If you have been actively involved in the vegan movement during the last year, you’ve likely heard about Aph Ko. Aph is a social justice and media dynamo. She founded Black Vegans Rock in 2015 after becoming the first person to write an article listing 100 Black Vegans, and she is the founder of Aphro-ism, a website devoted to black vegan feminist analysis that she runs with her sister, Syl Ko. They advocate what Aph calls an “epistemological revolution” through their writing about animal oppression and racialized oppression. “We believe that we might do more for animals and ourselves by changing the ways we actually understand why oppression is happening to begin with,” she explains in this outstanding talk she gave at the Intersectional Justice Conference in Washington State, where I had the privilege of meeting Aph and many other remarkable activists in March.
Aph is also an indie digital media producer and the creator of the comedy web series Black Feminist Blogger. Needless to say, Aph is extraordinarily busy, so I am very grateful she took time out to respond to some questions about her activism via email. I think you will really appreciate her thought-provoking answers.
You are versed in so many forms of digital media — blogging, videos, social media, online articles. Do you think there’s a form that is especially powerful for social justice activism?
I think they all serve a unique and specific purpose. Videos help propel certain narratives in a way that blogging doesn’t; however, blogging is personal. It helps me to explore my own voice while simultaneously offering resources to others. I think your strengths will dictate which medium you use, so if you’re better at articulating your thoughts and making connections through speaking, you might want to make a video. If you are better at organizing your thoughts through writing, you might want to write a post.
I don’t think many vegans would argue that digital media has helped advance the vegan message. Do you think digital media has been helpful in making progress for issues affecting marginalized groups?
I would say yes and no. It took me awhile to realize how I wanted to use digital media to amplify my voice while feeling a sense of community. I think that digital media and the Internet as a whole is merely an extension of the real world that we live in, so racism and sexism still govern these digital spaces. Because of this, certain voices get more exposure than others. Certain versions of reality get circulated, and others get shoved to the side.
This is why Eurocentric thinking and whiteness plague almost all social justice movements, even online. White people largely write the literature that’s been circulated. Their view of oppression and liberation is seen as the only or dominant perspective. Because they have the most resources, they have the ability to become the dominant authors of social change and activism which has had horrible consequences.
I used to spend all of my waking hours fighting the ways that white folks did their work until I woke up one day and realized that I was bored of doing this. Constantly fighting white reality only suggests that it’s the only reality out there. I needed to validate my own experiences by talking to people of color, by writing for and to people of color, and reading work by people of color. This is how digital media has helped me. It has absolutely revolutionized the way I approach oppression and liberation. I must credit a lot of black radical writers who relentlessly work online to provide quality, groundbreaking analyses.
It’s hard for minoritized people to have conversations with one another online without the white gaze constantly peering in and appropriating. As soon as some minorities know that white folks are watching, they change or they start tailoring their articles to white audiences.
I can’t tell you how many vegans of color write essays and articles TO white people online while totally forgetting audiences of color.
This is why I think depending upon where you’re at in your activism, digital media can either be a liberatory tool to help connect you to people who are invested in changing the world, or it can help you reproduce the white version of reality (regardless of your skin color).
It’s hard to have real change online when the digital territory we’re standing on is white-owned.
What advice do you have for people who want to begin using digital media in their activism?
My answer largely depends upon who is asking me the question. Context definitely matters. If you’re a white person who wants to create a website or digital project about animal rights, or feminism, or anti-racism, stop and interrogate why you feel the need to do this when there are already so many spaces created by white people. Are you actually offering a perspective that’s not out there, or do you just want to own some digital land?
If you’re a person of color, I would also caution you before you start putting your ideas out there for free. More and more research is showing that ideas created by people of color online are increasingly being stolen. This means people of color aren’t being credited or compensated for their ideas, which means activists of color need to be really careful when using digital media to share their thoughts.
I would say don’t put all of your faith in the Internet or social media. For example, it’s not a coincidence that white men create some of the most popular social media platforms that we use today. That should signal something to activists of color who are using these spaces to create racial liberation projects. The raw materials we use in our activism matter.
I’ve had to learn the hard way. I’ve had my ideas stolen, re-packaged, and I’ve seen others get financially compensated for basically saying exactly what I have written (even activists of color have taken my work). It’s made me much more cautious about writing online. When you’re saying something new or interesting, people have a tendency to gravitate towards you and then literally take what you’ve written. This has made me re-think blogging as a whole to be quite honest.
I think people of color need to understand the business of activism before they join the digital world and start trusting it … because activism is largely a business. White folks tend to own the largest non-profits and corporate activist sites and spaces, and people of color aren’t as aware of this because we tend to come to activism for survival purposes, not business purposes (obviously not in all cases).
So, when you have marginalized people using digital media for survival, and you have folks from the dominant class using digital media for business purposes, you can start to imagine how the digital territory can become predatory and violent for some of us.
I’m increasingly distrustful of the online world as a vessel for social change. This is why I’m starting to explore more opportunities when it comes to print. I think minoritized activists should invest energy into writing books, or creating zines … something tangible that they can own rather than using white digital land to cultivate their intellectual thoughts.
Besides BlackVegansRock.com and Aphro-ism.com, are there any Black-centered spaces online you would recommend activists check out–particularly ones that have had an impact on you?
Absolutely. I am impacted by spaces like The Sistah Vegan Project and Striving with Systems. I also like to venture into digital spaces that don’t necessarily talk about animal rights, but other systemic issues. I love For Harriet, Black Girl Dangerous, Crunk Feminist Collective, anything Dr. Brittney Cooper writes, and Autostraddle (which has some great Black queer writers).
You’ve said elsewhere that the AR/vegan movement relies too much on imagery and not enough on critical thinking. Can you expand on that?
