As I sat down to write this essay, Joe Biden had just been officially declared the President-Elect of the United States. Instantly within me, there were feelings of relief and hope, coupled with feelings of trepidation.
While the Democratic candidate has won the election, over 70 million people voted for the incumbent. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter uprising and amid the worsening global COVID-19 pandemic, I couldn’t help but wonder: what does this election mean for the future? What does it mean for me, and other Black, Indigenous, and people of color, here in the US and around the world? What does it mean for all the other species who inhabit this planet?
I don’t ask these questions lightly. The lives of so many are at risk.
Not so long ago, after the 2016 election, I was rudely awakened out of an idealistic slumber to realize that this country is not necessarily moving inevitably toward justice.
This is what I was raised to believe though. Both of my parents are Black and grew up poor. But out of the gains made during the Civil Rights Movement and their hard work, they were able to rise out of poverty and provide me with a path to college—as part of the first generation in our family to receive a post-secondary education. They instilled in me a belief that while racism still exists in this country if I work hard and do well in school, I’ll be able to achieve a middle-class lifestyle and do better than they ever dreamed.
Well into adulthood, I held that belief—but over the years, the reality of the rampant structural racism and anti-Blackness so deeply entrenched in every corner of this country kept hitting me square in the face.
Several months ago, the world erupted in reaction to the brutal murder of George Floyd. People from all backgrounds here in the US and worldwide were out in the streets standing up for Black lives. Many believe we are now in the middle of a racial reckoning that’s long overdue. I don’t disagree, but I think that reckoning needs to go much deeper. It needs to go beyond holding up signs at protests, posting memes on social media in support of Black Lives Matter, or reading books like How To Be An Antiracist.
The reckoning must go to the root of systemic manifestations of anti-Black racism—not only in our interpersonal relationships but also in our cultural norms and our societal institutions.
And one of our most important societal institutions—social justice movements—cannot be exempt from this racial reckoning, including the animal rights movement.
Growing up caring about animals
I grew up as a Black girl in the United States. And for as long as I can remember, I have always felt a visceral connection with non-human animals—partly because they don’t see me as my color. Like far too many Black children, I was socialized to believe that something was wrong with me, that something was wrong with my Blackness.
I have dark brown skin, dark brown eyes, and Afro-textured hair. Girls and women who look like me are not celebrated, valued, or even respected in US culture.
I was taught that if you were Black with curly or wavy hair, you had that “good hair”—which, in contrast, meant that girls with my hair type had “bad hair.” Curly or wavy hair was “good” because it was closer to the straighter, flowing hair that white girls had, even if it was growing out of a Black girl’s head.
I learned that Black girls who have lighter skin and eyes were considered beautiful, and by default, a girl who looked like me was ugly. Lighter skin and eyes were considered beautiful because they were closer in color to that of white girls; they were closer in proximity to whiteness.
I saw that Black girls and women could be beaten, raped, and murdered, and little would be done about it. Being Black and female meant I had no value.
I can distinctly remember that, at times, I wished I were white. I thought that if I were white, I would be wanted, I would be loved, I would be protected.
The only time that I recall feeling completely wanted and loved by someone other than my immediate family was when I was with my companion animals. At different times growing up, I lived with animal companions, including a wonderful dog named Duke. When my family adopted him, we were told he was the “runt” of the litter. Right then, I wanted to bring him home. He was unwanted like me, and I knew I would love him no matter what.
Duke died when I was in high school. I was bonded to him and I remember how much his death hurt me. After his death, I began to notice other animals around me more often, especially how they were being treated.
When I was in high school, I remember being chosen to tour some type of medical facility because I was interested in pursuing a career in that field. As I walked around, I was horrified to see a sedated black cat hooked up to a bunch of tubes propped up in a display window. I don’t remember the reason given to me for the awful situation the cat was in, but I recall being told that the cat would be euthanized once they were done with him. I was torn apart by that callous loss of life.
Around the same time, I witnessed a horrific incident of a dog being killed near my home. One afternoon, I noticed two beagles trying to cross a busy, four-lane street. As I watched, one of the two beagles was struck by a car, then another car, and another car. I can still hear the yelping of the dog as she lay immobilized. After several torturous moments, the yelping stopped; the dog was dead.
