Debarati Das (27) is a feminist vegan, gender questioning person and activist living in Pune, India, where they work at a feminist non-profit organisation. They are living with generalised anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, severe dry eye syndrome, and computer vision syndrome. I first got to know Debarati through their posts on @brownfeministvegan, a platform which they started to learn from and amplify the works of people with marginalised identities, and to explore intersections of other social justice issues with veganism.
Hello Debarati, tell us who you are? What’s your background? Where do you live?
Hello! I live in the city of Pune in India. I grew up in Silchar, a small town in a valley in Assam – which is in the northeastern part of the country. I work at a feminist nonprofit organisation, Point of View. Most of my work there is at intersections of gender, sexuality, disability, and also technology. I did my post-graduation in Constitutional and Administrative Laws. Besides, I am passionate about music and am a hard rock and metal drummer.
You told me that you prefer the pronouns they and she. Can you explain why?
I am a gender questioning queer person. However, for a very long time, I identified as a bisexual woman. But my understanding of gender, sexuality, the politics, and the spectrum only evolved with time. And I started growing more and more uncomfortable with the binaries associated with identifying as a bisexual woman. So I finally came out as who I am – a gender questioning person. I prefer ‘they’ as my pronoun because it is a part of debinarising my gender identity and also sounds right to me. I am also okay with ‘she’ because I am used to being referred to with this pronoun and it doesn’t sound discomforting to me.
Can you tell some more about your disability and how it influences your life? What are your specific challenges? How is it like to be living with an invisible disability?
I live with generalised anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, severe dry eye syndrome, and computer vision syndrome – all of which are mostly invisible disabilities. A lot of my experiences are defined by my disabilities.
As a queer person living with mental illnesses, I’ve had to navigate cisheteronormativity in mental healthcare spaces because of which I had to opt out of therapy and change therapists quite a few times. In India, not many mental healthcare spaces understand gender and sexuality, which are intrinsic to our socio-political identities. Therapy is seen as an apolitical activity, not taking into account that many of our mental illnesses stem from society’s response to our identities and lived realities. From heteronormative questions in psychometric tests that don’t apply to queer persons to therapy methods that separate our gender and sexuality from our mental illnesses – it can be a difficult landscape to navigate. Therapists even actively try being apolitical and justify it as the necessity of being ‘neutral’. Instances such as my therapist avoiding a conversation about issues around my sexuality that troubled me, are not only queer-antagonistic but also ableist.
Moreover, I am a ‘straight-passing’ queer person. So my non-binary/queer identity is often invisible as well. And my experiences around my invisible disabilities are very closely interconnected with my experiences around my gender identity erasure.
Like many of my queer comrades, I receive a lot of solidarity from non-queer allies when I talk about queerness, but many of them still assume that I am a woman. Allies also don’t talk about our mental health as much, although so many of us live with mental illnesses that are associated with our experiences as queer people – perhaps because many of our mental illnesses are invisible.
About my physical disabilities. I developed severe dry eye syndrome and computer vision syndrome from using a faulty monitor screen at a corporate establishment I was working in. I worked on a screen that had lines on it for months before they finally heard my request to replace the screen. Workers’ health and accessibility needs are not taken seriously, especially if the suffering is invisible. There’s usually a policy about everything at workplaces here but not about accessibility needs, health and disability. This is inherently ableist. There should definitely be more conversation around this serious struggle that many of us have to go through at workplaces.
Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term ‘intersectionality’ as a lens, a conceptual framework through which to see how different oppressions collide and intersect on a personal level. How does that translate to your personal experiences as a brown, disabled, gender-questioning person living in India?
My gender questioning identity defines my experience with mental health and my mental illnesses in a lot of ways. I am still navigating the distress that I go through as a result of the lack of affirmation of my gender identity from people around me. And some of these dismissive attitudes – such as referring to me as a woman or as female, despite knowing about my nonbinary identity – becomes triggering for me. It is not good for the mental illnesses I live with and can even aggravate some of my symptoms.
