Today we welcome Wayne Hsiung, founding organizer of Direct Action Everywhere, and coordinator for Animal Liberationists of Color. Wayne talks about a recent viral video and how its racist content relates to how we perceive what is or is not “culturally acceptable” to eat as food.
What a Viral Anti-Chinese Rant Can Teach Us About Animal Rights
“F-k your little seafood f-king markets with your turtles and your frogs inside, ok?…[H]ere in America we don’t eat turtles and frogs… F-k Chinatown!”
With those words, an anonymous San Francisco tour guide shot to YouTube infamy last week. While her hateful rant has been rightly condemned by millions, the condemnation itself conceals prejudices that are just as violent and far more widespread.
When I first heard her words, I was not surprised. Being insulted for what we eat is part of the Chinese experience in America. The first time it happened to me was at lunch in the first grade. Packed inside my sandwich was a dry, fibrous meat called Rousong – literally, “loose meat.” To the Western eye, it looks like wood shavings.
“Ew, what is that?” the boy next to me asked.
My spoken English was poor, so I pretended not to hear.
“What is that?” he asked again. “Hair? You’re disgusting!”
Everyone at the table laughed. Nervous, I laughed too. But inside, I fought back tears.
Contempt for “foreign” food cultures has a long history. Legal scholar William Miller writes that disgust for unfamiliar food practices has been a recurring attribute in human societies. Mocking Black communities for eating “fried chicken and watermelon” is still common in many areas of the United States. Killing and eating species that are considered delicacies in other cultures – for example, dogs – is a felony in every state of the union. And a national television series attacks an Asian food practice for its violence against whales – to the delight of millions of Americans who watch the “whale war” with glee, all while eating hamburgers from McDonald’s. (South Park, as usual, is incisive. When the Japanese decide to brutally kill cows and chickens instead of whales, Stan’s father exclaims in relief, “Great Job, Stan. Now the Japanese are normal like us.”)
Yet we condemn a tour guide for being singularly racist when she attacks a “foreign” food practice.
In fact, our collective reaction to the tour guide’s rant reveals unspoken – and unconscious – prejudices in our own beliefs and behavior.
How can we condemn the Chinese for eating dogs, but react in horror when a tour guide does the same thing with a different species? Why does the nation cry out for vengeance when a young Black man brutally kicks a kitten, but ridicules the suffering of a disabled hen named Snow who endured far worse trauma on an egg farm?
Our disparate treatment of these cases can only be explained through a discriminatory racial lens. After all, scientists have universally concluded that pigs, cows, and chickens have the same feelings of pain and pleasure, and yearning to live, that the dogs and cats in our own homes have. But, then, there is no moral difference between a live animal market in Chinatown, a dog-fighting ring on the Southside of Chicago, or a “humane” pig farm supplying a San Francisco Chipotle.
In short, while condemnation of the tour guide’s rant has implored our society to respect diversity, respecting diversity does not have to come at the cost of tolerating violence. Eating animals may, in fact, be a shameful act. (Professor Miller, for example, calls our refusal to eat certain animals a sign of “primordial guilt.”) But it is a shame that all nations share.
Wayne Hsiung is an attorney, founding organizer of Direct Action Everywhere, and coordinator for Animal Liberationists of Color. He was lead organizer of the Earthlings March that mobilized thousands of activists in 41 cities in 17 countries, has served as a law professor at Northwestern (where he co-authored research with renowned Harvard scholar Cass Sunstein), and has organized social justice campaigns since 1999. Wayne studied behavioral economics at MIT and the University of Chicago and blogs at The Liberationist about the science of social change. Despite two graduate degrees, he regularly finds himself outwitted by his four furry companions.