Here’s Why White People Should Not Call Black People “Apes”

White people, I am going to take time today to help you out.

You cannot call Black people monkeys, apes, or any other form of primate. It is racist. That is why Black people across the globe raged about that H&M hoodie and why Netflix really should make some changes with it’s Sanrio show Aggretsuko.

No, it is not racist if someone calls you a monkey or an ape. It’s mean, yes, but it is not the same. Here is why:

This view of Black people as animals, essentially, is more than just a mean name to call someone. It has had violent, history altering, culture destroying effects upon people of the Africa diaspora, effects still viewed today as per the latest Rosanne tweet (that has, effectively, ended her show, and hopefully her career).

Where does all of this come from? While it is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when Africans and those descended from them were labeled as subhuman, ie apes and monkeys, there are many comparisons so well embedded within history, culture and even in areas of science, they can be blamed on some of the most casual observations (that we would now not even consider to be good, quality, or effective science) such as:

  • the wide variety of great apes in Africa (because if there are so many apes on a continent, then the people living there must be close to them, right? Cue eye roll);

Hundreds of years slavery required reducing people to objects. This required systematic dehumanization. After all, if I view you and your family as I would a chair set I find at a thrift store, but I only need one chair, it is easy for me to break up the set by only taking one of you and not feel guilty that I am destroying a family.

Science of the time, really didn’t help matters. Josiah C. Nott and George R. Gliddon, both leading scientists of the day, in their 1854 Types of Mankind, documented what they saw as “objective racial hierarchies”. These observations featured illustrations and diagrams comparing Black people to chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans. This document was not a strange fringe work but a well known and well respects piece of scientific literature for the day.

And then comes Darwinism. Charles Darwin’s 1859 work, “On the Origin of Species”, while revolutionary, did not discredit previous scientific racism. Instead, Darwinism would become the new racial orthodoxy, thus furthering and justifying White colonialism and domination as proof of the evolutionary superiority of the White ethnicity.

The rationale goes like this: if we all came from apes and there are more apes on the continent of Africa than anywhere else, and the people living there sort of resemble apes, than surely they are the first forms of evolution from apes and White people, who looked so different and lived in places where there were no apes but only other humans, must be evolutionarily superior than those on the continent of Africa. And because they are so evolutionarily close to apes, they must be less human than those of European decent and thus more animal like.

Thus justifying previous atrocities such as colonialism of the continent, Black genocide, chattel slavery, and the whole 3/5ths of a human thing…

Popular culture didn’t help either, with Birth of a Nation, the first film to be streamed in the White House, portraying Black people as violent and virulent animals. That led to Jim Crow legislation.

The film King Kong, where a large, fierce ape breaks free from his bondage and wreaks havoc on New York and kidnaps a white woman, was released around the same time as the Scottsboro Boys trial, where 9 Black young men between the ages of 13 up to 20 were falsely accused of raping 2 White women, an ordeal of trials that would last over 50 years.

And these dehumanizations aren’t just stuck in the Civil Rights era. Michelle Obama was frequently referred to as an ape or monkey aren’t just for as recently as THIS week, we see MAGA monger, Rosanne Barr calling forever former President Obama’s top aide, Valerie Jarrett an ape, a since deleted and weakly apologized for tweet that cost her her ABC show (and unfortunately hundreds of people their jobs.)

As you can see, with examples of Rosanne, H&M, and many others, there is definite hell to pay for attempting to subhuman people of the diaspora. White people are literally losing their jobs and livelihoods on using this racial slur, even and especially in Trump’s America.

I cannot believe that I, in the year of our Lord, 2018, must explain why it is racist and bigoted to call people of African decent monkeys, apes, simian, or anything of that nature. Because it isn’t just a mean thing to say. It’s not just an insult on someone’s appearance, but letting these words fall from your mouth harken to a history, even still observed today.

It is the same history that refuses sports stars their born right to protest police brutality. It’s the same history that tells Lebron James that he should shut up and dribble. It is the same history that tells us and a culture we are to be afraid of the black guy in the hoodie, even if he is a kid walking home from school in the rain. It’s the same history that, when Black people proclaim Black Lives Matter and Don’t Shoot, White people answer, not in affirmation yes!, but instead “well, wait” and “let’s see when all of the facts come out”. It is the same history that violently arrests Chikesia Clemons and brutality murders Tamir Rice, but gently arrests Santa Fe and Parkland school shooters.

It is a history of colonialism despite the locals, enslavement for free labor, rape for pleasure, lynching for sport. It is seeing Black people as not human, and therefore, not worth affirming as such.

And that is why you cannot call Black people monkeys.

Any questions?

This post was originally posted on The Reclaimed Blog.

Whitney Alese is a writer, podcaster and cultural commentator. Featured in WIRED Magazine (September 2020). She is based in Philadelphia.

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