Attack Dogs and the History of Racial Violence

By Tyler Parry | Black Perspectives

In 1970 French author Romain Gary published his novel White Dog, a semi-biographical work that imaginatively recreated the author’s experiences with American race relations in 1960s Southern California. Gary metaphorically uses a German Shepherd called “White Dog” to explore his own perception of the American racial divide, elucidating his own meditations surrounding how racial animus is acquired in the United States. The novel held two main protagonists. The first was Gary himself, as it is written in the first person and was, at least partially, an autobiography of his experiences. The second is “White Dog,” a “graying German Shepherd, aged about 6 or seven” that he rescued from a rain storm in 1968 (6). Though he eventually names him “Batka,” a Russian name meaning “little father,” Gary interchanges his given name with the appellation “White Dog” throughout the novel, subtly pointing toward its larger message about racial identity and his belief that Americans obsessed over outward appearances. Batka symbolized how a sentient being acquires racial hatred and the difficulty one finds when attempting to eliminate its racist predilections.

Though Batka was generally good-natured in his interactions with white people, he demonstrated a noticeable, albeit peculiar, inclination to attack people of African descent. Gary first noticed this behavior when a Black maintenance worker attempted to enter his residence, but Batka hurled himself at the gate “foaming at the mouth, in a paroxysm of hatred.” Gary tried to restrain the animal from lunging toward the visitor, noticing he never manifested such rage at unfamiliar visitors. It was apparent, however, that such reactions were deeply racialized, as White Dog displayed a prejudice against one racial group. White visitors to his residence were warmly greeted, but Black strangers, especially men, prompted fits of rage.

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