Race, Species and Dehumanization

From the headlines of yesterday's Democracy Now! comes this report of a speciesist and racist "joke" dehumanizing President Obama:

GOP Candidate Jokes About Hunting President Obama

An Idaho Republican gubernatorial candidate is claiming he was only joking when he said he would buy a license to hunt President Obama. At a rally in Twin Falls on Tuesday, Rex Rammell was discussing hunting tags, when an audience member shouted a question about "Obama tags." Rammell responded, "The Obama tags? We'd buy some of those." Rammell says he sees no reason to apologize, because he was joking.

Racist and speciesist New York Post cartoon depicts two cops with guns drawn and a dead chimpanzee with gun shot wounds. One cop is saying: This is not the first time violence against nonhuman animals was employed to communicate a threatening racist message against the president. In February of this year, immediately after a chimpanzee who was being kept as a pet was shot and killed by police, the New York Post published a cartoon depicting the killing with one of the cops saying, "They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill," in direct reference to President Obama.

Dehumanization: A Weapon Of Racism

Dehumanizations like these need to be understood as both racism and speciesism. The "jokes" reference and make light of both the very real oppression of other animals and the very real oppression of people of color. Dehumanization is based in speciesism and used as a weapon of racism.

Earlier this week Renee asked on Feministe, "Are Animals and Humans the Same?" In her post, Renee uses PETA as an entry point to discussing the dehumanization of people of color. I disagree with Renee's justification of speciesism, and while I find that aspect of her post problematic I don't have to agree with her views on human superiority in order to acknowledge that she is right about the dehumanization of people of color and the persistent denial of racism on the part of White nonhuman animal advocates. As I've posted before regarding PETA's campaigns, "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."

Renee's post generated a good deal of backlash from a few White nonhuman animal advocates who claim that dehumanization of people of color doesn't exist or isn't a real problem. These commenters seem to be reinventing "color-blind" racism by advocating some sort of "species-blindness." I believe this sort of reasoning not only perpetuates White supremacy through dehumanization, but also obscures speciesism and human supremacy.

Why Species Matters

By not recognizing dehumanization as a serious and pernicious weapon of White supremacy, these nonhuman animal advocates fail to recognize how dehumanization also perpetuates speciesism. In a previous post on solidarity and being an ally, I say:

Our allyship and solidarity must comprise all forms of oppression. Our exploitation of people interlocks with our exploitation of other animals, and vice versa. As such, it's the people in oppressed groups who have the most potential to develop true solidarity with nonhuman animals. (I'm distinguishing allyship from solidarity, which I see as based more on shared oppression.)

Speciesism is the structure that is used to define what is human, and what is "good" (e.g., "humane," "humanist," and "humanitarian"). The dehumanization of people has a pervasive presence in the structure of our oppression of each other. Just as there are no masters without enslaved people, no oppressors without the oppressed people, there would be no dehumanization without a system of human superiority.

This does not mean that we can make speciesism go away by simply saying humans are animals too and being "species-blind." Just as we can't end racism by being "color-blind" and simply saying "I don't see race, I just see people." What I am saying is that when it comes to dehumanization, we need to listen to people of color, because they are the ones whose oppression is being directly tied to that of nonhuman animals.

We live in a world created on the exploitation of nonhuman animals and people of color. In order to address that, we have to acknowledge humanness and Whiteness – that is, we have to acknowledge species and race in order to be anti-speciesist and anti-racist, respectively. Under the existing racist system of White supremacy Whiteness is privileged while people of color are exploited. Being "color-blind" perpetuates this oppression by refusing to acknowledge how the current system is structured along the color-line. Similarly, under the speciesist system of human supremacy humanness is privileged while nonhuman animals are exploited. Thus, "species-blindness" perpetuates this oppression by ignoring how the current system is structured along the species-line.

In short, if you're White you can't be an non-racist in a society based on White supremacy, and if you're human you can't be a non-speciesist in a society based on human supremacy. Stopping the oppression of other animals isn't as simple as adopting a vegetarian way of eating. We have to actively confront privilege and oppression throughout our society if we want to change it.

Allying Against Dehumanization

We need to move in the direction of being allies for both other humans and other animals if we want to eliminate dehumanization. An ally:

  1. Recognizes the oppression experienced by groups other than one's own.
  2. Recognizes the privilege that comes with membership in a dominant group.
  3. Actively supports and speaks out with and stands up with others and work to change the status quo.

That is, we need to recognize how dehumanization oppresses both nonhuman animals and people of color, and in order to do this we need to be conscious of both species and race. And at the same time, we need to recognize how just being human or White is enough to give us privilege at the expense of nonhuman animals or people of color, respectively.

Until we recognize the first two, we can't deal with the last aspect of being an ally. A consciousness of race and species oppression and privilege is a prerequisite to actively supporting, speaking out and standing up with others against dehumanization and eliminating the speciesist and racists systems that make dehumanization possible. And again, changing the system means changing more than just what we eat or don't eat – what we buy or don't buy. Like Tina Lopes and Barb Thomas say in Dancing On Live Embers, it requires that we "recognize that inequitable power exists in society. Unless this inequality in all its forms is actively challenged, it reproduces itself whether we intend it to or not."

Re: Race, Species and Dehumanization

This is the first time I've read anyone talk about species-blindness, and I can't believe it never crossed my mind. Great post!