From Wet Markets to Meatpacking: Why Animal Advocacy Fails Without Anti-Racism

The U.S. has a long history of marking various oppressed groups as “Other,” especially in times of economic scarcity and crisis. COVID-19 is no different.

wet market food
Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images

Perspective Policy Reflections

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“I am not a virus” became a viral statement shared by East Asians in Western nations through art, social media, and public actions in the wake of COVID-19’s spread across Europe and North America. Why Asian people feel the need to assert their humanity at this moment harkens to a long history of anti-Asian racism and violence in the West that continues today. When imagining itself as threatened, dominant white society often depicts East Asians as dangerous pests and diseases to be excluded and exterminated, described within racist discourse as the “Yellow Peril.” Such history continues to entangle racial violence and nonhuman animal exploitation in the COVID-19 crisis. For example, Dakota Holmes, an Indigenous woman in Vancouver, was recently punched in the face and told to “go home” and “go back to Asia” while she was out walking her dog and sneezed due to seasonal allergies.

White colonialists and racists have historically justified violence against Black peoples, Indigenous peoples, and People of Color (POC) by positioning them in proximity to anyone or anything deemed “subhuman.” Such ideologies are metastasizing in the midst of the pandemic. From the racially-inflected critiques of wet markets in Wuhan to the viral outbreak at a slaughterhouse in Alberta, and the subsequent vilification of its largely Filipino workforce, we witness how social hierarchies that harm both POC and animals permeate our society, including our food systems.

Critiques of wet markets in and outside of the animal movements inevitably occur alongside anti-Asian, specifically anti-Chinese, colonial legacies. Mobilization against Asian wet markets in the West taps into wider political and cultural landscapes, in which animal practices operate as key markers of national, cultural, and individual differences. For example, white Westerners often point to how and which animals racialized groups consume as indicators of their supposed depravity. In May, Canadian musician Bryan Adams lambasted Chinese people’s “bat eating” as the source of COVID-19 in a racist Instagram tirade.

Beyond Adams and others’ more patently racist remarks, many privileged animal advocates and non-advocates alike are rushing to condemn Chinese “wet markets,” the commonly held origin of COVID-19. Meanwhile, anti-Asian racism is spiking, and hate crimes, in general, are increasing. As the COVID-19 death count continues to climb, the U.S. stokes racist discourses and conspiracies about the so-called “Chinese virus,” a term derisively repeated by President Trump. Given this highly charged xenophobic and sinophobic backdrop, we urge those who denounce “wet markets” in Wuhan and elsewhere to simultaneously mount an anti-racist critique. Without a strong condemnation of “animal-linked racialization” (in which animal practices mark various groups as “Others”), we risk fueling racist sentiment and attacks, regardless of intention.

Countries such as the U.S. have a history of marking various oppressed groups as “foreign” and “Other,” especially in times of economic scarcity and crisis. For example, as critical race scholar, Claire Jean Kim, notes in her book Dangerous Crossings: Race, Species, and Nature in a Multicultural Age:

As economic conditions worsened in the 1870s, white Californians increasingly cast the Chinese as a degenerate race encroaching on and invading white spaces, posing a moral, medical, and economic threat to the nation. Menacing, swarming, pestilential animal images became stitched indelibly into the body of the Chinese. The only answer was to expel the pests from the body politic and keep them out.

In the West, non-dominant animal practices such as those of Chinese wet markets are not naturalized as the dominant status quo, unlike other generally accepted Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). As Kim contends, non-naturalized and Othered practices can serve as the “low hanging fruit” for attack because, as is in the case of the U.S., the dominant culture is not obviously and economically invested in them.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the indictment of non-Western and particularly Chinese animal practices will continue to entrench these racist legacies, especially unless we resist their racist and xenophobic import. While animal suffering in wet markets has equivalent counterparts in Western CAFOs, these animal practices are not labeled “savagery,” “barbarism,” or used as racist symbols of a supposedly “backward” nature of entire peoples. These discourses find their roots in Western racism and colonialism, which animalize non-whites to justify their exploitation and violence against them.

In contexts such as the U.S. and Canada, the production of racial categories is inextricably bound to the animalization of various humans, who were never recognized as fully human in the white colonial imagination. As Kim, drawing on the work of Donna Haraway, potently observes, “Animality and nature have been integral not incidental to the production of racial difference.” These enmeshed “taxonomies of power” (Kim) of race and species means that we can’t divorce animal advocacy from calls for racial justice.

White supremacy’s animalization of humans and oppression of nonhuman animals are reinforcing processes. Animals also distinctly lose in this co-construction. As anthropologist Barbara Noske details, animals are often profoundly objectified within Western contexts, ideologically stripped of their individuality and idiosyncrasies, relegated to the status of object or machine for economic gain.

