VIDEO: Afrofuturism and Black Veganism: Towards a New Citizenship

By: Aph Ko

Hey everyone. I know it’s been a while since I’ve posted anything on Aphro-ism, and this is in large part due to the fact that I have been incredibly busy running Black Vegans Rock and giving talks at different spaces about activism (which has been quite exciting).

I wanted to share a speech I gave at the Intersectional Justice Conference at the Whidbey Institute a few weeks ago which you can find below.

For my talk, I was trying to introduce an Afrofuturistic politic into the black vegan discussion. I am still very new to Afrofuturism, but I feel like it has the power to accommodate a really radical, complex racial liberation movement that simultaneously tackles the oppression of non-human animals.

In my opinion, Afrofuturism is a highly underutilized framework in our activist spaces. It’s prioritization of the radical black imagination and re-articulation of black citizenship (and animal citizenship) is something that can be useful for movement building.

In my talk, I discuss how intersectionality is a useful tool for navigating current oppressive systems, and how Afrofuturism is a brilliant tool for creating conceptual blueprints for tomorrow.

Why Animal Liberation Requires an Epistemological Revolution

By: Aph Ko

When you learn the language of the oppressor, you also inherit their world view. As Franz Fanon argues in Black Skin, White Masks, “A man who possesses a language possesses as an indirect consequence the world expressed and implied by this language.” [1]

In most of our mainstream social justice movements, whenever we talk about “whiteness” we tend to talk about it only in terms of representation or leadership, however, very rarely do we speak about it in terms of the actual theory we use to structure our understanding of oppression. 

A lot of activists speak of ‘decolonizing’ themselves from the system without realizing that the basic building blocks they have used to structure their activist campaigns are actually products of the very same system they’re trying to fight. We’ve inherited our conceptual tools and activist theories from the Eurocentric system that we’ve been trying to dismantle this whole time.

Before we can start “dismantling” systems of oppression, we first need to understand how we’re still chained to these systems through the theory we employ to understand and discuss oppression.

In other words, animal liberation can’t happen until we change the way we understand animal oppression.

In our mainstream animal rights movements, the dominant thought it: animal oppression is it’s own oppression and it has nothing to do with race or gender (or any other marker of difference).

This is a line of thought I’m quite familiar with considering I am constantly getting tweets or messages from animal rights activists who are upset with the mission of Black Vegans Rock. These folks are offended when activists try to talk about race and animal oppression…at the same time. Here is one quick example:

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One of my activist friends shared Black Vegan Rock with his friends on social media, and someone wrote this.

(For the record, there are also some vegans of color who agree with this sentiment precisely because they too have inherited a Eurocentric blueprint for animal rights activism that confirms the world view of the dominant class.)

The idea that oppressions manifest separately and then randomly “connect” at different points is exactly the problem I’m having with the animal rights movement and most other mainstream social justice movements.

What’s more, when activists who subscribe to Eurocentric thinking attempt to “connect” these issues or oppressions, they usually make disingenuous connections.

As Syl argues:

“Not only are these types of comparisons or connections absurd- even worse, they are over-simplistic characterizations of the ways in which these struggles and these wounded subjectivities relate to one another…So, really we’re not “comparing” anything in this type of thinking. We’re noting a common source. The connection we make is not found in the oppressions themselves or the oppressed bodies.”

Some activists share memes where different violated bodies are held up as examples of connecting oppressions, as though these bodies connect because of the ways their bodies are treated. In our movements, we have been organizing and theorizing around the literal physical bodies of the oppressed, rather than going to the root of these oppressions conceptually

meme

Most well-intentioned activists who use these memes are missing the point: What makes the physical violation of these bodies possible is their citizenship to the space of “the other” or the “sub-human.” 

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Comparing and contrasting the literal/physical violations these subjects experience misses the conceptual boat because the reason why they are each oppressed is precisely because they ALL are citizens of the same sub-human space. Naturally, their oppressions might physically resemble one another because they have a common oppressor.They are not being oppressed because they are “like” each other. They are being oppressed because they have been labeled as “less-than-human” where human is defined as the superior and ideal white species.To keep “comparing” these literal/physical oppressions to one another to show how they are the same is tautological.

For example, saying, “Black people experience racism and, therefore, are treated like animals” is redundant simply because racism is already entangled with speciesism. What black folks are experiencing isn’t “like” non-human animal oppression…it is a layer of it. We are spending way too much time in our movements organizing around the physical oppressions of these bodies which is problematic because we’re not getting to the conceptual root of why these oppressions are happening in the first place. As activists, if we don’t get to the root of oppressive behavior, then we risk reproducing the oppressive framework in our own liberation movements.

This signifies that we are having a problem in our movements at the theoretical level.

We seem to be experiencing a crisis of uncritical thinking in our movements, partly because the theory we’re using to structure our movements is Eurocentric which is why folks are trying to make these oppressions “connect” rather than understanding how they’re fused to begin with. Eurocentric social justice theory suggests that all oppressions manifest independently and then connect at some point down the road.

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There are more systems of oppression than I have labeled here in this diagram.

Syl writes, “It hasn’t occurred to many of us that this model of compartmentalizing oppressions tracks the problematic Eurocentric compartmentalization of the world and its members in general…”

A Eurocentric GPS 

Imagine you get into a car and you have a GPS. When you type in the address you get a map, a representation of the territory you’re in.

Screen Shot 2016-02-21 at 1.24.24 PMThe issue we’re having in our activist movements is the map that’s showing up on our activist GPS screen currently isn’t matching the landscape we’re on. This is because the map for liberation has been provided to us by the dominant class. Therefore, all of the oppressed are in traffic, honking at one another. We are all lost trying to find the different roads the map keeps directing us to, but they don’t seem to be existing on our terrain. The map isn’t a real representation of what’s before us and all it’s doing is making us drive in circles, under the illusion that we are making progress on our trip.

In other words, the “intersections” the map tells us is there simply aren’t real because the territory we’re on has no intersections. We are existing on one massive field labeled sub-human where these systems are fused together and embedded within the soil of the terrain. Syl writes:

“The territory is this massive domain of Others, whose scope can only be grasped when we dig deeper to go beyond the constraints of the specific -isms and see ourselves as- following Frantz Fanon’s words- damned beings by virtue of lacking a full ‘human’ status.”

Eurocentric Logic

Our activist GPS is programmed with coordinates from the “Human” terrain which is why we can’t get to our destination. The activist GPS we’re using doesn’t realize that these oppressions are fused together already. The goal for those of us who are minoritized is to spend time creating new maps. We need to orient ourselves towards the human/animal divide, rather than only our own specific physical oppression.

Some activists fail to realize how the maps they’re using to guide themselves towards liberation are very Eurocentric. My proof is in the ways some activists try to analyze their own oppression without a meaningful analysis of speciesism. For example, check out this video Everyday Feminism shared where a feminist goes on for 11 minutes explaining how animal oppression doesn’t really relate to women’s oppression which is absolutely ironic. Eurocentric maps for liberation make it possible for other popular feminists like Akilah to explain intersectionality to feminists using animal products as props. [2]

akilah

There’s almost something tragic and comical about activists failing to realize the blatant missing piece to the activist puzzle: that your own oppression is anchored to your citizenship as a “sub-human” or “animal” in contemporary society. This is what makes racism, sexism, and all other “isms” possible. These “isms” are expressions of being labeled “less-than-human.” Therefore, this isn’t just a race-based or gender-based issue, it’s simultaneously one of species as well.

If we’re not organizing around this human/animal divide, then we aren’t properly getting to the root of our oppression.   

Within a Eurocentric analysis, activists have to spend all of their time “connecting” issues together because everything is always and already singular and separate at the root (which should be our first sign that the theory we’re using is designed around the experiences of the dominant class…not our own). 

When White People Become Racialized/Animalized

This massive domain of sub-humans also includes some white folks who fail at attaining “ideal” homo sapien status. We can look at the ways low-income white people in the U.S. are racialized and framed through a sub-human narrative where “redneck” is used as a racial marker to distinguish between ideal white homo sapiens who are successful, wealthy, and “civilized,” and low-income folks who are “naturally inferior” and beyond recuperation.

