Is there a place in animal rights for a kid from China? Part I: Performing Whiteness

The author, in his best clothes (a Colts sweatshirt gifted by a friend of the family), for an elementary school picture. 

Is there a place in animal rights for a kid from China?
Part I: Performing Whiteness

by Wayne Hsiung

(Check out Part II and Part III of the series.)

“These f__ing Chinese all deserve to die!” he screams out. Angry tears are running down his face. It’s a violent, racist thing to say. But the strangest thing is that the kid spewing this hate is… Chinese.

You can hardly blame him. On the screen, he is watching a sight so horrible that it’s hard to believe.

A beautiful dog, just a few years old, is being led on a leash somewhere in China. We can see that the pup trusts the man who is with her. She walks with the energetic, joyful strut of a dog who is happy to be out. Her eyes dart to the left, and to the right, and have an excited glimmer that exclaims, “Oh, what fun! Where are we going now?”

But something strange happens. The man suddenly pushes her against a fence and ties her tightly to a pole. Her head is pinned against cold steel. The pup looks back, curious as to why she’s being tied up. And then, before she has a chance to realize what’s going on, the man lifts her up by the back legs and cuts her open with a knife. She cries out and jerks her head back violently. But she can do nothing against the suffocating wire that has her neck tied tightly against the pole. As the blood pours out profusely from her hip, staining the snow with blood red, the crying stops. She shrinks into herself. Her shocked cries turn into a fearful squeal. Then a desperate moan. And finally, a hopeless whimper. It’s as if she’s saying, “Please, I didn’t do anything wrong. I just want the pain to stop. I’ll do anything for you, master. Please, just make the pain go away.”

Her plea for mercy is ignored. And we slowly see the life in her disappear. The man hangs her body up and begins to skin her now lifeless corpse.

Violent comments against Asians, such as this one from the author's facebook wall, are routine. 

Those of us who have known and loved dogs can understand the hate that boils up when we witness such acts of violence. We can understand fantasies of vengeance against the people who perpetrate such horrors on innocent animals. And we can understand how, in the face of such atrocities, even a Chinese kid could cry out in hatred against his own people.

I know this. Because I was that Chinese kid.  

Playing White

How did I end up a self-hating Chinese?

It’s a tough question to ask. And it’s an even tougher question to answer. But – and this is key – my former self is not the only one who harbors such sentiments. Consider the racist anti-Chinese rant that went viral two weeks ago. In the video, a woman expresses contempt for the Chinese for eating frogs and turtles. In America, she says, we don’t eat such animals. “F—k Chinatown!” The crowd applauds. 

Left unsaid, of course, is that there are many animals that we do kill and eat in America – indeed, more than twice as many animals per person than the average Chinese. But somehow, when the Chinese do it, it is disgusting, contemptuous, and an indication of a perversion in their culture and race. When Americans do it (and on far greater scale), it’s just the way things are – unthinkingly accepted by the masses and rarely protested even by those who have sworn their lives to defending animals. Though we use condemnation, aggressive protest, and even physical force to stop the exploitation of animals by foreign peoples and nations, animals used for food in the West, we are told, cannot be defended too aggressively. To do so, after all, would be to disrupt the American way of life.

The infamous anti-Chinese rant that went viral last week. 

There’s a lesson here. Because when our infamous tour guide launched into her verbal assault against the Chinese… and when a self-loathing Chinese kid unthinkingly screamed out against his own people…  they were not speaking from a vacuum.  Rather, those thoughts grow from a system that places some cultures, ethnicities, and peoples above others. This system goes by many names – entitlement, privilege, racism, and even supremacy – but, following two distinguished scholars at Queens University, I will call it “performing whiteness.” It is the idea that what “we” do is right and normal and good, and what “they” (immigrants, people of color, foreigners) do is weird and unacceptable and even wrong.

It is so insidious that it infiltrates even the minds of the people, like immigrants and people of color, whom it disadvantages. It socializes all of us to view so-called “minority” practices (dog fighting, primate trapping, whale eating) with contempt while ignoring far worse violence happening right next door. And, as I will set out to show in this series, it just might be the most important stumbling block facing the animal rights movement today.


