‘The closer your category is to the shady, vague “animal,” the less you “matter.”’

‘Caribbean scholar and cultural theorist Sylvia Wynter notes that our current conception of the human/humanity is a Eurocentric invention. Although there have been countless ways of expressing human activity throughout history, the model we take for humankind is the one devised by colonial Western Europe. On this model, there is the human (white, Western male with the ideal human counterpart: the white, Western female) and “its human Others—that is, Indians, Negroes, Natives [and, I would add, Jews and Muslims].”

What separates the “human Others” from the Ideal Human and what distinguishes the human Others from each other is their ranking on the human–animal scale. In chapter 4, I pointed out that I don’t think it’s apparent to most of us that the notions of “human” and “animal” are racially constituted. The racial hierarchy tracks not just a color descent but also a species descent. At the top of the hierarchy sits the white male human and at the bottom sits the shady and necessarily opposite figure of “the animal.” These two poles signify two contrary moral statuses—the closer your category is to the white male human, the more you “matter.” The closer your category is to the shady, vague “animal,” the less you “matter.”

Whether or not we explicitly use this language or instead use code words that coincide with it, such as “subpersons,” “nonhumans,” “inhuman,” and so on, doesn’t matter. What is relevant here is that the organizing principle for racial logic lies in the human–animal divide, wherein the human and the animal are understood to be moral opposites.

That means that what gives rise to these racial categories and racial thinking is a particular understanding of what a human being is. A human being is fundamentally opposite to animals (with “animals” here being a gross reduction of a vast plurality of species, of course). With these poles set in place—the former as extreme superiority and the latter as extreme inferiority—those who authored this system placed themselves in the former position and from there divided humanity along a spectrum that went all the way “down” to “the animal.”

This model of the human is still in use today.

So, in black reappropriation movements, activists effectively begin to disrupt the modern, imperialistic understanding of humanity. But because they leave the foundation untouched, the dismantling can never be complete. We need to go beyond the racial categories and subvert their anchor: the human–animal divide.

In short, then, what condemns us to our inferior status, even before we can speak or act is not merely our racial category but that our racial category is marked the most by animality. Its proximity to animality signals inferiority. We certainly don’t want to affirm the current conception of humanity by trying to distance ourselves from animality. And we certainly don’t want to pretend these terms don’t exist. The best strategy is to reclaim in order to disrupt, and then to de-link from the narrative altogether.’

Aphro-Ism : Essays on Pop Culture, Feminism, and Black Veganism from Two Sisters. Lantern Books, 2017.

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