Why Animal Studies Must Be Antiracist: A Conversation with Bénédicte Boisseron

A sculpture depicting a police officer with a dog on a leash, as the dog attacks a man who is falling backwards

Scholarly and activist discussions of animal oppression draw on the experiences of humans. As people seek to discuss and sometimes advocate for animals, they have often used examples of other kinds of oppression—including racism.

UsinThe book cover of Afro-dog, with a black and white photograph of a police dog biting a Black civil rights protestor g histories and theories of racism in service to animals, many animal studies scholars and advocates have failed to show similar investments in the critical study of race, histories of racist oppression, and the nonwhite people who still experience racism in the present. In their use of racist oppression as a metaphor, they fail to address its historical complexity and continued resonance. They sometimes also repeat racist tropes of human-animal comparison.

Scholars of race and racism have critiqued animal studies for these problems. The growing body of scholarship that combines responsible work in animal studies and race studies has provided necessary interventions to these trends, producing antiracist animal studies scholarship and also working to diversify predominantly white animal studies fields and acknowledge nonwhite animal activism.

In her new book, Afro-Dog: Blackness and the Animal Question (Columbia University Press, 2018), Dr. Bénédicte Boisseron discusses these problems from her position as a scholar of Black diaspora studies and animal studies. On March 11th, we spoke about her book and her treatment of the relationship between nonhuman animals and Black people.

Stream or download our conversation here. Interview highlights, edited for clarity, follow.

Interview highlights:

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Brigitte Fielder: How did you come to the field of animal studies?

A photograph of Bénédicte Boisseron leaning on a picnic table

Bénédicte Boisseron. Photo courtesy of Bénédicte Boisseron.

Bénédicte Boisseron: I started working on the animal question very early on. I published my first article on Creole dogs in 2004. I started working on it because of a personal reason, an anecdote of my dad who moved back to the Caribbean with my mom. They always had a German Shepherd when I grew up and they brought the German Shepherd with them back to the Caribbean. I noticed the difference in the way that the people in Guadeloupe, the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, reacted to their German Shepherd. It was very different from the way the French used to react to the dog. So, this is what I started investigating and trying to understand why. One of the main reasons was the history of slavery and the way that dogs had been used in slavery in the Caribbean to chase runaway slaves. And this is kind of an atavistic trait, something that shaped how people in Guadeloupe still reacted to dogs today.

BF: What is the fundamental argument or intervention that you intend your book, Afro-dog: Blackness and the Animal Question, to make?

BB: What I wanted to do is to go back to the history of slavery and the importance of the chattel status of the slave. The question of human, nonhuman, and the animal and human dynamic is very important in the history of the Black diaspora from slavery. Within animal studies, and the plethora of publications on animal studies, it’s something that has been brought up a lot—the connection between the Black, the Black slave and the animal—but it’s always been brought up from the perspective of the animal question. That imbalance was problematic, because often it was used within the field of animal studies to benefit the animal question, at the expense of slavery and the Black. So not only did I want to get a balance, but I also wanted to show that this kind of comparison, to benefit one over the other, whether it’s the Black or the animal, may not be the best way to go about it. I wanted to find something outside of a comparison and look at the question of the animal, and what we should do with it, from the perspective of Black Studies.

BF: What do you mean by the term Afro-dog? Why does your book focus on dogs, specifically, more than on other human-animal relationships?

BB: The concept of Afro-dog goes back to W.E.B. DuBois’s concept of double consciousness, how the African American has two consciousnesses by being at the same time American and being Black. It’s something that every African American has to work with. By substituting ‘dog’ for ‘American’ I wanted to say that there is, in the idea of the African American subject, something that is intrinsically animalized in the way that the African American is perceived in America. So, by saying Afro-dog with a hyphen I wanted to bring those three consciousnesses together, not just a double consciousness.

And why did I use the dog? It’s because from the beginning of the Black diaspora, the beginning of slavery, dogs have been used to chase runaway slaves. And then in the 1960s, with the civil rights movements, dogs have been used also to attack Black rioters during those movements. And then in modern times, with the Ferguson riots, dogs have been used again. There is a trend within the history of the Black Americas, to use the dog against the Black at every step of the way. So that’s why I wanted to focus on the dog.

BF: One of the critical race studies terms that becomes very important to your discussion is Kimberlé Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality. Some Black feminist scholars especially have argued that this term has been misused and irresponsibly appropriated by white scholars working in fields like ecofeminism and animal studies, in some of the very ways that you discuss animal studies appropriation of Blackness in a way that is not interested in engaging with Black studies scholarship, but is only giving that work importance in service to the animal but not in service to Black people or Black studies scholarship.

So, I’m wondering if you could walk us through your understanding of the concept of intersectionality and describe how you’re using this concept to apply to this question of species.

A photograph of Brigitte Fielder wearing glasses against a black background

Brigitte Fielder. Photo courtesy of Brigitte Fielder.

BB: I agree with you that it’s a contentious point, the question of how intersectionality has been used in Black feminist studies, in animal studies, and feminist studies as a whole. Think of Jennifer Nash, for example. She was very good at talking about how intersectionality can bring about a sense of essentialism, because of this question of categorization. You have the category woman, you have the category Black, but it doesn’t go into the specifics of the individual. Brittney Cooper also criticized intersectionality and questioned whether intersectionality should become paradigmatic, meaning, can you use intersectionality in different contexts to talk about different things and different types of oppression?

This is what I’ve tried to question in the book as well, the limits of intersectionality and the fact that the way it’s been used paradigmatically has often eluded, again, the question of Blackness. We cannot forget, as Crenshaw explained, that intersectionality is first and foremost a question of bringing together gender and Blackness. So, I am not against using intersectionality and the concept of it in animal studies, but what I’m trying to do is restore the Blackness in intersectionality. It’s very important when you talk about intersectionality within the field of animal studies to also look at it through the lens of Black studies and Blackness.

