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How PETA’s Chinese “Dog Leather” Campaign Hurts Dogs (and Other Animals)

An investigation of the dog leather trade in China showed horrifying abuse. But did it help dogs?

An investigation of the dog leather trade in China showed horrifying abuse. But did it help dogs?

How PETA’s CHINESE “Dog Leather” Campaign Hurts Dogs (and Other Animals)

The dog leather campaign fails the animals in three ways: by promoting racism, by promoting speciesism, and by promoting inaction in the face of violence. Here's what we can do to change that. 

By Wayne Hsiung

[Note: a friend who used to work at PETA wrote to me expressing concern that this post would inevitably be perceived as an attack on PETA and its supporters, and that I should therefore move the below words to the top of the post. I think this is good advice -- particularly since the issues I am discussing in this article extend far beyond a single organization or campaign. You can read a more in-depth account of the problem in a three-part series here. Anyways, here are the words: 

This is not an attack on PETA. Some of my hardest working and most dedicated friends work at PETA. And PETA’s founder, Ingrid Newkirk, lives a Spartan lifestyle, devotes every waking moment to animals, and has shown true genius in understanding the crucial role of disruption and provocation in building movements. PETA is also one of the only nonprofits that has consistently shown support for grassroots activists. Rather, this is a heartfelt request for us to collectively do better...

I'd also like to emphasize that I don't think there was necessarily any intentional racism on the part of PETA employees. The issues set out here, in fact, are cultural and systemic in origin. And I know many PETA employees who are fiercely devoted to the right of every animal -- human or non-human -- to be free from discrimination or violence. But anyways, on to the blog post... ]

I’m crying, furious, and filled with a near-unbearable feeling of shame. Because, once again, my people are killing dogs.

PETA unveiled a horrifying investigation of “dog leather” in China yesterday. And the video is devastating. A little brown dog, shaking in terror, is dragged out of a filthy, dark room. She backs up against a wall and looks up in fear, as if to beg the man who is dragging her, “Please, sir, don’t hurt me. What did I do to you?” But he ignores her entreaties, lifts up a huge wooden club, and begins to smash her head with horrifying ferocity. The little dog cries out. But she is small, weak, and defenseless. Her brutalizer is massive, strong, and armed. All she can do is shriek in terror as he bludgeons her head over and over and over again. Soon she collapses to the ground. Two men cut the little dog’s throat and throw her into a huge bucket of water, where numerous corpses have already been tossed. They don’t seem to bother with determining whether she’s actually dead, so she may very well have drowned in a pool of her own blood.

Little Lisa. 

Little Lisa. 

The narrator tells us that many of these dogs are stolen from their families on the city streets. I can’t help but wonder… what if this were my little Lisa? What is the difference between the little brown dog I am seeing on the screen and the one I hug every night before I go to bed? The comparison is almost unbelievable. Just a glimpse into that nightmare brings my world crashing to the ground. Lisa, the light of my life, my favorite person, my happy child in a world so often filled with desolation, sadness, and pain…. Lisa, dragged to such a hellish and violent place? Impossible.

But it is possible, as the PETA investigation shows. Someone just like my little girl -- just as innocent, just as loving, and just as deserving of safety, happiness, and freedom -- is being brutalized at this very moment. 

So why am I disgusted… with the campaign?

1. The campaign plays on racism to draw support, and undermines our attempts to inspire Chinese activists to take action.

The PETA video, like so many other campaigns against Chinese practices, relies on an American-sounding narrator describing horrible abuses by the Chinese. It has the feel of a nature documentary, with dirty, violent, animalistic Asians contrasted with the calm, compassionate, English-speaking narrator.   

The video’s headline is the “Chinese Dog Leather industry.” Yet when was the last time an investigation of farms in the United States targeted Americans by decrying the “Brutal American Pig Flesh Industry?” 

The campaign decries the lack of animal welfare laws in China. Yet the US’s animal welfare laws are toothless and filled with exceptions advocated by industry, e.g. the wholesale removal of all birds from the requirements of the Humane Slaughter Act.

One of the thousands of dogs rescued from slaughter by grassroots activists in China. 

