Race and Animal Welfare

April 15th, 2015 | Posted by Karel Minor in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

In retrospect, even with my preamble to our HSUS minder that it was meant with all love and respect, my announcement of my pleasure at being at the HSUS EXPO at which “HSUS discovered black people” might have been slightly over-the-top ironically pithy, even for me. I acknowledge a tendency to bite the hand that feeds me on occasion when my conscience or mouth get the better of me. And while I know all EXPO workshop presenters get a staff handler, I sometimes wonder if in my case it might not be because they one day expect me to revert to feral, rip off my shirt, start a bonfire with the conference room chairs and throw in anyone I deem to be of the old guard.

Cleavon-little-blazing-saddlesMy comment came in the midst of a workshop I was presenting along with Humane Pennsylvania COO, Damon March, at the request of HSUS, on the future of disaster response (“Is the future of disaster response “no response” at all?”). I have to be honest, I don’t think we were entirely comfortable with the topic as it isn’t our hedgehog, for the Jim Collins fans out there. I’d give us a B, and the evaluations we reviewed afterwards seemed to generally agree. Solid effort, won’t be adding this one to our future workshop bank. Sorry, attendees, they can’t all be grand slams.

But my comment hinting at the reality of race and animal welfare was not entirely off the cuff and it was appropriate for the portion of the workshop addressing the need to be sensitive to the widely heterogeneous nature of victims of disaster as well as to our own, possibly subconscious, biases and perceptions toward them. Two of the workshop reviews we received specifically mentioned the “race portion” of the workshop, but with diametrically opposed opinions. This utter divergence of view is why I addressed the issue in the first place, why I struggled with the issue specifically after what I found to be a disconcerting welcome session at EXPO, and why I return to the topic of race and animal welfare again here.

One of the two evaluations specifically thanked us for addressing the issue of race in animal welfare and our interactions with our clients. The other suggested that we (I) should have kept our “racial views to ourselves”. This familiar response to any discussion of race is no surprise and I bet a small sum I can guess the skin tone of the two evaluators, although I wouldn’t bet a large one. I have found that many whites in animal welfare, and animal welfare is comprised overwhelmingly of whites, and nearly exclusively once you reach the level of executive management, would prefer not to discuss the impact of racial prejudice in the field of animal welfare.

I will state my belief succinctly: There is and has been massive racial bias, intentional or not, in all facets of our industry and it has negatively impacted our ability to deliver services to our community and to connect with people and animals in need. Period.

This is changing. The, for me, disconcerting welcome ceremony at EXPO was ample evidence of this. There were four individual recognitions or awards offered. The first three were animal caretakers or rescuers of some stripe or another, all black. The first was a man who would not abandon his dog during Katrina. Guess what? The dog was not a pit bull, it was an Akita! In the workshop I also noted that I thought that anyone who did not think that a large majority of welcome session attendees did not have that clearly racially biased thought pass through their head- black or white- in a way it would not have for a white person is kidding themselves and doing their clients and staff a disservice by not recognizing that bias. The next honoree, who had an award posthumously named after him was also black. OK. Then the award was given to a wonderful woman who rescues neighborhood cats. Black. Uh. Damon March and I are looking at each at this point, because it seems like a pattern is building.

Were all of these people worthy of recognition? Of course they were. Is there also a whiff that the recognition was somehow more laudatory because the great white majority of our industry might credit non-white folk less with doing what we expect white folk do? Take a deep breath, you’ll smell it. Was HSUS, which has taken a clear and, in my opinion, wise and commendable turn toward recognizing that we are here to serve all animals, not just suburban white owned animals, and that access to comprehensive services such as veterinary care and not just animal control interventions is a right of all, was making a pretty pointed case for the fact that poorer, urban, black people actually love their animals, too? On that, I would wager a large sum. I applaud it.

So why the- snarky?- commentary if what they are doing is recognizing something which I think has gone too unrecognized and unaddressed for decades? My discomfort, and the discomfort that literally had me up later the night following the welcome session than I’d have preferred, springs from the fact that while there was clearly a point to the selection and presentation of the honorees and the programs being highlighted, the audience was left to awkwardly figure it out the subtext on their own.  When there is a clear, long-term, seemingly intractable problem, we must do more than just offer some remedial action. We must actually state, aloud, what the problem is, why we are addressing it, and what we are doing to remedy it. Simply letting Tiger Woods or the first woman into Augusta National Golf Club isn’t enough. We don’t just leave them standing there looking around sheepishly in a crowd of old white guys. “Hey, thanks for letting me in, not sure if you noticed but I’m a woman and he’s black. We’ll just stand here wondering if we are tokens or if you really see what the problem is.”