Shows like “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” ride on “trailer-trash” aesthetics and redneck/country stereotypes in order to propel the narrative of the show. In this article on Jezebel titled, “Honey Boo Boo Struggles with Bodily Functions” the writer features a video from the show where Alana (the lead character known as Honey Boo Boo) is sitting with Miss Georgia, who is framed as the ideal white human subject.

Alana’s character is juxtaposed with this white ideal woman to demonstrate how Alana is naturally inferior because of her class status, such that she can’t even perform ideal white femininity. It’s so far removed from her natural character. Alana shoves cake into her mouth and expels gas on camera. The fact that Alana is so young bolsters the idea that her inferiority (due to her “low class” status) is innate. She even uses “ratchet-style” language, suggesting that her class status positions her as being “closer” to blackness than ideal whiteness. Her inability to restrain herself and perform as a proper white human feminine subject marks her as naturally inferior and inherently needing to be “tamed” and “controlled.” [3]

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Miss Georgia is to the left and Alana is to the right.

 The animalization of beings labeled or framed as “sub-human” suggests that ‘animal’ is itself a racial opposite to the glorified white species. This means that “whiteness” signifies not only race and skin tone, but also an ideal way of being. “Animal” signifies a different type of racial citizenship that’s informed by characteristics from those labeled “sub-human.” 

Exploring the “Sub-Human” Territory and Abandoning the Eurocentric Map:

Let me just say this now: Our mainstream social justice movements are doomed so long as Eurocentric theory is used to structure the logic of these movements. (Yes, this means that even activists of color can be reproducing some of these issues in their campaigns).

The fact that some folks are able to subtract race from the animal oppression conversation is terrifying simply because for so long, the mainstream movement has been celebrating and throwing resources at efforts to “fix” the problem without thoroughly examining what the actual problem is and how it’s sustained. How are we supposed to ignore the racial elements to the speciesist hierarchy? The farther you stray from the ideal white homo sapien imagination, the easier it is for you to be labeled “sub-human” or “animal.”

This is also scary because oppressed people who are buying into Eurocentric logic are using that same logic to supposedly fight Eurocentric systems that are oppressing them.  You can’t create effective liberation movements if you don’t completely understand the anatomy of your oppression. 

social_darwinism

Syl writes:

“White” is not just the superior race; it is also the superior mode of being. Residing at the top of the racial hierarchy is the white human, where species and race coincide to create the master being. And resting at the bottom as the abject opposite of the human, of whiteness, is the (necessarily) nebulous notion of “the animal”.

In order for the oppressed (sub-humans) to have a new citizenship that isn’t inferior to those in the dominant class (glorified white humans), we need to have an epistemological revolution. This means that as critical black folks who reject Eurocentric logic, we have to fight, not just for vapid superficial representation in the mainstream movement, but for the right to produce knowledge, to create theory, and to re-articulate the way oppression actually manifests.Through this, animal liberation will be a byproduct of our epistemological revolution.

*

Notes:

[1] Obviously using “man” to refer to all beings is problematic. However, I agree with the premise that when you inhabit a given space (where you don’t set the terms), you tend to inherit the problematic norms of that space.

[2] I am not suggesting that activists can’t learn and grow throughout their careers. If you read some stuff I wrote even LAST year, you would be shocked at how much my perspectives have shifted. However, I’m merely pointing out a trend (especially within mainstream feminist spaces) that clearly disregards animal oppression, partly because a lot of feminists don’t know how to include it in their analyses or they don’t think it really matters. This points to an even larger problem with the theory they’re using to understand their own oppression considering our oppression is overtly anchored to the human/animal divide. These popular analyses are celebrated by the mainstream precisely because they don’t tamper with the comfortable frameworks people are already using.

[3] I first saw this clip from “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” when I was taking a PhD seminar in Feminist Surveillance Studies with Dr. Rachel Dubrofsky. One of my classmates was writing a paper on this topic and I remember we were analyzing this clip. At the time, I didn’t have the analysis I currently do now, but looking back, I see the ways that Alana is framed as being “sub-human” and “wild.”

VIDEO: What Does Animal Oppression Have to Do With Our Anti-Racist Movements?

By: Aph Ko

In this video, I use articles from Aphro-ism to answer the common question: “What does animal oppression have to do with our anti-racist movements?” I decided to create some videos because a) I love merging digital media and social justice, and b) I feel like there are A LOT of popular youtube videos today for black folks that deal with social justice, but many fail to include an intersectional analysis of animal oppression in conjunction with black oppression. I want to help fill that gap. If you feel the need to unpack some of the ideas in the video even further, go through this website and read the articles!

Here’s a transcript for the video:

Hello. I’m Aph Ko. I’m the founder of Aphro-ism as well as the founder of Black Vegans Rock.
I’ve decided to create short videos to explain some of the different theories my sister Syl and I create on Aphro-ism so that it’s a big more accessible and easier to digest.
On our website, we’re asked a lot of different questions, and today I’m going to be tackling, “What does animal oppression have to do with our anti-racist movements?”
And keep in mind that when I answer this question, you can apply the framework for my answer to any marginalized identity or movement fighting for rights currently that doesn’t know how animal oppression relates to their fight.
So, the goal of this video is to briefly introduce you to a new way of thinking about animal oppression, and to introduce you to an often ignored layer of black oppression which is steeped in the division between the human and the animal. All too often, white-centered animal rights campaigns or vegan campaigns are thought of as the only or dominant way of doing things, and I’m here to offer a new perspective.
For this video, I will *not* be speaking about health, food deserts, or diet because a) folks are already fluent in that conversation because it’s pretty mainstream, and b) I think important theoretical connections are lost when we only frame veganism or animal rights in terms of our health and not in terms of intersectional oppression or intersectional liberation. Veganism gets super depoliticized when we only talk about our health.
So, the most important thing to take away from this video is: Our cultural ideas of what it means to be human and what it means to be an animal are already racialized, we’re just not trained to frame it in that way today.
You see, white supremacy is a really smart system because it’s convinced us that oppressions on other bodies that look different from our own have absolutely nothing to do with black oppression. However, that’s a myth. White supremacy has also convinced black people that animal rights has absolutely nothing to do with them, when in reality, black people have been animal rights activists and vegans for a really long time. For example, in the 70’s and 80’s there was a black liberation group called MOVE that was vegan and fought for animal rights.
In this video I’m arguing if we don’t side with the animals, we’re siding with white supremacy, a system that is invested in anti-blackness.
A lot of scholars and activists like me and Syl argue that “animal” doesn’t only refer to squirrels, pigs, and elephants, but animal is a socially constructed category that is created to objectify certain bodies so that their violations and abuses are seen as normal, and even justified.
–In 2015, a cop in SF that was being investigated for racism stated through text that black people were monkeys and it’s “not against the law to put an animal down.”
—black people are always framed as “animals” to justify the abuses they experience at the hands of white people.
—This was especially evident during historical slavery (because modern-slavery exists). The enslavement of African people wasn’t only race-based. Slavery wouldn’t even be possible without speciesist thinking.
–one way white people justified the enslavement of black people was by trying to show how black people were animals, and they went to great lengths to prove that black people were animal and white people were human and superior.
—Physicians created fictional narratives and reports that said black people couldn’t feel pain to justify painful medical experiments, black people were “lesser than” white people evolutionarily, and black people’s knees were constructed in a certain way to naturally bend to white people. Black people were even put into zoos alongside orangutans and apes.
—The category of human is anchored to the fictional superiority of whiteness, and the category “animal” is anchored to the fictional inferiority of anything labeled non-white.
–Now the irony of all of this is that well-intentioned black people today also subscribe to this line of thinking that says humans are superior and animals are inferior, which is ironic given the racialized context of this division where white people are the ideal humans and non-white others are viewed as sub-human or animal.
PROOF:Anything that comes out of white history is labeled intelligent, artistic, human, scientific. Anything that comes out of non-white cultures is seen as: animalistic, barbaric, exotic, etc.
Syl writes, “When we refer to a person or a group as “animalistic”, we are not really saying they bear some strong resemblance to non-homo sapiens…What we are saying is they don’t behave or look or believe properly, where what is proper is defined by Eurocentric, white ideals. In other words, they deviate from whiteness.”
To this day, black people are offended when they’re called Animals because we understand how animal is less-than and we don’t want to be viewed as less than…and this is the point where the conversation about black people and animals pretty much ends. We distance ourselves from animals and we want nothing to do with animals because we’ve associated respect with humanity.
However, I would argue that we shouldn’t trust white supremacy’s opinions on ANY other marginalized group on this planet because chances are, they have a vested interest in that group being “inferior” for some reason. We shouldn’t trust white supremacy telling us that animals are beneath us, because guess what, this system also believes that we, as black people are beneath them. Why are we siding with white supremacy when it comes to their opinions on animals?
White supremacy doesn’t always manifest itself through cops hitting black people. There are many other ways that whiteness is reproduced, especially in our thinking and even the way we’ve been trained to understand an issue.
Each time black people scream about how human they are they are buying into white logic or essentially saying, “No, I’m not like an animal, I’m like you white people.”
–“Animal” is the greatest rhetorical and categorical weapon that white supremacy has—it can easily violate you just be labeling you an “animal”, even if you are a homo sapien. We can’t just attack expressions of white supremacy like police violence, mass incarceration, etc. We have to attack it’s framework that justifies white superiority and the inferiority of everyone else, which is largely hinged upon who is human and who is animal.
-We can’t use a hierarchy crated by white supremacy an patriarchy for our own liberation. The human/animal binary has been used by systems of domination to violate any beings that fall outside of the imagined or ideal human body. So, anyone who falls outside of that category called “human”…aka white-cis-wealthy-heterosexual-man, you are one step away from being labeled “sub-human” or ‘animal’ and thus, experiencing violence legally.
White supremacy and patriarchy has many different shapes, contours, and faces. What we might personally be experiencing wont’ look like the oppression another group is experiencing, but that doesn’t mean they’re not being oppressed by the same system. Whenever an oppressed group rolls their eyes at another group’s violent oppression, it’s your first sign that they’re using hierarchal white logic to structure their own movement, even if they have dark skin. This means you might need to revisit your intersectional politics if the violation of a group of extremely vulnerable beings like animals causes you to look the other way, or prop yourself up by saying, “I’m not like them…I’m better than them which is why I deserve rights and respect.” This doesn’t mean that we can’t be specific to our unique experiences, it just means that we should use our own experiences with white supremacy and patriarchy as a launching pad to build coalitions with other oppressed groups because remember, the goal of coming together isn’t to highlight how we’re the same or different, its’ to dismantle the systems that oppress us all very differently.