BF: I was particularly grateful that you discussed in your introduction your specific historical moment for writing and publishing this book. Can you talk about the relevance of this context, and how your reflections on current events affected this project (especially since this is a project that is so wide-ranging in its historical scope)?

BB: As I said earlier, I started working on the animal question—and the intersection between Black studies, Creole studies, and the animal—a long time ago in 2004 and published a few articles. And after that, I had a hard time working on it because it’s such a tricky topic, it’s so difficult to handle, and I was not ready to write a book at the time. I started working on it again in the early 2010s and started writing in 2015. So, I was writing it while the Ferguson riots happened in America. There was an investigation and a report about the Ferguson Police Department and how they treated race and used canine weapons. It’s been shown that the police in Ferguson were using dogs exclusively to attack Black people. So, it was an interesting intersection again between animals and Blackness. But, at the same time, very soon after, you also had the Standing Rock demonstrations against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota. And, if you remember, those images of Native Americans protesting against the pipeline and dogs—German Shepherds—being used against them, against those rioters. And there was a clear connection between what happened with the Ferguson riots and what happened with the Native Americans.

This brought me back to so many different historical moments. It brought me back to, of course, Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 when dogs were used against Black rioters. But it also brought me back to the beginning of colonization in the Americas. Bartolomé de las Casas, in his book from the 16th century, talked a lot about how dogs were used against Native Americans by the colonizers. I thought, this is interesting because it all comes full circle. There is something in the Americas so pregnant with meaning and so omnipresent between colonization, oppression, and canine weaponry. And I thought it is the right moment to really work on it and bring that together.

BF: Your book contributes to a growing and extremely exciting trend in what we might call antiracist animal studies, even beyond work in Black studies and animal studies. What do you see as the greatest challenge for scholars of race studies and animal studies doing this interdisciplinary work over the next decade?

BB: One of the biggest challenges is misunderstandings. Those are very sensitive topics and people have different agendas. I’ve encountered a lot of misunderstandings, particularly when it comes to the question of comparison, when I try to explain that the comparison, the way it’s been done in animal studies, can be demeaning or very problematic for Black studies and vice versa. When one is pitted against the other, it’s always problematic, whether it is from a Black perspective, comparing yourself with the way pets are being treated in Hurricane Katrina, for example, or the other way around. Trying to explain that, trying to explain this knot and undo the knot, has been very challenging and not always successful. It’s been successful at times as well. And I think that’s where we have to come together. We need more voices to try to undo that knot and bring everybody together on the same plane.

BF: You start to get at these questions in the coda to your book. The coda did what the ending of a book ought to do, which is left me wanting more of the conversation that you start. I’m wondering if I could press you to say more about people’s specific and embodied individual investments in these fields.

You talk a bit about the position of the animal studies scholar, always writing on behalf but not from the position of the oppressed. And I think one of the difficulties is when animal studies scholarship writes as if it’s from the position of the oppressed. And Black people in Black studies also inhabit that position of oppression and experience. So, I’m wondering if you can talk more about the difficult positions of scholars in this work.

BB: As you said, if you come from the perspective of a Black scholar, you inhabit some positions much more. But, even then, your positionality is also limited, and you have to position yourself within these concepts. You are not the spokesperson for Blackness and Black oppression, either. And I think it’s even more problematic with animals. As I said and as you said yourself, it is very problematic to speak on behalf of the animal. I wanted in that coda to show the imperfections of such work and initiatives. Because you cannot really encompass everything. You are not, I wouldn’t say, a fraud speaking on behalf of the animal, but you should feel uneasy with that position and this uneasiness is very productive. I think it can really bring you somewhere, if you become very sensitive to your position when you speak about or on behalf of animals or if you speak about Blackness as well.

It’s interesting that you mention that coda and that you want to hear more about it, because I use that coda as the next step for my next project. I wanted to end this book with question marks and talking about one’s own positionality. Who am I? Who am I to speak on behalf of the animal? Who am I even to talk about Blackness? Who am I to not be a vegan and yet talk about the interconnection between animal exploitation and Black oppression? My next project will be much more personal, and I will try to answer those questions and the question of positionality.

Featured Image: A 1995 sculpture by Dr. Ronald S. McDowell in Birmingham, Alabama. The sculpture is “dedicated to the foot soldiers of the Birmingham civil rights movement” who “faced the violence of attack dogs, high powered water hoses, and bombings.” Photo by Andy Montgomery, 2016.

Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.

Bénédicte Boisseron is Associate Professor in the department of Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan. She specializes in the fields of black diaspora, Caribbean and francophone studies, and critical animal studies. Her first book, Creole Renegades: Rhetoric of Betrayal and Guilt in the Caribbean Diaspora (University Press of Florida, 2014) is the recipient of a Nicolás Guillén Outstanding Book Award from the Caribbean Philosophical Association and was awarded an Honorable Mention from the Caribbean Studies Association for the Barbara Christian Prize for Best Book in the Humanities. Her most recent book, Afro-Dog: Blackness and the Animal Question (Columbia University Press), draws on recent debates about black life and animal rights to investigate the relationship between race and the animal in the history and culture of the Americas and the black Atlantic. Contact.

Brigitte Fielder is Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her interdisciplinary interests include nineteenth-century U.S. literary studies; African American literary studies; the study of race, gender, and sexuality; children’s literature and childhood studies; and human-animal studies. Her first book, theorizing interracial kinship relations in nineteenth-century U.S. literature, is forthcoming from Duke University Press in 2020. She is currently working on a second book, on racialized human-animal relations in literatures of the long nineteenth century. Website. Twitter. Contact.