Stirrings of Anti-Speciesism.

When I went vegan in the late 1990s, my family thought I had gone off the rails.

Given our family’s tortured history with food, I couldn’t blame them. Growing up in an impoverished, war-torn country, finding something to eat wasn’t easy. My grandmother ate boiled grass while on the run from the men who wanted her dead – the cruel victors of a decades-long civil war. My parents didn’t have things much better. They were basically vegan as children, but because of poverty rather than ethics. They survived on handouts from the American military, had a steamed egg occasionally as a birthday indulgence, and ate flakes of yeast for dessert. One of the most astonishing things about America, when my parents arrived in one of the first waves of Chinese immigrants in the 1970s, with $40 to their name, was the fact that cheap meat was everywhere.  

Notwithstanding this abundance, the move to America was a difficult one. The family would be entering an unfamiliar culture with an alien language. They would be separated by thousands of miles from everyone they had ever known. (Phone calls were prohibitively expensive back in those days; flights home just a fantasy.) And they were confronted by the continuing indignity of racism. By the time he was in his 20s, my father was a popular and successful figure back home, as the #2 ranked student in his department at the prestigious National Taiwan University. But in the US, he was… nothing. Mocked for his broken English and deferential Confucian manner, stuck in the Midwest where there was nary a Chinese face to see, and warned by his boss that there was no place in America for a “Chinaman” (“You’ll need to go home eventually,” his boss said. “It will be better there.”), there were a million reasons for him to leave.

Weighing against it all was this: in the US, his family would have meat at every meal. After a lifetime of deprivation, that was perhaps reason enough to stay. Meat was not just a perk. It was not just food. It was a sign that we had made it.

It was a rude shock, therefore, when I announced almost two decades later that I would no longer partake in a practice my family had fought so hard for, that they had literally risked their lives for. My parents were anxious and confused. “You eat so much meat,” they said. And it was true. I would chomp down on an entire stack of bologna when I got home from school. “You can cut back, but why be so extreme?” My grandmother, in turn, worried that I had an eating disorder and tried to slip meat into my food. “You cannot survive without meat,” she once told me. “This is why all of our children are shorter and weaker than whites.” When she realized I was serious about abstaining from animal flesh, she proposed having me committed to a mental institution.

But perhaps the most interesting reaction was from some of my younger family members who, upon hearing my ethical reasons for rejecting animal flesh – the horrendous violence against animals -- speculated that I was being unduly influenced by whites. “There are so many suffering Chinese,” one cousin told me. “It’s only white people that worry about such trivialities. Why be like them?” Still new and insecure in my animal rights consciousness, I nodded quietly.

But it’s a question that has been nagging me, now, for over 15 years. And it’s a question that I have now realized has much greater importance than I previously believed. As I look around me at a movement overwhelming filled with white faces, and unusually focused on criticism of “minority” practices: Am I just performing whiteness?

The Color of a Movement

It’s a question that’s not often acknowledged, much less answered. But the numbers don’t lie. Social psychologist Scott Plous, an expert in prejudice and discrimination, first demographically profiled the animal rights movement in 1990, when he published an article in the prestigious journal Psychological Science showing that 99+% (!!) of participants at the largest national AR event were white. Satya reported in 2006 that the figure was 97+%. Long-time activist and lawyer Steven Wise of the Non-Human Rights Project describes animal rights as “perhaps the whitest of all progressive or radical movements on the planet.” And at the national animal rights conference in Los Angeles this year, virtually all of the public faces were white. (The sidebar to the right shows the 15 faces featured on the conference's website.) In a country where people of color (PoC) are already the majority in some states, including California, these statistics are, to say the least, jarring. 

