What Race Is Your Dog?

Courtesy arizonafoothillsmagazine.com

By Guest Contributor damali ayo

It was one of those rather nice plane rides where the passengers all felt like friends, particularly in our little corner in the back of the plane: I slept; the woman next to me knitted; the people in front of us chatted and got to know each other.

It was an all-around good time. As the plane touched down, two people in the seats behind me struck up a lively conversation like two friends who hadn’t seen each other since elementary school. My knitting neighbor and I exchanged a look as if to say, “Geez, these two are getting along so well, why didn’t they start talking several hours ago?”

We shrugged and got back to listening to them. The woman in the conversation had what sounded like a Spanish accent, and the man spoke working-class New York. Every so often the woman searched for a word in English. The two were both dog lovers, and the man pulled out a photograph of his dog to show to the woman. They both seemed so excited that I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

I craned my head a bit to see if I could catch a glimpse of either them or the dog photo, but no luck. The man was in the midst of explaining all the things that make his new puppy great a companion when the woman enthusiastically interrupted him. I heard the woman grasp for a word.

“What–uh, what–um–what race is your dog?” She asked.

There was an awkward silence.

“What…race?” He sounded distinctively uncomfortable. (After all she could see the dog’s color, she was looking at a photo of the dog.) How should he answer? Is a dog’s race equal to his breed? The color of his fur? The family that adopted him? My mind was reeling with the possibilities he must have been considering. He chose one.

“You mean, what breed?”

“Yes! that.” She affirmed, excited that he understood, but not seeming to perceive that this was an odd question.

“Uh, it’s a Pit Bull/German Shepard mix.” He replied awkwardly, but relieved. Their conversation continued as the woman cooed over the cute puppy photo.

When people talk about their pets, one of the first things they mention is the color. There are all kinds of elaborate and non-judgment inducing names for the colors of pets: tabby, smoke, calico, brindle, fawn, grizzle, merele, chinchilla, tortie, and of course any combination of the above.

It doesn’t stop there: in addition to the basic black, white, and brown that people come in, cats and dogs also come in blue, orange, lilac, pewter, apricot, cinnamon, chocolate and golden. It’s really quite a lively range of descriptors. People unapologetically choose their pets by their colors. “I really want a black lab.” We’ve all heard it.

We’re not as comfortable when it comes to people. A popular complaint about identifying people of color is this, “I don’t know what to call them. They keep changing what they want to be called, and if the I say the wrong thing, I’m going to offend someone, and I’ll be called a racist.” In an effort to curb this fear and potential offense people often modify racial descriptors with flattering adjectives to soften the blow of identifying race in the first place. People fear that pointing out race makes them racist. They forget to consider that it is their intention in pointing out the race that matters.

My gallerist did this just the other day. He said, “My daughter is getting a place with…(pause) one of her nicest, (pause) African American friends.” I’m sure he didn’t mention his daughter’s roommate’s race to everyone. He made a point of telling me this because I, like the roommate, am black. To cover up for the obvious “connecting two black people is fun” game, he added how nice this roommate is, as if this was the most important part of his sentence.

Alternatively people will insert the phrase “who just happens to be” in front of the racial identifier: “My daughter is moving in with a really nice woman who just happens to be African American.” This strikes me as odd. Did the roommate accidentally turn black? Now that’s a story. Tell me about that. How did they “just happen” to be this race?

Sometimes people start out wanting to say “I saw this black man” then something clicks in them that makes this feel awkward–perhaps looking at my brown skin. They pause, the letter “b” hangs on their lips, as they search their minds like a Jeopardy category titled Ways to describe black people that start with b. If they are afraid of black people they might say, “I saw this big black man.” Yikes. If they are trying to show how liberal and accepting they are of black people then it comes out, “I saw this beautiful black man.” Smile. Whew, that was a close one.

