The Limits of White Compassion: Imagine If Black Lives Mattered as Much as One Gorilla's

Over the past few days, my Facebook Timeline has been filled with fellow Cincinnati natives weighing in on the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden’s decision to shoot a silverback gorilla named Harambe, thus ensuring the safety of the small child who fell into the gorilla’s habitat. If people are reacting out of the compassion we are taught to exercise toward non-human animals, the “passion” root is equally present: people of various ages, races, and general points of view are hurt and angry over Harambe’s death. They call for apology, for petition, for policy change, for the parent of the fallen child to be held responsible somehow. It’s not okay to kill a gorilla.


The people are passionately compassionate—and with effect. The story is hitting national media; yesterday my partner caught footage of the encounter on CNN. Clearly, it matters how people feel, what they say about what is happening around them; their questions and their demands. In turn, the zoo has defended its actions while lamenting its loss. Various experts have put forth their now moot prognoses of Harambe’s possible actions. There’s buzz, and meaning, memes, and some strange sort of solidarity in the air.

For centuries, black people—specifically black men—and gorillas have been linked, however latently, insultingly, and vividly since at least King Kong's 1933 entrance into the cultural imagination. You know—the primitive monster who threatens both the sanctity and safety of the prodigal white woman. The same sort of beast Flannery O’Connor, in her 1952 story “Enoch and the Gorilla,” describes as “hideous and black”: two words an inculcated dyad for those of us black in an anti-black society, reflected in a beast that supposedly reflects us.

But I think Harambe was beautiful—dignified, strong, silver and black. Harambe is worth caring about, as are all our non-human animal counterparts (particularly those we have endangered), as is the overall issue of animal captivity, and the privileging of humans over the numerous (though disappearing) other species of our planet. With power comes the counterweight of compassion. If we choose not to eat animals, we are acting out of compassion. If we choose to eat animals, what is the most compassionate way to do so? If we, collectively, choose to confine animals, what is the most compassionate way to do so? Was the shooting of Harambe the most compassionate decision, the most judicious one—or neither, or both?

But, back to black people. I was born and raised in Cincinnati. I remember, albeit fuzzily, the 2001 race riots following the police killing of an unarmed black man named Timothy Thomas. By the August 2015 killing of unarmed Samuel DuBose (instigated by DuBose’s lack of a front license plate), I’d left the city; I didn’t even hear about the February 2016 killing of Paul Gaston. Truthfully, after six years of living out of state, I no longer feel very connected to Cincinnati, really only thinking of it through the experiences of my loved ones who are still there, along with the Facebook posts of high school classmates I haven’t spoken to in years.

Yet, despite my disconnect, I knew right away that Harambe had been killed, and knew right away how people felt about it: their pain and outrage, their unwillingness to let the death pass quietly. And in my scrolling I searched—hoped—for some post that would reflect what I was experiencing.

In the portraits of Harambe that surface on my Timeline, I appreciate the majesty of his body, a body not so distantly related to any human, black or otherwise—and a body that can never live again. Unlike compassion, living is not limitless; as humans, we have the unique ability and responsibility to shape the lives of the animals we have placed ourselves over, as well as the ability and responsibility to shape our institutions, norms and cultural assumptions. Our own violences. Should Harambe have been killed? Should the Cincinnati Zoo’s gorilla exhibit have had a secondary enclosure? Should the United States have had more fatal police shootings in the first 24 days of 2015 than England and Wales combined have had in the last 24 years? Should a young black man be 21 times more likely to be one of those slain than a young white one?

All of these questions are ours as Americans, with a particular onus on white Americans. Compassion is an investible form of power, and can be, as we see with various campaigns around Harambe’s death, a tool of inquiry and an agent of social change. To whatever possible end, folks have chosen to invest in Harambe—and the more we practice investing, the more potent and capacious our collective compassion becomes.

In turn, compassion is never wasted, should never be discouraged. What should be questioned are the presumptive limits of American compassion, and how that compassion can be most critically and progressively invested. Harambe will rest in peace; how can we, in a nation that grows more tenaciously racist with each turned head?

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