‘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.
‘I won’t go into the details of the indigenous people’s views, but one general, interesting fact the student presented was that there was no concept of “nature” in their language. That is, there was no sense in which we—human beings—were over here as perceiving subjects or knowers, whereas “nature” was over there, a passive object to be experienced and known. Rather, the people he encountered saw themselves in a deep relationship with the surrounding plants, animals, bodies of water, and so on, such that there was no distance that enabled any being to be only and permanently an object. This got me thinking about my culturally insensitive acquaintance’s comments. He interpreted the people’s reaction to “nature” as them not appreciating its beauty. Our mutual friend assumed instead that perhaps they were just used to it since they lived there and saw it every day. Who knows, maybe he’s right?
I have a third interpretation, in light of this new information about some peoples’ very different, non-Eurocentric conceptual resources. Since they did not put any distance between themselves and the other citizens of “nature,” since nonhuman entities were not strange, alien, passive objects to be witnessed or understood from “over here,” but instead deeply connected, continuous beings who themselves could be co-subjects with the people, this particular people considered the stuff that we call “nature” simply not the right kinds of beings/things to be thought of as essentially objects of beauty.
In a way, some feminists have similar thoughts about the mainstream’s obsession with women and beauty. For several years, films and TV shows, magazines, fashion shows, or commercials have been congratulating themselves for featuring “real” women. Instead of endorsing the ridiculously narrow standard of beauty (tall, thin, doll-faced, usually white, hyper-feminine, and sexualized), these “progressive” campaigns champion “real” women, hoping to widen the range of the beauty standard to include all women. Basically, the notion can be summed up as “all women are beautiful!”
Although some feminists are fighting to ensure all women (and not just white, thin ones), are beautiful, others—like myself—are critical of the connection between beauty and women altogether. We ask the question: Why do women have to be thought of as beautiful? That women are automatically connected with beauty is problematic in a number of ways, but I’ll only discuss the way it is relevant to the discussion I raised above regarding nature.’
–Aphro-Ism : Essays on Pop Culture, Feminism, and Black Veganism from Two Sisters. Lantern Books, 2017.