Fur and Skin and Sex and Class
By Martin Rowe
At a recent animal advocacy meeting I attended, a comment
was made that African Americans all give the same answer ("Well,
kill it") when challenged about fur. Another comment suggested
that African Americans are more compassionate than any other group.
Yet another comment stated that due to installment payments it is no
big deal to own a fur these days, and that anybody can wear one.
These comments reveal several important points. First, that no group
has a lock on bigotry — it’s in every movement everywhere,
and animal advocacy is no exception. The animal advocacy movement is
still overwhelmingly white, and it better recognize that it has a diversity
problem if it is going to offer a real alternative to the dominant paradigm.
Secondly, no group has a lock on compassion. Every movement has those
who make connections and those who are resolutely single-issue. To suggest
that African Americans are more or less compassionate than others misses
the point: no people or peoples are "more" or "less" anything.
They are individuals. Period. Thirdly, these comments show that fur
is not a simple issue of vanity versus compassion which can
be adequately dealt with in a soundbite or snappy insult. It is much
more than that.
Like the tobacco industry, the fur industry has recognized that once
a product is discredited, larger concepts need to be drawn upon. Thus, "You’ve come a long way, baby" is paralleled by "Real
women don’t fake it." Both industries deliberately call upon
gains made by feminism — including that of sexual self-expression
— and then commodify them. Both have exploited the buzzword "choice":
a woman chooses to smoke or wear fur and thus exercises her independence
of spirit. The word, choice, of course, gathers its power from the abortion
issue. In one swoop, therefore, the woman is sold the veneer of (re)productive
freedom while still being infantilized ("baby") and called
upon to be sexually assertive ("fake it").
A friend of mine, who is African American, once commented that she felt
uncomfortable critiquing the fur issue because for her a fur coat was
a sign of social acceptance. The fur industry knows that in a status-obsessed
society such as ours, an appeal to being part of an elite is a way of
getting more customers. It is clear that more African American women
are now wearing fur, thus adding to the dynamic of interaction between
activist and fur-wearer the dimension of race. How is one to understand
all these situations?
First of all, animal activists need to acknowledge the presence in
this interaction of the woman as well as the animals who died to become
coat. I say "woman" because men in the industrialized West
will never wear fur coats in any significant numbers. This is because,
in this culture, fur is the commodity men buy for women or which women
buy in order to feel glamorous in a man’s world. Why this is the
case should be clear from the fact that animals are routinely feminized
and women routinely animalized — and both sexually debased. Consider
for a moment the various meanings of "beaver," "pussy,"
"vixen," "bitch," "foxy," "catty,"
"dog," "cow," "bat" and then think of
the multiple significations present when a woman wearing a fur coat
Secondly, there must be an honest attempt to understand that some African
American woman may want to buy a product that suggests a certain status
in a status-obsessed society — one that for centuries held African
American men and women in contempt or slavery, denied their humanity
and exploited their re/productivity, and which to this day continues
to express its image of beauty as straight hair and light skin. This
is still a social order where my friend has to ask for a plastic bag
on each purchase at each shop she goes into so the security guard will
not suspect her of shoplifting and where her boyfriend cannot get a
cab. White animal activists need to hear these stories, and often; and
in that light I am reminded of an Alice Walker poem which ends, "This
is what the white man can say to the black woman/We are listening."
Thirdly, animal activists need to make the connections themselves.
We need to see how animal advocacy is also about racial, class, and
equality. Just as we question how the epitome of fashion is still wearing
the skins of 40 or 50 animals who have been tortured to death on one’s
back, so we should question why women are incessantly commodified.
must question those who claim to be compassionate people rendering
those whose skin is or is not white an undifferentiated mass.
Fur is not a simple issue of the quick comeback or witty rejoinder:
I have no such response to the dilemmas and questions posed by race,
class, or gender. Instead, I have only the hope that all of us work
to acknowledge the personhood and individuality of those we address
in every aspect of our lives. Once we acknowledge personhood and individuality,
not only is that person made aware that she or he is valued, but simultaneously
her or his personal responsibility is re-engaged. She or he becomes
neither victimizer or victimized, stereotyped or over-individualized.
Real choice emerges, one born of responsibility, moral honesty, and
individual integrity. And then — and only then — is there
a hope of change.