My elderly neighbor’s daughter, a thin woman with long, blond hair and a killer wardrobe, used to bring her kids over to play with my kids. They were typical kids in that they had boundless energy: they would climb, jump, run and wrestle until they (or we) became exhausted and ended the playdate. The other mother would gather up her kids and their things and often cheerfully say something about getting “the little monkeys together again soon.”
I don’t think that she was trying to be offensive, or had any idea that what she said could be perceived as offensive. Following the recent coverage of the H & M ad that showed a Black child wearing a sweatshirt that said “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle” I have similarly read several comments suggesting that many do not understand why Black people would be offended by the sweatshirt.
I can imagine that many are confused: “why would anyone be upset about calling a kid an animal?” On surface, it seems like an innocent, even endearing, thing to do. Pet names come from a place of fondness.
Communication, however, isn’t just what happens on the surface; communication usually happens on multiple levels. There is what the person said, what they intended to say; and what message the listener received (which can be different based on the listener’s mood, background, culture, race, age, and so on). Two people can hear the same thing and receive it differently (and no one response is less valid than the other). So while a White person may not be offended at being called a monkey; a Black person very well could be.
To justify slavery, Black people were dehumanized and animalized. They were characterized as subhuman and inferior, so that they could be sold along with the other livestock. Black people have been characterized as not as intelligent, advanced or evolved as other races – closer to cavemen and apes on the evolutionary scale.
The animalization of Black Americans did not end when slavery ended. Dr. Martin Luther King was called a “filthy, abnormal animal” in his FBI files, President Barack Obama, his wife and children repeatedly have been pictured as chimpanzees; Serena Williams has been compared to horses and monkeys; Black soccer stars have had bananas thrown on the soccer field; Patrick Ewing was compared to “the missing link” and there are yearly reports of white players and fans mocking Black players at high school basketball and football games.
So when Black people become upset about a Black child in a sweatshirt that says “Coolest Monkey in the jungle” (standing next to a White child wearing a sweatshirt that says “Animal Tamer”) they aren’t ‘being too sensitive’ or ‘looking for trouble’ or ‘making everything about race’ they are reacting to an insult that is weighted by over 300 years of history.
Neversays: 25 Phrases You Should Never Ever Say to Keep Your Job and Friends by Randi Bryant is available for purchase on amazon.com and other major retailers.