For this week’s blog, Vegan Publishers’ staff writer Christopher-Sebastian delves into the ethical issues surrounding the breeding of dogs for particular aesthetic traits, and talks about the connection between breed and race. Whether you are a human animal or a non-human animal, “putting someone into a box based on what we believe to be true of others who share some physical features does that individual a harm.”

Does This Dog Make Me Look Racist?

This is my buddy Orion. I met him when I was volunteering for the Coastal German Shepherd Rescue a few years ago. He’s what they call a failed fostering assignment. For the uninitiated, that means I adopted him.

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Early 20s, leggy blond, California surfer…likes candlelit dinners and long walks on the beach.

One of the questions I get most frequently when we’re hanging out at the dog park is, “What is he?”

This question makes me uncomfortable on many levels. I know that the intent of the asker is very innocent. People are genuinely curious, and they mean it as a conversation starter because he’s obviously a very handsome gentleman. But beneath that innocent inquiry lies a vaguely insidious cultural and social construct.

I tell people he’s a dog. Plain and simple. Sometimes people leave it at that. But occasionally people are more persistent. “Yes, but what IS he?”

Clearly, I know that the question they are really poking at is “What BREED is he?” But answering them the way that they want me to centers dog breeds in a way that I reject. Dog breeds are arbitrary physical characteristics created by humans that have nothing to do with the value of that animal as an individual. Obviously since I adopted him from a GSD rescue, he shares some genetic traits that are common among GSDs. The rest of him? An indistinguishable smorgasbord of canine DNA.

But what does the combination of dog genes say about Orion? Really very little. Dog breeds are a fairly recent phenomenon created by humans who decided to exploit particular features for their own pleasure and use. Some of these features, indeed many of them, are dangerous genetic defects in the animal, a eugenics experiment to create a specific aesthetic that someone has arbitrarily decided is superior.

Race acts in a similar way. Take for instance this popular YouTube video in which a white male jogger meets an attractive woman and subjects her to a series of inquiries about where she is from, even though she insists that she is from San Diego. When he finally harasses her to the point that she discloses her biological ancestry (Korean) and she turns the tables on him, he is not obliged to play ball (he’s just “regular” American, from San Francisco). In this example, the gentleman here centers whiteness as the template by which other races are measured. His biological ancestry doesn’t require explanation because whiteness simply IS. This type of racial aggression should be directly (although gently) confronted in our society.

Likewise, we should recognize how we unintentionally center animal breeds in general (and dog breeds in particular). And we should confront those aggressions as well. Putting someone into a box based on what we believe to be true of others who share some physical features does that individual a harm. It is functionally no different than crafting a mental narrative about a black American based on (often inaccurate) media representations about what black Americans are like.

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While Vick’s actions were definitely deplorable, how much of our perceptions of him and our perceptions of pit bulls are tied up in constructions of racism and breedism?

Is there a space for us to exercise physical preferences that we find appealing? Of course. We do that with humans all the time. Some people find appeal in features such as height, hair color, and build to name a few. However, recognizing preferences doesn’t mean that we should craft new persons with the specific look we enjoy. Hopefully, we learned this from Nazi Germany!

Furthermore, these physical features are often nothing more than celebrating birth defects. Would we want to go through life with an elongated spine that supports the bulk of our weight like a daschund? Is it fair to make someone live with respiratory problems and trouble eating because we enjoy the look of an exaggerated jaw and flat face like a bulldog? Would we intentionally curse our children with a high probability of hip dysplasia like a GSD if we could avoid it?

If the answer to these questions is no, then there is no sound argument for why we should design such deformities in anyone else.

Now is it fair to say unequivocally that all physical characteristics of dog breeds are bad? Of course not. However, the problematic thing to address here is controlling someone’s agency to procreate the way that they otherwise would…and then proceeding to ascribe value to the new life because of what we find desirable.

Let’s stop perpetuating stereotypes against other sentient lives based on ideologies developed from decades of human supremacy and interference. Let’s reject notions of class and social affluence based on how much one is able to pay for an allegedly superior bloodline. Let’s respect the genetic diversity that comes with natural selection and an individual’s reproductive rights.

Remember, how we behave toward nonhumans directly informs how we behave toward one another. As a person of color, I am sincerely tired of being judged based on someone else’s biases and prejudices toward black people. I’m an individual. Orion is too. And he has no idea what being a GSD mix means for him… nor should he.

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Longtime vegan and social justice advocate Christopher-Sebastian McJetters lives in New York City with his rescue dog Orion. A copyeditor by profession, Sebastian is currently a staff writer at Vegan Publishers. In his spare time, he organizes events and discussions relative to exploring the intersectionality of veganism and other movements for social justice including women, the LGBT community, and people of color. He also bakes vegan cookies that are guaranteed to end wars, lower taxes, save marriages, and raise consciousness.