I also think that there is an urgent need to decolonise the global discourse on disability. Experiences of disabled persons in the Global South are marginalised. Our social realities that define our disabilities are not spoken about enough in popular global discourses on disability. Our lived realities and experiences with disability are diverse based on where we live, our culture, our socio-economic position, caste, class, religion, gender, sexuality. However, the global discourse mostly looks at us as a monolith and does not care much about our narratives. So when I began understanding disability justice, I couldn’t find much representation of many of my interests and experiences in popular media/publications in the West that address disability.
There is an urgent need to decolonise the global discourse on disability. Experiences of disabled persons in the Global South are marginalised
How long have you been vegan? What inspired you to become vegan? How was your decision to live vegan perceived by your family, friends, colleagues?
I’ve been vegan for over five years. I made the decision at a time when information and conversations around veganism wasn’t so visible in India as it is today. I learned about how the capitalist “animal industry” uses, exploits, commodifies and abuses nonhuman animals. I learned more about consent and how the system routinely violates the consent of nonhuman animals, without any accountability or repercussion. Reading and following the works of anti-speciesist advocates led me to question and rethink the way I perceived, experienced and responded to oppression(s). It led me to connect the dots and understand how capitalism, cisheteropatriarchy, and speciesism operate hand-in-hand in oppressing human beings with marginalised identities and nonhuman animals. I am still learning from the brilliant works of queer, disabled, Black, indigenous, POC, “lower” caste vegans.
My partner accepted my decision to go vegan wholeheartedly, and eventually decided to go vegan himself. We’re in this journey of learning and unlearning, together. Quite a few of my friends also went vegan eventually and are amazing anti-speciesist advocates. They are a wonderful support system and I learn a lot from their work everyday!
I got to know you through your posts on @brownfeministvegan. Why did you start that page, and what do you want to achieve with it?
The mainstream discourse around veganism is largely white, upper class, “upper” caste, abled, cishet, and single-issue. This invisibilises a lot of anti-speciesist advocacy by Black, POC, “lower” caste, queer, low-income, and disabled vegans across the world. I started @brownfeministvegan for conversations on subaltern and less talked about narratives around veganism, learning from and amplifying the works of people with marginalised identities, and exploring intersections of other social justice issues with veganism.
Through my content, I critique the status quo and existing frameworks around veganism that push many people away to the margins. I talk about systems – ‘vegan’ and ‘non-vegan’ that oppress human and nonhuman animals. I talk about intersections of other oppression(s) with speciesism, reclaiming vegan spaces, and how the vegan movement can be more inclusive and safer for marginalised persons.
On your recent posts at @brownfeministvegan you stated that ‘Vegan capitalism will not end speciesism’. And that ‘capitalism, white supremacy and casteism are responsible for both human and non-human animal oppression(s) across the world’.
Can you elaborate?
Vegan capitalism and animal exploitation exist and operate hand-in-hand. The ‘supply and demand’ argument that is commonly used in mainstream vegan outreach posits that by buying vegan alternatives, we can end nonhuman animal oppression. It presents veganism as a consumer activity and urges people to ‘vote with their dollar’ in order to end speciesism. Dismantling speciesism is not an economic activity. Merely switching to vegan alternatives does not end speciesism or ‘net suffering’. Consumer capitalism – vegan or non-vegan – harms nonhuman animals, wildlife, and habitats across the world! All capitalist establishments – vegan or nonvegan – push their costs onto nonhuman animals, nature, and the working classes.
Dismantling speciesism is not an economic activity. Merely switching to vegan alternatives does not end speciesism or ‘net suffering’.
Vegan corporations market themselves as ‘sustainable’. Sustainable by what standards? Whose voices were taken into account while defining sustainability, and whose voices were excluded? How are they sustainable when they are driven by the capitalist logic of ever increasing consumption and expansion. An increase in ‘vegan production’ in capitalist establishments does not necessarily affect the ‘animal industry’. In fact, various popular vegan product ranges are owned by multinational corporations – to increase their vegan consumer base – while routinely selling ‘animal products’. All of this is part of a larger system that shifts the blame onto consumers by misrepresenting that it is only consumer choices and ethics that drive capitalist oppression. Veganism needs more anti-capitalist, anti-speciesist advocacy.
