How PETA Exploits Black Men


The above juxtaposition of the lynching of Black men and the slaughter of a bull, from a PETA exhibit in 2005, offends many Black people and anti-racist activists who object to the juxtaposition as dehumanizing and representative of White supremacy. Many of those (mostly White) nonhuman animal advocates who defend the comparison counter that those who object to the exhibit are just being "speciesist."

I agree with those who object to the comparison because it follows a pattern of dehumanization that is rooted in White supremacy and supported by racism. Concurrent with the PETA exhibit, the zoo in Augsburg, Germany announced plans to open a "African Village" exhibit. Norbert Finzsch, a German scholar of African American History, announced:

I would like to direct your attention to something that is going on in Germany which, in my opinion, requires the consideration of the international scholarly community. It is with utmost indignation that the African German community has taken notice of the plans to open an "African Village" within the zoo of Augsburg, Germany. The opening of this exhibit is scheduled for July 9 - July 12. 2005. "Artisans, silversmiths, basket makers and traditional hairdressers are situated in an unique African steppe landscape" according to the leaflets handed out by the organizers of the show. The conveners obviously are oblivious of the fact that exhibits like the one planned in Augsburg are organized within the German tradition of racist "ethnographic shows" (Völkerschauen). A letter of reply by Ms. Barbara Jantschke, PhD, from the Augsburg Zoo, directed to an African Swiss citizen underlines the intention, to put Africans on display in the zoo within "an atmosphere of exotism".

It is obvious that the conveners do not understand the historical implications of their project. Even in Germany the impact of colonialism and racism on African societies are nowadays debated in public. The way Africans and African Americans in Germany are perceived and discussed, the way they are present on billboards and in TV ads prove that the colonialist and racist gaze is still very much alive in Germany. This is the direct result of forty years of German colonialism and twelve years of National Socialism. People of color are still seen as exotic objects (of desire), as basically dehumanized entities within the realm of animals. This also explains why a zoo has been selected as site for the exhibit. It is necessary to remind the organizers that in the history of "ethnographic shows" African and German African individuals were used as object for anthropometric tests and ethnological investigations of highly questionable scientific benefit.

I think Finzsch statement that the "conveners do not understand the historical implications of their project" applies to the PETA exhibit as well as the exhibit at the Augsburg Zoo. An example of this is the following ad produced by PETA in Germany just a few years before the PETA and Augsburg Zoo exhibits:


The historical implications of this image of a Black man as a "wild" nonhuman animal is problematic, and illustrative of how "Africans and African Americans ... are perceived and discussed, the way they are present on billboards and in TV ads prove that the colonialist and racist gaze is still very much alive".

While superficially promoting an anti-zoo message with the text: "Wild animals do not belong behind bars," the image actually reinforces racist controlling images of Black men as dangerous, inhuman, sexual predators, and, as Finzsch pointed out, as exotic objects of desire. In his book, Uprooting Racism, Paul Kivel explains this intertwining of fear and danger with sexuality:

Because of the merging of sex and violence with racism in our society, images of people of color, which are seen as dangerous, are also seen as erotic. Because of prohibitions about sexual expression, erotic projections onto people of color makes them seem more dangerous. This added danger then makes them seem more erotic.

Later, PETA released the same image in the United States as part of its anti-fur campaign with the text: "Fur Bites." The image is no less racist in the US than it is in Germany. The intertwining of the sexual with fear and danger has historical implications for people of color, particularly Black men.

Controlling images of Black men as rapists was the dominate justification of lynchings. Black men are disproportionately portrayed as sexually dangerous in the news and entertainment media. And while lynchings are now less common, Black men still face institutional violence justified by these same controlling images. That is, Black men are disproportionately subjected to systematic imprisonment (caging) and other controls by the US criminal punishment system because of the view that they are sexually dangerous.

Thus, there is a direct historical connection between PETA's use of an exotic/erotic and dehumanized image of a Black man aggressively lunging from inside a cage (prison) and its use of the image of Black men being lynched. The very images that PETA creates in its portrayal of a Black man as a "wild" nonhuman animals are synonymous with those controlling images used to justify lynching and imprisoning Black men.

Re: How PETA Exploits Black Men

REGARDING IMAGE #1: As an anti-racist and anti-speciesist, I am disturbed that, on a vegan website, drawing a comparison between the unjust killing of a human animal and unjust killing of a non-human animal would be considered "degrading" to humans. I do not think PETA's ad is racist. To think so involves elevating the human victim to a higher status than the animal victim. To say that any species has more value than another is speciesist -- and completely ridiculous, as human surperiority is a cultural assumption, not a scientific "fact." The lynching of both Black men and farm animals occurs in a context of White sumpremacist, sexist, speciesist patriarchy; both Blacks and animals are othered and exploited in this social reality. As Black feminists such as Patricia Hill Collins, bell hooks, and Kimberle Crenshaw argue, oppressions within this context are interlocked and mutually reinforcing; no one oppression is greater than others. Although their arguments don't speak specifically to the animal issue, ecofeminists' arguments certainly do and have elucidated the intertwined oppressions of animals and people of African descent. I support juxtaposing these kinds of images because there are parallels between these atrocities, and we need to discuss them. Ads such as this create a much-needed dialogue about exploitation and violence in our society. Finally, I'd like to note that Dick Gregory is an African-American civil rights- and animal rights activist; he has frequently spoken about the similarities between the systemic abuse of Blacks and farm animals.

