Tuesday, June 14, 2011

My dog is racist.

He's actually my son's dog, but they've been staying with us for three or four months now, and there is no getting around this tendency on the part of Benny-the-pit-bull. Although he loves (most) people, especially kids, he will charge the TV screen and growl/bark furiously at the mere sight of all dogs, cats, horses, Geico's gecko, the dry-skin alligator, Gus ("the second most popular groundhog in Pennsylvania," who shills for the state lottery)...and blacks. He seems to harbor a special antipathy for black men.

I find this disturbing, as well as embarrassing, should visitors see it. However, I'm also intrigued, for I wonder what Benny's unmistakable bigotry signifies in an evolutionary/anthropological sense.
I can fathom no environmental reason for it. I assume that the dog has not sat down and reasoned this all out, that he's going purely on instinct. (So far as I know, he does not belong to any racist clubs or organizations.) There is no people-based racism in our household, my son says that Benny has never had a bad experience with a black person (Graig has had him since he was a tiny pup), etc. So what the hell is the dog reacting to?

More to the point, what, if any, are the implications of that inchoate stimulus for homo sapiens ... in particular for our quest to eradicate racism? Could there be something "in there," some atavistic visual cue, that we don't even know about? I'd be interested to hear from others, especially anyone who may have had a similar experience. And: Are there any black readers whose dogs hate Caucasians?


RevRon's Rants said...

I don't think there's anything particularly mysterious or complex at work here, Steve. I think that all us animals are programmed to be wary of anything that is unfamiliar to us, a product of times when the absence of such wariness could result in the individual being eaten.

We like to think we've progressed beyond such instinctive drives, but we haven't. The only things that have changed, IMO, are the bar for what we consider "different" and the fact that we intellectualize the phenomenon in an attempt to explain it away.

Even in our political dialog, which one would hope to be at least slightly above the level of Neanderthal instinct, you'll recall how much emphasis was placed upon the insinuation - no, outright declaration - that candidate Obama was "not like us." Some attributed it to racism, but I think that racism is but one example of the inclination to be afraid of that with which we are unfamiliar.

For all our high-minded opinions of ourselves, we have to acknowledge that while our soaring intellects are doing the navigating, our lizard brains are, to a great extent, still driving the car.

And yeah, I've had a dog that was profoundly racist, despite having been given no cues - overt or subliminal - by me. I've got one dog now who is autistic, and gets very upset with the slightest change in her environment (I dare not hang my hat in the office where she can see it), and will attack anyone she doesn't know. Needless, we keep her penned up until new guests have had the opportunity to become a bit familiar with her, and vice-versa. To my knowledge, she's never encountered a black person, but has seen plenty of Hispanics, and now pays little attention to them.

Steve Salerno said...

Ron, thanks for (re)joining us. I know I haven't been the best of hosts of late.

Speaking of racism, there's a Tea Party troupe that occupies a corner outside a mall near my place of business, and recently I spotted one of them carrying a sign--emblazoned with the silhouette of an obviously black head, with a diagonal line through it--and a caption that read, "Are you spooked by today's federal government?"


roger o'keefe said...

That is a very funny story Steve. It shouldn't be but it is.

RevRon's Rants said...

I wonder if your Tea Party goon actually thought the sign was clever. Given the mentality expressed, I'd say probably so. And THAT is a sad commentary on a group of people who are actually allowed to vote... and breed.

Noadi said...

I had a dog that had a particularly strong negative reaction to men. With the exception of the men in my immediate family (dad, grandfather, brother) who she knew very well she barked and growled at men. Not young boys or women, just post-pubescent men. One day it hit me what was triggering this behavior when she started growling at my radio. What got her going was deep male voices.

Pay attention to the dog and see if the black men he's responding to have very deep voices. It could be something else about black men that set him off but since you mentioned this is generally a response to television I'll bet it is at least partly a response to sound.

RevRon's Rants said...

Noadi, my old dingo/blue heeler mix didn't wait around to hear whether black guys had deep voices. She'd go all out on sight alone - even at a pretty good distance.

I probably shouldn't have taken her to a Juneteenth celebration at an outdoor theater in Houston years ago. But at least I had her on a leash. :-)

Steve Salerno said...

Ron: Same here. Benny goes on sight alone.

a/good/lysstener said...

I can't say I know why Benny's racist, but he's adorable!!

Rational Thinking said...

I have to agree with Roger - this is very funny. One of our dogs goes nuts if anybody is wearing a baseball cap - even if that person is someone she knows well, the cap has to come off before she will settle down. It was suggested to me that this is because she can't see the cap wearer's eyes, but it makes no sense because wearing dark glasses doesn't appear to faze her in the slightest. Perhaps she objects on fashion grounds ;-)

Steve Salerno said...

RT: Roger on the baseball cap (no pun intended). In fact, Benny goes semi-nuts if I'm wearing a hoodie...and I'm one of his favorite people on earth.

(I guess when I put a hooded sweatshirt on, he thinks I'm black...?)

Cal said...

I actually remember reading an article many years ago that indicated dogs (I don't recall if they were stray or not) for some reason were more friendly towards black kids than to white kids.

Have you noticed any difference if the black person is a child or an adolescent as opposed to an adult?

Steve Salerno said...

Cal, thanks for weighing in.

Benny appears to love all kids--he makes no distinctions. So I guess the height/"maturity" thing is a factor, too?

Hang on, I'll ask him... ;)

Anonymous said...

All dogs respond to cues from their owners. Even unconscious ones I'm afraid.

Watch any dog training program to see this in action.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon: So does that also explain why Benny barks at sheep and even cartoon dinosaurs?

I could be wrong, but I don't think the pat, PC answers apply here.

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve, some of us have known for a long time that you harbor a deep-seated hatred for sheep and cartoon characters. :-)

While we can impose our anxieties upon our pets, I think it arrogant (not to mention un-observant) to believe that they don't come up with their own, independent of their human companions.

Our autistic feral Aussie Shepherd mix absolutely hates my son, whom Connie & I both adore. She also hates anything being out of place in her environment, and one would never accuse me of obsessive orderliness.

Better to simply acknowledge that we just don't know what's going on inside our pets' heads (or other people's, for that matter).

And Steve, IMO, one can frequently substitute PC with PA (passive-aggressive) without diminishing the accuracy of the statement. :-)

luanmahi said...

A lot of dogs do this. It isn't just black skinned people but other black dogs. It is to do with their eyesight - they don't see in full colour, they can only differentiate certain colours and are colour blind with certain colours. They read other animals / people through their body language / facial expressions. If they are not used to black people, they may have difficulty due to their eyesight and this causes them to be a little more wary and in some , will result in aggression.

Anonymous said...

There you go, put your ninja outfit on and see if he gets growly.