary widely, who showed up. You can sometimes still find me at BLM events, usually alone, walking and chanting in solidarity and following the direction of the crowd. As I admitted during my December 2015 trespassing trial, showing up to the 2014 protest was the absolute least I could do to show my outrage against a persecuted population, and I was proud to be part of an event where the names of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner could be heard disrupting people’s adventures in America’s biggest church of consumerism.

I won’t get into the details of my arrest and year-long trek through the court system, but I will note that I was found “not guilty” by a jury of my peers. It was a beautiful moment of victory. The prosecution showed a video of me, in front of a line-up of cops in full riot gear, saying to another activist who was telling me and my fellow arrestees-to-be that we should leave the mall: “If you leave every time they tell you to, nothing is ever going to change.” (Okay, so I clearly didn’t shut up there, and I did it in front if a camera. I never claimed to have all the answers!) When I got on the stand, I also said something that the prosecutors used against me in their closing arguments, “Resistance is vital for social change.” I resisted, and I was found “not guilty” thanks to a brilliant vegan, anarchist, pro bono lawyer and a jury who, I believe, would find some meaning in this quote from Emma Goldman: “The State is the altar of political freedom and, like the religious altar, it is maintained for the purpose of human sacrifice.” (Not my sacrifice, mind you, but those oppressed and killed by a desperately racist, corrupt system of law and order.)

But, I must admit, those probably aren’t the only reasons I was found “not guilty.” The glory of our win was shadowed by inescapable realities that soon crept into my mind. I am white. I have a Ph.D. I write books. I am an English professor. That must have played some part in the jury’s verdict, if only subconsciously.

So, along with showing up and shutting up, I also suggest that would-be allies take a cultural inventory of themselves (a nod to 12-step terminology here) when considering where you will be most valuable as you strive toward your vision of the proverbial better world. Within the venue for which you want to be of service, what are you willing to risk? How do your cultural dispensations help or hinder a movement or a struggle? How do they determine the role you will best serve therein? And most importantly, when you find yourself at a crossroads of resistance or acquiescence, ask yourself: Why am I really here? The honest answer will make all the difference between holding firm or or walking away, and either could wind up being the right choice.