My brother, cousin and I had just finished walking through a park one day when this White woman passed us on her way to her car. She’d already passed by us earlier on a path walking her dog, this big hairy mutt that growled when it saw us. It engaged in the same ugly behavior when it saw us again, but – lo and behold – when some White people got out of their car, the furry bastard wagged its tail at them and didn’t growl or even bark once, as it had towards us! My brother of course stated that the dog was ‘racist’ even before the White people showed up. He said, “Watch, it won’t bark at them,” and sure enough, the prejudiced pooch did not.
Can dogs really be racist? Not truly. But according to Suzi Schaefers of the Canine Psychology Center, she deals with bigotry in canines ‘all the time’ so there must be something with dogs reacting in a negative manner to people of certain skin colors. My deceased aunt who was an LPN – she passed away nearly 30 years ago, just over a month after my grandmother died – worked at a nursing home where a dog used to come around the property. When Black people called to the dog or tried to pet him, he’d growl at them, bark, and run off. Yet when White people did the same, the dog would come to them, allow them to pet him, and all. My aunt told us that the dog was ‘prejudiced’, a term that the Director of the Comparative Cognition Laboratory & the Canine Cognition Center at Yale University, Dr. Laurie Santos, feels is a better term than ‘racist’ since animals lack the necessary intellectual capacity to be racist the way us human animals do.
White Dog is a 1982 movie starring Kristy McNichol that deals with this very subject. I got a copy ten years ago and found it rather disturbing even though I had already heard of the ‘racist’ dog issue. The movie almost did not get produced, and was given a very limited theatrical release because of a few whining groups complaining that the film was ‘racist’ – no doubt the type of organizations with acronyms for a name. It’s a powerful film but it is also a thinking person’s film, not for those whose limited attention spans require a great deal of slasher gore and fiery explosions and rapid gunfire.
A Pew Research survey showed that while 45% of Caucasian households have a dog, only 20% of Black households do. While this doesn’t mean much in itself, it does prove somewhat that most dogs in America will be socialized around only or mainly White people, since in this country most people (particularly Whites) tend to live in neighborhoods made up of others like themselves. My fiance has admitted that his dad, who was a bigot in many ways – though he loved soul music from people such as Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye – had a pitbull that didn’t like Black people. I once read an article in the newspaper about a White man in Georgia whose dog kept attacking those of Mexican descent.
While prejudice in dogs is a trait that’s been defined by many animal behaviorists, I believe that a lot of it has to do with people bringing their mutts up to react aggressively to select groups of people. After all, even we humans aren’t born racist or prejudiced, we become that way through conditioning and learning it from those around us. I never thought about race matters at all until I was told about the KKK and warned of ‘prejudiced’ teachers and White people in general by my grandmother, who grew up in rural Georgia and worked as a sharecropper on a cotton plantation. I am sure that there must be dogs owned by Black people that probably can’t stand the sight of a White person.