Our movement’s overwhelming whiteness is obvious to anyone who even briefly considers the issue. What is less obvious, however, is the strategic problem this lack of diversity poses. We often perceive a lack of diversity as a mere faux pas. “So many animals are suffering,” we tell ourselves. “We can’t worry ourselves with the hurt feelings of a few blacks, Mexicans, or Asians.” Alternatively, we blame communities of color for their own non-participation. “They just don’t care as much as white people do.”

But there are compelling reasons to think these reactions are problematic on both ethical and pragmatic grounds. For one, PoC appear to be vegetarian at significantly higher rates than whites, both domestically and abroad. Indeed, traditions that stretch back thousands of years in countries such as China and India (both of which have millions more vegetarians than the United States) promote compassion for non-human life. If vegetarians are the fertile ground on which a movement can grow, we should expect far more PoC in our ranks.

For another, racial diversity has been shown vital to improving outcomes in areas ranging from education to problem-solving to non-profit management. As economist and Nobel Laureate Gary Becker pointed out over 40 years ago, racism simply doesn’t pay. There are too many hard-working people with unique perspectives and talents -- and too much important work to be done -- for us to exclude anyone from our ranks due to bias. And a failure to attract or include diverse faces is a demonstration of insular thinking that causes problems far beyond race. Even those who are not interested in racial diversity for its own sake, then, must pay heed.

But if including PoC is important for our success, and if we can’t blame PoC for their non-participation, what exactly is the problem?  To answer that question, we have to return to my cousin’s question from 15 years ago: “It’s only white people that worry about such trivialities. Why be like them?”

We have to unpack what it means to perform whiteness.


An Awkward Beginning

“In both of these ways – the broader public’s targeting of ‘cruel’ minority practices and the AR movement’s promoting of a vegan lifestyle – contemporary animal politics is often seen not just as presupposing a privileged white perspective, but also as reaffirming or relegitimating those racial privileges, treating white perspectives as normative while ignoring the extent to which those perspectives are made possible by the oppression of others. Animal advocacy, in short, is seen as performing whiteness.”

- Philosopher Will Kymlicka, Mellon Sawyer Lecture

I have been part of the animal rights movement for 15 years. And being Asian in the animal rights movement is a little like being a Dodgers fan in Giants Stadium. You don’t just stick out. Your mere presence offends. 

This is not (usually) hostile or overt. But the experience is real nonetheless. When one walks into a room filled with even “radical, anti-racist” animal liberationists, as a person of Asian descent, the awkwardness is painful. The few friendly voices might nod and smile at you while they nervously find any way out of the conversation. The more typical reaction is befuddlement: “What is this person doing here?”  Sometimes, there is outright hostility: suspicious stares when you are walking into the room (“I bet he is an infiltrator”), and curt responses and avoidance of all eye contact when you actually try to have a conversation. It’s one of the many ironies of being a person of color that people can’t stop staring at you, when you’re not looking at them… but then avert their eyes the moment you look at them.

After 13 years in Chicago, I had almost forgotten how long it took me to build my credibility as an animal rights activist. But, in fact, the early road was incredibly hard. I just didn’t look the part. I would go to protests or leafleting events, and people would invariably assume I was a passerby rather than participant -- often even after I was already holding a sign or handing out leaflets. If I hadn’t been so acclimated to exclusion after a childhood of extreme unpopularity, I probably would have given up. But I believed in the people in our local animal rights community. I believed I had something to contribute. And most importantly, I believed in our cause. So I kept plugging along. And eventually, I won over many of the people who, initially, would not even look me in the eye. One activist, who confessed later that he was initially sure that I was a federal agent in disguise, became a dear friend and co-organizer.

But despite these struggles, I never tied my personal experience to any broader political consciousness. As Chinese, we are taught to accept dominant modes of thought. If people were not accepting of me, it had to be my own fault. Even when I heard people saying expressly racist things (“It’s really sick what Asians do to dogs.”), I would just pretend I didn’t hear it. Sometimes, I would even agree. And, even if I was not readily accepted, no one in Chicago personally attacked me for being Chinese. So I thought to myself, “You’re just seeing things. Calm down and get to work.”

