By Alka Chandna, Ph.D.
In the weeks since People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals launched its Animal Liberation Project display, in which pictures of once exploited groups are juxtaposed with photos of animals abused today, we have been called "racist," "insensitive" and "extreme." An NAACP representative accused us of "exploiting" African Americans to make our point that animals suffer as people do.
While the photos of poor immigrants, children used in forced labor, Native Americans, and African slaves are extremely upsetting, why is it so shocking to suggest that the mindset that condoned exploitation of people in the past is the same as the mindset that enables today's abuse of animals in laboratories and on factory and fur farms? And why is it assumed that this display, and indeed the entire animal rights movement, was generated by insensitive white people? As a person of color, I am pained and perplexed that my two decades of work in the animal rights movement, as well as the efforts of my many colleagues who are people of color, is discounted.
My family immigrated to Canada from India when I was three. My teen years coincided with the height of "Paki-bashing" in Canada and I spent most Saturday and Sunday mornings cleaning egg from our doors and windows or examining, with my very hurt parents, racist "jokes" that had been spray painted onto our driveway.
During the mid-eighties, while enrolled in a graduate program at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, I helped organize protests calling on the university to divest from South Africa and other protests opposing the racist ideas being trumpeted by the eugenics theorist, Jean-Philippe Rushton. During this time, I visited a slaughterhouse outside Toronto and I knew that the violence I witnessed in the slaughterhouse stemmed from the same oppressive mindset that permitted the vandalism at my parents' house, that allowed Rushton to espouse hateful ideas justifying racist policies, and that gave whites in South Africa carte blanche to oppress blacks. It's the mindset that discounts others' interests and props up one's relatively minor interests relative to the interests of other beings.
For five years, I was a professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John's, where I again became involved in animal and environmental activism. People who opposed these issues openly declared that these movements were brought in from "the mainland." My friends from Newfoundland who were involved in these issues were painted either as invisible or as dupes of the "mainlanders."
I wondered why the naysayers from Newfoundland would sell short their own brothers and sisters: Was it so difficult to conceive that Newfoundlanders might feel some compassion for animals? This myopic view that would dismiss the efforts of a group because they're not "like us" is not limited to an isolated and financially stressed island in the north Atlantic.
Here in the U.S., the NAACP and others are now painting animal rights activists as white racists in order to marginalize and dismiss us. I can't help but think that this sort of "analysis" that insists on painting a movement in a monochrome is the same paring down of the world that people engage in when the truth makes them uncomfortable. Racists dismissed Martin Luther King as a womanizer. Colonists dismissed Gandhi as a short, brown man in a loin cloth. Sexists dismiss feminists as ugly, angry women.
Yet many people of color work every day to change attitudes toward animals. My own beliefs, and those of many of my colleagues, sprang from an understanding of right versus wrong. It is not racism that inspires us, but justice. I ask other people of color who have had their windows egged or experienced other forms of racism to stop condemning for a moment and to consider that what they are now saying about animals, "that animals are lesser beings whose suffering can be dismissed", was once said about them andd was used as an excuse to keep them in bondage.
Alka Chandna, Ph.D., is a Research Associate with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
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