9 Reasons Why The “I Am Not A Label” Video Makes No Sense

–Aph Ko and Syl Ko

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Prince Ea

Cue the 100,000th video by a musician explaining how we can all end oppression without actually examining how oppression operates…

If you’ve never heard of Prince Ea (Richard Williams), he’s an American rapper and activist who talks about issues ranging from the environment to politics.

We’ve never even heard of Prince Ea until about two weeks ago when a colleague sent us this video to check out.

We watched the video and finished it feeling unsatisfied and upset that millions of people were watching this distorted version of what oppression is and how we can fix it.

Folks, there’s a real reason why this video went viral: it doesn’t actually challenge anyone to do anything. It collapses everyone into the same category, thereby flattening out all systems of oppression and discrimination as though we should all do the SAME amount of work to stop hatred (despite the fact that some strategically benefit from the system, and others are crushed by it).

We’ve broken down why we don’t particularly like the message in the video, and what we think the actual problems are instead:

1. Using Labels to Define Ourselves Isn’t the Problem

The problem is when the majority of the world’s population doesn’t have access to labeling, and, thus, to choosing how they’d like to define and understand themselves. A tiny percentage of the population has had the power to label everyone else how they see fit…making themselves superior, or the norm, and all others inferior, as “the Other.” That’s what we’ve been suffering from- being seen as inferior and unworthy, and being denied the dignity to define ourselves- not the act of labeling itself.

Prior to colonialism, every group of people had their own narrative system which gave rise to unique fundamental classifications and labels. Many times, these narratives prioritized the group that authored the system. But there was nothing wrong with that because those narratives were not globally instituted as the only legitimate way to understand or group people.

In denying legitimacy to the ways populations label themselves, the dominant group keeps hold of their power. For instance, it’s no coincidence that upon arriving to the Americas, Africans were stripped of their names- our most fundamental label- and forced to assume the European names chosen by their white masters. This was a strategy to disempower Africans.

So, the problem isn’t labeling….it’s who’s doing the labeling and for what purpose.

2.  It’s Misguided to Assume That People Wishing to Mark Their Group as Different is Necessarily “Divisive”

Although labels, categories, etc. do have the function of individuating populations, as well as individuals within those populations, it’s silly to assume that individuation itself creates problems.

As a simple example, we divide ourselves by our first names (one of us is “Syl”, the other “Aph”), family names (“the Gonzales” who live down the road from “the Kowalskis”), affiliations (we are “black feminists” while our good friends are “indigenous feminists”) or lifestyles (“punks”, “hippies”). We can make even stronger divisions among ourselves, informed by whatever we like (yes, even physical traits) and still get along.

People assume differences must be bad or divisive because we’ve always served up differences within hierarchical logic.

But we tend to overlook the possibility that wanting to homogenize people- despite our different histories, rituals, lifestyles, locations, and ways of thinking- might itself be an oppressive project.

3. We’re so tired of people saying race isn’t real just because it isn’t biologically or materially “real”

You know what else isn’t biologically real? Principles of justice. Moral systems. Romantic love. These are just things we as humans made up. But that doesn’t mean the only criterion for reality is biology or the material world. Things can be SOCIALLY real and those things usually matter THE MOST to us….precisely because WE made them up.

4. Emphasizing Similarities Won’t Help the Oppressed

As we’ve said in a different post on this site: “Racism, however, draws on the created raced body. So, while it might help the racist cause to stress differences between groups, emphasizing similarities won’t do much to alleviate racism.”

Showing how everyone is the “same” pretty much bypasses the whole entire problematic system of white supremacy, patriarchy, etc. which tells us that certain people have more value than others. To ignore those systems (which caused these problems) and to simply chalk it up to mere labels absolutely misses the mark when it comes to understanding how oppression operates and is sustained.

5. To Tackle Systems of Oppression, Your Activism Must Be Guided By Your Social Location In the System

Oppressed people and privileged people shouldn’t be engaging in the same exact efforts to end the system. It makes absolutely no sense for everyone to do the exact same thing to end systems that disproportionately impact everyone differently. Also, Prince Ea fails to realize that privileged folks don’t necessarily want the system to end because they benefit from it.

In the video, Prince Ea says:

See, our bodies are just cars that we operate and drive around
The dealership we call society decided to label mine the “black edition,”
Yours the “Irish” or “White edition”
And with no money down, 0% APR, and no test drive
We were forced to own these cars for the rest of our lives

Prince Ea should focus a bit more on the dealership-called-society part because society didn’t arbitrarily decide to mark his blackness as inferior….systems of oppression like white supremacy purposefully did that. That’s why the “black” label is viewed as less-than and “white” isn’t, so it makes no sense to act as though the “black” and “white” labels are equally oppressive simply because they’re labels.

If we’re going to use the car analogy to describe how the system operates, the reality is some cars are purposefully given higher value by the car dealership based upon their color. Rather than doing away with color labels altogether, Prince Ea should investigate why the car dealership is being unfair. 

Additionally, assuming racial groups need to work “equally” hard to end hatred is absurd and inevitably ends up making people of color labor even harder when we’re already trying to survive under these unjust systems.

We do not have an equal start on the race track of life, meaning that we can’t act as though all of our bodies are magically equal when systems of domination exist.

Check out this video which pretty much demonstrates my point:

6. Prince Ea’s Video Is the Racial Version of Reducetarianism

You know that horribly misguided awkward “movement” led by a white guy called Reducetarianism? (I’m not even going to link to it). It’s a new term that aims to get people to eat less meat by essentially doing nothing. Seriously. They get the benefit of an activist label (reducetarian) if they just think about eating less meat (even if they keep consuming animal flesh).

It’s the new era of people wanting to be political, without actually doing the work to be political.

Well, that’s essentially what Prince Ea is doing, but with diversity and race. Do nothing, and you’re an activist. Don’t use labels, and you’re an anti-racist.

Doing nothing shouldn’t be treated as an activist campaign.

7. Pretending Racial Terms Don’t Exist Causes More Harm Than Good

We can’t pretend racial notions do not exist. This could be a disastrous, even dangerous, method to employ. It does nothing to address the fact of racism and, in fact, can help maintain it.

