Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Comparing people to monkeys

Indonesians used to have a joke about their former President, Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie (left). It goes something like this:
An American, a Briton and an Indonesian are arguing about their countries advances in medical technology.
The Brit says "We had a woman who lost her arm in a train wreck, yet our surgeons were able to graft onto her a prosthetic arm that worked so well that she can still do her job as a doctor."
The American says, "Yeah? Well, we took a man with severe heart problems and transplanted a pig's heart into his body. He's still alive and is able to run marathons."
The Indonesian scoffs. "That's nothing. We had a man whose head was cut off and crushed, but our doctors were able to graft the head of a monkey onto his body. He is now the President of Indonesia."
Fast forward to 2011, and you may have caught the story last week of Marilyn Davenport, the Orange County Republican party official who sent around an email depicting Barack Obama as a monkey.

Now, predictably, in her excuse-making response to claims of racism, Davenport offered up that old chestnut that people seem to think is the universal get-out-of-jail card for racist behaviour - "I have black friends". Of course you do, dear. Or you did once, anyway.

It's a trope that has been wheeled out numerous times: Obama the monkey president. Now, my memory is not perfect, but I don't recall Clinton or Bush Snr or Reagan being regularly likened to monkeys.

George W Bush was caricatured as a monkey quite a bit though. And conservatives love to point that out, as a rejoinder to claims that portraying Barack or Michelle Obama as simians is racist. How can it be racist, when Dubya was portrayed as a monkey all the time?

Well, here's how. Bush was likened to a monkey because he was almost universally regarded as an buffoon with low intelligence. (I for one don't think Bush was quite as dumb as he was made out to be, but he certainly gave plenty of ammunition to those who would see him that way.)

Now, why is Obama being likened to a monkey? Even his staunchest opponents don't seem to think he is stupid or buffoonish. They prefer out-of-touch, elitist, sinister, communist or a secret Muslim. None of which are really associated with being apelike.

He is, however, black. And some people of questionable intellect seem to associate blackness with being some kind of lower primate. Ask the hooligans in Spain and Eastern Europe who bring bananas to football matches with no other purpose other than to throw them at black players. When Nigerian international Peter Odemwingie left his club Lokomotiv Moscow to play in the English league, a section of the home crowd unveiled a huge sign basically saying "good riddance", accompanied by a picture of a huge banana. White players don't get this treatment.

But here's the thing. Some people do actually resemble monkeys or apes. Some of them are black. Do black people really look more like monkeys than any other racial group? Only if you look through a racist lens. You could just as easily argue that Europeans, being the most hirsute of all peoples, are the most monkey-like, but you never hear anyone bring that up.

Returning to the joke about B.J. Habibie above, that's a joke made by Indonesian people about another Indonesian. There is no racial subtext. And anyone who's actually observed Habibie in action would probably agree that with his facial features, small stature and quirky mannerisms, he does remind one of a monkey.

So if a person actually does look like one of our simian cousins, in theory it shouldn't be a bad thing to make a joke about that. But the ugly legacy of racism means that likening people of African origin to monkeys is likely to induce too much angst from various quarters, whether you think that individual person resembles a monkey or not.

There are plenty of white foks who look like they'd be at home in the treetops. For example:

English singer Mick Hucknall,
of the band Simply Red

Belarusian footballer Alexander Hleb

Actor Robin Williams

Welsh footballer Gareth Bale

Former New Kids on the Block singer Danny Wood

And the cool thing for me is that I can say these guys look a bit like primates and no one is really going to get offended because (a) they are white, and (b) they are undeniably some primate-lookin' dudes.

Former NBA star Patrick Ewing.
But if someone was likening, say, former NY Knicks centre Patrick Ewing to a gorilla, would that be racist? 

Some would say yes. So let me make it clear, I'm not saying Patrick Ewing (great player, btw) looks at all like a gorilla. If you think he does, you might be racist.
But Barack Obama? C'mon. Dude doesn't really like any variety of primate. Even his much caricatured big ears aren't really that big.

