Features | A Seat at the table with Syl Ko: A discussion on Black Veganism

Nestled on a nondescript cobblestone corner stood the entrance to the Bonsecours Market. You would never have known it looking from the outside, but inside those walls the venue was bustling with hundreds of people gathered together for the Montreal Vegan Festival. One of sixteen guest speakers, Syl Ko, co-author along with her sister Aph Ko of Aphro-ism: Essays on Pop culture, Feminism and Black Veganism from two sisters, was slated to discuss some of her work, titled The Myth of the Animal Within. The book discusses the implications of the colonial invention of the “animal” that has been imposed onto both humans and animals, and the resulting oppression that mainly minority human populations face, as well as actual animals. Animality, the sisters claim, has become a racialized weapon of white supremacy. This is because the equation of Black people to animals by use of colonial language has allowed for their dehumanization. Just as animals have been forced into a space of “subhuman” by the white supremacist patriarchy, so have racialized peoples. As a result, animality must be reclaimed and factored into our analyses of oppression. Syl perfectly sums this up in chapter four of the book when she states, “One of the easiest ways to violate a person or group of people is to compare or reduce them to “animals.” In a society where “human” has become synonymous with whiteness, anyone who does not fit into this Eurocentric framework is automatically animalised.

A brief introduction to Black Veganism

Black veganism differs from mainstream white veganism (all-about-the-animals veganism), but that is not to say that this way of approaching the topic is more correct than the other. Claiming that there is a “right” way to be vegan entails privileging a particular viewpoint over another, which is why many Black people have a hard time subscribing to mainstream veganism. Oftentimes people in places of power forget that not all people have the same access to resources they do. So when folks who live in a food desert (usually people of colour) are berated and shunned for not adopting the vegan lifestyle, they shy away from a movement that does not take into consideration their real life experiences. These people simply do not have the same access to produce; instead of meeting them with disgust and contempt, mainstream vegans must think of ways to improve accessibility within these communities. Moreover, when Black people are literally fighting for their rights everyday, it is difficult for them to put other needs in front of theirs, and rightly so.

Tokenism in the mainstream vegan community also contributes to the lack of people of colour (POC) in the movement. Too often are POC voices drowned out or used to fulfil an image of diversity, and white people often take up too much space in these movements, not allowing for other people to have a voice. Vegans of colour rarely get features in conferences and popular vegan blogs. On too many occasions I have seen vegan groups tweet things likes, “Black lives matter . . . more than Chickens’ or Cows’ lives . . . apparently.” The comparison of the oppression of Black people and/or chattel slavery to that of the treatment and oppression of animals is not only extremely insensitive, racist and dehumanizing Black people; it also gives us reason to distrust them and believe that their rhetoric of anti-oppression is false. These are a few reasons as to why mainstream veganism can be inaccessible to in people of colour and in particular Black people, thus encouraging the creation of the Black Veganism movement.

An interview with Syl Ko

After delivering her talk on animality with a calm demeanor and enlightening words, Syl graciously agreed to sit and chat with us. Despite the heavy topic of conversation, the atmosphere was light and inviting as Syl, Andreann, and I (Gemma), three black women, shared and openly discussed situations and experiences that were relatable to all three of us.
Andreann Asibey (AA): When and why did you become vegan?
Syl Ko (SK): Oh, wow . . . no one has asked me that one. I became vegan about seven years ago now. I was a vegetarian for a long time before that and didn’t even know what veganism was. I thought when you said vegan it was like a white punk music thing. I didn’t really know what it was but as soon as I started to learn about it, I was like, ‘That’s me!’ Now why. . . that is a tough question. I didn’t really have a specific reason. I guess the best I could say is I became vegan because I don’t want be the kind of person who is not bothered by what is happening to animals, other than that I don’t have any real reason.
AA: So were you raised in a vegetarian family?
SK: No, so my father was really sensitive about animals—we had chickens for instance. He is originally from Poland, and there he had a farm where they used to kinda just eat their animals. He wanted to recreate that here because we were poor and it was just easier to do that. And so he tried with one chicken and then we all became depressed, then he decided that we were just gonna keep the rest of the chickens as animal companions, that’s sorta how my father was. I remember one time, he thought he was shooting a hawk or something. There was an animal that was attacking our chickens and he wanted to protect them, and he accidently shot an owl. And we had a funeral for the owl and I remember my Dad cried for a week about it. My father, he was really influential for me in the sense of having a moral sensibility for animals. And even when I was around six or seven, when I first found out that bone . . . like bone . . . chicken bone, was a bone inside an animal’s body, I remember the whole night I was just really hard on myself that I never made the connection. Then I started to hide the meat from our meals in my shoes, and I would go flush it down the toilet. And my parents—cos we were really poor—were like “Wtf you’re flushing food down the toilet.” I thought that I was going to get in such big trouble and instead my dad gave me a book by Plutarch, an ancient philosopher, and Porphyry, and it was his weird way of saying that there are people who think like you. It’s just been this life long obsession with trying to figure out what are our obligations to animals.