For instance, although U.S laws do not make any explicit reference to races anymore, they are just as effective in maintaining racism. Racism transcends not just skin color but even racial terms themselves. Avoiding these key terms as an uprooting strategy is to misunderstand the nature of words and notions and how deeply entrenched they are in our attitudes, practices and institutions, whether or not we explicitly refer to them.

In addition, some references to racial identification have been crucial to dismantling racism. For instance, movements in which “black” has been redefined or reclaimed by populations negatively impacted by racism serve to powerfully confront the messages spread by racial thinking.

8. Prince Ea’s Message is Post-Racial

Okay, though Prince Ea calls his song “I am Not a Label”, the video is titled, “I am NOT Black. You are NOT white.” We absolutely hate when activist campaigns treat different raced bodies as interchangable. It’s disingenous. Throughout the whole video, Prince Ea features different people mouthing out his words, suggesting that we’re “all the same.” However, to deny that different racialized bodies have different amounts of social capital is absolutely absurd and pretty much demonstrates why Prince Ea shouldn’t even be touching the topic.

A surface-level analysis of the problem only produces a surface-level solution.

People want to fix problems before understanding what the actual problem is…which ends up reproducing the problem.

9. Being “Positive” Won’t Change Systems of Oppression

Remember that Pharrell song “Happy” that played on repeat on the radio for months. There’s this forced narrative of happiness in our society that tells people (especially people of color) that we should be happy and laugh everything off. If you keep a positive attitude, you will be fine. If you’re in a a bad mood, or mad, it’s because you individually chose to be in a bad mood! Stop letting the world get to you!! 

Pharrell-Happy-Gif-03

Black folks like Pharrell and Prince Ea are basically creating white-centric artistic messages that are designed to function as sedatives for black rage.

Prince Ea says:

And when you let an artificial label define yourself
Then, my friend, you have chosen smallness over greatness and minimized yourself
Confined and divided yourself from others
And it is an undeniable fact that
When there is division, there will be conflict
And conflict starts wars

So, apparently we’re the ones that have to sing kumbaya with white folks, or else we’re being “angry.” If we decide to call ourselves “black”, we’re dividing ourselves from others. Right…

He’s basically saying: If you experience racism, it’s because you’re allowing yourself to be upset about a label that isn’t even real, bruh! 

Prince Ea ends his video with all of these diverse folks standing around with the word “LOVE” in front of them. Sure, we should all have love for one another, but part of the reason why we don’t isn’t because individual people are just mean and hateful. It’s because we have violent systems of oppression (that folks of color don’t control) that Prince Ea doesn’t mention at all. (He’d probably say that white supremacy is just a label.)

It’s violent to stop folks of color from expressing their justified rage. Compassion shouldn’t be a one way streak where black folks are “kind” to white folks and work alongside them to end systems that are killing them. Compassion is allowing black folks to be angry. Real love is when privileged folks stop assuming world peace will happen in a white supremacist, patriarchal society that favors certain people.

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***

For some odd reason, I have a feeling that uncritical white people loved this video more than people of color because a) they’re not being challenged, b) they don’t have to do anything to check their racism, and c) they’re already afraid of using the word “black” when they talk about black people so they’re off the hook. Thanks Prince Ea!

Corporations and Ads: Co-Opting Black Community-Centric Modes of Resistance

-Aph Ko

Over the past few months, I have been watching different advertisement campaigns on the internet that seem to overtly borrow imagery from black liberation movements to bolster sales from the black community

For example, each time I log into my yahoo mail account, I keep seeing this image. It has been up for over a month at this point.

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Screen shot of Discover ad

What initially stood out to me about this image was the fact that a dark-skinned person  with natural hair was being featured. In fact, I was initially excited because I rarely get to see images like this. However, this person seems to be raising a fist, conjuring up images from historical black resistance movements. This ad happens to be displayed at a time when the Black Lives Matter movement is making national headlines.

The ad even makes a concerted effort to conceal the person’s body below the shoulders so that the first thing you see is a black person with natural hair and a raised fist. I didn’t even notice the person in the ad was on a phone until I saw the ad multiple times. This seems like a purposeful move. Discover can look semi-political without actually committing to the black struggle. If a white person were to feel uncomfortable by this ad, Discover could quickly point out that this person is actually looking at their phone, not raising a fist out of racial solidarity.

The raised first has been a signifier of black liberation and resistance.

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Angela Davis

To this day, black activists still engage with the raised fist for solidarity purposes.

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The creators of Black Lives Matter

Sure, I could be reading into the Discover ad. It’s just an ad for a credit card, but it’s common for giant corporations to try to hijack progressive social justice movements and transform them into capitalist tropes to sell products. This isn’t new.

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WTF

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This is pathetic

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pads+ tampons = feminism

However, there seems to be a new trend where black community-centric modes of resistance are being used as advertising platforms to get the black community engaged with corporations.

Essentially, what these ads do is rearticulate symbols from resistance movements in an attempt to sanitize the message. 

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Screen shot of T-Mobile ad

Here’s an advertisement for T-Mobile that popped up on my screen when I was logging into my yahoo mail account TODAY.  It’s a black and white image of a black man screaming into a megaphone. Below is an actual image from a Black Lives Matter protest.

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Muhiydin Moye D’Baha of the BLM movement. Image from Telegraph.

I’m not saying that every time a black person raises their fist or uses a megaphone that they are automatically black liberation activists. Context matters!

I’m merely suggesting that perhaps these corporations’ attempts to look “cool” with black folks has dropped to an all new low: they are reducing our anti-white supremacy movements to an empty aesthetic. This is a form of digital minstrelsy, using our faces and struggles to be the cover art for capitalist, anti-black corporations.

It seems as though Discover and T-Mobile are trying to capitalize on the current Black Lives Matter movement in hopes that black folks will align themselves with their brands.

Similarly, McDonald’s has been trying to take advantage of the community-centric vibe of many black spaces for decades. They constantly emphasize the “black community” in the most superficial ways possible.

In fact, just the other day I found out about an initiative that McDonald’s created in the early 2000’s called, “365Black.” I thought this was a joke at first because it seemed so desperate, but it’s real. Also, it’s still going on. It’s where McDonald’s celebrates African American culture 365 days a year…

On the front page of the website it states, “365 Black: Deeply Rooted in the Community.”

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The whole point of this initiative is to demonstrate how McDonald’s has been a bedrock in the black community. They offer scholarships to black folks, they put on gospel tours, and they offer black awards.

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In fact, this past September, Ava DuVernay won an award for Selma at the 365 Black Awards. Notice how the McDonald’s sign is prominently displayed.

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I get chills when I look at this image because it just feels wrong

The McDonald’s 365Black initiative also supports HBCU’s. I can’t believe it.

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The brand also successfully solidified it’s space at the ESSENCE festival which is a large event for the black community.

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McDonalds has even attached itself to prominent black bloggers who are known for providing social commentary on society. Luvvie Ajayi, creator of the extremely popular site Awesomely Luvvie  is supported by McDonalds. (I never knew this until yesterday).

McDonalds, and other large corporations that don’t benefit black folks at all, try to build trust with us so that we automatically associate their brand with helping our struggle.

What’s horrible about all of this is that McDonald’s and other fast food companies are known for poisoning the black community.

Similarly, credit card companies have been shown to target black folks and to come after us even harder when we have debts. (Discover…you might want to check that out).

These corporations strategically romanticize and over-emphasize the black community hoping that they might superficially become a part of it.

This is why as black vegan activists, we take a stand against giant corporations that are using our struggles to draw attention to their brands. The fact that McDonald’s wants to empower black folks and support Selma should raise every red flag that you could possibly have. Credit card and cell phone companies are using black liberation aesthetics to sell their brand and it’s distasteful and shameful.

We need to stop being bamboozled into our own oppression. Giant, violent corporations won’t lead us to liberation.

 

 

 

 

 

Addressing Racism Requires Addressing the Situation of Animals

-Syl Ko

How we choose to address and “do something” about the violation or harms committed against vulnerable groups matter. Understandably, we want to feel like we are “doing something” about a problem and, in wanting to feel that way, we rush to “do something”. But many times, by rushing to “do something” about a problem, we unintentionally reproduce or perpetuate the violence or harm against which we protest precisely by the methods or ways of thinking we employ.

