Racialization in this country often goes through a disguised process of animalization.
“Canine weaponry against racialized subjects is a long-standing tradition in the Americas.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Bénédicte Boisseron. Boisseronis Associate Professor of Afroamerican and African studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.Her book is Afro-Dog: Blackness and the Animal Question.
Roberto Sirvent:How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Bénédicte Boisseron: Afro-Dog looks at the relation between blackness and the animal question in the Americas and the black Atlantic from the Middle Passage to the Black Lives Matter era. It is a wide-ranging historical scope with modern relevance. I was writing the book in the midst of the 2015 Ferguson riots and 2016 Standing Rock demonstrations, two events where the respective use of police dogs against rioters echoed previous instances in American history where dogs had been used against those deemed the recalcitrant Other. It is important to understand that canine weaponry against racialized subjects is a long-standing tradition in the Americas. In the sixteenth century, Bartolomé de Las Casas documented in horrendous detail Spanish conquistadors training their dogs to chase and devour natives in the West Indies. During the slavery era, slave owners were also known to launch their bloodhounds against runaway slaves in the Caribbean and the American South. In the 1960s, you see a similar use of police dogs against black civil rights rioters in Alabama (Birmingham and Selma). So, when in the 2015, the Department of Justice report on the Ferguson Police Department uncovered an excessive use of canine force on blacks (even black children) by the police, my manuscript took on a whole sense of urgency. As the DOJ report revealed, “in every canine bite incident for which racial information is available, the subject was African American.” Racialization in this country often goes through a disguised process of animalization. Think for example of Barack Obama who was compared to Curious George the Monkey during the 2008 presidential election, or more recently President Trump calling Omarosa “that dog” (2018), which I see as a dog whistling call for conjoined racialization and animalization against the recalcitrant black former White House advisor.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
My book brings attention to the interconnectedness of all forms of oppression and seeks to make activists more aware of the danger of privileging one form of discrimination at the expense of another. In France, for example, Brigitte Bardot, the French sex symbol of the 1950s and 1960s, is today a vocal animal rights activist. She is also a far-right sympathizer of the Front National political party. The former actress has been repeatedly fined by the French government for using racist hate speech in her animal rights activist rhetoric. Recently (March 2019), Bardot called the inhabitants of the island of Reunion (a former French colony off the African Coast) “degenerate” with “savage genes” because of their tradition of sacrificing goats. Bardot does not see that her French ‘civilized’ superiority is a colonial vestige that takes part in a logic that applies not only to humans but also to non-humans. Supremacy is not only white, it is also human. Anti-anthropocentrism and anti-speciesism cannot hold the course without an anticolonial and anti-racist approach to matters of power, domination, and oppression. Everything is interconnected. Likewise, for Jim Gorant, the author of a book on the rehabilitation of Michael Vick’s pit bulls after the NFL quarterback was convicted for his illegal dog fighting ring. As Afro-Dog shows, in his book Gorant criminalizes Vick through a subtle animalization of this black man. This conjoined racialization and animalization is not new but it is particularly striking when used in a humanitarian context desensitized to other forms of discrimination.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
Afro-Dog seeks to rethink identity politics by looking at new alliances while respecting differences. We too often ignore the fact, despite our unique and respective types of oppression, we have a common enemy (supremacy). As author Claire Jean Kim put it so pertinently in her book on race and species Dangerous Crossings, “each engages the enemy from a separate bunker.” We need to unlearn this bunker mentality and think more connectively. By the same token, it is important to be aware of our idiosyncrasies and of what makes each battle unique. Intersectionality, for example, is a term first coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 to refer to the multiply discrimination of black women on the basis of both gender and race. This term is now of common use in the animal rights discourse. In theory, this form of appropriation is useful to show the paradigmatic nature of oppression. In practice however, the appropriation tends to erase the very reason why Crenshaw needed to create this neologism in the first place: gendered blackness. What needs to be thought differently therefore is, again, how to create alliances and solidarity without dismissing one cause for the benefit of the other.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
I am particularly drawn to intellectuals who talk about their lived and personal experiences of being black while also addressing the concept of blackness from a global perspective. I’m thinking of Frantz Fanon who talks aboutl’expérience vécue du noir (the lived experience of the black) in Black Skin, Whites Masks but also looks at the blackness of the Algerian, of what we call in French the Arabe. James Baldwin is, in that sense, very similar to Fanon. Baldwin addresses his own experience of being black in America, France, or Switzerland, but the author also sees the blackness of the French Arabe. It is important to understand, as Baldwin explains, that the so-called Negro is a social construct and a product of white supremacy that applies to various contexts around the world, regardless of the pigmentation of the skin. Going from the personal to the global allows for more genuine politics of global solidarity. My next book project will address my lived experience of blackness from a French to an African-American context, an itinerary that is symmetrical but opposite to that of Baldwin.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
My book imagines worlds where we could do away with divides, not only racial, gender, sexual, but also human-animal divides, worlds of de-compartmentalization where fluidity and trans-ness would be the state of being in a post-Anthropocene era. It is admittedly utopic but something to aspire to for the next generations.
Roberto Sirventis Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA. He also serves as the Outreach and Mentoring Coordinator for the Political Theology Network. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the new book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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