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Aretha’s Furs and PETA’s White Privilege

“With the invention of race came the reinvention of ‘man’ or the ‘human.’” – Syl Ko, Aphro-ism (2017)

In an August 24, 2018 letter to Aretha Franklin’s niece, Sabrina Garrett Owens, PETA requested that her estate turn over Franklin’s vast collection of fur coats for donation to United States homeless shelters and to displaced refugees abroad. Interrupting the private and public mourning of a beloved cultural icon with ties to Civil Rights, PETA’s request received attention from media outlets including The Root, CBS News, Newsweek and local television news shows around the country. PETA’s opportunistic photo-bombing of Aretha’s loss reflects the white-privileged, single-issue myopia of many of the most visible and audible United States animal advocates. It is a slap in the face to all who grieve for Aretha as well as to African Americans across the board, whom Europeans and Euro-American have, since the late Middle Ages, objectified and cast as less than human.

Racialization and animalization are entangled in the history of the West, from the imagined hierarchy of flora and fauna of mid-eighteenth-century Swedish botanist, physician and zoologist, Carl Linnaeus, to Madison Grant’s early twentieth-century defense of Nordic supremacy. In conversation with zoological scholarship, Grant’s white supremacist ideology influenced not only the settler colonies of the United States and Brazil but also Hitler’s Germany. As with its request for Aretha’s fur coats, PETA’s campaigns including “Are Animals the New Slaves?” (2005) and “Holocaust on your Plate” (2003-2005) reiterate pseudoscientific theories about racial hierarchy, animalizing African Americans and Jews in the name of other species. Not only does PETA fail to grasp entangled modes of oppression, it aggravates wounds, echoing centuries of racial exclusion, beginning with enslavement and persisting through socio-economic marginalization, incarceration and, indeed, the de facto, legally and ethically condoned killability of African Americans.

The one billion rabbits and fifty million other animals killed globally annually for their fur are unwilling participants in PETA’s anti-black campaigns. The majority are reproduced in factory farms, immobilized in small, wire cages and stacked in rows. Since animals farmed for fur are not protected by humane slaughter laws, the most cost-effective killing techniques are employed, including bludgeoning, neck-breaking, live skinning and electrocution, achieved by attaching rods into the animals’ mouths and anuses. It is worth noting that “humane slaughter” laws for other farmed animals, including cows and chickens, are entirely industry-enforced and, as such, meaningless.

PETA consistently denigrates African Americans. It also does a disservice to the minks, foxes and otters it drags into its white-privileged reasoning. By contrast with PETA, A. Breeze Harper’s Sistah Vegan (2009) elucidates connections between anti-racism and animal rights: “All social inequities are linked. Comprehensive systemic change will happen only if we are aware of these connections and work to bring an end to all inequalities—not just our favorites or the ones that most directly affect our part of the universe.” Nekeisha Alayna Alexis looks at United States pro-slavery romances in relation to what she calls the “ill-ogics” of “conscious omnivore arguments.” What, asks Alexis, can the polemical strategies of nineteenth-century slavery apologists tell us about reframing the grotesque in do-it-yourself slaughter writings? In his analysis of blackness in relation to Marx and Gramsci, Frank Wilderson, III insists that animals must be contended with in their own right. They are not mere commodities or symbols; rather, they are individuals whose interests should be considered: “But still we must ask, what about the cows?” (“Gramsci’s Black Marx,” 2003). Ko goes so far as to encourage us to imagine an alternate reality: “Let’s use our erasure from this rotten-to-the core Western notion of humanity to build up a different ‘new world,’ one that is not defined in terms of dichotomies or hierarchies or emotional death – but centered on love: one in which we accept ambiguity and difference, grounded in an expansive, limitless ‘we.’” If critical thinkers such as these, who take an anti-racist, anti-colonial approach to their interventions, were more visible and audible, we would be having a very different discussion about the tensions encompassed by Aretha’s furs.

Alexandra Isfahani-Hammond is Associate Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature and Luso-Brazilian Studies at the University of California, San Diego. She is the author of numerous publications on the legacies of African enslavement and critical animal studies. Her forthcoming memoir, “Home Sick,” probes caregiving, dying, the medical-industrial complex, Islamophobia and the commodification of (human and nonhuman) animals.

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