Imagine someone saying this, “I saw the most–um, uh–big–I mean, beautiful black dog the other day.” This clearly indicates that they are not a fan of black dogs and that this one must be an exception. It’s kind of like when people say, “I met the nicest Pit Bull.”

Yet, if you ask someone why they stumbled to find a positive adjective to place in front of a racial identifier, get ready for a fight. Their reaction will start with defensive outrage to cover embarrassment–and might even end with their accusing you of being racist yourself. Try it sometime, and see what happens.

Why is it that we describe pet colors and breeds so easily but when we talk about people we stumble, stutter, and prepare for battle? Is it because dogs never fought for their rights in our society? Is it because cats never asked to be called one thing or another? Is it because we choose their descriptors for them, and they have no say at all in the labels we assign them?

If you apply a biological approach, the color of pets and the race of people is pretty much determined by the same mechanism: genetics. So what makes race such a drastically different and difficult conversation among humans? We have to admit, finally, that race is not just a matter of genetics, it includes our historical interactions.

Facing a person’s race means facing the history you have with them and their group, not just facing a difference in “skin color” as people often try to oversimplify it. We carry our collective history with us everywhere, and the first reminder of that is our skin. It is our discomfort with and denial of our history that tensions around race invariably arises.

After the two dog lovers behind me discussed their dogs, they finally introduced themselves. As it turned out, they both had the same last name. No kidding, they had the same last name. The woman was delighted by this discovery. She said that she is from Spain and asked if his family was Spanish too.

“Yeah!” he said. “My mom’s from Puerto Rico, and my dad’s Cuban.”

Another awkward silence.

damali ayo is the author of Obamistan! Land without Racism: Your Guide to the New America (Lawrence Hill Books) and teaches “You Can Fix Racism” a ten-point program to improve and ease race relations, to schools and communities around the country.

 

  • TB

    Thank you! I had the same thought. Slavic languages use the word “rasa” for dog breeds and human race as well.

  • Altaira97209

    An experience of mine which you may enjoy reading ….

    On the night of September 27th, my two friends, service animal, and I arrived at the hotel Marriot A… United Airlines offered us a comlimentary hotel stay as partial compensation for a uncomfortable flight experience, and I had chosen to stay at Marriot, a regular favorite of my family’s.Our check in process went well, and we were given adjoining rooms, one wheelchair accessible for myself and my service animal, the next for my two friends. That evening we four dined in the restaurant, and I took my service animal for an evening walk.The next morning I woke to a frantic tapping on my window. One of my friends, Z, was outside with my service dog, and looked panic stricken. She gestured to meet her at the front entrance. When my other friend, M, escorted her to our rooms, Z burst into tears. It seems that when she took my service dog out for a morning walk, she encountered a nightmare.  She checked at the front desk which door led to the lake, and with service dog in hand, she proceeded outside. After taking a leisurly stroll around the lake, she returned via the main entrance. Before even fully entering the building, a woman came running out to meet her at the interior door. This woman, a front desk employee, berated my friend. Before even asking if she was a guest, or if this dog was protected by federal law, she told her that dogs were not allowed, and literally screamed at my friend in front of three people that she must “get out”. Needless to say my friend and dog turned and fled.My friend is petite, dark haired, and has a severe panic disorder for which she has recently been hospitalized. Before she could reach my window for help, she found herself being persued by a burly security officer.  That officer asked my friend to come with him. Z explained that this was a service dog, and that we were guests. The officer was incredulous. He asked if the service dog’s license was given to the front desk, and for her room number. My friend answered as best she could, explaining that we had the dog with us from the time we checked in, and giving her room number. After some time and many questions, the security officer finally let my friend go. Thoroughly shaken, she then made it to my window to tap for help.After hearing my friend’s story, I dressed and prepared to speak with those involved. I heard a knock on the door of the room next door, and came from my room to see. Here I met the security officer, who, upon seeing me in my wheelchair, said “Oh! It’s your service dog.” After writing down my phone number from my service dog’s tag, he thanked me and left.After a light breakfast, I headed to the front desk.  There I requested the hotel manager. The manager had just come on duty, and was limply apologetic. The security guard came to join us, and said that he had seen my service animal on the cameras, and he made several assumptions: one, that my lab mix was  a pit bull, two, that my service dog handled by my  petite, dark haired and tan skinned friend, was a dog used for dog fights.He also stated that my friend gave him the “wrong” room number, which was in fact the number for her room, not mine. He repeatedly asked why the front desk didn’t have a note about the presence of my service animal, as if I were responsible for enforcing a hotel policy. The manager offered no formal apology, no strategy for keeping her future disabled guests from being assaulted in such a manner, and did not offer me her card.My concerns are serveral. One, your staff training appears negligent at best. They clearly do not know that the work of service animals is protected by federal and applicable state laws. They were not aware that service animal licensing varies by state, and that guests from other parts of the US or abroad may present varying forms of identification for their service animal. They were not aware that service dogs are required to have “off duty” time, in which a vest or harness may or not be worn. They were not aware that a service animal may accompany a person with an invisible disability, such as a seizure disorder.Two, I’m quite positive that my friend and dog were ethnically profiled. Were my lab mix handled on your grounds by a tall, athletic caucasian man, I am quite certain that she would not have been presumed a “fighting dog” as your security officer stated. Conversely, if my dark haired and olive skinned friend had been handling a collie, I doubt she would have been chased around your yard…….

