This post has been syndicated at BlogHer.com.I hope this will be the last thing I ever write about the history of White people portraying Black people as monkeys, but unfortunately, at some point I'll probably have to write something on this topic again. This racist insult repeats, repeats, repeats.
Did you hear about the Just Add A Kid T-Shirt debacle? The clothing company is in hot water over this picture that someone took and shared on Twitter. The picture of the black child placed above a monkey's body with a banana is not on the T-shirt itself, but on the hanger cover used to display the monkey T-shirt. The covers make it possible for any retail worker to match the any one of the company's T-shirts with any child on a cover.
The T-shirt manufacturer is claiming "it's all a misunderstanding," but some concerned consumers are saying that the T-Shirt manufacturer should have foreseen that eventually a black child would be matched with one of the monkey shirts in a sales display, and the fall-out would not be good for the company. So, either they should not have made the monkey T-shirt, or they should have found another way to promote the shirts.
I must say this as clearly as I can: White people who consider themselves “educated” in America and yet claim to not recognize the false, tired, and cruel doctrine that portrays people of African descent to be “more ape than human” either have not been paying attention or are being disingenuous in the fruitless effort to distance themselves from their privilege. The racist equation that monkey or ape=African or of African descent is a centuries-old and well-known Euro-American (and white supremacist) teaching that has been exported to other parts of the world.
This propaganda began to be promoted more aggressively during the so-called "Age of Enlightenment" when African identity began to be used as a foil to European identity. Europe was positioned as the continent of light; Africa was positioned as one of darkness. (This image of Africa was later re-enforced in popular culture via the highly-touted novel Heart of Darkness.)
Linnaues' System Naturae published in the 1700s and long upheld as “scientific” information encoded the message that black=closer-to-ape and did so with images. Even the "great" thinkers of Europe, such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Hume, and Kant, accepted and perpetuated the doctrine that Black people were subhuman, near ape status (see Elliot P. Skinner’s essay on Black identity as well as other sources).
Later in the 1800s, Charles White of the Royal Infirmary under so-called “scientific race theory” perpetuated this racist message with his classification of races. He designated black people as inferior and more related to apes.
It’s been documented that during World War II, White American soldiers circulated rumors that Black men had tails in their pants in an effort to stem miscegenation. When Black soldiers arrived in Hawaii, the local people ran from them, thinking they were animals.
During attempts to integrate schools, more than one White parent exclaimed, “I don’t want to send my children to school with monkeys and apes.” A little research of the era bears this out.
Since President Obama’s been in office even the national news has covered racist pictures of him portrayed as a monkey. And a quick search in Google images using the key words “Obama and monkey” will support that statement.
So, given that this trope has been perpetuated by science, has bled into popular culture, has been exported to countries around the globe—China included---and has remained active for more than 300 years (it was even used to justify slavery), I doubt that a store clerk matching hanger heads to T-shirts was unaware of it and its implications. Consequently, I agree with any commenters who have said that the manufacturer should have foreseen this.
If someone says that they saw this T-shirt display or picture and did not immediately see the racial implications, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt for the sake of civil discussion, but I will not accept an argument that extends that doubt to a corporation. Marketing professionals should know these cultural angles, and if they don’t, they’re in the wrong business.