And the campaign fails to include a positive Asian face to counter-balance the horrible acts of cruelty. Yet the video ignores the fact that, as a product of PETA-Asia, Chinese activists almost certainly played a role in this investigation. Or the fact that recent grassroots mobilizations have inspired countless Chinese to travel great distances to block trucks delivering dogs to meat factories -- at significant personal risk in a nation where civil disobedience is often met with violent oppression. The movement has saved thousands of dogs from slaughter through these courageous acts of nonviolent direct action. When did we last see any similar action taken in the United States for the millions of dogs killed in experiments or “shelters” including, distressingly, many thousands killed by PETA itself? Those Chinese, it seems, could attack “barbaric Americans” (and “barbaric animal activists”) for their heartlessness, cruelty, and cowardice toward dogs.

All of that, however, is ignored. And with such a biased framing, it’s no surprise that the public’s reaction to the video is filled with hate against the Chinese. One of the top comments (approved by over 200 others) is as simple as it is antagonistic: “I hate China.” Many people state that they will boycott the entire nation for the faults of a few.  “[E]veryone should boycott chink made goods!” As usual, the strangest attacks are made by those who decry the Chinese as “not human”: “The more I learn about China the more I have come to believe that culture is for the most part not civilized - in fact, not even human at all,” says one. “Disgusting China. Filled with monsters, not humans,” says another. Why is being “non-human” used as an insult among advocates for non-human animal rights?

Perhaps most troubling are the many comments endorsing racial violence. Someone replies by advocating a nuclear attack: “China is the worst country in the world… nuclear bomb please!” Another commenter suggests replacing the dogs with Chinese: “lets have some chinamen hats… made from their mean slant eyed mother fuckers skins!” It’s enough to make even a fairly well-adjusted Chinese person, such as myself, a little shaken. What are the people on the streets of America actually thinking about the Chinese? What are they actually thinking about me?

You might reject this as paranoia, but discrimination is part of our historical experience as Chinese. We remember that a shocking 68% of Americans express unapologetically negative sentiments towards us, including a recently-viral, profanity-laced anti-Chinese rant in SF. We remember that Vincent Chin, blamed for the declining auto industry, was brutally bludgeoned to death for the crime of being born different. (The men who murdered him did not receive any jail time.) We remember that ludicrous rumors involving our integrity and loyalty continue to be spread even by the flagship “progressive” media outlets of our day, such as The New York Times or ABC. And we remember that far more Asians have been killed by the US government in the past 50 years than the people of any other continent. And we are understandably concerned.

Campaigns such as PETA’s, which incite terrifyingly-violent rhetoric, contribute to this fear. And perhaps the worst part of all is that the animals -- including those poor dogs in rural China -- are being undermined in the process. Because we know that, to effect change, we have to start in local communities. This is not just ethical but effective; sociological research shows us that our ability to impact those outside of our local communities is weak. We have to find Chinese supporters if we want to save the animals of China. We have to inspire people of all nations and continents, and all cultures and creeds, to solve the global problem of animal exploitation.

We have to represent the world to change the world.

At Direct Action Everywhere, we avoid ethnic targeting for exactly this reason. There are countless Chinese who have cried just as many tears, and felt just as much anger, over the murder of dogs and other animals. There are Chinese people risking their lives to help animals in need. There’s a Chinese kid out there -- who has faced despair, bullying and violence himself -- who is just as desperate as any one of us to save that little brown dog in the video. To reject these potential allies would be a disservice to the movement. To allow a Chinese kid with a big heart for animals to be subjected to racist threats is an incredible betrayal to the animals we represent. We simply have to do better.

2. The campaign is speciesist, i.e. it privileges dogs over other animals, and thereby reinforces the notion that human beings can arbitrarily decide which animals matter.

But what of public support? The dog leather campaign has mobilized a truly astounding level of public attention and outrage. In less than one day, PETA’s video has been watched by nearly a million people and shared by over 50,000. Many say that focusing on industries such as dog leather, marginal though they may be, is strategic because it is the “low hanging fruit” -- easy to garner opposition to, and just as easy to destroy.  