Sometimes it doesn’t occur to us that the unglamorous work of thinking about and discussing how we should do something about some problem is doing something about the problem.  It’s only by discussing and thinking about how that problem arises, how it presents itself, how it’s maintained, etc., that we start to locate what the problem is.  And oftentimes, the problem looks starkly different than when those discussions first began.

The ideological foundation for this site, Aphro-ism, is the result of years and years of discussions between Aph Ko and myself surrounding issues having to do with being black women in the United States. Eventually those discussions began to extend to how our struggle is related to the struggles of other racialized groups in the US and to the struggles of racialized groups across the globe.  We were encouraged to create this unique space after realizing we have a very different way of understanding what the problem is for racialized folks and, thus, for how we ought to proceed in our activism given this rearticulation of the problem.

We think that something crucial has been missing from most discussions about racism and from almost all strategies to resist or combat racism: the situation of animals.

Now, of course people of color in activist spaces touch upon “the animal”, at least conceptually, in some way. For instance, almost any good analysis of racism or coloniality usually calls attention to the degree to which racialized folks are animalized.  That is, we animalize or dehumanize certain folks, individually or as groups, thereby justifying their violation. [1]

Law professor Maneesha Deckha notes that “infliction on animal bodies is perceived as legitimate violence because of the nonhuman status of the species involved.” [2] As a result, if we can convince the mainstream that certain groups fall outside of “human”– they are irrational, they hold “barbaric” values, they have “inferior” systems of beliefs, they behave “like animals”, and so on– we legitimate acting against these groups in ways that would otherwise be considered grossly inappropriate and criminal.

But interestingly, most of the analysis in anti-racist discourse concerning animality stops there. What usually follows is protestation about the animalization of groups of color. People of color are humans, too. So, we should treat them like humans, not animals.

Notice that there is an open acceptance of the negative status of “the animal” here which, as I see it, is a tacit acceptance of the hierarchical racial system and white supremacy in general.  

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.

“White” is not just the superior race; it is also the superior mode of being. Residing at the top of the racial hierarchy is the white human, where species and race coincide to create the master being. And resting at the bottom as the abject opposite of the human, of whiteness, is the (necessarily) nebulous notion of “the animal”. [3]

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A more accurate rendering of the “human/animal binary” [4]

Deckha, quoting from Sherene Razack’s excellent 2007 book on the eviction of Muslims from western law, states, “It is species-thinking that helps to create the racial demarcation.  Race-thinking, the denial of a common bond of humanity between people of European descent and those who are not, is a defining feature of the world order today as in the past.” (38)

The racial hierarchy and racism, not to mention the racial-thinking it generated, was the novel way white, western Europeans in the colonial period legally and morally placed groups outside the “human” zone. As a result, the authors of this system were deeply invested in a rigid species divide where “human” indicated the domain of morality and law, while “animal” was a space of absence of being, lawlessness, inviting a need to be controlled, disciplined and contained by “humans”. [5]

As authors of the racial framework, western white men conceived of themselves as the representatives of humanity. So, they were the objects of morality and law and, not coincidentally, were the subjects that dictated how we should think about notions like morality, law and justice.

Their notion of “the animal”- construed under their white supremacist framework as “subhuman”, “nonhuman”, or “inhuman”- is the conceptual vehicle for justified violence or, another way Deckha puts it, a “violence producing category.” Since racism requires this notion of animality, since racism and race-thinking would fail to make sense without animality, those of us interested in resisting or combatting racism need to take seriously why the status of “the animal” is what it is.

When we excuse a harm committed against a being saying, “it’s just an animal”, we need to interrogate the “just” in use here.

The human-animal divide (binary), where “the human” and “the animal” form oppositional poles, and thus, oppositional status-markers, on a “chain of being” is not an objective model handed to us from the heavens. “The human” and “the animal” were posited in positing a racial system. [6] In the same vein, racial categories tracking modes of “being” and degrees of superiority/ inferiority is not an objective framework that must be in place for us to think about or conceptually arrange members of the world.

Both of these frameworks, which are deeply intertwined, and cannot be made sense of independent of one another, were CREATIONS invented by a small percent of people who took themselves to be the singular point of knowledge and, through centuries of violence, genocide and control made their view of the world, themselves and others universal. [6]

It is clear to me that if we truly want to take white supremacy, racism, coloniality, . . .  however you want to talk about it, to task, then we need to take to task the continuing uncontroversial view that “the animal” is the opposite status-marker to the “human.”

As long as these notions of “the animal” and “the human” are intact, white supremacy remains intact.  

For this reason, I have advised against the strategy of “humanizing” groups of color, or gaining protections for vulnerable groups on the basis of their humanity. Deckha similarly warns us about relying on theories in which the sub-human is crucial, such as humanist and liberal theories:

Whether motivated by a focus on human vulnerability, nonhuman vulnerability, or both, pursuing anti-violence projects with the current anthropocentric status quo seriously undercuts those very same projects. (46)

As a result of holding this unique position- namely, uprooting white supremacy is going to involve uprooting the human-animal divide- we have to be creative about how to proceed in our activism. As just mentioned, we have to steer clear of theories that fundamentally rely on the human-animal divide. Although these might bring temporary improvements, it does nothing to get at the root of the problem, the bedrock of white supremacist logic. By settling for temporary improvements without addressing the “violence producing category” of the animal/subhuman/nonhuman, we invite guaranteed future harms, which- given technological advancements- will be more destructive than ever before.

Since we think a serious commitment to anti-racism will involve a deep commitment to animals, the direct bearers of the unfortunate consequences of the negative status-marker “the animal”, we also have to be careful with typical approaches to extending concern to animals.

Like the mainstream anti-racist initiatives which fail to consider the species element of racist logic, many mainstream anti-speciesist initiatives fail to consider the very same thing present in speciesist logic. But, related and more importantly, as I mentioned before, white western men took it upon themselves to be the sole voices for how we should think about notions like justice and morality, not to mention a host of other crucial notions hidden in our ways of thinking about the world.

A big part of fighting racism is rejecting the position that white, western voices and views are the only legitimate voices and views in the world.  

I don’t see why we have to try to extend the views of, say,  John Rawls or Immanuel Kant instead of just turning to other views, rooted in different, anti-racist traditions, or even coming up with our own. I don’t see why we have to honor the west’s hyper-obsession with the “person” or the “individual” and try to extend personhood or individuality to animals in order to rethink/ reimagine animality. We could just resist this obsession altogether- resist the idea that concern, care or protections are supposed to correlate with “an individual”. I don’t see why we have to try to find some abstract principle or some capacity or feature which is the “universal status-conferring” capacity or feature and try to prove that this applies to all of the beings we wish to cover.

But I also don’t think the way to go about doing the uprooting-work I’ve recommended is to avoid terminology that is key in this discussion, like pretending the notions of “human” and “animal” do not exist. This could be a disastrous, even dangerous, method to employ, and so I don’t recommend that approach . .. for the same reason I don’t encourage avoiding racial terms or pretending they don’t exist. It’s ineffective and does nothing to address racism or the situation of animals and, in fact, can help maintain these phenomena.

For instance, although U.S laws do not make any explicit reference to races anymore, they are just as effective in maintaining racism. Avoiding these key terms as an uprooting strategy is to misunderstand the nature of words and notions and how deeply entrenched they are in our attitudes, practices and institutions, whether or not  we explicitly refer to them.

I’ve tried to make the case that anti-racist work will require a liberation we may not have initially expected: conceptual liberation from the human-animal divide, and, as a result, severing the connection between ‘animality’ and ‘non-status’. I’ll also say that, given my view, I’m taking the position that the best case in favor of defending animals from violation is going to be generated from within the anti-racist commitment.

Unlike others, I don’t see these as competing commitments and, in fact, I think these issues must be addressed together.

In my next post, I’ll expand on what it means to rethink/ reimagine “the animal” from within an anti-racist commitment and I’ll deal with a couple of objections. [8] Since I’ve maintained that the negative notion of “the animal” is the crux of whiteness, I will draw on traditions that are critical of whiteness. Hopefully, this will inspire others to think about their anti-racist and anti-speciesist activism from outside the typical theories that are presented to us.