Mainstream veganism is largely white, and white veganism routinely appropriates elements of BIPOC cultures and erases BIPOC anti-speciesist advocacy. White veganism has invisibilised the knowledge that many ideologies and traditions that closely intersect with veganism – such as nonviolence, symbiotic relationships with nature, and plant-based meals – have existed and flourished in communities of colour for centuries!
Mainstream veganism misrepresents that ‘cruelty-free’ living was invented by white people. This misrepresentation & invisibilisation can make a lot of vegans of colour feel like they are alone & disconnected from veganism. White veganism often appropriates the works of various communities, and does not address issues surrounding veganism that concern these communities – such as lack of access to nutritious plant-based food, hike in food prices, and communities being unable to grow their own food.
White veganism routinely uses components from cultures of colour and Black cultures to ‘veganise’ lifestyles & cuisines, without crediting the communities for the knowledge. In fact, a quick search of the keywords ‘vegan person’ on Google Images or Shuttershock returns pages loaded with pictures that are overwhelmingly white. This only reflects the systemic exclusion of vegans of colour and Black vegans from the dominant discourse of veganism – both online and offline. Because of these and various other reasons, many vegans of colour, Black vegans and indigenous vegans define mainstream veganism as ‘white veganism’.
The caste system is a social hierarchical system based on hereditary membership, where the ‘upper’ castes are considered ‘pure’, and ‘lower’ castes are considered impure and are historically subjected to socially sanctioned repression by the ‘upper’ castes. Casteism is the discrimination that arises out of and is inherently sanctioned by the caste system. My friend and anti-speciesist advocate Prateek Gautam describes the intersections of casteism and speciesism in the book Veganism of Color: Decentering Whiteness in Human and Non-human Liberation:
“Casteist speciesism conceptualizes the addition of non-human oppression as a driving force that allows casteism to continue unchecked. Under this type of speciesism, non-humans are given a value according to caste. Cows are considered holy and sacred while pigs are impure, filthy, and dirty and should not be allowed anywhere near a temple or near higher-caste people. Horses are the pride and property limited to Kshatriyas only, while Dalits and Shudras are forbidden to ride horses and camels – even today, in parts of Rajasthan and Gujarat. Milk and milk products are considered pure and holy and represented as Lord Krishna’s or Shiva’s favorite food, whereas an animal’s flesh is considered ‘Chandal’s’ (devil’s) food and associated with the ‘lower’ castes.”
Do you think different forms of oppression (like sexism, racism, speciesism, etc) are connected? If so, how?
The fight against speciesism is also a fight against the patriarchy. The “animal industry” is incompatible with consent culture, and so is sexism. The capitalist system markets “meat products” by objectifying and sexualising animal bodies in ways that are similar to objectifying and sexualising womxn’s bodies – these are sexist tropes. Many cultures and societies associate meat eating with masculinity, which is harmful for womxn and people of other marginalised sexes and genders. Anti-speciesism is a stance against all these forms of speciesist oppression that also intersect with gender-based oppression(s).
There are many anti-speciesist activists, scholars, and advocates from BIPOC communities whose work reflects a decolonial approach towards veganism. Their work inherently challenges the Eurocentric idea of veganism, which is one of the primary reasons for vegan spaces becoming racist. Moreover, issues such as food justice, which intersect significantly with race, also intersect closely with veganism and anti-speciesism. Racism and anti-speciesism also intersect in ways such as – people of certain races being called ‘animals’ or ‘treated like animals’, use of speciesist language for people of certain races, and the state using ‘police dogs’ to attack suspects who are racially profiled.
‘Veganism is a white thing’. ‘Veganism is a Western thing’. ‘Veganism is ableist and racist’. What do you think of these statements that are often made by non-vegans to debunk veganism?
While critiquing veganism is important, critique should also address speciesism. Privileged people who have every means to go vegan have a tendency to continue their oppressive behaviours towards nonhuman animals in the name of marginalised folks. They tokenise the struggles of marginalised folks, and that is an oppressive behaviour in itself. Most of them don’t even consider speciesism a real issue. That is a problem.