Those two terrible moments changed the trajectory of my life forever. I witnessed numerous people willfully ignore, even inflict, tremendous pain and suffering on animals—in much the same way that many people have deliberately ignored, denied, and perpetrated violence upon Black bodies.
That’s when I knew I wanted to use my voice to fight for non-human animals and stop their suffering.
What I didn’t realize, however, was that I was missing a genuine understanding of how the oppression of Black people and that of non-human animals were connected by an ideology that devalued us both.
Advocating on behalf of animals as a Black woman
Shortly after I finished law school, I started advocating on behalf of women of color who were physically and emotionally abused by their intimate partners. It was during this time that I began to take a deep dive into the world of animal rights, and I learned what happened to animals behind closed doors. I was shaken by the violence that permeates both the lives of Black people and of animals.
I learned how animals are forced to perform in circuses using painful bullhooks or are held captive in deplorable conditions at roadside zoos. I learned how billions of animals are unnecessarily subjected to painful experiments or are forced to endure unimaginable suffering inside factory farms—only to be cruelly slaughtered, often while fully conscious.
So I became vegetarian and later vegan, joined local animal rights protests, and attended national conferences. I became a prosecutor to help rescue animals from abusive situations and hold flagrant animal abusers accountable for their cruelty. I even learned that the cycle of violence against many survivors of domestic violence includes threats from the abuser to harm their companion animals as a way to exert control or dominance.
But despite what I saw as clear connections between my human and animal rights advocacy, I found that I was at a crossroads. Whenever I brought up animal rights issues among human and civil rights advocates as part of an overall social justice agenda, my concerns appeared to be met with skepticism.
Yet within the animal rights movement, I often experienced both overt and covert racism—from disparaging comments about my skin color to not-so-subtle microaggressions from the heads of animal protection organizations, with one implying that I hadn’t done enough in the movement to take the lead on an advocacy campaign and another falsely accusing me of stealing (because of, I believe, my Blackness).
While I had wanted to devote my career to animal advocacy, I saw few other Black folks involved with local or national animal rights organizations. And based on my own experiences, I had found the movement to be hostile to Black people.
For years, I—a highly qualified individual with both a master’s degree and a law degree—had tried to obtain full-time work in the animal protection movement. Suffice it to say, I was unsuccessful.
The one time I was hired to work in an animal protection organization, I was disrespected and treated like a second-class citizen by the other staff and volunteers, and even the board—all of whom were white. None of them offered me support to ensure I could be effective in my new position. Consequently, I lasted only six months.
And compensation for my other part-time work in animal advocacy was virtually impossible to come by. Even after being a long-time volunteer with several organizations, my requests to seek funding so I could continue my work without having to hold down another full-time job were dismissed out of hand by white leaders, even while they asked me to stay on as a volunteer.
Looking back, this doesn’t surprise me because Black women’s labor is not valued in a white supremacist society, and the animal rights movement is part of this society.
Ultimately, I left the movement, but I have never lost my passion for advocating on behalf of animals.
Years later, after a much-needed pause to rest, recover, and reflect, I found a home in the field of humane education.
Learning to educate for animal liberation with an antiracist lens
Through my humane education work, I have begun to learn what it means to advocate for non-human animals as a Black woman.
Over the past ten years, I have studied and taught comprehensive humane education, which examines the interconnected systems of oppression at play in human rights, animal protection, and environmental ethics. It fosters ways of thinking that can lead to just, humane, and sustainable systems that benefit people, animals, and the environment.
More recently, I have learned to bring an antiracist and intersectional lens to humane education. What I’ve learned from the writings of vegans of color such as Aph and Syl Ko is that not only are racism and speciesism interconnected, but white supremacy is the underlying ideology that legitimizes both the centuries-long violence inflicted upon Black people and the daily profound suffering forced upon non-human animals.
