As I write this article at the end of August, 2020, socially defined “minority” communities across the country are protesting yet another police shooting of an African American, that of 29-year old Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Earlier in the year, there were weeks of activism over the strangulation of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American man in Minneapolis, Minnesota; the shooting of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old African American female emergency medical technician in Louisville, Kentucky; the killing of Rayshard Brooks, a 27-year-old African American man, in Atlanta, Georgia; the strangulation of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old African American massage therapist in Aurora, Colorado; and the death of other many others at the hands the police.
Although it is not readily apparent, discrimination against ‘minorities’ is relevant to critical animal studies, and there are many ways in which ‘race’ and ‘whiteness’ intersect in the field. I saw this first hand one summer when I attended a protest at a factory farm in Los Angeles. A deep racial division was evident at the demonstration, as most of the animal advocates outside the gates were middle-class European Americans, while the majority of workers inside the slaughterhouse were disadvantaged Latinas/os, African Americans and Asians. Horrified by the stench of the place, I became even more aghast when the European American activists started calling workers ‘murders.’ And, when I queered the protesters outside if their pets were plant-based, some grew defensive, arguing that dogs and cats are natural carnivores and have to eat flesh. Ironically, cognitive dissonance allowed European American vegans to scream “murderer” at marginalized meat plant workers, while continuing to support factory farms by buying animal flesh for their own pets. It occurred to me that many ‘minority’ and immigrant agriculture employees also rescue pets from animal shelters. And, like other pet owners, meat plant workers may grieve deeply when their pets go missing or die.
Interestingly, the COVID-19 pandemic presents an opportunity to bridge this divide between activists and workers. Since the pandemic began, tens of thousands of ‘minority’ and immigrant meat plant employees have become infected with the virus while working on animal slaughtering and disassembly lines. Deemed as “essential workers,” over a hundred meat plant employees have died from COVID-19. As a result, marginalized workers, their families and unions are calling for the closure of meat plants, along with doctors and health advocates. Animal advocates can help by campaigning alongside factory farm workers in resisting the livestock industry. Actions of solidarity are occurring, and this intersection of “race,” workers in meat plants, and the pandemic, is an important one for scholars in critical animal studies (CAS) to explore.
Educational institutions are not insulated from the effects of structural racism and the power of ‘whiteness’ operating within the larger society. Universities and academic discourses reflect Eurocentrism and fortify structural racism, and scholars should examine how these larger social forces shape our disciplines. Across the nation, protesters are insisting that ‘race’ and police brutality should no longer be ignored in society. Similarly, the COVID-19 pandemic suggests that the public and academy cannot safely disregard the exploitation of nonhuman animals, and the chaos this can cause in health, education and the economy. Intersectional analysis in various fields should include nonhuman animals as a section, and address vital issues like the relationship between animal-based diets and disease, pandemics, and climate change; the ethics and efficacy of using nonhuman animals in experiments and vaccines, and so on.
There are many theoretical and material issues around “race” and “whiteness” that lack elaboration in CAS. For instance, how does higher consumption of animal-based protein intersect with claims of Eurocentric supremacy and countries with majority European populations? How does the Western framing of individual “rights” for nonhuman animals conflict and contradict Indigenous notions of the “interconnectedness” of species? How are issues of representation, consent and objectification in the graphic imagery of animals and nature from the Global South, negotiated or ignored in animal studies and by nonhuman animal advocates and environmental organizations in the Global North? How does “conservation” campaigns in the Global North lead to corruption and dispossession in the Global South? And, how does the promotion of ecotourism in the Global South for Westerners lead to trafficking, male violence and other problems for local women?
Although important first steps, the deconstruction of ‘race’ and ‘whiteness’ in our area of study will have limited outcomes if they are not accompanied by a decentering of Eurocentric theory and theorists, along with a centering of the work of socially defined ‘non-whites’ – Indigenous, African American, Latina/o, Asian and others. It is the responsibility of departments and academic fields to decenter Eurocentrism and increase ethnic diversity among scholars, scholarship and the curriculum. Objectivity and transparency also oblige individual scholars to acknowledge ethnic privileges, and discuss how racial advantages may have influenced their career, research choices, and so on. It is equally important for Western scholars to examine how their theoretical framing reflect perspectives in the Global North, and how these may differ from those of ‘minority’ scholars and theories emanating from the Global South. Addressing the social influence of ‘race’ and ‘whiteness’ in our personal lives and careers is an important part of the process of deconstructing and decentering ‘whiteness’ in own scholarship, and in transforming the discipline in which we operate. The racist violence against Jacob Blake, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, Elijah McClain, and the deaths of hundreds of “minority” meat plant workers from COVID-19, should inspire academics and their departments to do more in the cause of social justice for human and nonhuman animals alike.