by Andil Gosine
Someone called me coolie, that n-word equivalence in Trinidad which was first used there to tag labourers replacing slaves on plantations following emancipation. Most everyone else said I was an East Indian, which was not, as many think, to distinguish us subcontinental-sourced Indians from the misnamed Indigenous peoples of the Caribbean, but a reference to our ancestors’ shipment by the British East India company. We are cargo. Maybe just Indian was better? We move to Oshawa and at the time there are barely any of those around. The closest mirror and spiritual salvation from the persistent racial violence is Black culture, and for years, right to the end of my studies in the UK, I continue to think that’s my place – until my return to Canada demands adherence, from all sides, to its particular brand of bio-multiculturalism. Brown, or South Asian is better for you, artists and activists alike say. They never fit. I haven’t even been to South Asia. Indo-Caribbean is offered as a corrective, but it’s too uncomfortably not-Afro-Caribbean. Since I like men, and I work in academia, queer comes to the fore, and I’m like “whatever, sure,” until Vivek Shraya asks me to participate in her What I LOVE about being QUEER project and I decline. I explain that while I think sexual categories have some use in organizing political opposition, I actually believe sexuality is so individually wired that I don’t believe in nouns to describe it. And it just is, like the accident of birth that placed me in a particular body or geography. Am I just a man then? Or – that gender-neutral word person? I adore how person is so fully integrated into everyday language in the Caribbean. The region never gets credit for that progressive thinking. But no: I am animal.
This declaration feels like both a respite from the social demands to find home in a stable identity and a return to what always has been. Not-animal is the defining quality of humanness. Among humans, hierarchies of intelligence and worth have also been predicated on the degree of one’s animality, as we were reminded earlier this year by the furor over Roseanne Barr’s tweets likening black women to apes. Hers was hardly an original thought. America’s right wing had, for all of their White House residency, done the same to the Obamas, monkeyfying representations of Barack and Michelle in an effort to dehumanize them and all black Americans. In power, America’s right upped the ante, extracting children from their families and caging them like chickens. European colonizers’ investment in animalizing others was, and is, tied to anxieties about their own animalistic desires.
“Every culture feels that they’ve created these hard-won distances between themselves and the animals,” artist Lorraine O’Grady has observed, “and anything that reminds you that you haven’t come quite so far is problematic… [it] puts the culture in jeopardy.” Thus, laws about bestiality, interracial mixing and sodomy were bundled together, with the onus on colonized subjects to prove themselves not-perverse, not-homosexual, not-animal. Fears about the unbridled sexuality of Asians would become expressed as hysteria about them overpopulating like flies, and as the hypersexualization of women. Because of this history, it’s been all that much more contentious for non-white peoples to embrace our animality. But what would it mean to refuse to engage ever-persistent demands to prove our humanity and reply, yup, we’re animals.
Would it break, finally, states’ mimicry of former colonial masters? As I write there’s an enforced law in Guyana that forbids gender-crossing wardrobes, and in Jamaica, a strict dress code that forbids Jamaicans entering their own government offices from wearing, to quote one, “camisoles (sleeveless), tubetops, merinos, short shorts, mini-skirts, low cut garments exposing the bosom, tights, sheer (see through) garments, pants below the waist.” This excessive investment in “decorum” is entirely about proving ourselves not-animal. These rules were a cornerstone of the colonial project and target non-white and, often, white poor people, who are forced to double-down on the suppression of their animality, whether to access government services, be socially rewarded or claim basic human dignity.
What would it mean for each of us personally to acknowledge our animality? I was never not an animal but for most of my life joined most others in various states of make believe that deny this truth. In North America, non-white people are burdened with this task early on. As children and teens we learn that any “acting out” beyond the parameters of civility is evidence of our animality and will be punished. We never get to enjoy the kind of playful exploration that, with abandon, that our white peers experience and grow from. They get to hone their instincts while ours are pushed down.
Rather than subject ourselves to these politics of respectability, could recognition of our animality across the board – whatever the colour, gender, sexuality – offer, at least, a savvier constitution of contemporary politics? I feel certain that a large part of American President Donald Trump’s broad appeal is his unabashed animality. His ruthless, self-serving, naked opportunism speaks to a part of the human condition which seems “real” and through which his base finds a kind of liberation. For them, the call to civility, and denial of their animality, is represented by what they view as “political correctness.” At Trump’s rallies, you witness the joyful catharsis of his supporters from his racism/tribalism. Obviously, a counter-politics would draw upon other aspects of our animality – like our physiological dependence on each other – but wouldn’t it be better to craft responses that are aware of the parts of our animality, like our tribalism, our anxious fears, and our survival instincts, rather than remaining so fixed on a naïve program of ethical acculturation that dominates progressive circles? Might recognizing the animality of everyone be a pathway to fully claiming our humanity?
I am Animal; what now?