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  • Writer's pictureDavyd Smith

Intersectionality of Racial Equity and Animal Welfare

During a recent all employee virtual meeting at my work there was a call to action to look at 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge ©. I started to pursue this challenge by reading Peggy McIntosh’s White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.

In the article, McIntosh lists 25 extraordinarily common things that identify the way white privilege operates in her life. It's often easy to identify when a person is the victim of racism. It is harder to recognize when your normal experience is a product of privilege. Privilege is not experienced consciously; racism is. I want you to read the article for yourself so I will only choose one of the 25 items she listed:

“I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.”

Although I may have recognized this as an issue for people of color, I absolutely didn’t think of how when I walk into a store the advantage of my racial identity doesn’t make me suspect. It has never been in question. It was the way the world saw me. I had no context of what any other experience was like, even though I knew it existed.

McIntosh’s list was created in 1989 - more than 30 years ago - yet remarkably more than half of the 25 statements on the list provoked some new understanding on the ease of which I walk through the world. The article encourages readers to make their own list, so I started to think of aspects of my life experience and see what a list in the world around me would look like. It did not take long to find glaring examples.

Outside of my work, I work with non-profits on animal welfare for homeless pets, and this challenge quickly revealed aspects of my life affected by racial equity. Once a week I attend an early morning call with animal welfare nonprofits from across the country. Although it is mostly animal-centric, the group leaders brought forth the conversation of how racism and diversity are handled in the animal sheltering world. And it came with a stark recognition.

Protest in Uptown Charlotte, 5/30/2020 (IG: @clay.banks)

Animal sheltering and welfare is populated by people with infinite compassion for homeless pets. But I completely missed there was a lack of compassion and inclusion not afforded to a large part of the human population by this same seemingly compassionate group of people. Namely, animal welfare in the homeless pet industry is predominantly white. And not just from the staff and volunteers, but from the adoption and fosters we depend on to help us save the lives of homeless pets. Not for the disinterest from people of color, but from the standing homogeneity and current power structure that marginalizes people even in this kind hearted environment.

For instance, Pets for Life data states 3% of pet owners in underserved areas studied acquired a pet from a shelter/rescue. Nationwide, it is 30%. The perception of many in the field is that it is the people, not the system that causes the low adoption rate. But we have learned that is not true through data and studies. The shelter community doesn't serve these areas populated predominantly by people of color. The discounting of this community not only is a disservice to the pets (the core mission), but it also represents the racism in the homeless pet community. The shelter industry does not equally engage people of color to help save lives.

I now believe I convinced myself it was isolated or not as prevalent. But it is absolutely a key problem in adoption policy.

In conversations with many people during and after that meeting, I saw the industry is rife with a passive, unrecognized racism. Not only are there few people of color as leaders, but there is a systemic issue that prevents people of color fostering or adopting pets. And then I saw the reaction of fellow animal advocates in relation to the social equity protests around the country. I was shocked at the lack of awareness of and compassion in many advocates. It was disheartening. While advocating for the rights of homeless pets, I saw some of my connections stating views I find abhorrent.

So I started to make my list. It started with a simple corollary to the shopping item (above) on McIntosh’s list:

“I can adopt or foster a homeless pet, pretty well assured that I will not be rejected for the color of my skin.”

I could also say the same for volunteering in a shelter. My race allows me privilege in working in the world of animal advocacy.

I have seen people repeatedly suspect people of color of being dogfighters when they say are looking for a free pet. This is not anecdotal, it is pervasive, and I have rarely seen it about white people (although there are absolutely anecdotal comments that assumed this). Considering the lack of people of color in the industry and in the adoption pool, my unscientific experience has shown a gross prejudice against working with people of color in our industry.

In my own organization, No Kill Colorado, we have no people of color on our board. We have been operating for about a decade now. How is that possible? It’s something we need to address as an organization. I am certain all my board members would welcome anyone with the compassion we demand in our organization, but are we only recruiting in our own social bubble and missing the value that could be gained by a more diversified board? I think so. And once you see it, you need to take action.

Creating our own list exposes the way we pay attention to what is going on around us and the intersectionality of different power structures. In this case, I now fully recognize the way the animal rights movement and racial equity movement intersect. It exposes everyday activities that I take part in have racist overtones, previously invisible to me, and most of my associates engaging in otherwise compassionate, charitable work.

I have continued to pursue the 21-Day Challenge, reading most of the material, watching videos, and listening to podcasts. I intend to continue increasing my list. It helps make the invisible visible. It’s not enough to understand where someone’s position puts them at a disadvantage. It is just as important, maybe more so, to recognize how your identity may put you at an advantage you never noticed.

This will be a difficult and uncomfortable place to go. I encourage you to put yourself in this uncomfortable position. That’s why it is called a challenge. I highly recommend you push yourself to schedule time to take and pursue the 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge ©.

Please go to the linked web page and take some time to read, listen and watch the material presented there.


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