Although some animals fare better than others, Western societies tend to conceptualize animals as perpetually lacking, as always inferior, forever failing to reach humans’ evolutionary zenith. Racist rhetoric marshalls animals’ degraded status, materially reinforced through institutions and industries, against human groups to denigrate them. Black peoples, Indigenous peoples, and POC are thus likened to animals through ideologies and practices underpinned by debased understandings of animals; these understandings also justify ongoing harms against nonhuman animals.

Recognizing these overlaps allows us to tackle both forms of oppression together. For instance, it is by design that workforces inside meat-packing plants, which account for some of the biggest recent COVID outbreaks, strategically employ “animalized humans” whose lives are hidden and made disposable. These frequently immigrant, racialized, and economically oppressed workers carry out some of the most physically and psychologically traumatizing labor involved in killing animals. Largely, the animal practices of Western industrial slaughter escape condemnation, but the workers don’t. In Canada, Temporary Foreign Workers (TFWs) are being hit the hardest by the pandemic. Losing their jobs means that TFWs also lose their status, along with all the social services and healthcare hinged on their employment.

Conversely, castigation of the wet markets can contribute to, and reverberate within, the broader anti-Asian racism that’s riddling the West. This has significant consequences for Asian people who face even more racism in light of COVID-19. When white Westerners’ focus on non-Western animal practices, without an overt anti-racist, anti-classist, and anti-colonial framing, they lend fodder to the xenophobic and sinophobic rhetoric that drives Trump’s and others’ fear-mongering and blame-shifting. Outside of any one individual’s specific arguments against, or about, wet markets, these efforts ricochet within broader white supremacist and colonial contexts.

As anti-racist scholars and activists have long shown, there is no innocent place outside of race. This understanding is shared not only by many anti-racists but also by intersectional and anti-colonial animal advocates, such as lauren Ornelas (founder of the Food Empowerment Project) who challenge the dominant single-issued, self-identified “color-blind,” and often liberal animal and vegan movements that refuse to acknowledge their complicity in human oppression. Notably, agricultural farm and slaughterhouse workers are disproportionately Black, Latinx, and East Asians throughout Canada and the US. The subjugation of Black and Brown people within such unsafe and precarious employment is both an expression of structural racism and a direct result of slavery and settler colonialism.

Failure to resist the racism produced by animal-linked racialization damages our collective solidarity to defend the health of human lives, animal lives, and our shared planet. At the root of pandemics such as COVID-19 is a globalized capitalist food production regime that prioritizes maximizing profit, such that the intensification of farming and killing animals contribute to wide-ranging ecological destructions. Removal of wildlife habitats and mass confinement of animals on farms and in markets create conditions that facilitate the growth and spread of zoonotic viruses.

Further, in ethical debates about “wet markets,” we need to clearly distinguish between “wet markets” from the “wildlife” or “live animal markets” within them. Wet markets also often supply much more affordable food to people than dry markets. Understanding that it isn’t just the wet markets that are problems helps us extend our conversations into the larger global wildlife trade and industrial animal exploitation, and pair our critiques with a strong anti-racist commitment, globally responsible to the material lives of humans and animals. This domination and control of our food systems won’t be dismantled and transformed without mutual aid between activists around the world who fight for the common goal of creating just and sustainable food systems.

Racism in advocacy erases the labor and contributions of activists who belong to groups targeted by racist and xenophobic rhetorics. Racialized activists often feel doubly encumbered, oppressed, alienated, and disempowered by their white Westerner counterparts who refuse to examine their historically produced privileges, and who take advantage of unequal power dynamics in pursuing social change.

Without including an explicit anti-racist analysis in their animal politics, the animal and food justice movements in the West will continue to alienate people who might be sympathetic to animal issues but feel concerned about the single-issue focus. The irony is, in the scramble to raise awareness of animal cruelty, white people rely on racist rhetorics firmly rooted in the animalization of human groups. This isn’t just about being critical of Adams, and others who make racist statements, but a call to include an anti-racist analysis every time we critique animal practices from privileged positions.

Cast outside of the sphere of the properly “civilized” white human, Chinese people are positioned as a threat, failing to achieve their humanity. During the pandemic, the practices linked to the crisis continue to be saturated by larger social constructions regarding Otherness, whether we like it or not. Our conversations about animal practices will potentially prop up racist tropes, or ideally, resist them. Horrendous exploitation of human and nonhuman animals remains ubiquitous within our globalized food systems; to change these systems, we need to account for the real and implicated issues of race, class, and culture, along with human and nonhuman suffering, which profoundly shape them.

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