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White Dog

by Zane Larkin about a month ago in book reviews
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The Film, The Novel, and The Story of Endemic Racism in America

White Dog
Photo by Joackim Weiler on Unsplash

When I first heard of White Dog, I thought it was an unintentional comedy. I discovered the film on a long-forgotten webpage where brief synopsis were given of obscure dog films (something I was very into at the time and most of which I would still watch today).

What struck me as absolutely hilarious and much-watch about that film summary was how it sounded. The film, for those of you who are unfamiliar, is about a ‘white dog’. Basically, a dog who was trained to attack and kill black people. This dog gets run over and adopted by a young Hollywood actress, who soon discovers that he’s been escaping her property and attacking and even killing black people in the surrounding area. Horrified but not wanting to give up on the dog, she takes him to a Hollywood animal trainer, who in turn places him under the care of a black man who makes it his mission to rehabilitate the dog to not hating black people.

The film itself is a horror B-movie from the eighties, and at the time which I first watched it (and some subsequent times besides) was available for free on YouTube. I discovered shortly afterwards that the film (which I actually really like) is based on a book which is itself based upon a real-life happening in the author’s life. But more on that later. For now, let’s talk about the dog.

The dog in both the book and the movie is a white German Shepherd who is given the name of Batka. While not exactly gone over all that much in the movie and kind of barely skimmed over in the book, it is important for all readers and viewers to have an understanding of Batka’s character and how he came to be.

‘White dogs’ are, as stated previously, dogs who have been trained by their masters to attack all black people on sight, fervently and without even waiting for an order. Such a thing from a creature who is so entwined with man is not natural, and has to be either taught or drilled into the dog in order to occur. This state is accomplished most commonly by the dog being exposed to a variety of black people who do nothing but harm him. The idea and reality being that eventually the dog generalizes the concept that all black people are bad and out to hurt him, and because he could never get away from them before, then his fear of them turns into anger, and he takes the offensive in order to defend himself.

This is a phenomenon which can be seen even today—mostly among shelter or rescue dogs—where certain dogs just cannot be convinced to like certain people. It’s where warnings about dogs not liking men (or preferring women) or not liking people in hats come from. In fact, I once knew a woman who had a Doberman who, while she had it, was perfectly fine with everyone. But then the dog ran off and disappeared for a few months, and when she finally found it again in a shelter, it had developed a seemingly irrational hatred of Hispanic men, leading to the conclusion that at some point during its absence it must have been horribly abused by an Hispanic man.

I say this, not to say that racially non-white individuals are abusive to dogs, but to illustrate that it is not the dog’s fault that he is the way he is, and to remind people who would judge Batka on his actions of this. He was not born that way, he was made that way, and for all the racists in the world—even the worst ones—this is true. No one is born hating people who are different from us, it is a learned behavior, and white dogs like Batka had to suffer dearly to learn it.

Keeping that in mind, let’s go back to the novel which started it all:

The novel White Dog—despite all the expectations wrought by the dog-centric horror film it was adapted into—is actually not really about the dog at all. Or, at least, not in a straight-forward way. Instead, the novel (as was intimated to me when I first learned about it) has very little in common with the movie version at all. So if you are like me and just in it for the dog, then as far as this choice is concerned just stick to the movie (even if you are also like me in thinking that the book is always superior—in this case it is not).

However if you are also like me and can’t resist a good premise even if it all turns out to be metaphors and philosophical whinging, the novel is most definitely readable. And just so it is known, I use the term metaphor here because that is precisely what Batka is in the novel: a metaphor. It can probably be argued that he’s just used a metaphor in the film too, but I believe that is a bit too much of a stretch to make for a movie which was largely just made for its entertainment and horror/shock value.

Despite my own misgivings with the novel, however, one must give it props where they are due, and anyone who has read it will agree that despite having been written about the late 1960s, it is very much a poignant and timely read for today. That is because this book is, first and foremost, an examination of race, and racism, in the country of the United States of America.

It should be noted at this point that the author is not an American. In fact, Monsieur Gary is a French gentleman who took an American wife and was living with her in Hollywood during the dog-related events of the novel. Living here as he was during the social turmoil created by the recent civil rights movement, and bringing an outsider, European’s perspective to the effect of race on society in this country, not only can everything he says be taken objectively, but it is on the whole impossible to be offended by it. After all, he is not an American, and despite what some would have you believe, the main social problem in Europe is not one of race, but of nationality. One can be whatever race one wants and be treated just the same in the country of their birth, but the moment people from other countries start coming in and not adhering to the established way, then there are problems.

But I am getting a bit ahead of myself, and anyway M. Gary touches upon this himself when he takes a break from the American setting of his novel to transport us along to his home in France, where race is only an issue to those who persist in bringing it up as one.

In any case, the main point to be taken here is that Batka is a metaphor, both for existing racists and future ones. He was not born a racist, but made into one through fear and hatred pushed upon him by those whose care he was placed into. Likewise, once Gary and his wife get ahold of him and figure out the consequences of that upbringing, they set out to have him remedied.

Enter the real villain of the piece.