Sometimes a problem is so pronounced that just taking steps to fix it needs to be accompanied but an explicit statement that you are fixing it. Allowing membership to the club one day doesn’t make the club post-racial. It just makes it slightly less homogeneous. Until the addition of minorities- hell, in animal welfare being a man got a raised eyebrow in many shelters until recently- is unnoticed, there’s still an issue. Ignoring the reality of that issue, not saying, “Hey, we noticed that for whatever reason, there are no people of color in our club, we think that’s probably an issue, and we are going to change that,” doesn’t fully address the need, even if we are trying to take steps to.

Our animal welfare club is homogeneous to a fault. We may not have a secret handshake or citizenship tests to keep it that way, but a simple glance around any meeting of sheltering agencies should make it clear that we’re a lilywhite crowd. Whether this leads to outright bias in our work is certainly debatable but I don’t think that it is debatable that fewer members of diverse groups- racial, ethnic, gender, orientation- brings fewer perspectives to our work, less understanding of those unlike us, and a greater likelihood that we may inadvertently approach our work with bias that negatively impacts our efficacy.  It certainly makes it more likely that we will utter the word “they” when talking about problems facing animals.  As in “they” don’t view animals they was we do.

Those biases are very real. I have seen them in our organization and we have worked hard to crush the openly bigoted policies and approaches of the past and to minimize the inadvertent bias that can come from a lack of diversity. When I started at Humane Society of Berks County it was standard practice, if not actual policy, to refuse adoptions to people of color on weekends until we could check the ownership status of their homes with the county courthouse on Monday. We routinely waived that requirement for whites. When we overturned the total ban on pit-bull adoptions staff would refuse adoptions of pits to young black male adopters, because, you know, pit bull. I write “we” but I should more accurately say “they” because I and my new managers immediately stopped these practices when we saw them, we moved along staff that clearly did not see a problem with these approaches, and we had a 100% turnover within a very short period of time. Sometimes the only way to change a culture is too destroy it and start from scratch.

It was more insidious than that, though. In all my twenty plus years in sheltering, I have never had one charge levelled against me that my COO has had levelled against him repeatedly by the public, by staff, by the board, in whispers and knowing glances. It’s the charge of selling pit bulls out the back door to dog fighters. Care to guess what color our COO is? Yep, black. Or actually half black, since in our culture we don’t think half white is white, we think half white is black. And apparently black managers with decades of experience and skills sell pit bulls for fighting while white ones don’t because, you know, pit bulls.

Having managers and staff of varying genders and complexions helps lead to having even more variety. It builds on itself. Is our staff a United Nations reflection of the community? Not quite, but better than before and better than most in our region. Does it make us perfectly unbiased? No, because we all are to some extent. But it makes us aware that we are not dealing with “them”, we are dealing with people, just like the people we work with and for. Just like the people we and HSUS give awards to. Just like the donors and volunteers of all shades who make our work possible. Speaking of which, that fourth person recognized at the welcome session was a lovely old white lady who was an originator of HSUS from the 50’s. We’ve all certainly all come a long way since then.

HSUS doesn’t need me to tell them how to make a change in the culture of animal welfare. They are bigger and smarter than me and I’m sure they have discussed how best to approach it for a massive organization which needs to ensure it brings the most people along into this brave new multicultural animal welfare world, as it tries to find a way to bring in a whole new group of previously overlooked. In the same way a President has to modulate his speech once she governs us all and a Congressperson can spout off whatever he thinks is the most important issue of the day, with every step Wayne Pacelle is making seismic shifts in animal welfare and must be very careful how he treads.

I’m fortunate in that I am much less relevant and I can say what I think the animal welfare industry needs to hear. I do appreciate that may be a sensitive subject to some in a workshop or even reading a blog, but I know it is equally sensitive for those who have been ignored, marginalized or even openly accused of horrible things simply because of their skin tone by people who believe themselves to be humane and merely looking out for the animals.  I also know that sometimes it needs to be said by someone with an ass as white as mine since I’ve never been on the receiving end of racial bias in our industry.

I can say that the way we, as an industry, view and treat minorities, especially but not exclusively poor minorities, is different than how we view and treat non-minorities. I can say that the near or utter absence of non-white faces at our shelters and conferences does a disservice to our work and undermines our credibility. And I can say that by not discussing the reality of the impact of racial bias on our work we are impeding our progress, the very real progress we, HSUS, and some many others are making.

We can’t just do it. We need to acknowledge we are doing it and why. We need to say it.