This confuses the basic function of the activist. We are not here to be popular. We are not here to cater to existing views. We are here to challenge and change those views. And focusing thoughtlessly on a single species, based on human perceptions of special worth, reinforces the species prejudice that feeds the entire system of animal abuse.

Shooting stink bombs at foreigners may give Westerners self-satisfaction. But does it help whales? 

Shooting stink bombs at foreigners may give Westerners self-satisfaction. But does it help whales? 

Anti-whaling campaigns are perhaps the greatest example of this. As the Japanese activist Tetsuhiko Endo points out, with a global budget of $25 million, anti-whaling NGOs (most notably, Sea Shepherd) are nearly as large as the entire whaling industry, which has annual revenues of $31 million. Yet whaling levels are twice as high as they were in 1990. Over that same time period, violence against other animals has continued its rapid increase in the very countries that have been most heavily targeted by anti-whaling campaigns, including Norway and Japan.

There is irresistible logic to this. When I was a child and first learned that dogs were being killed for food in China, I was horrified. I screamed and cried and begged my parents to stop my friends from being murdered. But they quickly dismissed my concerns as performing whiteness. “Americans do the same. Don’t you love bacon and baloney?”

As I child, I rejected this comparison. But in my adulthood, I now recognize that my parents were right. If we are going to break the species frontier, and grant rights to certain animals, there is no logical reason to stop with a single species. And if we are going to deny rights to one species, on the basis of their non-human status, who are we to object to the abuse of other animals?

The Japanese, Chinese, and others can see this logic as well, and immediately dismiss our single issue campaigns as hypocrisy, or worse yet, cultural imperialism. Local Asian activists who otherwise might be supportive of our efforts, in turn, are dissuaded from joining the movement for fear of being decried as hypocritical race traitors. The losers in all of this? Cultural understanding. Movement solidarity. And above all, the animals.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a huge dog lover. They were my entry into the world of animal rights. I am therefore the first person to say that dogs can be a window into the bigger picture of animal rights. However, to effectively serve as such a window, we have to give the public -- and indeed, animal activists, too -- a gateway into anti-speciesism. We have to hammer home the notion that concern for dogs without similar concern for animals killed by Westerners is both racist and speciesist. We have to have the courage to push our dog-loving, whale-loving, orangutan-loving friends to move beyond the low-hanging fruit -- marginal campaigns that the public is already willing to offer token support to (since they’re not involved in the abuse at issue anyways) -- and toward the root of the problem: the mentality of human supremacy. A mentality that people in our own neighborhoods are complicit in, most obviously, in who (not what, but who) we choose to eat. 

{Note: To PETA’s credit, the video does mention cows specifically. And the petition asks viewers to pledge to boycott all leather, not just the tiny amount of leather from dogs. But the campaign otherwise makes the abuse of dogs in China the subject of special ire, e.g. by emphasizing in bold type, “There's no easy way to tell whose skin you're really in.” But why does it matter whose skin you’re in, as long as it’s someone else’s skin?]

3. The campaign asks too little from us, when we have so much more to give

We need not travel great distances to find horrific abuse of animals. It's happening right next door. 

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the campaign, however, is that it asks so little of the online activists who rush to support it. The action page has two options: donate or sign a petition. But what in heaven’s name does this do for the dogs who are being brutally murdered across the world? (The deeper and more troubling critique -- that the campaign uses horrible abuse of animals as a fundraising device while seemingly making no effort to actually help the animals abused -- will be developed in a future blog post. The danger of the “animal abuse industrial complex” is one of the primary reasons behind DxE’s soon-to-be-announced Open Rescue Network.)

I have walked in places of violence for nearly 10 years, and I can tell you that animal abuse is everywhere, and easy to find. We need not cross a gigantic ocean to find men doing horrible things to animals. We can fix the log in our own eye before picking at the speck in our neighbor’s. But to do that, we have to take action.

And the “we” in that statement is important. We need each other to succeed. We need to be organized, ambitious, and unified. The greatest movements in history have always been products of collective grassroots mobilization. While they have elevated figureheads to speak for them, their power has stemmed from their ability to inspire ordinary people to come together in waves of nonviolent direct action. To be the change they want to see in the world.