  • Pingback: Othering Language-What Race Is Your Dog? « Adventures of a Girl Janitor

  • Molly

    As I discovered when I studied in Mexico, the word “race” when applied to animals has deep social connotations for human relationships. The street dogs in the Yucatan peninsula are called Malix Pek, a Mayan word that means “a dog without pedigree”. I was told when I lived there that ‘Malix Pek’ is also a racial slur used against Mayans, who are heavily discriminated against. I’m currently a graduate student studying the relationship between humans and animals and have found that we racialize lots of non-humans, particularly breeds of dogs. Pit bulls, for example, are often described in the media using language that smacks of prejudice and racism, and quite often, banning a certain breed of dog in a city seems to be based in other, human-based prejudice. I’ve written a few articles about it here

    http://stubbydog.org/2011/08/stepford-wives-and-gargoyle-pits/ 

    • http://lifein2playermode.blogspot.com/ Rebelwerewolf

       Thanks for linking to StubbyDog! It’s one of my favorite websites. As the owner of two mixed breed dogs that look like they could be part pitbull, talking about dog breeds is actually not easy for me. First, when I talk about my dogs (or walk them), people like to ask what breed they are, and often they will not take “shelter mutt” for an answer. I then have to gauge the person – do they seem like the pitbull-hating type? Because then I’ll rattle off some other breeds to avoid an argument. And then I’m disappointed in myself for passing up an opportunity to be a breed advocate. You can see why I try to avoid talking to strangers when I walk my dogs.

      Also, I consciously avoid using race as a description when talking about people. Each “race” encompasses such a broad range of phenotypes that it really isn’t even helpful. I try to describe things like hair, clothing, height, age, or personality. It really annoys me when people will not say that a person is white, but they will mention race if the person is non-white. So as an exception to my “rule” of not mentioning race when describing people, I WILL say it if a person is white, just to mix things up.

    • Anonymous

      This is a great discussion.  And you’re right on the money. As a pit bull’s person, I’ve become aware that people are less adept (which is to say, less practiced) at covering their prejudices when talking about dogs. “She’s a pit bull?  But she seems so nice.”   That said, the author gives some pretty good examples of people failing to cover their awkwardness in talking with and about other people.

    • Anonymous

      This is a great discussion.  And you’re right on the money. As a pit bull’s person, I’ve become aware that people are less adept (which is to say, less practiced) at covering their prejudices when talking about dogs. “She’s a pit bull?  But she seems so nice.”   That said, the author gives some pretty good examples of people failing to cover their awkwardness in talking with and about other people.