What I was missing is the fact that racism, like speciesism, is not a product of individual prejudice but systems – broad cultural patterns of thought that often are entirely subconscious. Open racists are a dying breed. The forces of bigotry now operate in a more subtle and insidious way. There is the famous Harvard study showing that members of the public are more likely to shoot a black man, simply by virtue of his being black. Scholars at Columbia and UC-Davis have found that Asians are perceived as weak, effeminate, and less attractive. And a recent study at Wharton showed that PoC are six times more likely to be ignored by those in positions of power, simply because they have a non-white sounding name, e.g. Ramirez, Chen, or Ahmad. What’s striking about these bodies of research, however, is not that they show bias but how that bias is expressed. It’s not the hood-wearing KKK members placing burning crosses on a lawn. Racism has deeper roots in human culture, community, and even cognition.

Racism, it turns out, is everywhere.

Being exposed to this research, and communities of color who are trying to do something about it, awakened something in me that was lying dormant. For decades, the most aggressive and angry animal liberation campaigns have targeted Asians. Whether it’s the dolphin slaughter in Taiji, threats to orangutans in Indonesia, the dog and cat meat trade in China, or the burgeoning fur and vivisection industries across the entire continent, Asia has, in many ways, become Public Enemy #1. (The nuanced distinctions between the many categories of Asian – who, despite their status as “minorities,” in fact vastly outnumber the people from any other continent in the world – are lost in the mix.) I had previously accepted the mainstream narrative – that Asia was being targeted because Asia was especially bad – but what if there was something else at work? What if, in attacking minority peoples and practices, the AR movement is simply performing whiteness?

The discomfort for Asians in the animal rights movement has, in many ways, followed the broader trend in American culture. Historically hated by both the left (for taking American jobs) and the right (for refusing to adopt Christian values), Asians had a brief resurgence in the 1960s and 70s as an emblem of anti-imperialist politics. As millions of yellow and brown-skinned people in Korea, China, and Vietnam were being murdered by an American military juggernaut, progressives in the United States found inspiration in the fierce (and successful) acts of resistance by the native peoples of Asia. Huey Newton of the Black Panthers made Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book required reading. Jane Fonda flew to Hanoi. Even the now infamous Kim Jong Il, tyrant of North Korea, had a brief popular spell in the American Left.

But Asia’s moment in the sun – tokenized though it was (Newton did actually visit China, but most of those raving about the heroism of anti-imperialists in Asia never actually, well, talked to any Asian people) – came to a crashing halt when Nixon visited China. With Asia’s biggest power now kowtowing to American hegemony, the continent that once symbolized resistance to colonialism suddenly became Benedict Arnold to the Left. Things only got worse under Deng Xiaoping, the one-time Maoist exile who took control of China after the Mao’s death. Not content with just politically opening China to the West, Deng sought to actively copy the West’s capitalist system. American leftists, who had lionized China as a symbol of grassroots resistance to Western capitalism and power, felt utterly betrayed.

Vincent Chin was beaten to death by two white men who had recently been laid off as auto workers.

While Asians in the United States never enjoyed the brief popularity of the Asian revolutionaries in their homelands, Asian Americans still suffered the consequences of this cultural turn against Asia.  A people who were once heralded as symbols of revolutionary resistance were now perceived as sniveling and traitorous cowards. Centuries old stereotypes, of Asians being disgusting, dishonest, and servile, reared their ugly heads. Asia’s rapid economic growth, though it primarily benefited American consumers and corporations, was seen as a threat to American workers. Episodes such as the Vincent Chin beating and murder in Detroit – who was accused of being a "job-stealing Jap,” though he was actually Chinese – were ignored or even celebrated. (The white assailants who bludgeoned Chin to death with a baseball bat received three years’ probation as punishment. “These weren’t the kind of men you send to jail,” the judge said.) Never heard of Chin, you say?  Well, it’s no surprise. Because, to this day, Asians and animal rights activists have one surprising thing in common: 

We are both Orphans of the Left. 

Next: Part II: Orphans of the Left.