***

Notes:

[1] In animal rights and vegan spaces, it is customary for members to draw on racism or racist practices, usually the transatlantic slave trade, as a way to draw a productive analogy between the situation of non-human animals and that of oppressed human groups. But these analogies are usually just that- analogies. Although some activists will make the deep point that these horrors are manifestations of the same system, they generally fail to make the point I am trying to make here– that racism and speciesism should not be treated independently of one another since speciesism is racial thinking.

[2] See Maneesha Deckha’s fantastic paper: “The Subhuman as a Cultural Agent of Violence”, Journal for Critical Animal Studies, Volume VIII, Issue 3, 2010: 28-51.

[3] When we think of the distinctively “human” experience or our existential crises, we overwhelmingly represent them as distinctively white and male. Think of recent films like “Boyhood” or “Her”. Even people of color tend to explore these “human” themes and talk about their own situations using white vehicles. For instance, watch author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s describe her early forays into writing fiction in the first several minutes of one of her excellent TED Talks.

[4] What I am suggesting is that [white human male] comprises a single category. So, I am not saying there are three categories that comprise the top level: [white] + [human] + [male].

Also, I think it’s worth noting that, due to the western obsession with individuality, plants and “nature” are generally missing from the scheme (or the [animal] is simply collapsed into the even more generic and insulting reduction of the complexity of different life forms: [nature].) Needless to say, the less “individuality” we perceive, the less is their moral worth. This sheds some light on why members of racialized groups protest that they are not seen as “individual”, but rather as representative of their whole group. As I’ll briefly mention later, though, I’m not sure this protest works in our favor.

[5] Excerpt from Deckha: “Sherene Razack highlights the phenomenon of the “camp”- spaces where states pass laws or take other measures to create a lawless zone untouched by rule of law principles.” This is a “notable feature of many camps today:  racialized individuals identified as terrorist or migrant threats and thus in need of containment and discipline.” (34) She goes on to note that Razack calls these spaces “state[s] of exception” and says that “the effect of the war on terror has been to discursively normalize these spaces and the violence they inflict.” (35).

Here is another relevant excerpt from Razack:

“Although race thinking varies, for Muslims and Arabs, it is underpinned by the idea that modern enlightened, secular peoples must protect themselves from pre-modern, religious peoples whose loyalty to tribe and community reigns over their commitment to the rule of law. The marking of belonging to the realm of culture and religion, as opposed to the realm of law and reason, has devastating consequences….(T)he West has often defined the benefits of modernity to those it considers to be outside of it. Evicted from the universal, and thus from civilization and progress, the non-West occupiers a zone outside the law. Violence may be directed at it with impunity” (Razack, 2007).

[6] For a genealogy of the “human”, see Sylvia Wynter’s Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation — An Argument.” CR: The New Centennial Review, Volume 3, Number 3, Fall 2003, pp. 257-337.

[7] For more on this topic, see Walter Mignolo’s essay “Sylvia Wynter: What Does it Mean to be Human?” in Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis. Ed. Katherine McKittrick. Duke University Press (2015): 106-124.

I also recommend Hasan Azad’s recent interview with Professor of Anthropology Talal Asad in The Islamic Monthly in which Asad discusses the Eurocentric notions of ‘humanity’ and ‘civilization’: http://theislamicmonthly.com/being-human-an-interview-with-talal-asad/

[8] Note: This is Syl Ko writing so you’ll have to wait for my next post. Aph Ko will be publishing a post on her own topic!

 

Emphasizing Similarities Does Nothing For the Oppressed

Around a year ago, Professor Robert Sussman, author of The Myth of Race:  The Troublesome Persistence of an Unscientific Idea, queried in Newsweek: “Unfortunately, along with the belief in the reality of biologically based human races, racism still abounds in the United States and Western Europe.  How can this be when there is so much scientific evidence against it?” In his article “There is No Such Thing as Race”, Sussman presents a list, which includes a diversity of attributes, capacities, dispositions and the like, that many Americans continue to associate with racial differences.

For instance, many people still believe that race (independent of social and other forces) heavily factors into intelligence, work ethics/ abilities, sexual behavior, infant care, personal restraint, aggression, altruism, and family cohesion. Sussman claims that “we humans are more similar to each other as a group than we are to one another within any particular racial or genetic category.” Therefore, despite the wealth of data that reveals the overwhelming similarities between members of different races, thereby suggesting that racial differences don’t really amount to much more than just skin color (independent of social forces), people continue to hold certain attitudes and exhibit certain behaviors that would suggest otherwise. [1]

A similar phenomenon exists with our attitudes and beliefs towards most animals. Although historically humans and animals were thought to be discontinuous entities [humans have souls while animals are soulless (and thus, can’t be “saved”. .. though they can be possessed by the devil, apparently, not to mention tried in court), humans have minds while animals are mere machine-like automatons] it is nowadays more or less accepted that variations among species are best understood as differences in degree, not kind.

Moreover, despite differences in degree, many different species share in activities, behaviors and capacities initially thought to be exclusively in the province of homo sapiens. For instance philosopher Cary Wolfe notes

[PBS] and cable television- most recently in the big budget PBS series on “the animal mind” hosted by Nature executive producer George Page- have made standard fare out of one study after another convincingly demonstrating that the traditionally distinctive marks of the human (first it was possession of a soul, then “reason”, then tool use, then tool making, then altruism, then language, then the production of linguistic novelty, and so on) flourish quite reliably beyond the species barrier. [2]

Similarly, famous ecology and evolutionary biologist Marc Bekoff, who co-founded Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals with Jane Goodall, remarked in his 2011 article for Psychology Today “Animal Minds and the Foible of Human Exceptionalism”: “The database grows daily and science is supporting many of our intuitions about the cognitive, emotional, and moral capacities for complex forms of consciousness.”

Bekoff goes on to say:

“We’re clearly neither the only conscious beings nor the sole occupants of the emotional and moral arenas in which there are also some surprising residents including honeybees, fish, and chickens.  Surely we have no right to intrude wantonly into the lives of other animals or to judge them or blame them for our evil ways.”

So, a wealth of data exists which, in the case of racism, dispels the myth that people of color are somehow deeply or essentially distinct from white people. In the case of what is commonly referred to as speciesism, the data dispels the myth that animals are irredeemably foreign or dissimilar to us in their capacities, activities and interests. But despite this data, racism and speciesism remain fully entrenched in our society. [3]

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Primatologist Jane Goodall

There is an obvious activist component to many of these studies searching for and revealing meaningful similarities among presumably “different” beings. [4] That is, those of us who wish to ensure visibility, protection and justice for marginalized, oppressed and/or exploited groups assume that pointing to and proving robust similarities between the oppressed group in question and the dominant group will give the dominant group less reason to continue harming them or less comfort in being complicit with harms.

As a result, drawing connections between the behaviors, characteristics, interests and capacities of marginalized and dominant beings is supposed to offer reliable grounds for growing marginalized beings’ rights or calling for their justice. [5] As Wolfe  puts it with respect to animals:

In the light of developments in cognitive science, ethology, and other fields over the past twenty years. . . it seems clear that there is no longer any good reason to take it for granted that the theoretical, ethical, and political question of the subject is automatically coterminous with the species distinction between Homo Sapiens and everything else. [6]

Now, there are many things to be said here. For instance, most studies require rigorous interpretive work which may lead to conclusions hard to accept, especially in studies concerning animals. I’m going to overlook the interpretive issue and grant, for the sake of simplicity, that they do in fact present compelling reasons for thinking there is substantial overlap between human and animal capacities, social behaviors, interests, etc. On a different note, that differences between groups of beings issue in judgments about inferiority and superiority is a research project of its own.

But what I am mostly concerned with here is the presupposition that if we- a dominant group- neglect certain beings, or fail to extend to them rights/ other sorts of protections or if we systematically harm those beings, then it must have something to do with the fact that they are “not like us” in relevant ways.

In other words, I believe that the popular move to stress marginalized and dominant groups’ similarities and to minimize their differences is motivated by the implicit assumption that these presumed differences are fueling the disparity in treatment. So, by proving a meaningful continuity between these groups or proving that they are significantly alike in ways that are important to the dominant group, we thereby lose reasons for differential allocation of resources or protections, etc and effect a change in treatment owed to the marginalized group in question.

