“Monkey See, Monkey Do”: The White Mental Health Problem

Well, it has happened again. Some whites love to spread racist monkey and ape imagery for people of color. A white entrepreneur came up with an idea for a sock-monkey doll made to look like Senator Obama. Capitol Street and numerous other bloggers picked up on the monkey-doll story and pressured the company to back off. It just issued this apology:

An Apology: We are very apologetic to all who were upset by our toy idea. We will not be proceeding with the manufacturing of this toy. Thank you.

The manufacturer claimed not to know about the racist monkey and ape imagery often used by whites, indeed for centuries, to mock and stereotype African Americans. Numerous media outlets have noted that this is hard to believe and have associated this type of stereotyping with earlier white views under legal segregation. However, these views go back much farther than legal segregation.

Animalizing people of color is a very old part of the white racist frame. In framing what they were doing in North America, early European colonists made substantial use of an old Western image-schema, an up-down ladder pattern called the “great chain of being,” a concept dating back to ancient Greek thinkers. The higher up the chain of being, the more valued and human a group is, and the lower down, the less valued and human. Consciously or unconsciously, European Americans have long extended the language and understandings from the great chain of being model to defend or prescribe the societal hierarchy in which European Americans are dominant and African Americans and other people of color are subordinated.

Thus, much colonial language described Indians as “wild beasts” who should be “removed from their dens” and killed. In Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, he articulated an aggressively racist white frame with strong images of Black Americans: In his mind, they smell funny, are much uglier physically, and are ape-linked and animalistic, among many other negative images he clung to.

This animalizing of the racial others by whites is still strong in the country today, as we showed in a recent story about a bar owner who made Obama T-shirts with Curious George images. We also reported on our recent study of white college students. They often use racist terms, including the N-word and terms like “porch monkeys” in frequent racist commentaries, especially backstage with friends and relatives. In diaries from just 626 well-educated white students we got 7,500 accounts of blatantly racist performances and commentaries. We have also reviewed other research studies revealing that whites consciously or subconsciously associate Black Americans with apes and are more likely to condone violence against Black criminal suspects as a result of this stereotyping and their broader inability to accept blacks as “fully human.”

Clearly, among the common white stereotypes and images in the dominant racial frame today is the old view of Black Americans somehow still being closer to the animal kingdom than to the “white race.” This and other chronic antiblack stereotyping is a huge white problem, yet one no one white in policymaking positions seems at all interested in focusing on and talking about. It is time for it to be forced out of the closet and focused on as a serious mental disturbance, a mental unhealthiness, in all too many white minds.