- Race, Animality, and Animal Studies
In 2005, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) launched a traveling exhibit called Animal Liberation Project: We Are All Animals. The exhibit compared animals suffering under factory farming to African Americans (as slaves, lynching victims, and victims of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment), Native Americans, and suffragettes who were force-fed. Earlier, PETA compared industrial farming to the Holocaust. The organization was forced to apologize, as a result of intense criticism from civil rights organizations, media institutions, and political figures. Because racist animalization has led to bodily violence, the association of people of color with animals has largely been outside the bounds of political discourse and cultural analysis in contemporary life.
A recent suite of books explicitly reappraises and considers these exhibits alongside the growth of parallel fields that do not typically cross, such as animal studies and historical and cultural studies of race and racism. Over the last decade, the critical field of animal studies has grown tremendously.1 Although American studies and studies of race and racism in the humanities have not historically been at the forefront of research about animals, recent scholarship has confronted the racial blind spots in earlier scholarship within animal studies. [End Page 497] Scholars have foregrounded the questions of race and racism to the studies of ethics and contested politics in critical animal studies. Innovative research on the histories of race and racism, specifically antiblackness, shed light on the important questions of who constitutes the “we.” Collectively, recent scholarship grounded strongly in race and animal studies argues that to ignore racist histories of animalization does not undo them. Rather, our contemporary moment is ripe for a reappraisal of what has long been discarded and devalued.
The category of the human and processes of dehumanization/animalization are better understood through the historical experiences of racialized others in the US, in particular, African Americans and Native peoples. The spectral nature of violence on land stolen is also an always invisible presence. The re-thinking of the long-standing animalization of black, brown, and Native bodies is necessary, in order to address the histories of racist conflation of nonwhite peoples/communities and animals. Bénédicte Boisseron calls color blindness a central problem in animal studies. That is, the sequential assumption that the “animal is the new black” ignores the very foundations of blackness to the category of the animal (12).
These racial and animal questions are also intimately tied to gender. In 2013, Claire Jean Kim, a political scientist and ethnic studies scholar, and Carla Freccero, a literary scholar, coedited a special issue of American Quarterly titled “Species/Race/Sex.” In it, they highlighted scholarship that examined the species/race/sex nexus from a variety of disciplinary and interdisciplinary topics and perspectives. The volume highlighted the wide-ranging breadth and depth of the scholarship rooted in the discursive construction of hierarchies of species/race/sex and how such research was deeply connected to activism and praxis. Kim built on these foundations in her 2015 book Dangerous Crossings: Race, Species, and Nature in a Multicultural Age. In it, she examines race and its entanglement with species and nature in the United States. Her case studies revolve around case studies: the battle over live animal markets in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Makah Whaling rights, and the spectacle around Michael Vick’s dogfighting ring (Vick is an African American professional football player who went to federal prison and returned to play in the NFL), as well as the PETA exhibit.
What links these case studies of contested politics around race and...