I’m known for saying: People weren’t shocked into eating meat and they won’t be shocked out of it.
Let’s back up a little: The biggest issue the white animal rights movement has is that they can’t properly locate WHY animal oppression is happening. They see the aftermath of oppression—they see the victims—but most of these activists have no conceptual clue as to why animals are systemically being hurt. Sometimes it’s painful to watch activists from the dominant class try to create campaigns to stop animal oppression (without realizing how they are perpetuating it) and other times, it’s comical.
White folks don’t seem to realize that white supremacy systemically harms animals. White folks don’t want to move out of their leadership positions, but they want to stop animal oppression, which basically means they don’t’ want to change behaviors that are discursively hurting animals.
Because a lot of uncritical people are the leaders of the movements, they rely on really basic, surface-level tactics to “shock” people into a political lifestyle. That’s why veganism gets such a bad name … it’s surface-level and sensationalist. Imagery can work, especially if it’s attached to a new framework … but creating new conceptual frameworks is usually the part that’s overlooked.
Imagery tactics remind me of the ways some feminists rely on sexualized imagery of women to shock people into caring about sexism … it’s like … if you don’t provide a new framework for people to understand problematic behaviors through, then all they’re looking at is more imagery of objects being objectified.
I’m not suggesting that people can’t change their behaviors when they see imagery like that; I’m saying that I don’t necessarily think long-term change will happen. In our movements, we focus way too much on the victims without understanding why these bodies are victims in the first place. They didn’t become victimized overnight, and we have to do the work conceptually to solve this problem as well. So many people don’t realize that thinking is actually part of our activism. For too long, thinking has been co-opted by academia, so we assume that theory and thought is for ‘those’ elitist people … when in reality, this should be a part of the public domain.
In large part, animal oppression isn’t so much a story just about animals, it’s a story about white human supremacy, so we have to uproot that part of it and examine it before we hyper-focus on the victims with no context. That’s what ends up happening though: we are supposed to examine animal oppression imagery without any context for who the real oppressor is, which produces so much confusion about strategies to end animal oppression.
There’s a lot of infighting within the AR/vegan movement, and it seems to have gotten worse in recent years. Do you have any advice for a newbie to the movement who may be confused by this?
I actually don’t think infighting is getting worse … I think white supremacy in the movement is getting easier to pinpoint. I think that people in the dominant class who never had to worry about marginalized people and their perspectives (because the game has always been rigged) are now realizing that minoritized people are leading their own movements and this makes them really uncomfortable.
A lot of white folks feel an unquestionable ownership over animal rights (and animals generally), so when black people start incorporating animal bodies into their anti-racist movements, white people flex their social power by trying to comment on our spaces or interrogate our intentions.
A lot of activists in the dominant class use their privilege to silence other activists with dissenting viewpoints, which is horrible because real change will happen when there are plural movements and voices. We need to get all ideas on the table because animal oppression is a serious issue.
The act of silencing people who have different perspectives or strategies has nothing to do with liberating animals and everything to do with preserving the same systems that oppress animals.
If you’re new to the animal rights movement, I would urge you to leave (lol). You don’t need this corporatized, whitewashed movement to help animals. The idea that you have to go through big movements and organizations to make change is capitalist nonsense. If you’re a person of color, I would urge you to stay in your anti-racist movements and find ways to incorporate animal bodies into your analyses … don’t try to join the white mainstream AR movement because it will only leave you feeling frustrated and confused.
In fact, part of the inherent problem with the AR movement is the fact that whiteness is the framework for it. We need people who are fighting for other social justice causes to incorporate animal activism into their work rather than joining this nebulous “animal rights” bubble of a movement. This is why I don’t really call myself an animal rights activist. I’m an anti-racist activist who fights for animal liberation. I don’t know how to fight for animal liberation without my lens of being a black woman … I don’t currently know how white people are able to fight for another group without taking into account their own standpoint … which is why their movements are suffering.
What do you do to avoid getting burned out?
Burnout comes with the territory of being a conscious political woman of color, regardless if you’re an activist or not. I largely became an activist because I was fatigued with being oppressed and having the dominant class write my narrative and tell my story. That was burnout. I didn’t become an activist out of choice. It was an act of survival. I became an activist because I was burned out by racism and sexism in my everyday life.
I don’t know if there’s ever a real way of avoiding burnout as long as white supremacist patriarchy is still intact. Most of the time, it helps to get off the Internet, to be completely honest. Having space from the digital world helps in terms of priorities. It’s easy to get sucked in and to start stressing about things that literally don’t matter at all. So, I ensure that I spend a large amount of time offline.
Another thing I’ve learned about avoiding burnout is to stop being impressed with the fact that white people like my work. When you live in a white supremacy, getting white attention as a minority can feel like you’re on top of the world … like you’re doing something right. However, I would urge minorities to be really cautious of this feeling because it can lead you into exploitation and doing things for free for white folks. I had to learn how to say “no” to opportunities from white people that were not offering financial compensation for my work. Hollow fame and representation has been used as a tool on brown bodies to get them to believe that doing free work will yield a big payout and it usually doesn’t.
As a woman of color, I’ve also learned to stop listening to and engaging with those in the dominant class who critique my work and me. I’ve learned how to change the channel and continue working. As Toni Morrison said, distraction is a large part of racism so I’m learning how to avoid distraction. Rather than respond to every person who writes a slanderous, untruthful article about my work, or me, I just keep moving forward. I have no need to entertain petty shit.
Lastly, I think it’s important to think about the future when doing the work today. It’s really easy to forget why we’re working as hard as we are every single day. This is why I love Afrofuturism. It made me realize that there will be a day when I will be able to breathe and relax, but it comes at the cost of fighting hard today, which I will continue to do.
Photo of Aph by Pax Ahimsa Gethen