Interview with Aph Ko and Syl Ko

The writers and activists on the entanglements of race, species and gender

Illustration by Camila Rosa for LAIKA

by julie gueraseva
Friday, December 13, 2019

This interview is excerpted from LAIKA’s Issue Seven feature “United We Rise” which spotlights the works of several intersectional vegan activists.

What does the exploitation of animals have to do with human oppression? Everything, according to Syl Ko and Aph Ko, whose book Aphro-ism: Essays on Pop Culture, Feminism, and Black Veganism from Two Sisters provides a paradigm-shifting perspective on the entanglements of race, species and gender. “‘Animal’ is a category that we shove certain bodies into when we want to justify violence against them,” writes Aph, who in 2020 published her analysis Racism as Zoological Witchcraft. “The human–animal divide is the ideological bedrock underlying the framework of white supremacy. The negative notion of ‘the animal’ is the anchor of this system,” Syl adds. Aphro-ism argues that dismantling the human-animal binary is essential to taking down systems of domination that oppress anyone who falls outside of the “ideal” human body, and that de-centering whiteness is a pathway to animal liberation.

In other words, advocating for both animal rights and anti-racism only strengthens each cause. Aphro-ism goes beyond critical analysis and proposes solutions — such as creating spaces that celebrate Black life. Aph has done just that with Black Vegans Rock, a dynamic digital platform that spotlights the achievements of everyday black vegans, for which Syl consults. And together, they ran the blog Aphro-ism, from which their book stemmed. Although the sisters live far apart — Aph is in Florida, and Syl is in Maine — their synergy is potent, and the illuminating work it has produced is a reminder of the unbridled possibilities of collaboration. Aph and Syl spoke with LAIKA about the importance of rebuilding, why confusion can be a good thing and how their work has changed them.

LAIKA: What in your opinion are some effective tactics to help someone change their view on animals?
Syl: Different things will work for different people. Also, there are many different kinds of animals. Learning to “re-see” one kind may not lead to re-seeing others. For instance, many people learn to truly value the lives of dogs, but that doesn’t mean they will value the lives of, say, mice or pigs. In the past few years, my way of helping people rethink their ideas about animals has been to get them to question where those ideas come from. Usually these “normal” (read: “indoctrinated”) ideas have little to do with actual nonhuman animals and everything to do with the invented notion of animality, an idea imposed onto animals (and some human beings). Once they are a little less sure about what to think, people are more open to listening to other points of view.

In Aphro-ism, you write about “reconstructing.” Why do you feel it is so vital to go beyond merely criticizing oppressive systems?
Aph: Pointing out issues with specific spaces and lines of thinking is fine and necessary, but so is rebuilding. I think that when we hyperfocus on criticizing others, we end up in a situation like we’re in today, where everyone tries to act “woke” in a performative way because they don’t want to be seen as an offensive presence. There is too much emphasis on staying quiet or reciting mantras out of fear that people will criticize. All of us are going to mess up at times, but that’s not the main point. The main point is growing, learning and rebuilding. I definitely think art and literature are elements of this reconstruction.

“I think revolution won’t happen without thought; however, thought without action won’t make the revolution a reality.”

Your book includes an eye-opening critique of social media. How can activists make the most of this tool?
Aph: I think every person will have to figure this out for themselves. Social media has such incredible power to introduce people to new ideas and to connect with others in a way that’s truly meaningful, but it also has the power to distort and cause harm. It’s also a generational thing. Growing up, I didn’t even have the internet until middle school. I didn’t have my first flip phone until I was a senior in high school, and I didn’t have access to the internet on my phone. The internet was like this precious, magical thing. Now, it’s widely available, and I think the younger generation has a different relationship to it in a way that I don’t even understand. My goal isn’t to tell people to not use social media — it’s just to be mindful of how it can shape your relationship to your own self and to others.

You stress the urgency of having an “epistemological revolution.” What do you think will make revolution possible?
Aph: Nothing alone will fix the problem. We need as many efforts as possible. I think a lot of folks have different roles in a movement. We need people to be doing food justice work, we need people to be tackling animal liberation, we need people to create media representations and we also need people to create new conceptual blueprints for activists. So, I think revolution won’t happen without thought; however, thought without action won’t make the revolution a reality.

How have your own studies, you work, research and writing this book impacted the way you move about in the world?
Syl: Black veganism started out as an idea for a seminar paper I wrote a few years ago. I didn’t think much of it at the time. But as I worked it up for [the] Aphro-ism [blog], I began to believe it. I’ve always been sensitive to animal suffering, but when I recast their oppression in racial terms, it was like I saw for the first time the magnitude of what they are facing. I think I cried daily the entire time I worked on this project! Thanks to working on Aphro-ism, I’ve definitely reaffirmed my commitment to doing whatever I can to help nonhuman animals out of this mess. I’ve changed my life drastically to make sure that remains my focus. This has also led me to really appreciate other animal advocates. We’re all in it for the long haul despite how emotionally taxing this work is, so I have started to feel like I’m part of an amazing, diverse and global family.

Aph: Aphro-ism has definitely changed me. In particular, it has made me realize that living is important. At the end of the day, the goal of my activism isn’t just to fight forever — we have to climb out of the trenches at some point and live. Once when you hit that actual realization in your life, it’s liberating.

What were some of the catalysts that led to where you are today?
Aph: I have always had an interest in questioning power and being loud. Additionally, Syl has been such an incredible source of friendship and intellectual stimulation for me. When I was 17, she helped cultivate my interests and passions for liberation by introducing me to books by brilliant thinkers. I’ve also been inspired by professors and friends who helped extend my own understanding of these issues. Additionally, I have an incredible husband who has been like the best friend anyone could ask for. We talk all the time and he has influenced who I have become today. Syl and I also had a super intense father (who passed away last year), who really prized critical thinking and intellectual exploration. He always urged us to think for ourselves and to question everything.

Aph, has working on Black Vegans Rock helped you foster a community in your own life?
Yes. Black Vegans Rock has opened my eyes to how rich and diverse the black vegan community is. I went into this project thinking only 10 people would want to be featured, and now we’ve featured close to 300, and counting. I receive messages every week from people who tell me how much this space means to them, and to a certain extent, this website has changed my own life in ways I didn’t expect.

This was an eye-opening statement in the book: “If you find that you’re rarely confused and rarely challenged, then you might be operating from a script yourself.” Why is confusion encouraging?
Aph: I always say that a person’s question isn’t really a question: It’s actually a statement about where they’re at in their own political journey. A question is like a window into someone’s current mind. So one way of dealing with these types of questions is by following up with more questions. That’s the beauty of critical thinking: The goal isn’t necessarily to just give answers, because if someone doesn’t have the necessary conceptual tools to understand your message, it isn’t going to stick. It’s about meeting people where they are and asking them questions. The goal is to basically help create a mirror so that the person can see their own politics within the question itself.

MOVE is an organization you’ve mentioned in one of your videos, Aph, as an example of early black animal rights activism. One of their members, Ramona Africa, has talked about the perniciousness of greed and excess and how “satisfaction” has become lost in our society. What does “satisfaction” mean to you?
Satisfaction and success means living the simplest life that I possibly can. In American society, we’re told that we have to look outside of ourselves to find meaning. Society robs of us of ourselves and tells us that we need to work to find happiness and be super busy and panic all the time to have meaning. I’m the exact opposite, and it’s taken me time to get here: I have everything I already need to be happy. I don’t work to find happiness, I work to sustain the happiness I already feel. After the death of my father last year, all of my priorities changed and I realized that I want to live a life where I am relaxed, where I can enjoy each moment with my family. Success is feeling whole inside.