For instance, one of the most common responses to careless, racist claims is to appeal to scientific studies (natural and/or social) in order to assert that, fundamentally, “we are all the same”. Another popular way to respond to racist claims might involve acknowledging the wide disparities between IQ levels, income, incarceration rates, and so on among different racial groups but to stress that all of these would be relatively equivalent had the economic, political and historical context for certain people of color been different. [7] Or consider the work of Cheikh Anta Diop, famed physicist, historian and anthropologist, which, among other things, set out to show that pre-colonial Africans had similar intellectual and artistic values and standards as Europeans and shared in the legacy of forming great civilizations and producing great works of art, science and the like. [8]

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Cheikh Anta Diop

Now, I certainly think there is great value in some studies that show we’ve been exaggerating differences between groups or that we have been ignoring significant similarities. I also believe that, fundamentally, we are “all the same” and I agree that, had the economic, political, social and historical context been different, the various disparities we observe between racial groups would be less pronounced, if present at all. Also, I don’t dispute the results that follow from Diop’s research.

I also think it’s worth mentioning that of course there were and continue to be projects deeply invested in emphasizing or inventing distinctions among groups precisely for the purpose of perpetuating exploitation and oppression.

What I take issue with is the assumption that phenomena like racism or speciesism (not to mention other pernicious -isms) is caused by or can be explained by appealing to data (real or imagined) about differences in capacities, intelligence, behaviors, features, etc. Certainly, given the amount of effort placed into creating or stressing differences among groups, this type of information (again, real or fabricated) plays a role in helping to maintain and especially to make normal specific oppressions and exploitation. But it is not where the phenomena of racism, speciesism, and other -isms bottom out.

Philosopher Cora Diamond, who is deeply invested in the animal situation, distinguishes differences between humans and animals and the difference between humans and animals. While the sciences can speak to the former, the latter is established by “an idea that we form, a concept we create knowing full well the obvious similarities between us. . . It’s not a difference we discover because of ethology or evolutionary history.” Thus, while learning more about the bodies, minds and social environments of animals might minimize the differences between humans and animals, it doesn’t follow that the difference is also diffused.

In other words, the difference between humans and animals, the crucial factor which fuels the phenomena of speciesism, was not born from the observation that animals are irredeemably foreign or dissimilar to us. In fact, Diamond points to the contrary (“[the difference] is a concept we create knowing full well the obvious similarities between us…”).

These claims, which come from Diamond’s famous and absolutely-must-read 1978 paper “Eating Meat and Eating People”, center her view that typical intellectual animal rights arguments are neither effective (on the large scale) nor do they get to the heart of why animal exploitation, torture and slaughter happen.  The “difference” is, in the case of humans and animals, created by us as a functional device. As a result, many terms which are animal specific carry within them the parameters for how to treat that being. Appealing to anything external, such as their capacity to suffer, misses the force of concepts and how they function.

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For example, simply calling someone an “animal” or “non-human” is many times enough to justify extreme violence towards that person. The justification is in the choice of that term itself. There is no need to appeal to anything external. Or, as Diamond points out, simply calling someone a “person” denotes that it is not the kind of thing to be eaten. By simply choosing the term “person” as the right term for a certain being, you thereby grasp that you cannot eat them.

I think something similar occurs with racial terms. Philosopher and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon argued in his groundbreaking book Black Skin, White Masks that racializing beings actually constructs bodies and psyches. It’s not the case that the presumed inferiority of the African was observed or located in the actual body. Rather, the inferiority is locked into and is, part and parcel of the racial label of “negro” or “black” and the system which gave rise to the label. The “black” or “negro” is the location and source of the African’s inferiority, where the “blackness” is fictive– a creation by Western Europeans.

Since the site of the difference between “whites” and “blacks” does not reside in actual differences between the groups, all of the data in the world will do nothing to dissolve racism. Natural and social scientific data draw on actual, real bodies, behaviors, capacities, interests, etc. [9] Racism, however, draws on the created raced body. So, while it might help the racist cause to stress differences between groups, emphasizing similarities won’t do much to alleviate racism.

I think a more effective way to address these type of phenomena, which stem from a fictional difference (Diamond’s the difference) is to first, reveal the source of the fiction and then, second, uproot the source by changing the terms of the conversation. [10] If white supremacy, which authored the racial classification system during its colonial infancy, is the source, how do we uproot it?

I propose we change the terms of the conversation by refusing to center whiteness in our lives and work. I explored this topic here already but, in short, this basically means we need to take seriously non-white theoretical constructs and frameworks and use these to change our understanding of the world, others and ourselves. These theoretical models take white supremacy and white superiority as a starting point, as a reality, and as the fundamental threat to justice everywhere. I also think de-centering whiteness requires taking seriously non-white art, literature, music, systems of belief, and other rituals as a way of re-imagining the world outside of the constraints developed by white supremacy.

As I’ve argued in a previous post, I think refusing to center whiteness also encourages us to move away from the human-animal divide. [11] Since I’ve already explored this topic at length, I invite you to read through the linked post at your convenience.

Of course, the title to this piece (“Emphasizing Similarities Does Nothing For the Oppressed”) might be too forceful. Ultimately, it’s an empirical matter whether or not this or that strategy works. And also I don’t necessarily think there’s one strategy that is the strategy for effectively addressing matters like racism or speciesism. Having said that, I hope drawing attention to the conceptual and invented roots of these phenomena will spark more commitment to actively de-link ourselves from the Eurocentric, white-supremacist imagination.

***

Notes:

[1]  I am using “race”, “racial differences”, etc in the most diluted way possible, obviously.

[2] From the introduction to Wolfe’s Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory (2003). For those interested in the animal issue, Wolfe is a great resource. His philosophical work seeks to undermine the constant threat of humanism that appears even in animal rights discourse. For example, the first chapter for his Animal Rites argues that “[o]ne of the central ironies of animal rights philosophy is that its philosophical framework remains essentially humanist in its most important philosophers (utilitarianism in Peter Singer, neo-Kantianism in Tom Regan), thus effacing the very difference of the animal other that it sought to respect.” (8) (See: “Old Orders for New: Ecology, Animal Rights, and the Poverty of Humanism”.) Unfortunately, however, Wolfe heavily relies on French philosopher Jacques Derrida, who is notoriously difficult to follow.

[3] Of course, this is observable with lots of other phenomena as well, such as sexism.

[4] This is one among many motivations, but the one I’m interested in here.

[5] Other traditional status-markers can be added to the list. For the sake of brevity, I just listed the ones that are usually mentioned.

[6]  Wolfe,1.

[7] I included the IQ consideration because this is such a hot button for many people. Personally, though, I think we should keep in mind that IQ stuff is mostly bullshit

[8] Contrast with surrealist Aime Cesaire.

[9] That’s not to say that natural and the social sciences don’t have their own problems when it comes to “studying” or “researching” beings but I won’t go into that here.

[10]  I borrow this suggestion and phrasing from decolonial thinker Walter Mignolo.

[11]  I was very pleased to recently learn that Caribbean decolonial scholar, Sylvia Wynter, argues that the notion of “the objective human” which she describes as “the overrepresentation of man”, must be uprooted if we are to ever unsettle coloniality (the long-lasting effects of white colonial rule). As a result, she describes being human as a praxis as opposed to a noun. See her article “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation — An Argument.” CR: The New Centennial Review, Volume 3, Number 3, Fall 2003, pp. 257-337.

Black lives, black Life

Aph and Syl Ko

In this piece, I want to discuss and connect two seemingly disparate conversations: one concerning diversity and the other concerning #blacklivesmatter. There’s a troubling aspect present in both and that is the interpretation of blackness or brownness as essentially bodied. In other words, the mainstream [read: white] tendency to find us visible insofar as we are regarded merely as bodies is a tendency that we have internalized and one that we now perpetuate in our own movements.

I’m not trying to pull any philosophical lingo on you by using the term “bodied”. I don’t mean to say there is something problematic about our having bodies. Also, I don’t think there is anything inferior about bodies or that it “drags down” our existence or any other such nonsense. Understanding beings as “bodied” becomes a problem when beings are viewed primarily in terms of their bodies. That is, reducing conscious, active beings with perspectives, interests and/or projects —subjects— into merely the biological frame that houses the source of this activity —objects— is destructive to those beings. Time after time, this type of reduction is used to justify really horrible treatment. The phenomena of slavery, human experimentation, sex camps, human exhibits in zoos, etc., were made possible by interpreting these beings as primarily bodied. And the phenomena of slaughtering non-humans for meat, the gross manipulation of female non-human reproductive capacities for dairy and egg production, scientific experimentation on non-humans, the incarceration of non-humans in zoos, etc., are also made possible by pretending these beings are best understood as merely bodied.