I’ve come to understand my own oppression—the oppression of Black people, of Black women—as rooted in the subjugation of everyone and everything located outside of the idealized European white male. I have found my place from which to fight for myself, other marginalized peoples, and animals.
I have redefined myself as an antiracist humane educator. I have dedicated myself to educating my students and others about white supremacist ideology and how it condemns both Black people and animals.
Understanding white supremacy
When I talk about white supremacy, I’m referring to the ideology that white people and their ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and actions are superior to those of Black, Indigenous, and people of color—and the societal assumptions which, according to DrWorksBook, “assign value, morality, goodness, and humanity to the white group while casting people and communities of color as worthless (worth less), immoral, bad, inhuman and ‘undeserving.’”
Essentially, what white supremacy does is create a hierarchy based on race and skin color. And central to white supremacy is the notion that Black people are at the bottom of the racial hierarchy. This is anti-Blackness.
So many of the worst effects of racism—namely, violence—have been inflicted upon Black people with impunity. As described by Kihana Miyara Ross in The New York Times opinion piece, “Call It What It Is: Anti-Blackness,” anti-Blackness is “more than just ‘racism against black people.’ Anti-blackness describes the inability to recognize black humanity. It captures the reality that the kind of violence that saturates black life […] It’s gratuitous and unrelenting.”
The brutalization inflicted upon Black bodies under white supremacy is compounded for Black women.
Ijeoma Oluo, the author of So You Want To Talk About Race, reasons that systems of different oppressions “interact with and feed off of each other.”
So racism will strengthen gender oppression against Black women, as Oluo further explains: “[A] black woman is not poor simply because she’s a woman and the patriarchy undervalues the role of women. She is also poor because her skin color and hair texture labels her as unprofessional, unreliable, volatile, unskilled, and unintelligent. She is poor because society sees her as someone from whom labor is to be taken, not compensated. She is also poor because she is more likely to be the sole caregiver of children in a system that locks away black men.”
At the core of white supremacy is the animal
While reading sisters Aph and Syl Ko’s book Aphro-ism, I began to understand the role white supremacy plays in non-human animals’ subjugation. In her Afropunk piece, “Three Ways Black Veganism Challenges White Supremacy Unlike Conventional Veganism,“ Erin White summarizes Aphro-ism’s central thesis:
White supremacy creates a human-animal binary, in which the conception of “humanity” and “human” is considered to be in opposition to “animal.”
At the same time, this dichotomy equates the idealized human with whiteness. This means that both “human” and “animal” are racialized terms.
The social use of the term “animal” is called animality. The Ko sisters describe animality as a Eurocentric construct that has contributed “to the oppression of any group that deviates from the white supremacist ideal of being—white Homo sapiens,” both human and non-human.
Here is an excerpt from Aphro-ism that particularly spoke to me:
‘White’ is not just the superior race; it is also the superior mode of being. Residing at the top of the racial hierarchy is the white human, where species and race coincide to create the master being. Resting at the bottom as the abject opposite of the human, of whiteness, is the (necessarily) nebulous notion of ‘the animal.’
As stated by White, the Ko sisters show that under white supremacy, Black people are animalized “as an extension of the racialized nature of both human and animal categories [. . .] as a means to exploit, violate, and eliminate us.”
Similarly, in his March 4, 2017 talk, activist Christopher Sebastian McJetters argues that “[i]t is actually a product of white supremacy that [Black people] have been set up as animals.”
McJetters explains that the concept of human has been set up to mean white—specifically white males—who are cisgender, heterosexual, and wealthy and that anyone who does not fall into the category “human” is “somehow lesser.” This includes “women, women of color, anybody of color, everybody who does not have a lot of money, and other species communities.” According to McJetters, it is the entire structure of imperialist, white supremacist, cisgender, heteropatriarchal capitalism “upon which animal exploitation rests.”
The need to uproot the human-animal divide
It is this new expanded construction of white supremacy—one which centers the human-animal dichotomy as the basis for the racial hierarchy established under white supremacy culture—that has allowed me to begin to articulate what I feel I’ve known my whole life: that my liberation and that of Black people as a whole are tied to the liberation of non-human animals.