Animality, the sisters claim, has become a racialized weapon of white supremacy. This is because the equation of Black people to animals by use of colonial language has allowed for their dehumanization. Just as animals have been forced into a space of “subhuman” by the white supremacist patriarchy, so have racialized peoples.

AA: Did you find it easy to integrate yourself into the vegan community that was present at your university, and did you face any barriers entering that space as a woman of colour?
SK: The people were great but I never felt that I was in the vegan movement. Even now I don’t consider myself to be in the vegan movement. We really consider ourselves to be anti-racist thinkers and anti-racist activists and we think that part of anti-racism is just also thinking about non-human animals. I didn’t really involve myself too much. I mean, I would go to demonstrations and stuff, but I always did have that feeling that maybe they want me to come so they have that Black person there. There is always that thing that plagues you, if you are a Black person in a white space. Like, wait are they just doing this because I am Black and already that in itself is such a dehumanizing feeling that you have to keep questioning your own personhood. Like am I just here as a representative of a race or something? So I for the most part did not really get that involved, but I was lucky enough to be in the philosophy department where there are a lot of vegans. But we didn’t really demonstrate together, we actually were just talking with each other about ideas that just had to do with animals. That for me was way more enjoyable than just going out and smashing stuff or bothering people at Chipotle or whatever. Some of those methods, I don’t get it, like how does this have anything to do with freeing animals. So yeah, I was pretty uninvolved, but I was always involved in more intellectual ways, you know just mostly talking to people. Mostly because I don’t have this thing that I notice a lot of other activists have. They have this very firm idea that this is how things have to go and this is the way to think about animals and if you think differently, you are terrible and you don’t care about animals. I don’t feel comfortable going in someone’s face and saying, “No, you gotta do this and this, and this is how you think about things” because for me I don’t really know. And I think it actually does come with being white like this “I know better than you and I have the answers” but I don’t know the answers, I don’t even know the questions.

“We really consider ourselves to be anti-racist thinkers and anti-racist activists and we think that part of anti-racism is just also thinking about non-human animals.” —Syl Ko

AA: Why do you think that the Black community is so removed from the concept of veganism?
SK: I think because mainstream veganism has a very different experience with the words human and animal. If you are not animalised or in any sort of marginalised position, human and animal are very simple concepts for you. I mean, when you’ve been called an animal before, or someone’s told you at one point you weren’t really human, you’re a gorilla or whatever. We already feel this colonial idea of animal. We feel it within us. So we’re not saying we have the same oppression or we have the same experience, we’re just saying, “OMG we are all wrapped up in the same project that is affecting us very differently.”
AA: You worked with your sister on your book Aphro-ism: Essays on Pop culture, Feminism and Black Veganism from two sisters. How was it working with your sister? Was this the first major project you worked together on?
SK: Aph and I are best friends. For the past ten years we have been on the phone, on Skype, emails, constantly talking about papers, books, films. Our friendship is cemented in our interest in feminism, racism, and all this animal stuff. So Aphro-ism started out as a blog. It wasn’t super intentional. We had already talked about it for ten years so this was sort of the result. We consider it an intellectual diary between us; we were already talking about these things before we just decided let’s put it in a blog. You know, not expecting anyone to really care and when it picked up, we decided to turn it into a book. She is really bright. I have learned more talking with her than I think I have in a PhD program.

