Of Dogs, Gentrification, and the Race-ing of Space

I just read an article I've been meaning to read for a few weeks, Sarah Mayorga-Gallo's "Whose Best Friend? Dogs and Racial Boundary Maintenance in a Multiracial Neighborhood." The abstract alone intrigued me, not only because I used to live in Durham, NC (the site of her study) or because I'm constantly shaking my fists at the gentrifiers who have descended upon my current neighborhood like locusts (along with their dogs whose poop they never seem to pick up), but also because I was curious to know how she's thinking about "racial boundary maintenance." Some of my philosophical interests in race revolve around racial norms and the ways that racial norms are policed and enforced.

The abstract brought to mind chapter two of Charles Mills's classic text The Racial Contract. In chapter two, Mills specifically discusses the "racing of space," or the ways in which location shapes and is shaped by race. This includes, but is not coextensive with, geographic boundaries and the boundaries of the polity and even for Mills, what he describes as the "microspace" of the body itself. (Upon reading, I see that Mayorga-Gallo cites this text, but only to frame her conception of whiteness as entailing a system of sociopolitical power relations benefitting white people.) That is, whiteness defines the countours of the space and sets the terms for the (racial) norms that obtain within. I see Mayorga-Gallo's article as an instantiation of this concept. (That these racial norms are viewed by the subjects in Mayorga-Gallo's study as "common sense," rather than the particular norms of white, middle-class urban dwellers reflects their investment in what philosophers like Mills and Jose Medina have described as an "epistemology of ignorance.")

The most striking instance of the convergence of racialized space, racialized norms, and how whiteness operates is Mayorga-Gallo's example of Tammy, who the other white neighbors interviewed for the study describe as a "neighborhood leader." Tammy, a white woman, took it upon herself to enter her Latinix neighbors' yard (with binoculars!) so that she could assess whether their dog was being cared for in a way that met her standards. First is the idea that whiteness affords one to enter any space one chooses for reasons that only the white person in question must justify (if any justification is required at all). Second, Tammy appeals to her own racialized norms regarding what constitutes appropriate care for one's dog, norms that she would likely consider to be "common sense." 

What I find compelling about Mayorga-Gallo's article is that it challenges the narrative that dog ownership automatically facilitates the strengthening of community bonds. Dog ownership can certainly strengthen a particular kind of community bond, but experiences vary even within the same geographic space. What Mayorga-Gallo finds is that dog ownership strengthens the bonds between the middle-class whites in the neighborhood (regardless of dog ownership), However, not only does dog ownership fail to strengthen these community bonds cross-racially (between the Latinix, black, and white neighbors), but dog ownership among white neighbors and its accompanying racialized norms can actually lead to more insularity among the white neighbors and increased surveillance by the white neighbors of their black and Latinix neighbors. Her study involves a racially-mixed neighborhood in Durham that she doesn't describe as gentrifying, but I think (and if I recall correctly, she acknowledges) that some of the same racial dynamics are at play. I hadn't thought philosophically about the role of human-animal interactions in enforcing racial norms and boundaries, even as I've experienced the annoyance in my officially gentrified* neighborhood at my gentrifying neighbors and their dogs. I've thought generally about how space is used, conceptualized, and racialized, but not specifically about the role of dogs. This article must be at least a note in my forever-in-progress Hobbes paper on race and the citizenry. (I swear I've already written this paper at least three different times!) I'm glad I found it; it's helping me think about how some pieces of the puzzle might fit together.   

 

*Earlier today I walked by what I would describe as a dilapidated but charming Victorian home on the market "completely as is" for $2.3M. I can't imagine the life one would need to live in order to have $2.3M to spend on a fixer upper.       

Yolonda Wilson