Either through some failing of sensitivity or outright desperateness, Gary and his wife wind up placing Batka in the care of a man named Keys for rehabilitation purposes. This, I will admit, is the part that made me originally think the film was going to be an ‘unintentional comedy’, and that is mostly due to the fact that Keys is a black man. Obviously it is quite different in the reality, but I thought it a little absurd that a black man would be taking over as caretaker for a dog that kills black men.

Regardless, the idea could have been a fine one, if the black man they had chosen was any other one than Keys. There is a reason I refer to him as the villain here, and he is the sole reason that I call Batka’s story a tragedy.

You see, even from Gary’s first meeting with the man Keys, it is clear that he has nothing but contempt and, indeed as it later turns out, hatred for white people. He is all too eager to get his hands on Batka and not only prove his mettle, but do a little ‘white dog’ training of his own. And I am not saying that just because I personally have a bad opinion of the man—it does in fact get confirmed near the latter end of the novel by Keys himself.

And that is the truly sad and sordid part of this whole little tale.

Gary and his wife sought out Keys to help them rehabilitee their dog so that he wouldn’t be a liability and attack black people—they wanted to turn him into a dog who could get along with all people, the way he had been meant to be. However, what Keys wanted was to turn him into a ‘black dog’ who would zealously attack white people the way he had been trained to do to blacks, while being perfectly fine with the black people he used to hate. There is an element of hubris to both of their aims, but in the end, it is the dog who suffers.

Whether or not you can get behind the way Gary told his story or who the film-makers adapted it, the true genius in this tale lies in how simply—how eloquently—Batka is used to illustrate the common man in the issue of racism in this country. Like every child who is ever born, his initial impressions of the world are formed in accordance with those views held by those who raised him. Then, like all of us, he goes out into the world espousing those views, and discovers that what is acceptable at home doesn’t quite cut it in the real world. The well-meaning people in our lives—seeking to broaden our horizons and give us more socially acceptable views—take us out into the world and try to rehabilitate us by showing us that things are not necessarily as we previously believed. However—as does occasionally happen to some of us as well—sometimes those well-meaning people are a bit naïve, and put us under the influence of someone who, while on the surface encompassing all they seek to teach us, is actually more insidious in their form of indoctrination, and teaches a different kind of hatred.

That is what happened to Batka, and that is what happens to a lot of us in this country.

I know I’ll get some flak for saying this, but a real problem in this country is that of what often gets referred to as ‘reverse racism’ but is really just racism projected towards white people. It is a problem in the same way that racism against non-whites in this country is a problem. The difference being, however, that while we all agree that the latter is bad, no one really seems to think the same of the former.

Personally, I believe racism in any form to be despicable and something to be avoided—it doesn’t matter to me who is perpetrating it or who is the victim of it. Barring someone from some place or something, or degrading them in any respect based purely on the color of their skin, is an abhorrent practice in our society.

Yes, black was the predominant ethnicity of slaves in this country, but there were also some white people who got kept as slaves at certain points as well, and there were also some black people who owned slaves. Even after slavery was outlawed in this country there was still segregation to contend with—that’s why we had the whole civil rights movement. And yet, even after all of these equalizing laws have been passed and we are all for the large part generally able to go out and about our business in the world without any sort of hindrance on the part of anybody else, a community of racism festers.

This is the sort of racism which Keys represents, and it is precisely the retaliatory nature of it which makes it so. And there are a lot of Keys in the world—people who would teach and perpetuate hate because someone down the line in their family tree was a victim of racism. Granted, Keys is a bit extreme in the way that the Black Panthers or the KKK are a bit extreme. Most people who fall into this category probably don’t even know that they are doing it, or if they are at least somewhat aware, they write it off as being somehow less abhorrent than any casual racism that might be thrown against them.

And that right there is the problem with racism and bringing up race in general; it creates an “Us against Them” mentality which only serves to deepen the social divide. People rail against those who choose to term themselves colorblind in this issue, accusing them of ignoring the problem and diminishing those who are affected by it. Personally, I disagree. I am of the opinion that continuously talking about it is the issue, because very few topics rile people up like that of race—especially when your comments might be misconstrued to them thinking that you are accusing them of being racist. After all, how is the wound ever supposed to heal if you keep wrenching off the scabs? They might not be pretty, but they serve a purpose in the healing process.

What we are facing is a cycle of racism. Whether we are the Keys or the Garys or the original owners of Batka in the world, we are all like the poor white dog: shaped and prodded and defined by these people and the things they teach us, whether it would be hate of one race or another, or even of tolerance. To those would-be Keys, who would train hate and retaliation based on the past, I say: unless you want to live there, leave it there. To those who grew up thinking of themselves and their race as superior, and wish to beat down others in order to prove it, I say to remember that as far as humanity is concerned there is only one race, and it is human.

We do not need to be pawns in perpetuating a racist war. Racism doesn’t need to be a cycle. Obviously it is still a problem, but the more colorblind people we have, the less we start making it an issue, the sooner we can start viewing everyone around us as a human being just like us. And perhaps then we’ll never have cause for a ‘white dog’ again.

Feel free to leave feedback on this or any other piece I have published on here. I swear I don't bite, and I am always open to a civil discourse (so long as it is understood that I generally play devil's advocate).

book reviews

About the author

Zane Larkin

I'm not a journalist, but I do publish like one.

Promising dogs, cats, politics and good old-fashioned common sense. Let's keep things civil.

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