Mar 5, 2021 | LIFE | By Sada Rice | Illustration by Maren Greene
One of the first thoughts I had after picking up Aph Ko’s book “Racism as Zoological Witchcraft: A Guide to Getting Out” was, excuse me, what? The unusual title immediately drew me in and I had to know what on earth she was talking about.
Ko compares racism to a modern-day Eurocentric witchcraft because white supremacy is something beyond just a “system.” It is so pervasive that “system” does not cover how penetrative it is. Rather, it is a living, insidious, colonial force that works to get inside, consume, and destroy.
My next question was, well what does this have to do with animals? Ko argues that racism is anchored to the human/animal binary, which makes this witchcraft zoological in nature. When analyzing the term “animal” from a social and historical lens, we see that it was used as a social construct by the dominant class to mark certain bodies as disposable.
Those who deemed themselves superior humans got to decide who fell within the category of human and within the category of animal by using their own group’s traits as the standard. Any group that the dominant class deemed unworthy could be branded with the label of animal, so that those who deviate from what our culture considers to be an ideal human can be oppressed. In this way, white supremacy relies upon notions of the human and animal to maintain its power.
Ko makes it clear that her comparison is not to say that animal oppression and Black oppression are the same. This is an oversimplification of her argument, and an offensive one. Rather, both groups were forced onto a racial hierarchy that the dominant class created.
Understanding animal experiences as the invisible framework keeping colonial consumption intact calls for us to undermine the binaries that produce racial and animal injustices. Due to this connection, she urges anti-racist activists to go through, not around, animals to actualize liberation.
Interestingly, her understanding of the complexity and interconnectedness of these two movements does not lead her to favor an intersectional approach. She believes that intersectionality reaffirms colonized categorical thinking since our understanding of what these categories are is tainted by our culture and therefore infected by coloniality.
Because our movements have become so compartmentalized, thinking just about the intersections leaves a gap. Genuine connections are often lost, limiting our understanding of what’s actually going on. Instead of accepting the traditional frameworks used in a particular movement, activists should challenge these predetermined scripts. The only way to move forward is to transcend disciplinary logic and engage in “un-disciplinary” thinking that dissects the actual categories themselves.
I was most impressed with Ko’s ability to articulate such complex ideas concisely, with her book being just 125 pages. The language is accessible and she offers a glossary of terms that might be unfamiliar to those not involved in this type of work.
Ko’s academic background is in media studies, so she uses contemporary examples in the media to ground her theory and make her ideas more concrete for the reader. In particular, she draws on the themes of anti-Blackness and animality in Jordan Peele’s film “Get Out.”
In the film, white people engage in rituals that strip the Black body of its essence and repurpose it for their own fantasies. Focusing on the recurrence of taxidermy, Ko demonstrates how animal corpses become symbols of white supremacy and how white supremacy’s grammar system is consumption.
The bodies of the minoritized class are physically and conceptually consumed and “stuffed” with definitions from the dominant class. When white supremacy is able to get inside the oppressed in this way, it becomes a witchcraft.
It is interesting that she calls this book “a guide to getting out.” Most guides provide answers for the next steps to take, but this book leaves readers with the question, what should I do now? Ko seems to believe that as activists, we should constantly be challenging ourselves. It is dangerous to become complicit in our compartmentalized movements and theoretical understandings of the oppressive forces behind these movements.
We should strive for multidimensional activism that allows us to question everything we think that we know. This guide invites us into a confusing, new, sometimes scary, but possibly liberating space. In short, you might be uncomfortable after reading this book, but maybe we need to be.