To fight for both the liberation of Black people and the liberation of non-human animals, I need to work to uproot the human-animal divide that is the essence of white supremacist ideology.
In Aphro-ism, Aph and Syl Ko talk about how Black folks, in particular, can effectively challenge racism and white supremacy by rejecting the human-animal divide:
It is clear to most [Black people] that ‘animality’ is not exhausted by reference to nonhuman animals but that we share in it as well, by virtue of our perceived and felt ‘less than’ status. [. . .] But by talking about our feeling of ontological lack from the perspective of ‘the animal within,’ we can connect race to animality to reflect the true nature of anti-black racism/oppression. [. . .] The animal is not separate from our ‘blackness.’ It is a part of it.
This means that we as Black people should not only reject the inferiority conferred upon us, but we should equally reject the notion that non-human animals are less than humans in any morally relevant way. And we should live our lives in a manner that affirms this mindset. In acknowledging that animals, too, are among the many beings who are condemned by the current system of racial hierarchy, we are compelled to act in ways that upend the entirety of the white supremacist narrative.
Becoming an antiracist humane educator
So now, how does what I’ve learned impact my work as a humane educator?
It means teaching from an understanding of white supremacist thinking and a commitment to disrupt and dismantle white supremacy in all its manifestations.
And it means imagining a world outside of white supremacist logic, a world where everything I know is not defined by whiteness.
So what would it look like to imagine a world where I’m not defined by the racial and gender constructs imposed upon me? Where people racialized as white are no longer invested in whiteness? Where the lives of non-human animals are no longer circumscribed within the social construct “animal?” Where huge swaths of our planet are not considered disposable, along with the people and wildlife who inhabit them?
These are the questions that guide my work as an antiracist humane educator. I ask these questions because I know, as a Black woman, my fate and the fate of non-human animals are bound up together.
My path forward towards Black liberation and animal liberation
For me, the path forward as I fight for the liberation of Black and other marginalized communities and the liberation of animals is to expand and deepen my thinking about white supremacy. I intend to shine a spotlight on the concept of whiteness that plagues both Black bodies and the bodies of non-human animals.
I hope my work will enable me to connect with other social justice educators and engage in dialogues about incorporating non-human animals into anti-racism and anti-bias education as a necessary component in undermining white supremacist logic. This is not a foregone conclusion. Social justice education tends to highlight injustices that impact humans, with little or no attention given to other species. I am concerned that the integration of animal injustices could prove difficult without a more inclusive understanding of the ideological roots of white supremacy.
Beyond that, I hope to inspire humane educators (who tend to be overwhelmingly white) to center marginalized populations—especially Black people—in their education work and employ strategies to dismantle anti-Black racism in their lives, all as an extension of their animal advocacy. As is true for many white people, white humane educators can find it challenging to talk about racism, particularly when they are asked to explore their own complicity with white supremacy.
Dr. Bettina Love, author of We Want To Do More Than Survive, asserts that in order to stand up for Black and Brown children, white educators must want to address how white people, including white teachers, contribute to structural racism and join in the fight for justice across movements—from education justice to food justice to labor justice.
Based on my ongoing work, I am gratified that some humane educators have engaged in the self-examination needed to uproot anti-Black racism within themselves and in their communities. And I believe that the steps that humane educators and other advocates take to dismantle anti-Blackness will ultimately benefit non-human animals too.
I’ve come full circle to embrace that young Black girl who felt an innate connection with her companion animals. In those moments—in the face of being socialized to disconnect myself from loving other species and from loving myself—I was engaging in liberatory thinking that belied the white supremacist colonial ethic that dominates U.S. society—and through its imperialist undertakings, much of the world.
This liberatory thinking has become fully awakened in me and is now a firm part of who I am. The experience has been truly transformative. And now that I’ve connected with something so deep within myself, I can give voice to it—here in this essay, in my humane education work, and in other aspects of my life. I recognize that my true home has been within me all along.
Dana McPhall is a lawyer, humane educator, anti-racism activist, and animal advocate who has led an Institute for Humane Education alumni working group looking at racial justice and white supremacy issues for the past three years.