  • http://www.facebook.com/galiotica Nejasna ちゃん

    Is the distinction between “race” and “breed” in English a new development (seeing how there is none in other European languages) or has it always been there? 

  • Anb

    In France, we unfortunately use the same word “race” for breed and ethnicity. However, the race comes in the spotlight mostly in the places where there is a important melting pot of ethnicity, like Paris, suburbs and big cities. Race identification happens mostly as a culture shock process. In the french islands, where there’s more blacks, and low discrimination against them, you feel less like a “racial punching ball” and more like a human being. Well, Internet and immigration policies are changing this so we’ll see how much it’s going to change in the future.

  • Anb

    In France, we unfortunately use the same word “race” for breed and ethnicity. However, the race comes in the spotlight mostly in the places where there is a important melting pot of ethnicity, like Paris, suburbs and big cities. Race identification happens mostly as a culture shock process. In the french islands, where there’s more blacks, and low discrimination against them, you feel less like a “racial punching ball” and more like a human being. Well, Internet and immigration policies are changing this so we’ll see how much it’s going to change in the future.

  • dersk

    FWIW, the word for breed and race in Dutch is ‘ras’.

  • Medusa

     Well, the woman in the story’s first language clearly wasn’t English.

  • Misa

    My dog, Sheba, and cat ,Biscuit, may they both rest in peace, were African American.   

  • Medusa

    Great article from Damali Ayo!

    He said, “My daughter is getting a place with…(pause) one of her nicest,
    (pause) African American friends.” I’m sure he didn’t mention his
    daughter’s roommate’s race to everyone. He made a point of telling me
    this because I, like the roommate, am black. To cover up for the obvious
    “connecting two black people is fun” game, he added how nice this
    roommate is, as if this was the most important part of his sentence.

    This. A thousand times. If I had even 1RMB for the number of times someone has told me a story completely useless, uninteresting, and unsolicited solely because it involves a black protagonist, I would be filthy rich. I would be sleeping and fucking on a mattress of money, on a four-poster bed of money, in a house constructed entirely of money. I’m completely fed up with having the same interaction, over and over, for the entirety of my life, but unfortunately I think it will continue for the remaining duration of my life (admittedly, it extends beyond this, because I make choices/have been in circumstances that are pretty atypical of most people. For example, I live in Ghana and I’m a woman who rarely wears earrings. The number of conversations I’ve had about the fact that I don’t wear earrings- Why don’t I wear them? But I’m a woman, I’m supposed to wear them. Why do I hate earrings?).

    Huge digression, but seriously, what am I supposed to do with that information? Give you a medal for thinking something mildly benevolent another black person? Do cartwheels over the fact that you have a black friend who eats a lot and doesn’t gain a pound? Weep for joy over the fact that you had a black roommate one semester? Seriously, what?

  • Medusa

    Great article from Damali Ayo!

    He said, “My daughter is getting a place with…(pause) one of her nicest,
    (pause) African American friends.” I’m sure he didn’t mention his
    daughter’s roommate’s race to everyone. He made a point of telling me
    this because I, like the roommate, am black. To cover up for the obvious
    “connecting two black people is fun” game, he added how nice this
    roommate is, as if this was the most important part of his sentence.

    This. A thousand times. If I had even 1RMB for the number of times someone has told me a story completely useless, uninteresting, and unsolicited solely because it involves a black protagonist, I would be filthy rich. I would be sleeping and fucking on a mattress of money, on a four-poster bed of money, in a house constructed entirely of money. I’m completely fed up with having the same interaction, over and over, for the entirety of my life, but unfortunately I think it will continue for the remaining duration of my life (admittedly, it extends beyond this, because I make choices/have been in circumstances that are pretty atypical of most people. For example, I live in Ghana and I’m a woman who rarely wears earrings. The number of conversations I’ve had about the fact that I don’t wear earrings- Why don’t I wear them? But I’m a woman, I’m supposed to wear them. Why do I hate earrings?).

