He is on his hind legs, a blur of hyperwagged tail wiggling his rump from side to side, a wide open-mouthed grin encasing a pink tongue eager to lap the little boy’s outstretched hand. The parents squint at the card, then tug that outstretched hand away. Pitbull and lab mix, the card says, which probably means 90 percent pit.
This happens a lot. It happens with Dobermans and mastiffs and Rottweilers, too. So animal shelters have begun to change their approach. Instead of guessing at breed (something even veterinarians and breeders get wrong consistently), shelter workers describe a particular dog’s temperament. How he does with kids, how much exercise he needs, how playful or sedate he is.
This makes for a better conversation and a better match. It also increases the adoption rate for all dogs—and dramatically lowers the euthanasia rate. With the traditional labels in place, about 30 percent of all dogs that enter a shelter will not walk out alive. And—this surprised me, because I thought shelters would consistently fudge in the opposite direction—researchers have found that a lot of dogs get labeled a pit bull mix, yet when their DNA is tested, it matches none of the four pit bull breeds. (Problem is, shelters have no money to do DNA testing, so no forensic evidence arrives in time to stop the execution.)
In another study, dogs labeled a pit bull mix were rated less attractive than lookalike dogs whose label includes no pit bull ancestry. Taking away the breed label was better than cosmetic surgery: the pit bull mixes magically became more attractive. They were also pronounced more friendly and more intelligent—and 64 percent of the unlabeled pit bulls were adopted, compared to 52 percent of those labeled by breed. (The difference was mirrored by a 12 percent reduction in euthanasia.)
The logistics of erasing breed labels are tricky. Software needs to be rewritten, because shelter workers are often choosing from a drop-down list of breeds. “Mixed,” “mutt,” and “Heinz-57” are not options, and the choice is forced; the worker cannot shrug and say, “Anybody’s guess.” Why so procrustean? Because society is still organized by breed: insurers blackball people who live with “dangerous” breeds and cities pass breed-specific laws that tack on heavy fees and licensing requirements. In 2016, Montreal banned pit bulls altogether (though a new mayor promptly lifted the controversial legislation the following year).
Still, the framework is loosening. The ASPCA is pushing for “breed-neutral” legislation (as did the Obama administration). These laws hold the dog’s human accountable if the dog behaves aggressively, whether he is a pittie or a maltipoo. “Deed not breed” is the catchphrase.
It seems so enlightened. Could we ever think that way about one another? Could we focus on actions and temperament rather than race or creed or gender? We would have no quick categories to sort our impressions. Instead of judging by secret stereotype, we would be forced to watch for individual, specific evidence of who that person really was. It would be exhausting, and we would see how often we have slacked—and how caught up we have become in labels. (This includes our own ideological labels. “Keep your identity small,” Paul Graham urges if you want to remain rational when you discuss religion, politics, and other hot-button issues. You will have less you feel you must defend blindly.)
Race, we especially like to stereotype because it is visible to all of us. Age, too, and beauty, weight, disability—and religion, because people so often applique it to their sleeve. But the joy of a book is that it leaves such attributes to the imagination. Recitatif, Toni Morrison’s only short story, was an experiment: she wrote about two girls without disclosing their races. One was White, one Black, but who knew which? Back then, literary critics did not even know how to look for markers of Whiteness; it was the culture’s default mode. So they looked only for Blackness and were confounded. All Morrison had given them to go on was subjectivity.
Like shelter workers, a lot of the critics guessed wrong. Without the clue of skin color, race is more slippery than years of hatred and subjugation might suggest. When Whoopi Goldberg set off alarms last week by saying the Holocaust “isn’t about race,” she was given a swift history lesson. The upshot? Race has always been a construct. We construct it with color, which is simple and simplistic. The Nazis constructed a pyramid with themselves as a master race and the Jews as a subhuman race, and they needed genealogy and identity cards and treacherous informers to make it stick. The label they slapped on with that yellow star corresponded to little that was observable and dictated nothing about an individual’s personality or their worth. Being Jewish was a precious part of their identity, as the history and ways of our families and the rituals of our belief system always are. But it generalized none of what the Nazis—and all the anti-Semites before and after—had stereotyped for the label.
Today, as a way of protecting civil rights, we track our differences assiduously. Massive databases gather our label information via census data, school and job applications, law enforcement, and medical records. We use the labels to prosecute hate crimes, sue for discrimination, lobby for justice. It is absurd to imagine throwing all that away, and the move would be reviled by bigots and activists alike.
But could we begin to throw it away psychologically, cleanse it from our minds? The very thought feels dangerous; we have invested so much in reclaiming and proclaiming identity. But as important as our private histories and identities are, they too easily become divisive, used as a wedge to drive people apart or a shortcut to target them with hatred. I am reminded of a Jesuit who once blurted that this country’s future depended on how quickly we could intermarry. The more blending we did, the harder it would be to hate.
That does not yet hold true: people who are biracial often feel they fit nowhere, and they spend their lives code-switching. Why do they have to? Because we keep insisting on labels.
The best we can hope for is that those labels smudge a little, become more vague, or offer such a complicated and nuanced mix of categories that they are impossible to decode. We have at least stopped judging people by “their people,” their family name, their lineage of aristocracy, or assumed mediocrity. “Nonbinary” is doing a lot to squash our reflexive assumptions. “Spiritual not religious” leaves little room for purchase. Though we still use the old forms, there are a lot more boxes available to check, and some of the categories are loosening. “Black” covers far more territory than “African-American” did; “brown” can be many things, not just the old “Mexican-American.” Ancestry DNA searches are doing their part to lift the blanket of Whiteness (though a lot of White people are so terrified to lose their racial edge that they will use guns and bombs to reify the old construct).
At the dog park, I meet people who have just adopted a pup, and we have fun playing a guessing game. Often they have DNA done, just for fun, to know their dog better. They already love him. Now, it is our turn. Somehow we need to find a way to own our labels and also let them go. To honor and take interest in the categories of someone else’s identity without drawing any conclusions.
Pull off that trick, and we might find it easier to adopt one another than to kill.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.