Cecil the Lion, White Supremacy, and Speciesism


The death of Cecil the lion by the white dentist Walter Palmer has blown up on social media and television. Prominent celebrities like Jimmy Kimmel, Ricky Gervais and others have taken to Twitter and TV to lambast the horrific killing, while nearly everyone’s Facebook wall is covered in story after story about Cecil. While the white American public is fixated on Cecil, many working against racism are in shock that Cecil has gotten so much attention while, for the most, part the media has remained uncomfortably silent on the lynching of black men and women by police and white vigilantes. The public outcry over Cecil nearly silenced the calls for justice for Sandra Bland—a black Texan who died in police custody after being arrested for a traffic stop—and Samuel Debose—an unarmed black man driving in Cincinnati who was murdered by University of Cincinnati Campus police office Ray Tensing.

In response to this apparent double standard Roxanne Grey joked that “I’m personally going to start wearing a lion costume when I leave my house so if I get shot, people will care.” There is some truth to her statements as the white American public seems much more concerned in bringing the dentist to justice then it police officers involved in shooting. But we are wrong to assume that the concern for Cecil means that Americans care about nonhumans in any meaningful way.

What I want to argue here is that white supremacy operates differently than does speciesm and as such we need to understand media coverage of the topics will be different. When we use a more critical perspective to look at this debate we realize that the media coverage of Cecil does not show Americans’ love for nonhumans but instead the coverage serves as a way to hide the systemic and structural violence committed to both people of color and nonhumans in our society. In addition, the debate over Cecil shows the dangerous potential for how animal rights can actually support white supremacy.

Black Lives Don’t Matter and Neither do Nonhumans 

To begin with, Cecil is one of about 600 to 1000 lions that are trophy hunted each year by wealthy tourists in Africa. In most of the cases, the murders are considered completely legal, as the hunters are able to procure the correct permits to legally hunt and kill the animal. As an example of how this works, a few months ago a Texan paid $350,000 to legally murder an incredibly endangered black rhino. Unlike our dentist, this man murdered the endangered species as a part of a raffle to raise money for conservation efforts. This murder was sanctioned by the state and by the liberal conservation NGO’s that are so outraged at the trophy hunting of Cecil. In general, the public outrage over endangered trophy hunting is minimal, rarely getting any news coverage and almost never leading to a crying TV host or proposals to change US law.

In addition to trophy hunting, the vast majority of endangered species on the planet are being killed by habitat loss brought on largely by economic factors and corporate greed—mostly from agro-business looking to clear land for cattle or soybeans. Finally, one of the biggest impending threats for endangered wildlife is climate change, which is estimated to lead to the extinction of upwards of 95% of all species on the planet. In effect, the US public cares about Cecil, but they do not care about the other endangered species trophy hunted throughout Africa, killed for corporate growth, or threatened by climate change

As a culture we are selective when it comes to which nonhumans matter: Cecil mattered but not the other 1000 lions killed last year by trophy hunters (or 15,518 African elephants trophy hunted over the last decade); when it comes to dogs, our companions matter but not the 66,000 or so dogs vivisected and experimented on in university and corporate labs; certain pigs like Babe become part of the public imagination but not the estimated 10 billion land animals (chickens, pigs, cows, sheep, etc.) killed for food in the US per year.

What makes Cecil, Babe, and the dogs in our lives special is that we provide them with names, make them symbols, and create deep and intimate emotional bonds with them. For the most part, as a society we are able to kill and torture so many nonhumans because we either deny them sentience or we ignore their existence and suffering, but this process cannot work when the animal is named and an emotional connection is made. I know the dog in my life, Diego, has a name, is an individual, and thinks, feels, and loves—I cannot deny his sentience or ignore his pain. Many people can do just that though for the piece of animal flesh shrink-wrapped in the grocery story or hidden burning rabbit eyes needed to make sure their shampoo is “tear free.”

This is one of the ways in which race operates differently from species. As we have seen with recent police killings providing a name or a face does not actually make white America connect with the victim of police violence. This is because race serves a foundational economic function our society—the devaluation of black lives creates what David Roediger calls a “wage of whiteness.” This wage provides the white working class a social and economic benefit over people of color, which helps forge a cross-class alliance between the white working class and the owners of industry. Naming black victims does not necessarily help, since the devaluation of their lives is part of the way that the “wage of whiteness” operates. Speciesm operates differently, as nonhumans are not seen as laborers in our society to be exploited but as machines and objects to be used for human ends. By showing their sentience and connecting with them we are no longer able to view them as objects and this undermines a central justification for their exploitation, this is why naming nonhumans has such a powerful effect.

Cecil ended up having a symbolic role that made him an ideal figure for white Americans to latch onto. Cecil the Lion was named after Cecil Rhodes—the imperialist mining magistrate that the white supremacists apartheid Rhodesia was named after in effect connecting ecotourism and conservation with colonial power relationships. Currently, wild game hunting is a hundred million-dollar industry in Zimbabwe (accounting for about .3% of their GDP, about the same percentage as logging and mining in the US).

Secondly, Cecil the lion became well known as a tourist symbol because of his friendly demeanor, his beautiful black mane, and his public role as a monitored lion for a wildlife study organized by Oxford. Cecil served the role of the tame lion, the one that made tourists feel a kinship and closeness—in much the same way that family dogs and cats do. His role as a symbolically domesticated lion made him seem non-threatening to tourists and therefore seen as friendly. This differs from our cultural view of most predator animals—from other lions, to wolves and sharks—which are often seen as inherent threat to human life and economic interest.