Single-issue campaigns that demonize foreigners do the opposite of this. They offer Westerners a pat on the back for their own moral beliefs and behaviors, and give us license to return to “normalcy.” But this sort of self-satisfied clicktivism is the opposite of what we should be shooting for, if we are seeking real and permanent change for animals. And it’s so far short of what we can achieve. We don’t have to settle for being cogs in a nonprofit machine. We don’t have to relegate our activism to being mere names and emails in a donor database or registry. We can save our animal friends, and, with the right support and community, we can do it now.

Undercover investigations, particularly of foreign practices, are, too often, a form of moral voyeurism. We watch. We shake our heads. Sometimes, we even condemn. But we never act. This failure to act, however, is as big of a problem as the violence itself. Peter Singer is known as the author of Animal Liberation, the father of the animal rights movement. But he made his name as a philosopher with another idea: namely, that the suffering of the oppressed is the result of both acts and omissions.

If you came across a child collapsed in a pond, what would you do?

The point is best illustrated by a simple example. Suppose a man walks by a little girl playing in a pond. He notices the child holds a quarter in her hand, and decides to strangle her to take the quarter.

Now let’s consider another man. He also walks by a child playing in a pond, but sees that the child has bumped her head and fallen unconscious in the water. She will drown if he does not step into the water and take her out. But he thinks to himself, “Washing my pants will cost at least 25 cents. That’s too much to ask” And so he leaves the child to drown.

Singer makes the quite sound point that there is no moral difference between these two men. In both cases, they have chosen 25 cents -- and their own self-interest -- over the fundamental rights of someone in need.

This example shows that the responsibility for suffering lies in the hands of both those who commit affirmative acts of violence, and those who sit quietly while that act of violence is being committed. Those who elevate privilege, comfort, and popularity over the terrors of the oppressed. Yet, too often, our campaigns ask for only that: to be mere bystanders to violence. We have to do better. We want to do better. We can do better. But to do that, we have to completely rethink what it means to fight for animal rights. We have to envision, not a consumer marketing campaign fed by flash-in-the-pan single-issue campaigns, but a global community of activists fighting with every ounce of their energy for the animals who have so little power to fight for themselves.

We do this at DxE. When we look at our campaigns, and measure our progress, we ask ourselves: have we built something that will survive? Have we built institutions, norms, and community? Have we created empowered networks of animal rights activism?

Summing Up

Let’s make no mistake. I would never express solidarity with those Chinese engaging in violent acts against innocent animals. What they are doing is truly an atrocity, and one that justifies immediate action to end. But the same industries, practices, and traditions that allow certain Chinese to terrorize dogs with impunity also oppress the Chinese people themselves. The government’s failure to act to protect animals, for example, is logically connected to its failure to protect human rights. This is a nation, after all, where hundreds of millions languish under the weight of one-party rule.

This is also not an attack on PETA. Some of my hardest working and most dedicated friends work at PETA. And PETA’s founder Ingrid Newkirk, though justifiably criticized, lives a spartan lifestyle, devotes every waking moment to animals, and has shown true genius in understanding the crucial role of disruption and provocation in building movements. PETA is also one of the only nonprofits that has consistently shown support for grassroots activists.

At DxE, we focus on building campaigns that are robust over the long haul. Join our next day of action on January 11.

Rather, this is a heartfelt request for us to collectively do better in three important ways. First, we need to start focusing on the big picture back home, rather than pick on secondary issues or marginal communities. We can’t afford to lose allies in the largest nation in the world, a nation with the fastest-growing animal abusing industries. Second, we need to start taking animal equality seriously -- in our campaigns, in our actions, and even in our words. We can’t rely on speciesist messaging if our goal is to end species prejudice. Third, while the temptation to wallow in clicktivism is strong, we have to ask more of ourselves than signing an online petition. We have to remember that that little brown dog is not just a pixel on a screen, or an unfortunate story in a land far away. She is a window to the desperation, terror, and suffering of animals who are imprisoned right next door. And we have to take nonviolent direct action to ensure that their lives are not forgotten.

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.