(The Root) —
"We live in a diverse urban city. I am white and my husband is Filipino and white, but he's often mistaken for Indian or black/mixed because of his dark complexion. He is great with animals in general and is a supersweet, calm, gentle person; we foster rescue dogs that are really sensitive, and they love him! But on several occasions when we're meeting with co-workers and friends, their dogs will bark and act aggressively toward him, yet not toward the other white people who are also present.
"I've researched why dogs may behave this way, but I'm wondering what to do about this from my end. Is there a polite thing that we can do or say to alleviate this socially? If we are somewhere long enough for the dog to calm down and interact with my husband, it works out, but most of our friends are dog people, so I am curious if you know of a polite fix!" —Needing a Doggie Olive Branch
You've done your research, so you're aware that doggie racism is a real thing.
Cue the "Stop playing the race card" chorus asking, "Has it really come to this?"
Yep, it has.
OK, the term "racism" is a bit loaded with all sorts of human baggage. But it will do. After all, it is well-known that individual dogs can develop aversions to people with certain characteristics — from men with beards to children to people who carry keys or smoke cigarettes to, yes, those with a particular complexion.
How does an entire group get stereotyped and scorned by man's best friend? It can happen as the result of training or a bad experience, but most often it stems from a simple lack of exposure, animal behavior expert Dr. Nicholas Dodman told Slate in a piece that broke down the phenomenon way back in 2003. Here's how he explained it:
Typically, such behavior indicates that the dog was not exposed to the people it now targets during its developmentally "sensitive time" — weeks 3 through 12 — when its understanding of the world was formed. "If you take a dog who has never encountered a black man, or someone who has a funny walk, who uses a walker, or has a gimp or a limp, and he sees the first one in his life when he's six months old … it's going to be a shock."
I think it's safe to replace "black man" with the more general "person darker than everyone else."
I have a two-step recommendation for what to do when dogs lose it around your sweet, sensitive, animal-loving, only-brown-person-around husband.
First, see everything Dodman explained above? Remember it, because you're going to need to relay it to your friends so that they know exactly what's happening. Make it clear that no one thinks the barking dog's owners are intentionally training "racist watchdogs" like the ones marketed "especially for South African circumstances" in the 1980s (I think we can give your friends the benefit of the doubt here). This will set the stage for the joke your husband is going to make.
Yes, step 2 is that your husband should make a joke. He has to. Immediately.
Whoa! OK, Muffin — I know you don't see that many brown people, but I'm not dangerous. Don't pull a George Zimmerman and attack me! I don't even have Skittles!
OK, I know I'm the only Filipino guy here, but Dan is the only one in salmon-colored shorts. He deserves to be attacked!
Or, you know, whatever's funny to him.
The joke is important because it has the potential to help everyone — especially your husband — relax. Which is all part of the plan. I'm no dog behaviorist, but the fact that these situations cause enough stress in social situations to inspire this letter suggests to me that it must get pretty tense in the moment, too. And that the animals involved can tell. Here's what Dodson said about that:
If the dog barks and the person recoils, the dog registers a victory … And even if the person doesn't recoil or show fear visible to the human eye, the dog's sharp eye and sharper nose can sense fear in a tiny gesture or a whiff of sweat.
In other words, if your nice, friendly husband is as concerned as you are about the right way to deal with the barking, all that tension is making the situation worse (he's not scared of being attacked, but he's scared of making a scene, which I'm guessing registers about the same to the dog), and I can't think of a better way than a joke to defuse it.
But I think there's an additional and maybe even more important benefit to a lighthearted public recognition of what's happening — one that will carry over even after the dog calms down: It makes you and all of your friends acknowledge that your husband has a different background, and sometimes it might matter.
That you understand the doggie racism that's at play here but want to be "polite" and "alleviate this socially" suggests to me a certain tentativeness and self-consciousness about tackling even the most innocent, comedic way that race has inserted itself into your circle.
That's understandable, because this topic — even when it also involves puppies — is infamously touchy, scary and dangerous. But you should try to get past it.
I'm not asking you to sit down and have "Race in America live," but I'm encouraging you and your husband to apply some humor to this situation — one that's no one's fault — and practice gently acknowledging race, and your husband's race in particular.
Why? Because even if his Filipino heritage isn't central to his identity, I can bet that if dogs are noticing it, they're not the only ones. And that has almost certainly led to an experience that he'd like to be able to vent about, to be asked about, to at least not have to politely conceal among friends. To me that's an essential part of high-quality friendships between people of different races.
Small nods to race and identity can strip away shame and secrecy and lay the foundation for a friendship that can weather something more serious, if it ever comes up.
Maybe the dogs are doing you a favor by setting this up. Becoming comfortable with talking about race might not be the easiest thing, but tiptoeing around it and suppressing it in an effort to be polite is about as unproductive as collectively trying to ignore a barking dog.
The Root's staff writer, Jenée Desmond-Harris, covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life — and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette surrounding race in a changing America. Follow her on Twitter.
Need race-related advice? Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Previously in Race Manners: "I Hate My Ghetto Name. Can I Change It?"