    Huge digression, but seriously, what am I supposed to do with that information? Give you a medal for thinking something mildly benevolent another black person? Do cartwheels over the fact that you have a black friend who eats a lot and doesn’t gain a pound? Weep for joy over the fact that you had a black roommate one semester? Seriously, what?

  • Medusa

    Great article from Damali Ayo!

    He said, “My daughter is getting a place with…(pause) one of her nicest,
    (pause) African American friends.” I’m sure he didn’t mention his
    daughter’s roommate’s race to everyone. He made a point of telling me
    this because I, like the roommate, am black. To cover up for the obvious
    “connecting two black people is fun” game, he added how nice this
    roommate is, as if this was the most important part of his sentence.

    This. A thousand times. If I had even 1RMB for the number of times someone has told me a story completely useless, uninteresting, and unsolicited solely because it involves a black protagonist, I would be filthy rich. I would be sleeping and fucking on a mattress of money, on a four-poster bed of money, in a house constructed entirely of money. I’m completely fed up with having the same interaction, over and over, for the entirety of my life, but unfortunately I think it will continue for the remaining duration of my life (admittedly, it extends beyond this, because I make choices/have been in circumstances that are pretty atypical of most people. For example, I live in Ghana and I’m a woman who rarely wears earrings. The number of conversations I’ve had about the fact that I don’t wear earrings- Why don’t I wear them? But I’m a woman, I’m supposed to wear them. Why do I hate earrings?).

    Huge digression, but seriously, what am I supposed to do with that information? Give you a medal for thinking something mildly benevolent another black person? Do cartwheels over the fact that you have a black friend who eats a lot and doesn’t gain a pound? Weep for joy over the fact that you had a black roommate one semester? Seriously, what?

  • Medusa

    Great article from Damali Ayo!

    He said, “My daughter is getting a place with…(pause) one of her nicest,
    (pause) African American friends.” I’m sure he didn’t mention his
    daughter’s roommate’s race to everyone. He made a point of telling me
    this because I, like the roommate, am black. To cover up for the obvious
    “connecting two black people is fun” game, he added how nice this
    roommate is, as if this was the most important part of his sentence.

    This. A thousand times. If I had even 1RMB for the number of times someone has told me a story completely useless, uninteresting, and unsolicited solely because it involves a black protagonist, I would be filthy rich. I would be sleeping and fucking on a mattress of money, on a four-poster bed of money, in a house constructed entirely of money. I’m completely fed up with having the same interaction, over and over, for the entirety of my life, but unfortunately I think it will continue for the remaining duration of my life (admittedly, it extends beyond this, because I make choices/have been in circumstances that are pretty atypical of most people. For example, I live in Ghana and I’m a woman who rarely wears earrings. The number of conversations I’ve had about the fact that I don’t wear earrings- Why don’t I wear them? But I’m a woman, I’m supposed to wear them. Why do I hate earrings?).

    Huge digression, but seriously, what am I supposed to do with that information? Give you a medal for thinking something mildly benevolent another black person? Do cartwheels over the fact that you have a black friend who eats a lot and doesn’t gain a pound? Weep for joy over the fact that you had a black roommate one semester? Seriously, what?

  • miga

    Would it be a bad time to mention that my dog, along with the rest of our family, is mixed?   She’s blonde, but aside from that she fits our family just perfectly. 

  • miga

    Would it be a bad time to mention that my dog, along with the rest of our family, is mixed?   She’s blonde, but aside from that she fits our family just perfectly. 

  • miga

    Would it be a bad time to mention that my dog, along with the rest of our family, is mixed?   She’s blonde, but aside from that she fits our family just perfectly. 

  • miga

    Would it be a bad time to mention that my dog, along with the rest of our family, is mixed?   She’s blonde, but aside from that she fits our family just perfectly.