The Whiteness of Pets

In racial analysis, the focus is predominantly on dynamics of othering or dehumanization. This draws into view how police officer Darren Wilson clearly saw a monster—“like a demon” or “Hulk Hogan,” not speaking, just making “a grunting, like aggravated sound”—rather than a human when he fired at Michael Brown. But this is only part of how race works; these perceptions are buttressed and arguably preceded by recognitions of sameness. This is key to understanding the way whites are able to recognize and favor each other, socially, economically, and politically. But the operations of sameness extend across the line between human and nonhuman that seems so central to othering or dehumanization, and perhaps this is a deep source of its power. Consider the extensions of personhood and protection to pets.

An poll found that more than 50% of Americans view their pets as “just as much a part of the household as any person,” while 42% take them along on family vacations and 33% include them in holiday card photos. Of course, Americans have ambivalent notions about pets, as Connie Perrin documented in Belonging in America; and the wider circle of domesticated species includes the massive industrialized slaughter of creatures that often are features of children’s books—pigs, lambs, chickens, etc. This is not a simple matter. But you can glimpse here an important recognition of sameness.

In reflecting on “Inequality, Geography and Race” in relation to the death of Eric Garner, Jim Dwyer (New York Times) highlights the glaring contrast:

It is a misdemeanor in New York to abandon animals or deprive them of food, water or “a sufficient supply of good and wholesome air,” and so far this year, more than 100 arrests have been made in the city for such neglect or worse. One couple was sentenced to community service and had to pay $2,000 in restitution after leaving their dog behind when they were evicted from an apartment on Staten Island. No case has been brought in the death of Eric Garner, a Staten Island man with chronic illnesses who was struggling to breathe after he was brought to the ground during an arrest on suspicion of selling loose cigarettes.

The capacity to deal with other humans inhumanely has to be considered through the pronounced extension of humanity to an array of nonhumans. It is not just otherness at work here; sameness supports delineating difference by asserting belonging across species lines in parallel form.

Consider the case of Excalibur, the Spanish dog whose human (a nurse) was the first in Europe to be infected with Ebola. Plans to euthanize the dog—on fears that it might spread the disease—drew massive protests in Madrid, with hundreds of thousands signing a petition for its life. This mobilization of affect stood in stark contrast the apparent indifference to the thousands of African deaths from the disease. A New York Times (October 9, 2014) account reports that “Twitter erupted with pleas both in English and Spanish to save Excalibur’s life. Then, after Excalibur was euthanized, came posts using the hashtag #RIPExcalibur. Some also suggested that more attention was being focused on the dog than on Ebola’s human victims.”

Indeed. But it’s not just a matter of chastising whites for not seeing the common humanity with black Africans. The point is what’s being privileged here—an extension of sameness to nonhumans—parallels and perhaps even mirrors the dehumanization by race. These forces work in tandem, and we won’t get sufficient critical purchase on racial thinking without drawing both into view. It’s the underlying assumptions and projections of sameness that allow the operations of othering to seem commonsensical and undisturbing. Recognizing this will expand what we consider in response to the crucial question, “Is it racial?”

The traffic here is complicated and needs much further attention. Consider today’s story about the torture technique of “learned helplessness”: designed to dissolve personhood, it was developed on dogs.

“When the interrogator ‘raised his eyebrow,’ without instructions, Abu Zabaydah ‘slowly walked on his own to the water table and sat down,’” one account said. “… When the interrogator snapped his fingers twice, Abu Zabaydah would lie flat on the waterboard.” He had been trained. Like one of [Martin] Seligman’s dogs.

But the broad contours are there, as one last example might make clear: see Peter Redfield’s discussion of the human and the rise of post-humanism, in relation to humanitarian crises, such as the Rwandan genocide. Watch the video of whites being evacuated, cradling their pets while their African colleagues, charges or servants are left behind, facing almost certain death.

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