Sunday, August 30, 2009

People of Color and the human/animal divide

Renee over at Womanist Musings and Feministe has made a post about the connection between the claims of animal rights groups that humans are animals and the suffering of people of color. I don't make this post at all to defend Peta. Rather, I want to look at her post not about Peta, but in order to follow the claims about the need of speciesism for people of color.
Renee ends her post with the following lines:
For as long as my skin is Black I will be a devoted speciesist. My dignity and humanity demand no less.

Now, in some ways such a sentiment is odd coming from a website entitled "Womanist Musings" (considering that Womanist is a term coined from Alice Walker, and her statements about animals. For example, "The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites, or women created for men." This is from Walker's introduction to Marjorie Spiegel's The Dreaded Comparison, p. 10). In some ways odd, and in many ways quite obvious. Only an idiot, a racist, or to say both those terms in another way, an essentialist would assume that all people of color, hell, all women of color have the same experiences and the same reactions to those experiences. Indeed, the import of much of the work of womanist philosophy and theology, the import of much of the work of radical women of color, has been the insistence on the heterogeneity of identity. But of course, the other reason it is not surprising is that Renee is not the first person of color to express such a sentiment.
While the animal rights and animal ethicists folks have tended to focus on those who have identified their suffering with the suffering of animals, from Isaac Bashevis Singer to Alice Walker. (I too usually focus on this). What is worse (and I hope I am innocent of this, at least) has been to answer accusations of racism, sexism, etc. through quoting such people as trump cards. As in to say, "You call me a racist, but here is Alice Walker! Now what?!" I think we can all agree that such an attitude is a sick authoritarian game.
I hope to advance this post without reverting to such a position, to answer problems in ways that are both clear and that don't try to use the statements of certain famous individuals to play as trump cards.
The fear advanced by Renee, and that I have heard by many others (one prominent decolonial theorist put it that dissolving the human/animal divide means giving up the entire decolonial project), comes from the connection between dehumanizing (meant here as a literal process by which beings are conceptually stripped out left out of humanity) the colonized and other people of color and violence. To be a bit more specific, because the colonized, the enslaved, and people of color (to this day) are compared to animals in order to justify violence against them, or in general to delegitimize the standing of people of color. Because there is a tradition, extending to this day, I can understand the great fear that comes with arguments for destroying the divide between human and animal. The great fear that comes with embracing that monstrous phrase 'the human animal'. Being animals have happened (and still sometimes happen) to people of color. It didn't work out so well for them.
Indeed, I can understand why decolonial theorists have almost universally not given up on the project of humanism, while at the same time being some of the most proficient and powerful of critics against humanism. So much of the struggles of the colonized and persons of color have come from a commitment to being human, too.
There always exists a politics when a non-paradigmatic human being claims the title of human. This is as true for when the colonized claim to be humans, as when the Great Ape Projects argue for the personhood of Great Apes. However, in a fine Ranciere-ian fashion (a Ranciere devoid of his anthropocentrism, so therefore a Ranciere beyond Ranciere), while the claim to be human may be political, it does not remain political. Instead, liberal post-politics raises its head. "What, Apes are humans now? Sorry, we got it wrong, but finally we got it right, we now know what the human is." And the dream of a place for everyone and everyone in their place continues. For those of us on the critical animal studies side of the process, these political moments of demands for the right to claim humanness or personhood are also moments to continue the political. That is to say, to forward our argument that the human/animal distinction cannot stand. To say, "If you got this one wrong, maybe you very ordering system is wrong." In this way we hope to not just change the count, but change the very logic of counting through this moment of tort.
This is where I don't know how to make common cause. For me, it is obvious that the wrong done to the non-paradigmatic human beings is based upon the ability to do wrong to animals. If we end the ability draw lines between the human on one side and all animals on the otherside, if we embrace the monstrosity of the human animal, then we end the ability to continue to do harm to people of color by calling them animals. That loses the power of justification. But it seems to me that for many people of color that such a move jeopardizes their lives instead of enriching their lives.

Hopefully a place to work out such problems will be created.

EDIT: Adam, in comments, suggested Royce's post on this topic from Vegans of Color. I highly recommend it.

Also, over at Philosophy in a Time of Error (such a wonderful title) there is a response to my post, which I completely suggest reading, as well.