AA: How did the idea come to fruition? What was the aim?
SK: There was an absence of a really important narrative not just in the vegan movement but in anti-racism. I mean, so when you look at Black people organising. We first started talking about Black Lives Matter and we were wondering why was there this obsession in talking about race with actual skin colour, like why aren’t we talking about what racism really is, that is, it was a project to separate humanity from one another basically. So how are we talking about racism or dismantling racism and we don’t wanna talk about this social human-animal binary which is keeping in place racist thinking. How are we not noticing that human and animal are racialized terms and so that is why we decided that the stuff we are talking about is really important. The book came because the response [to the blog] was overwhelming. So we decided to put it in a book form because so many people wanted a book. There is no way you are going to process an idea like this, which literally takes your whole experience as a racialized person into consideration. There is no way you are going to get the full force of that by reading blog posts and moving onto the next thing. You’ve got to have it sitting with you at night reading it over and over and reflecting on it. Books help in slowing things and in paying attention. We really want people to pay attention to these ideas. Not just because of animals but because we deeply care about liberating ourselves from the shit that we have to deal with.
AA: Can you tell us a bit more about your current research?
SK: The simplest way to put it is that I am trying to find applications of Black Veganism, so other questions going on involving animal oppression. Black Veganism is this nice theoretical move that you can make, so there are a lot of different questions I am interested in. One big thing I am really interested in is the problem in speaking for animals. Lots of different oppressed groups, they speak for themselves because they have the language that you need to involve yourself politically in this society and animals of course can’t do that. Of course they can speak to us but they don’t speak out political language, so there is the question: is it right to speak for animals? Who speaks for animals? And so forth. Black Veganism is a way to avoid that altogether because we are not speaking on the behalf of animals, we are speaking about animality. Then there was the paper I was talking about today, which is about assumptions we make on how we are supposed to feel a bond with animals. This paper I am working on is to do with the animal within and using Black Veganism as a way to sort of diagnose talking and just missing the point. Basically I am using Black Veganism and trying to find a way to apply it to questions that already exist. I think that there are stupid questions that can be answered and then we move onto something else.

“Of course [animals] can speak to us but they don’t speak out political language, so there is the question: is it right to speak for animals? Who speaks for animals? And so forth. Black Veganism is a way to avoid that altogether because we are not speaking on the behalf of animals, we are speaking about animality.” —Syl Ko

AA: In your talk you provided three different concepts about the word ‘animal.’ “All humans are animals,” “No humans are animals,” and “Some humans are animals” — can you please expand on the latter of the three?
SK: I put those sentences together, so that it is obvious to see how [the word] ‘animal’ is being used differently. So it is the same word but the word has a different extension in all those cases. A weird example is the word can. ‘Can’ can be used like an ability, it can also be used as a noun like an actual can, and can also be slang for jail. So it is the same word, but they mean different things. With ‘animal’ it is harder to see because the definition and the concepts are so overrated. I did that on purpose so you can see clearly, like obviously, that there has to be three different meanings going, otherwise it would just be be, “All Humans are animals.” So what I was doing was trying to show that there is one way that we talk about it, which is the first way, like we are all animals. The second way is animals refer to beings that are not members of the species Homo sapiens. The third way is the social way in which we use the word, so it’s not talking about any sort of biological designation, but pointing out something about your social status. The way Trump made the statement about Latinos (his call for police to rid the country of “animals” that are harming communities), he was not being a biologist, rather he was saying something social about them (Latinxs). So we get it when it comes to humans, but then when you say animals are animalised everyone gets confused. No, we are just saying the same thing in the way we are applying the social category to some humans and using this vehicle to oppress them, we use the exact same concept against non-human animals. The only thing confusing here is that they are using animal in one sentence in completely different ways.