Overall, Cecil represented the western liberal view of social and economic progress—he represented an effort to protect wildlife from African poachers and corrupt government policy, he represented the power of science to fix and address issues of conservation, and he represented a new form of “humane” tourism, ecotourism, which turns the “underdeveloped” nations of Africa into tourist spots for wealthy white visitors.

Symbolically, animals like Cecil and companion pets stand in for the other animals in our society—and our concern and care for them allows us to think that we “care about animals.” The hunter can use his love for his dog to show his love for animals while trophy hunting deer, elk, or an endangered lion; someone’s support for the local pet shelter allows them to claim to love animals while eating bacon cut from a pig that lived its entire life unable to turn around. The animals we love in our lives serve a similar symbolic role as the “black friend” does for white supremacy, and deflects accusations of speciesism while in reality we are almost all entirely complicit in this system. Instead of talking about the violence of factory farms, vivisection, or habitat loss, and the like, we hide this systemic violence between symbolic animal mascots.

Because race and speciesism operate differently the media coverage of the topics looks uneven but in reality they are serving a similar purpose. The deafening policy of silence around the death of Sandra Bland, Samuel Dubose, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, and the 329 people of color who have been killed by police or in police custody this year is a clear indication of how much our society devalues black and brown lives. Cecil operates in the exact opposite way, the sound, fury and crocodile tears wept by white America largely hides the structural violence committed against animals on a daily basis. The anger around the murder of black men and women shows the violence of white supremacy, and is therefore silenced; the celebration of Cecil’s life hides the violence of speciesism, and is therefore yelled from every bullhorn the media has to use. In this way both function similarly in that they hide and avoid conversations around systemic violence.

Talking About Cecil is Safe: Structural Violence versus Consumer Activism

At its core, the Black Lives Matter movement frames the murder of black men and women through a systemic lens: highlighting the role of police, judges, and prisons in the maintenance of the white supremacist order. Connecting police murders to a culture of white supremacy, contemporary black lynchings hold a mirror up to white America showing its complicity in such structural violence. In calling the entire system racist, a white reactionary politics has emerged—asserting that all lives matter. With the Black Lives Matter movement putting the entire system on trial, those in power are attempting to ignore the demands for justice in an attempt to limit any structural change. That said, by understanding and framing this as a structural issue, Black Lives Matter opens up a unique abolitionist position in the United States, one that we rarely see. This radical perspective has shifted debates and opened up space for creative and radical thinking—from calling on the abolition of the police and prisons to connecting the oppression of people of color to capitalism.

With Cecil the Lion, the exact opposite framing has emerged. By framing this tragedy as largely the result of the morally horrific (and it was) consumer choice by a wealthy dentist to pay $50,000 to kill a beloved animal, the discussion is centered on individual choice and ethical consumerism. This is seen in the growing discussion about whether “trophy hunting” can be defended through a utilitarian cost-benefit analysis; this argument asserts that by charging so much for trophy hunting, the parks can fund their activities and therefore save more animals. Again, this conversation is focusing on the ethical decisions of individuals and then connecting it to consumer behavior. Part of the consumer lens emerges because the killer is not the enforcer of state policy, which makes it easier to individualize the discussion and avoid the structural components. By focusing on the morally dubious actions of a dentist and not the speciesist system, the discussion around Cecil allows for symbolic policy proposals to regulate this unethical behavior that in no way questions the larger systemic issue of speciesism.

The bills proposed to stop trophy hunting like this are the equivalent of proposals to put cameras on police—it assumes the problem is one or two bad police officers whose behavior might change with surveillance and not a larger systemic problem that connects white supremacy to criminal justice, education, economics, and other social systems. If the debate around Cecil really questioned speciesism—which is central to nearly all aspects of the US economy—there would be much less discussion of the topic in the overall media.

White Supremacy and Species Protection

The structure of European white supremacy has historically functioned by denying people of color their humanness in order to justify colonialism, slavery, and capitalist institutions. The dominant white supremacist culture has resisted efforts to include people of color as equals, denying their full humanness and defining them as “animalistic,” as seen by the Ferguson police officer that referred to protesting black men and women as “animals.”

The historical and contemporary connection between blackness and animality is partially why a white Americans sees a black man as inherently threat and dangerous, in effect justifying vigilante violence. For the most part, speciesism operates similarly, as most nonhumans in our society are not given any of the privileges or rights associated with membership in the human community—they exist solely as resources to exploit. But in some instances, such as with Cecil, a nonhuman can be given certain privileges and rights that make them “almost human” and at that moment the system of white supremacy is used to protect that nonhuman animal.

With the police killings, black America is denied any of the privilege and protections of whiteness, while at the same time Cecil the lion is seen as having some of these privileges—Cecil was seen as non-threatening, as innocent, as being worthy of protection and as having moral and ethical worth. Sandra Bland is seen as Black and questions of marijuana use emerge to justify her death; Cecil was defined as white and was therefore inherently seen as innocent.

The fact that Cecil gained aspects of white privilege highlights the complex relationship that exists between different systems of oppression. It also points to a dangerous pitfall for activists’ interested Animal liberation: work done to protect certain nonhumans can actually reinforce and support white supremacy. Working to stop the uneven violence of white supremacy must be seen as part of the larger movement to end the enslavement and exploitation of animals and this means not using the system of white supremacy as a short-term way of protecting nonhuman life.

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Sean Parson is assistant professor of politics and international affairs at Northern Arizona University and the interim co-editor for the Journal of Critical Animal Studies.

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