People who challenge discrimination and prejudice within our movement (ableism, sexism, racism, etc) are often criticised for distracting attention away from the animals ‘We should focus on the animals’ Or ‘Our movement is about animal rights’. What is your reply to that criticism?
Oppression is multi-pronged and cannot be understood through a single-issue lens. Anti-speciesist and vegan advocacy needs to acknowledge that experiences of oppression are intertwined, and oppressive systems enable each other. Understanding this is in the interest of all – human and nonhuman animals. Dismantling speciesism is not possible without also dismantling other systems of oppression that enable it – racism, sexism, ableism, queer antagonism, and so on.
Oppression is multi-pronged and cannot be understood through a single-issue lens.
While animal oppression and speciesism are normalised by most of the world as acceptable, many human beings have been othered for thousands of years as ‘impure’, ‘subhuman’, or ‘animal-like’ for the benefit of the oppressor. Many anti-intersectional vegans say that pro-intersectionality de-centers nonhuman animals and allows humans to claim victimhood in the vegan movement. However, this single-issue view is common among vegans who are mostly white, cishet, abled, and in case of India, savarna (‘upper’ caste) vegans, who speak from positions of privilege.
The fight against speciesism is incomplete without recognising other struggles, extending solidarity as much as possible to other movements, and taking care to not contribute to the oppression(s) that marginalised folks are fighting. This goes vice versa as well. Speciesism enables human oppression as well, and total liberation is not possible without recognising and addressing ALL oppressions.
Can you give some suggestions as to how the vegan and animal rights movement can become more inclusive and accessible for persons with disabilities? To be more inclusive on all fronts? What are some key-problems that should definitely be addressed?
Ableism is rampant in the mainstream vegan movement and it makes vegan spaces unsafe, inaccessible and exclusionary for a lot of us who live with physical and mental disabilities. Many of us who are visibly or invisibly disabled, have to navigate microaggressions in vegan spaces. One thing that we need to get rid of is the culture of giving unsolicited advice for mental and physical ‘wellness’ and presenting veganism as the ultimate cure. Presenting veganism as a diet for curing diseases is a disservice to nonhuman animals and disabled humans. Veganism should be more anti-speciesist than diet-oriented. This diet culture is also harmful for people who live with eating disorders and is inherently fatphobic. We need to respect people’s boundaries.
We must be talking about accessibility much more in the mainstream vegan movement. Make vegan outreaches, demonstrations, and other events as accessible as possible. Hire disabled persons/experts for consultation on how to make events accessible. Mention accessibility provisions available in events clearly in promotions and announcements. Understand that accessibility is not an afterthought and must be a part of the planning process from the start.
Most importantly, create a culture where safe and accessible environments for disabled folks is considered a basic requirement and not an additional benefit. Understand that it does not de-center nonhuman animals in the vegan movement, and only makes vegan spaces less oppressive and more pro-justice.
For those wanting to learn more about total liberation, radical veganism, or the intersections of oppressions: Can you give a shortlist of resources/literature, organisations or persons to follow?
Two books that I strongly recommend are Aphro-Ism: Essays on Pop Culture, Feminism, and Black Veganism from Two Sisters by Aph Ko and Syl Ko, and Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation by Sunaura Taylor. Multiple amazing passages in Veganism of Color: Decentering Whiteness in Human and NonHuman Liberation and Veganism in an Oppressive World edited by Julia Feliz Brueck really moved me.
I also think Instagram is a great place to learn – there are a LOT of anti-speciesist social justice advocates doing great work there – @afroliberatedtaste, @veganhiphopmovement, @letfishlive, @the_christopher_sebastian, @sistahvegan, @fulanivegan, @iye.loves.life, @queerbrownvegan, are some wonderful handles to follow!
Debarati Das – Interview Crip HumAnimal, by Geertrui Cazaux
– Interviews Crip HumAnimal – I particularly welcome stories of disabled LGBTQIA+ vegans, BIPOC vegans, vegan women, or other oppressed and marginalised groups, to highlight their specific experiences and the interconnections of oppressions –