“Aph and I become annoyed with the tendencies of the Dear White People article; we are spending all these resources trying to point out what they are doing wrong in their spaces and it’s like, that is their space. This is a way that they experience those concepts. Let them. . .do you, boo. We are trying to get rid of this colonial narrative that we have to wait for white people to come along and create theories for us.” —Syl Ko

AA: How can one decentralize the white narrative in Veganism? And whose responsibility is it to decentralize that narrative?
SK: I think it’s ours! For me it’s always very weird when there is this preoccupation with what white people are doing and what they are getting wrong. And in fact Aph and I become annoyed with the tendencies of the Dear White People article; we are spending all these resources trying to point out what they are doing wrong in their spaces and it’s like, that is their space. This is a way that they experience those concepts. Let them. . .do you, boo. We could just do it ourselves, instead we are trying to get rid of this colonial narrative that we have to wait for white people to come along and create theories for us or for white people to get it right before we can join the movement. We can just do our own thing and it doesn’t have to be because we hate each other or they are doing it wrong. What I am saying is that there are lots of different ways to approach a problem and we should have the liberty to do that for ourselves.
AA: How does Black Veganism challenge white supremacy?
SK: Black Veganism is an anti-racist strategy. That is what it is. Listen. If you want to dismantle racism, you’ve got to go to the root of racism and the root of racism is this distinction between human and animal in a social way. So if we’re trying to dismantle racism we won’t be able to do it by keeping the roots in place and so it challenges white supremacy because I think it is one of the few vegan views that is out there that actually goes to the root of white supremacy. White supremacy is not just coming up with different racial views in terms of skin colours. White supremacy is rooted in a very particular project in making only a certain amount of being human and everyone else is shit and we are just meant to serve people. So I think that Black Veganism is super anti white supremacy because we are doing something radical in white supremacy by going beneath racial categories and going to the real source of the problem. This all started because some people decided to say that they are the real human and everybody is meant to serve them.
AA: Our final question is what is your favourite vegan spot?
SK: Ahh, oh woooow . . . Probably Veggie Grill in California. It’s a chain . . . great vegan fast food. I took an internship in Cali just to be able to eat Veggie Grill for two months.

Black Veganism for the authors

We would like to extend a special thanks to Syl Ko for sitting down with us and having such an open and honest conversation about Black Veganism, and how it is so much more than just being Black and Vegan. We want to thank Syl and Aph for putting into words the thoughts and feelings marginalized people have had for years but lacked the words to express.
For me (Gemma), someone who is Black and vegan, the idea of Black Veganism was new and eye opening. I heavily prescribed to mainstream veganism and focused my activism solely on animals. Through talking with Syl and reading Aphro-ism, I’ve been able to use my experiences as a Black woman to shape and re-form my understanding and approach to animalism. Animalisation and dehumanization play a role in the justification of violence done against Black bodies, and are routinely ignored by mainstream white veganism. Veganism focused exclusively on animals is not activism enough when these are the same people who can and do enforce animalism on marginalized groups. Being Black has shaped my perspective in every aspect of my life, so why should it not also shape how I approach my veganism?

As someone who knows of many instances where white vegans and non Black vegans of colour choose to downplay, ignore, and outright deny the plight of Black lives, whilst advocating for the “equality of all life forms,” Black Veganism provides genuine intersectionality to the movement

For myself (Andreann), as someone who is not vegan but has thought about adopting the lifestyle, I am greatly intrigued by the ideas of Black Veganism because it takes into consideration my experiences with white supremacy. I have always thought to myself, “How can I take up my cross for a movement which claims to care about animals but blatantly shows no care or love for me?” As someone who knows of many instances where white vegans and non Black vegans of colour choose to downplay, ignore, and outright deny the plight of Black lives, whilst advocating for the “equality of all life forms,” Black Veganism provides genuine intersectionality to the movement. This statement from an article written by Heather Barrett, titled “White veganism doesn’t care about Black lives,” sums up my thoughts on mainstream veganism: “White vegans often advocate for the lives of animals, but their voices fall short when it comes to the lives of fellow humans that do not share their skin colour. I believe Black Veganism creates a safe space for a group of people who have always been pushed to the bottom of society, allowing them to be the centre of focus for once.
Aphro-ism has been fundamental in developing our understanding of anti-racist and animal rights activism by bravely exploring the human-animal binary and its place in racist rhetoric and white supremacy. Should you wish, the book is available for purchase on Amazon.com.

The interview was heavily condensed and edited for clarity.