White British football fans comment all the time on how Gareth Bale looks like the chimp Cornelius from Planet of the Apes. Indonesians have little problem joking about how much their former President resembles this gibbon. But are you gonna find any African-Americans who find the Obama-monkey reference amusing? I doubt it. They know they history behind that shit.

People who cry that there's nothing racist about portraying a black president as a monkey either don't know the history behind it, or are being disingenuous. Because no matter what you think about the president's politics... if you look at or think about Barack Obama and you somehow connect him to being monkey-like, that says that there is something racist and messed up in your brain.

If Patrick Ewing was president, however...

DISCLAIMER: If anyone decides that comparing anyone to a monkey as I have done in this post is racist, let me hereby declare that some of my best friends are white. And black. And Asian. Oh, and monkeys. I think that covers all the bases.


  1. Actually there's good reason we ALL look like monkeys - and that's cos they're our closest cousin!

  2. ^ Some closer than others, obviously.

  3. I do think Bush was likened to a chimp both because of his thin lips and the way he sometimes looked with them and his flappy ears and to show he is an idiot. I do legitimately think people do a similar thing with Obama to show that they think he is an idiot and out of contrarianism at being told they shouldn't and in context of it happening to Boosh.


    In general, facially, Black persons have larger and wider mouths, flatter noses, short nose lengths relative to their subnasal, narrow jaws, weak chins, greater prognathism. All of these are true of the ape-human face shape difference. If people in general perceive this as placing them closer to ape than having a beard (something apes largely don't have), a slightly stronger brow ridge, larger ears and having slightly thinner lips does, then I wouldn't be quick to assume that that's all a social construct.

    Now, of these characteristics I have listed above, they seem more or less explained by climate and none is particularly an important cranial/facial characteristic in making humans different from apes in the sense of having a direct link to our ability to think relative to them - the important characteristics in this sense are mainly compression of the midface as a whole and the expansion of the braincase which this allows, things which have the same level of development in Blacks and Whites and Asians (more or less), and reduction in prognathism (which again seems to enable changes in brain shape/size), where Black people aren't really much more prognathic.

    But if people perceive Africans (or tropical peoples with similar characteristics in general) as looking more like apes, then I wouldn't really object to this or dismiss it as a social construct, as the suite of characteristics which are relatively more "ape-shape" seems more extensive and impressive than for the other races.

  4. It's ironic that Europeans should under any circumstances compare Africans to apes considering that Africans enjoy significantly greater diversity in their DNA than both Middle-Easterners and Europeans and by that fact are therefore further evolved from our lower primate origins. Racism and with it the need to demean human beings of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds is always based on ignorance and, whether articulated or not, fear. And in some respects, Europeans have every right to be fearful of their African brothers and sisters as they are clearly superior human beings in so many ways dominating so many fields of human endeavour such as music and sports, and certainly outstanding in all other areas including the arts, science, and of course socio/political fields. But, people of African origin do not want to be feared for their genetic richness, their intellect, their artistic/linguistic/cultural prowess for above all, they are generous, kind and big-hearted. They are so much more inclined to want to celebrate the magic, mystery and joy of life than squander life's short existence in the mire of racial discord. (I'm looking at the big picture here, not specific small tribal rivalries that pop up from time to time in the post-colonial geo-political quagmire that is modern Africa or the oppressive unpromising environments of urban American cities.) If you don't believe me, spend some time experiencing the joyful music, rhythm, smiles and exuberance that is an African celebration. The world has its problems and all people hold the solutions in their hearts. That solution is love - the rainbow of love that Dr. Martin Luther King and Albert Schweitzer used to describe in their own ways. Those who languish in the fear and ignorance of racism and all the negativity that racism spawns are in deep need of an epiphany, an awakening of the heart, a realization that we are all indescribably amazing creations of the universe with the potential to live life and celebrate our existence connected as one through the power of love and mutual respect.

    1. I stopped reading when you said Africans were intellectually superior to Europeans in intellectual pursuits. I'll end this post with a list of African Nobel Laureates in science:

  5. A certain brazilian ex-president leftist and unfortunately friend of Castro dictators from Cuba, is an excellent example of the monkey in the presidency.

  6. Ape nothing, some of these people look like lizards. It's F*#@$ing creepy :O