Racializing the Lens: Race, Intersectionality and Veganism – A Conversation with Lawyer and IHE Alumna Dana McPhall

Dana McPhall is a lawyer, humane educator, anti-racism activist, and animal advocate who has led an IHE alumni working group looking at racial justice and white supremacy issues for the past three years. The working group is called “Racializing the Lens” and meets every month or so to discuss ways of embedding anti-racism frameworks more deeply and pervasively in the field and coursework of comprehensive humane education. Dana has worked with IHE students, staff and alum in conversation-based ways to address difficult and uncomfortable issues of race, and has now developed and is piloting an elective course this summer for graduate students called, “Race, Intersectionality, and Veganism.” Dana spoke with us about the course from her home in the Los Angeles area.

IHE: Can you tell us about Race, Intersectionality, and Veganism? Where did the idea for the course come from?

Dana: Yes, thank you for the opportunity to share about Race, Intersectionality and Veganism. The course is being offered for the first time this summer as part of IHE’s graduate program. In the course, students examine the interconnected systems of racial oppression and the exploitation of non-human animals, primarily through the voices of people of color who are advocating against oppressive systems, and for systems that promote justice for both people and other animals. Specifically, students explore issues of white supremacy, racism, intersectionality, and racial justice within the specific context of veganism. Students also take a critical look at some of the societal norms and beliefs that uphold both white supremacy and speciesism (e.g. the “assumption of human superiority which leads to the exploitation of animals”), along with other forms of oppression. Moreover, students gain an understanding of solutions-focused efforts currently underway to acknowledge and dismantle these interconnected systems of oppression, and explore their own solutionary ideas for making our society more just for all people and other animals, as well as the environment. Most importantly, through structured conversation experiences in-person and online, as well as research, reflection and practical application, students learn how to effectively discuss and educate about race and racialized systems of oppression, and about how to develop solutions that seek to holistically address social, environmental and non-human animal injustices.

IHE: How did you develop the course?

Dana: I have to say that this course has been a long time in the making. Prior to pursuing my master’s degree in humane education, I had long been a legal advocate for women of color and non-human animals, including representing domestic violence survivors of color and prosecuting animal cruelty cases. However, as a Black woman and animal activist, I often felt as though I was caught between two social justice movements, and that I didn’t belong completely to either one. For instance, I recall an incident many years ago where I attended a gathering of animal activists, and I overhead a negative comment about my skin color. And that was but one of many incidents. On the other hand, I can remember working with other social justice lawyers of color to develop a social justice agenda that addressed issues of concern to us; but when I put forth animal rights as an issue that should be included, I felt my ideas were dismissed. When I discovered IHE and the field of humane education about ten years ago, I started to feel as though I had found a home. After graduating from the program, I began to explore ways to fuse my commitment to racial justice with my humane education work. As a member of IHE’s Alumni Association Advisory Board, I helped to facilitate discussion groups with alumni to talk about race and intersectionality. That work led to further conversations with alums and IHE staff about deepening the integration of racial justice issues into humane education and IHE’s graduate program. Out of that work, the idea for this course was born, and these conversations continue via a working group that I facilitate. Even though the course has now officially launched, I am still on a journey to broaden my own understanding of how to incorporate issues of racism and intersectionality into the field of humane education, and how humane educators can effectively educate about these issues to diverse audiences. Consequently, I view this course not only as an opportunity to share what I’ve learned thus far, but to also learn from students as we explore these issues together.

IHE: The course is “conversation-based.” Why?

Dana: The heart of this course is the conversations generated by the learning – the conversations students have with themselves, with one another and with me, and with whomever the students choose to interact with outside of the course. By design, the course provides students with multiple opportunities not only to explore issues of race, intersectionality and veganism, but to talk and educate about interconnected systems of oppression, which marginalize groups of humans and non-human animals alike. Such conversations are central to the course because the topic of race can be a difficult one for many people to talk about openly, even people who have already made the choice to be vegan and therefore believe they are not involved in oppressive systems. Many people have not been exposed in a systematic way to how racism and white supremacist institutions and structures operate, and don’t have an understanding about how racial injustices have impacted communities of color. And for folks who have awareness of and/or have been working on issues of racial justice, some of them might still find it hard to discuss race out of fear of saying the wrong thing or because they feel guilty about racism. Others may think they don’t need to talk about race out of a belief that they themselves aren’t racist. The course is designed to meet students wherever they are, yet to challenge them – their assumptions, their thinking, and their ways of being in regards to race and racism – in a safe, supportive environment. Students will undoubtedly experience times when they are unsure about their feelings or are uncomfortable expressing their thoughts on a given topic. However, I believe that one of the best ways for students to confront their fears, deepen their understanding of racialized societies, and explore ways to promote justice for all humans, non-human animals and the planet, is to actually talk about these issues with other people through structured conversations, which comprise most of the assignments in the course. I think this is how students can truly grow as educators, and I am there to guide them on their journey.

IHE: How do you hope the course will help your students teach humane education topics more effectively?

Dana: I think the course can help students become better humane educators in several ways. First, students can begin to develop a practice of understanding their own relationship to race, and how that relationship has changed and is continuing to change over time. Through the course, students gain an understanding of their own privileges and biases and how a racially stratified society has benefited and/or harmed them and impacted other people. Students can build on this practice as they continue to develop as educators. I believe that understanding who you are and what you bring to the table, or in this case, to the classroom or other educational environments, is critical to being successful. Secondly, some of IHE’s graduates teach or will teach in schools or other environments that serve predominantly Black and Brown students. Unfortunately, many teachers are ill-equipped to talk about issues of racial justice, whether in or outside of the classroom, and many have had little exposure to culturally-responsive pedagogy or practices that better resonate with students of color. I think this course sets IHE students on a path to becoming educators who aspire to — and are able to — educate all of their students. Thirdly, as humane educators, we are dedicated to training a generation of solutionaries, i.e. students who have the knowledge, tools and motivation to dismantle systems of oppression that harm people, other animals and the planet, and to create alternative systems designed to bring about a more just, humane and sustainable world. I believe that in order to do that, humane educators must learn how to effectively educate about the connections between racism, intersectionality and speciesism as systems of oppression, and how to recognize and address racism when it shows up within the vegan/animal rights movement, be it within interpersonal communications, activist and advocacy strategies, or community outreach efforts. I believe that the course challenges students to identify, examine, and explore these interconnected oppressive systems, and provides them with an opportunity to practice educating about them.

IHE: How is the course going so far?

Dana: Thus far, I think that the inaugural run of the course is going well! Students have acknowledged they have a better understanding about how their relationship to race has developed over time, and how that relationship has impacted their perceptions of marginalized communities. In addition, students have explored how racism, intersectionality and animal exploitation intersect within social justice issues that the students care about, such as the mental health of workers on factory farms and in research laboratories, the links between environmental justice and veganism, and how the marketing of animal products relates to a culture of toxic masculinity. Now students are engaged in discussions about the impact of racism on vegans of color and the role white supremacy has played within veganism in perpetuating the oppression of marginalized people. The conversations that students are having are particularly valuable because the students receive feedback from both their peers and me. The course will culminate in each student creating an educational exercise designed to teach a targeted audience about one or more aspects of the issues explored in the course. At the end of the course, I truly believe that the students will be equipped and inspired to go out into the world as educators who can and will foster these important conversations.