“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.


  1. robert berger

    I have been perusing your website . Of course racism exists in America,as well as sexism and other biases.
    But these things exist everywhere, and existed long before white people even settled in America. It is wrong to stereotype white people.
    They are not all the same and do not all share the same attitudes. And to assign collective guilt to them for the terrible things that some of them have done.
    Inequality,injustice, oppression, violence and slaughter can be found everywhere and have existed for thousands of years.
    People of ALL races have
    hated and slaughtered each other. Whites do not have a monopoly on evil.
    What about the terrible oppression of the Tibetans and
    Muslim Turks of Xinjiang by
    the Chinese?
    You could sum up the entire history of the world with one sentence- People do terrible things to people,period.

  2. mordy

    Wow Robert, there’s a lot there to unpack. i am probably the least qualified to address your points, but since no one else has yet…..

    The undeniable or historical existence of a condition is no excuse for its continued existence. Hideous crimes are committed each day but we sure try to stop it. Why shouldn’t we fight and police racism, sexism and other biases,which you freely admit exist, equally aggressively. Its shameful legacy should hardly confer a laissez-faire status to it.

    I don’t think the authors of this blog assess equal blame to each white person in our country. They are careful to point out either specific acts of a few or the undeniable existence, where applicable, of a white racist frame. In fact so many white people are blind to such frames, frequent practitioners don’t even know they’ve done anything remotely racist. No one has suggested every white person does this. I think this blog is careful to back up all their claims with sound academic data that support such conclusions. If any other conclusion could be drawn, i am sure they would be happy to accept the challenge.

    Further, no one here or elsewhere has ever claimed a white monopoly on evil. We can only hope that other blogs exist that try to bring justice and attention to the Tibetans and Muslim Turks that you mention. There likely are many. But this is not a relativist equation. One group’s suffering at the hands of racist oppressors doesn’t make another’s less or more important.

    To do anything less than vigorously fight against such systemic injustice is to ensure its proliferation.

  3. Seattle in Texas

    I just had to come back and say, gee Matthew, you think? But only to find Robert’s *#@* comment…and thankfully mordy’s very well said response right below–thank you mordy

  4. robert says :”But these things exist everywhere, and existed long before white people even settled in America. It is wrong to stereotype white people.”

    I say: You’re absolutely correct in the fact that injustice is a societal ill period in all societies. But in every case the victims of those injustices have a right to point out complain and fight those injustices.
    Whether you’re talking about blacks in america ,Chechens in Russia, or Palestinians, people are going to push back. And many I would say the majority of whites are complicit in the maintaining of these ways of thinking.

    robert says: You could sum up the entire history of the world with one sentence- People do terrible things to people,period.

    I say: I couldn’t agree with you more. we should never stop striving for a better society for all though

  5. robert berger

    I did not state that we should not strive to eliminate
    injustice and equality,and strive for the improvement of human rights around the world.
    Of course we should, and we must. But we must be careful not to stereotype any group of people, whether based on race,gender, ethnicity, religion or nationality.

  6. adia

    Robert, American whites are in a position of power that offers them privilege in a number of areas–housing, work, health, politics, etc–relative to racial minorities. Many whites are complicit in maintaining this privilege, either through denial or through blindly justifying the status quo, and this is supported by decades of sociological research. It’s not a stereotype to point this out and to acknowledge the power imbalance. If we don’t do that, then how do we eliminate it?

  7. robert berger

    It’s terribly unfortunate that some
    blacks are mistreated by some whites,
    such as when some police harass
    innocent blacks, salespeople are dis-
    respectful to them, and when violence against them occurs. But the vast majority of whites do not mean blacks
    any harm, and do not want to turn back the clock and take rights away from them. Most whites are not evil racists who are out to get blacks.
    They are just ordinary people who are trying to live their own lives and
    who have their own problems.
    The plight of poor and disadvantaged
    blacks in America is due to complex socio- economic causes, not the result of some imaginary collective white racist plot to oppress blacks.

  8. Wes

    Regarding Robert Berger’s very typical “white” point of view about America’s racism-white supremacy: O America, America, who mistreats some people – oppressing them because they are of a different skin hue! How often would I have gathered your children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings (and teach them *My ways*) but you would not permit this. You desire to remain in your deliberate blindness and ignorance rather than give up your favored privileged, on top, status. Behold, your house (NATION) will soon be left unto you desolate! Matthew 23:37-38 Adjusted Translation …from the black liberation theology frame set..

  9. Mordy

    Sam really nailed it. Let’s all give him a hand. People have been toiling for so long trying to solve what up until now had been deemed such an intractable problem. Thanks for providing the clarity surrounding such a complicated situation. I guess this blog can close down now…. Despite black people’s abundance of IQ and inadequate hormone levels, they still find themselves unfairly discriminated against, the subjects of racist behavior and taunts and left to deal with other kind-hearted souls like Sam.


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