Conflating Differences Perpetuates Oppressions

I completely disagree with the interpretation regarding critical Black feminist theory and its conflation with White dominated vegetarian-ecofeminism. Conflating oppressions like the slaughter of nonhuman animals and the lynching of Black men is a mistake that I see many vegetarian-ecofeminists making, and I believe it is antithetic to the intersectional-based theory of simultaneously interlocking oppression that is promoted by Black feminist scholars like Patricia Hill Collins, bell hooks, Kimberlé Crenshaw and many others.

Intersectionality doesn't assume that all oppressions are the same, but that all oppressions have distinct differences that need to be acknowledged, understood, and respected with regard to their specific context in order to avoid perpetuating one form of oppression in the course of addressing another. Which is exactly what I think is happening with the picture at the beginning of the original post. It ignores how the dehumanization of people of color is racist (as well as speciesist) and offensive.

By conflating the oppression of nonhuman animals with the oppression of Black men we inevitably ignore important differences, thus I believe the comparison perpetuates racism (as well as speciesism). This is not because I believe that Black men as humans are superior to nonhuman animals, but because I believe the comparison ignores how the oppression of Black men through dehumanization works and how it differs in important ways from the oppression of nonhuman animals.

For further readings on my thought on the distinctions between racism and speciesism please see my post "Race, Species and Dehumanization" and my comment "Nonhuman Animal Adovcacy as Racism in a 'Post-Racial' World."

Re: How PETA Exploits Black Men

Hmm... Let me guess, Sarah...you're white.

I invite you to explore the privilege you have in speaking for others when you are not the target of that oppression:

The 12 White Steps

The first step is admitting you have a race.

Re: How PETA Exploits Black Men

I am not sure if Sarah is white or not. What if she is a person of color?

I am turned off by the black person in the cage; I am a black woman vegan engaged in critical race feminist vegan PhD work and don't interpret Hill Collins the way Sarah has, but that is just me. I immediately saw the history of sexual-racial exploitation of black people when I saw that image.

I actually use Hill Collins and hooks work to analyze how post-racial and normative whiteness/white privilege shape the consciousness of Ingrid Newkirk's response to black folk's problem with her Animal Liberation 2005 campaign and images of black lynched men for my dissertation (. My Dissertation also looks at other post-racial white privileged Animal rights and vegan activists). I particularly interrogate Newkirk's "We're all animals, get over it response" using Hill Collins and bell hooks (and other critical race theory.)

This is my take on PETA and how they use racial politics in the campaigning. It's a copy and pasted excerpt from my chapter that is coming out next year in a new book about New Directions in Food Studies. I'm not even sure if this is helpful to the conversation:

The racialized trauma around "living while Black" (or "living while any non-white racialized minority" in the USA) never enters the conversation [in "post-racial" animal rights books like Skinny Bitch]. Such dynamics are rarely accounted for in race-neutral popular vegan books, and also within the most popular and powerful vegan oriented organization, PETA, a staunch supporter of Skinny Bitch. This is not surprising, as PETA continues to rely heavily on promoting people to go vegan for animals rights by employing a plethora of popular famous white women entertainers as the poster children of "going vegan" (Deckha 2008). Similarly to Skinny Bitch, PETA constantly produces ads and literature with images of skinny and conventionally beautiful white creamy skinned women to lure omnivores into veganism and vegetarianism. The universal assumption is that: 1) all straight men (regardless of race) would want to have sex with these "perfect 10s", but the caveat is that these types of women would only have sex with them if they were to go vegan and; 2) women should become vegan because it means they too can save animals and obtain the white racialized aesthetic of beauty which is becoming skinny and 'modelesque,' while simultaneously appealing to the hetero-normative white male gaze (Deckha 2008). I argue that Skinny Bitch and PETA compliment each other quite well because they make visible the trauma of non-human animal suffering while making invisible the suffering and pain that privileging of whiteness causes to people like [black American vegan] Queen Afua's audience [African American women]. The trauma of racialized suffering and pain can manifest a plethora of different ways. Queen Afua's book Sacred Woman is a multifaceted version of veganism that employs plant-based dietary philosophy as a tool to fight the ravages of racialized colonialism on Black women's womb health.

Re: How PETA Exploits Black Men

Breeze, I considered that Sarah could be a woman of color, but I read and re-read her comment, and it was like reading the back of my hand. I understand that some people of color don't have a problem with comparisons like these, but I felt confident that Sarah was coming exactly from the position of "we're all animals, so get over it."

Normally I would go for a more thoughtful reply, but Sarah had the benefit of Ida's thoughtful post and thoughtful reply, so I felt that someone needed to just call bullshit and point out that despite all of the name-dropping and fancy lingo, she was just speaking from a position of privilege and wasn't grappling with the racism inherent in appropriating images of other people's oppression.

In my own experience, I've appreciated (maybe not in the moment) when other white people have been very direct and uncompromising about letting me know when I'm saying something racist.

(Of course I'm taking the risk that Sarah can come back and call bullshit on me, so I'm prepared for that as well.)