I recently read a petition to stop cockfighting in the U.S. Virgin Islands. While I was excited to see an anti-speciesist discussion taking place, I winced as I read the brief sections of the document. By the time I reached the final sentence thanking me for my support, my heart was in the pit of my stomach. I opened the petition with a deep desire to sign and I backed away with mixed emotions. I was sad, angry, frustrated and deeply offended by the author’s insidious colonial rhetoric.
Someone will read this blog post and decide that I am merely being overly sensitive. However, I am deeply invested in the liberation of all oppressed beings on Earth. This type of radical love, one that is aware of how systemic power operates, must be sensitive. Michel Foucault says that power is not something that merely presses upon a subject from an external force. Power circulates everywhere via our legitimated discourses, accepted bodies of knowledge, and “regimes of truth.” Therefore, we do not have the luxury of leading “single issue lives” as Audre Lorde tells us. Overt domination is not the only form of oppression. Often, our day to day discussions are laced with coded language that are rooted in racist, sexist, speciesist, and colonial ideologies. If we are to decolonize ourselves, we must challenge the ever illusive colonizing gaze. Our struggle for animal rights cannot be compartmentalized and understood as separate from our struggle for the rights of marginalized humans.
Radical Women of Color Eco Feminism often reminds us that all systems of oppression are interlocking. (Check out the Sistah Vegan Project for more on this.) Slavery and colonialism are totalizing forms of domination that subjugated women, people of color, animals, lgbtq people, poor people, and our beloved planet for economic gain and imperial expansion. Animal rights cannot be separated from human rights because the logic that says that Black humans can be enslaved because they are no better than animals is racist, colonial, and speciesist. This convoluted power system is also called white supremacy. It is rooted in interlocking systems of hierarchy and domination, where some bodies are valued and others are objectified, and consequently, rendered expendable.
Our prevailing narratives normalize violence against marginalized people and animals. Stuart Hall, Frantz Fanon, and Sylvia Wynter each talk about the ways in which language, myth making, and our systems of representation are very important to us as humans. Subsequently, the way that we “language reality” is also important to our systems of domination. The stereotypes that emerged during slavery and colonialism maintained the schemas of difference. While chattel slavery in the Americas was legally abolished, the caricatures of Black, Brown and poor people as ignorant, brutish, primitive, violent, and irrational remained. These stereotypical representations of colonized people are still damaging in the contemporary moment because they often work to facilitate and obscure the violence of white supremacy. Instead of analyzing contemporary colonialism, we act as if racism is an issue of the past and allow marginalized people to be the scapegoats of a racist colonial project.
Our animal liberation projects have to be very cognizant of systems of human oppression, namely the pervasiveness of anti-Blackness in society. The petition to make cockfighting illegal in the U.S. Virgin Islands was a bit careless on this front. I was asked whether or not race is incidental here. It is not. Many animal rights discourses tend to be consciously or unconsciously laced with white normativity and colonizing gazes. (See Jetta Rae, Alph Ko, and Sean Parson for more on this.) While I’m sure that the petition’s tone was “unintentional”, racism in this “post racial, colorblind era” often functions through unconscious micro-aggressions.
- Sylvia Wynter has written extensively on how a secular descriptive statement of the human (concept of the good prototypical human) emerged in colonialism. Often, this “overrepresented prototype” prized rationality and the cult of reason. People of color were subjugated in part because they were viewed as being “irrational”, “unreasonable”, “primitive”, “behind the science and times,” and less than human. Since cockfighting is understood to be an activity that local people of color enjoy, the petition invokes unconscious stereotypes of Virgin Islanders as “behind the science, reason, and ethics of today” in its call for sympathy.
- People of African descent’s thoughts and actions are often denied their socio-historical context. It would have been nice if this petition had offered a brief history of cockfighting before explaining why the author believes it should be illegal. In the Caribbean, cockfighting is a creole tradition that draws from Africana belief systems and European gambling. The ritual slaughter of roosters has a profound symbolism across the spiritual traditions of the African Diaspora. Roosters are close to both Ogun and Papa Legba and very few people seem to know this spiritual and historical information. The gambling provides an alternative economy for people who exist on the periphery of legitimate economies. By not taking the time to give a little socio-historical context, it almost reads as if cockfighting is simply a “brutish”sport that islanders enjoy. This reaffirms the notion that local people are expressive objects rather than thinking subjects. (See Anthony Bogues’ reading of Lewis Gordon in the Intro of Black Heretics, Black Prophets: Radical Political Intellectuals)
- The petition compares cockfighting to the enslavement of humans in a manner that trivializes the suffering of these enslaved Africans and their descendants. In the petition, slavery is referred to as a “cultural practice and a tradition” like cockfighting. This is woefully inaccurate and dehumanizing. One, it suggests that the ethical dilemma of slavery is neatly contained in the past. As Koe points out, this is untrue. Slavery continues today and the descendants of enslaved Africans are still grappling with the remnants of this socio-political system that objectifies us. Two, slavery is a totalizing system of domination. It was not simply a “cultural practice and tradition”. This wording minimizes the trauma of slavery. Three, the use of such language suggests that Black humans and animals are equatable in a white colonial imaginary. Appropriating Black struggles for animal rights discourses is often interpreted as offensive. PETA was told this. Four, this sort of wording alienates some animal rights activists of color and our white allies. We want to support the cause but we don’t want to support a cause that dehumanizes us.
- What’s the human impact of making cockfighting illegal in the U.S. Virgin Islands? Under the proposed law, will cockfighting be a misdemeanor or a felony? How can we think critically about the impact that this may have on the punitive state and the state sanctioned criminalizing of non-white people? While I don’t have full answers to these questions, I think that we have to pose them and search for answers. Read Sean Parson’s piece on Cecil the Lion and White Supremacy carefully here. Ignoring the human impact of animal rights discourses raises a host of pertinent questions on whose lives matter.
U.S. Virgin Islanders are not a monolithic group. Some may seek to prioritize an animal rights agenda in this moment and, to some extent, I understand that. I’m sure there are also a ton of people who may feel as though I’m wildin’ out right now. They may not be triggered by the coded language in the petition but I am.
I have questions about whether or not its hypocritical to criminalize cockfighting in a place where tourists are encouraged to go sport fishing. There’s often a thin line between animal protection and cultural imperialism in the Western imaginary. Try not to cross it.