We, Brock Students for Animal Liberation, are outraged by what happened on our campus on the evening of October 30, 2014. Four students participated in the Halloween costume contest that took place at Isaac’s Bar, impersonating the Jamaican national bobsled team, their costume involving “blackface” makeup. They won the contest by the applause from the audience and were awarded $500.
After the negative reactions from various people, the initial statement made from the Facebook page of Brock University Students’ Union (BUSU) concealed the fact that these students have won the competition by stating that they did not even participate in the contest. We find this deliberate misinformation particularly concerning and unacceptable.
The history of “blackface” makes it obvious why it is inappropriate. It symbolizes the degradation and ridicule of people of colour. Yet, a lot of white people (who clearly do not experience racism) dare to define what is racist and what is not. As members of a social movement that demands respect for the subjectivity of all sentient beings, we do not condone such overly confident judgments by privileged people. “Blackface” is racist, because many people of colour say that it’s racist. It is offensive, because many racialized people say that they are offended by it.
Some apologists of the costume went so far to argue that the costume could not be racist hence one of the students in the group was a person of colour himself. This widely shared account shows a clear lack of understanding of cultural hegemony. Unfortunately, many people tend to internalize their own subordination and in fact be complicit in the system that exploits them in our contemporary, oppressive society.
Another common theme of apologists were to call the protesters “too sensitive.” As animal liberation activists, we are used to such labels. Yet, this only adds sexism to the picture as we are living in a male dominated society where sensitivity is disregarded as a personality trait that is associated with femininity. For our concern for all human and non-human animals, we are proud of our sensitivity.
Racism and speciesism are only two of the systems of oppression that are parts of an intertwined power structure. Many people might think that they have nothing to do with one another. Instead, we believe that they have so much to do with each other, they cannot be hygienically separated and addressed in isolation. Throughout the history, exploitation of animals and oppression of humans have gone hand in hand. Animal abuse has been one of the most important driving forces behind colonialism that led to slavery and racism. Also, fascist states and other oppressive orders legitimized their mistreatment of the humans they marginalized by equating them to non-human animals. Countless people have been targeted like this because of their gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, class, race, skin colour, heritage, language, culture, religious belief, political view, immigrant status, disability, etc. Objection to the common belief that non-humans have lesser value than humans is thus an essential part of a struggle towards a holistic ideal of equality.
Racialized people are exploited by the speciesist industry in two other dimensions due to the alliance between racism and capitalism. Slaughterhouses mostly employ racialized and impoverished people who are forced to work in horrible conditions, while the same population is forced to live in “food deserts” where they do not have access to healthy, organic, vegan food, but only unhealthy, genetically modified fast food which is produced by the same speciesist industry.
Unfortunately, animal advocacy has not been much of a “safe space” for racialized people so far either. A lot of white activists have been using the analogy of “slavery” in order to create awareness to animals’ suffering without realizing how this will be received by people of colour. Also, treatment of non-human animals in different cultures has been used by privileged animal advocates such as Brigitte Bardot as an excuse to spill out racist hatred. As a movement that is composed by a white, affluent majority, animal advocacy has a long way to go in terms of political awareness about race, class and many other social inequalities.
All of these examples show us how many reasons we have to take this intersectionality of oppressions seriously and to strive for freedom and equality for all. We condemn the “blackface” incident, ask everyone to educate themselves about and join the resistance against all forms of oppression. What we expect from BUSU, in particular, is to take tangible steps to ensure that Brock University becomes a “safe space” for everyone. We believe that, in addition to the recent racist incident, they have a long way to go to overcome the sexism and objectification of women they have been promoting on campus. Consulting with feminist and anti-racist organizations might be a good way to start.
Brock Students for Animal Liberation