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March 1996
Editorial: 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, I didn’t 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 the 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 walks by.

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 sexual 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. We 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.



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