My task in this piece isn’t to beg white people to drop this interpretation of black people. My aim is to make us reflect on ways in which we may have internalized this interpretation of ourselves, especially in activist spaces, and how to move away from it.

The #blacklivesmatter movement is one obvious place to turn. Although the slogan demands for black lives to matter, I think really some of us are upset that black deaths don’t seem to matter. If you don’t believe me, simply take a look at our community’s reaction to the way mainstream news outlets reported the death of Cecil the lion. Of course, in saying that our deaths matter, we are in a roundabout way saying our lives matter. But what do we mean when we say our “lives” matter?

Given the context in which the slogan was born, there is overwhelming attention to and emphasis on the biological aspect of black life. Black people are violently targeted, tortured and murdered left and right, many times in the light of day. But even though this unjust attack on black bodies has helped to make this issue a mainstream one, I think the myopic focus on actual or biological black life and death is simply reproducing the black-as-bodied narrative. The framing of the issue in this biological way puts at stake the way we believe we can move forward or “do something” about this problem.

For instance, obsessive and excessive attention has been devoted to the issue of police violence. Some might think I’m being harsh in calling what seems to be deserved attention “obsessive and excessive” but, let’s face it, we in the black community have always had a disastrous relationship with the police. Just because white people are beginning to trust our word on this doesn’t merit hitching every solution to investigating the police or installing cameras or trying to make fair the inherently racist justice system. That’s not to say these are all bad ideas. I’m just saying these aren’t necessarily ways to move forward. Some of us who are a little more seasoned might even agree with George Jackson when he wrote: “How ridiculous we must seem to the rest of the black world when we beg the government to investigate their own protective agencies.”

This particular framework in which we cast these types of solutions is restrictive because the interpretation of the problem which underpins this framework is itself rather restrictive. Yes, black people’s actual, biological lives and bodies are under attack. But what if we go deeper to find what is giving rise to this phenomenon? This requires seeing the problem as more than just physical violation. .. and seeing ourselves as beyond primarily bodied.

One way I suggest construing the issue is as follows: symbolic or cultural elimination of black Life is a necessary condition for which literal elimination of black lives is made possible. We’ve been so focused on biological black “lives” that we have lost sight of what might be a cause of this problem: the routine dismissal of black Life. Life is more than biological. Life (capital L) includes those activities that make life worth living and valuable; it is the thing that lends weight to our existence as human beings. To feel alive, to have a life that feels worthy of living, to experience one’s “weight” as a living subject is not to merely feel one’s pulse, or have a working brain. It’s something more.

The ways in which we as humans construct Life for ourselves usually demand an ongoing dialogue with the world in which we exist. These dialogues manifest themselves as contributions that attempt to engage with society: art, music, film, science, religion, theory, literature and philosophy are some categories in which these manifestations find themselves. Other times, Life can be constructed by ongoing dialogues with microworlds we have created for ourselves, such as our families or communities and these are usually represented or treated in art, music, film, theory, etc.

The problem is: we live in a society (and world, for that matter) that either erases, rejects or diminishes the value of contributions offered by black people, which entails the erasure, rejection or inferiorization of family and community-life represented and treated in many of those contributions. In other words, we live in a society that culturally or symbolically eliminates black Life. We might even call it a US tradition: black Life does not matter. If it did, then we would not find ourselves drowning in whiteness and Eurocentricity still to this day.

I think it is here that the discussion thus far links up quite well with the second conversation I mentioned at the beginning: diversity. We can find the black-as-bodied narrative in operation here as well and in many ways it fuels the US tradition of erasing or rejecting black Life. In short, diversity (or rather “diversity”) is the idea that black (and brown) people should function as vessels for white perspectives and white theory as opposed to contributing their own perspectives and theories. The assumption here is that the perspectives of black people are either inferior or negligible and so the value of black people in any space will be in their ability to reproduce whiteness. In simpler words, “diversity” is the presence of black bodies, as opposed to the presence of black ideas born from black perspectives, in predominantly white spaces.

Let’s look at two examples that demonstrate ways in which we fall into this way of thinking:

1) Many times, people- including black people- think they are “being diverse” when they choose to focus on some type of project that concentrates on an issue that affects non-white people or that make non-white people the prime subjects of the project. But more often than not, the framework from which the study or research project is generated is Eurocentric. Just because the project is “about race” or concerns black and brown people does not mean you are valuing diversity. Valuing diversity in such a context means recognizing that theoretical models devised by brown and black people, especially those that directly challenge Eurocentricity, are just as good, if not even more appropriate, to frame your research projects or studies, whether or not they are about black or brown populations.

2) Now let’s consider an example that touches on “strategies for inclusion” in spaces that find it difficult to recruit black people. As a student in philosophy, I can speak to this example from personal experience: all across US philosophy programs, faculty are scrambling for ways to “get black people interested in philosophy” in order to do something about the abysmal number of non-whites, particularly black people, in the profession. I am depressed to say I know more than a handful of black philosophers who are enthusiastically invested in this “project” as well. Of course, the truth is, black people have been philosophizing all along but “top” programs refuse to acknowledge those works as “real” philosophy. So, the problem isn’t some mysterious malaise affecting black people that prevents them from appreciating the virtues of philosophy and applying to philosophy programs. The problem is that the white gatekeepers of philosophical inquiry maintain a particularly Eurocentric conception of “philosophy”.

What’s especially poignant with diversity rhetoric is that we are being used to erase our own perspectives. You can see why Aph Ko and I reject the idea that any of this is actual diversity. We call it “cosmetic diversity”: be black, think white. Others call it “imperial diversity.” Angela Davis describes it as “a corporate strategy.”

It seems that cosmetic diversity is itself lending to the problem of disappearing black lives given this flawed understanding of diversity seeks to reject genuine contributions from black people for the sake of upholding and glorifying white ones. If physical erasure of black people is made possible by our cultural or symbolic erasure, and “diversity” functions to include our black bodies in white spaces but reject our unique perspectives, then “diversity” is not on our side.

This phenomenon of disinterest in black Life and the activity of erasing our contributions, voices and perspectives play a central role in making possible our physical, literal erasure. If the very thing that makes us “really alive”, the contributions that make our existence possible and worthwhile as social beings are regarded as nonexistent, pointless, inferior, or not worth even acknowledging, then we have already been killed. If our artistic vision, our theoretical endeavors, our constructs are completely without value and have no place in the world, mere flesh and blood will never convince anyone that we have a rightful place here. What exactly are the grounds to prove that our lives matter when our Life doesn’t matter to the world at large?

So, how do we move forward? Well, we have to take black Life seriously. But to do that, we first have to look backward, to our brothers and sisters in the struggle who pointed out a long time ago that black lives are not supposed to matter. We were never meant to be on equal footing with white people. This is what Aimé Césaire meant when he described the ‘negro’ as “an invention of Europe.” As black people, we are supposed to be inferior in precisely this way. People of any race can understand that surely black biological life matters. Killing or beating black people is wrong. Duh. People of any race can understand that surely black bodies should be included in all spaces. Excluding black people from places is wrong. Duh. But this does not mean those people understand that black Life matters. And this does not mean that those people understand that black ideas and perspectives should be included in all spaces. You can be a diehard activist, shutting down highways with your protests against police killings and still be a part of the problem if you fail to take seriously black art, black theory, black perspectives. You can be the president of the committee on diversity and still be an enemy to true diversity if your only concern is to recruit black and brown bodies instead of black and brown ideas.

We have to be careful in how we prod our allies (and ourselves) to action on these issues. If we maintain the current strategy, we might- at most- get mainstream society to care about us when we’re dead. How about we try to get society to care about us, really care about us, while we’re alive?

*
Césaire, Aimé. Discourse on Colonialism. Tr. Joan Pinkham. Monthly Review Press (2000).

Jackson, George. Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson. Lawrence Hill Books (1994): p 289.