Posts Tagged ‘chimpanzee’

Before you (probably) ever read this blog, it was often very different.  Not that I’ve changed, but it is what it was: back then, “readers” were people kind enough to read the links I delivered to their inboxes, people who already knew me.  And so what follows today may feel different.  It’ll probably sound more like that thing I wrote about Gary Sheffield, or that thing I wrote about Imus.

Maybe you’ve heard about it already.  This made it into the New York Post yesterday:


Credit: Sean Delonas

I suppose I should “set the scene.”

If you don’t live in the NY metro area, you can find the cartoon in its context here.  It is the meshing of two stories, one literal and the other figurative.  The literal story is that police in Stamford, CT (my hometown, actually) responded to a 911 call regarding a domesticated chimpanzee, named Travis, that had escaped and mauled a woman.  They shot Travis to stop him.  The figurative story, at its most agreeable base, should be clear: a critique of the passage of the stimulus bill.

The problem, for many of us, is obvious and actually layered.

I’ll start with facts:
1. The economy is reeling.
2. Therefore, the stimulus deal (apart from its effectiveness and so at a minimum as an effort) is considered a big deal.
3. The economy was an integral part of the presidential campaign’s homestretch.
4. Obama has been active in making the stimulus package his visibly preeminent priority.
5. The stimulus package is lauded by many as the first major piece of legislation by Obama.

What all of this means: the stimulus package, certainly by its critics, is currently being affixed to Obama.  He is its figurehead.  This doesn’t seem reasonably debatable.  Sure: the truth is that it is an idea of many.  There are many responsible for its construction and passage.  Forgive the cliché, but that’s politics, and quite obviously so.

But not in that picture.  There is no team of experts, no crowd of faces, no group of monkeys of various sizes and shapes.  There is only one.  And that one chimp, the “someone” to whom the writing of the stimulus bill is attributed, is shot by police and rests bleeding on the ground, dead.*  So let’s not insult modern intelligence by suggesting that dead chimp isn’t supposed to represent the figurehead behind the stimulus package, punished for his “crime.”

Historically, though, it should be pretty widely understood that black Americans have been analogized to monkeys.  Hell, I bet we could even find that kind of information in one of those outdated, yellowing textbooks they still force upon some of our public schools.  The comparison takes at least a couple of forms: 1) the darkness in complexion, physical features and 2) the almost, but not quite human status.  That’s the funny thing about race: it’s so often really obvious and lends itself to similarly conspicuous interpretation.

And so it shouldn’t seem absurd to anyone that many of us drew a certain conclusion: Obama is that dead chimpanzee.  Simple, right?  And it shouldn’t be odd that many of us would feel that we’ve seen such images before.  And so we get to perhaps the most finely split hair of the new millennium: the difference between being a racist and being racially insensitive.

A racist is defined by her or his motivations; it’s as straightforward as understanding that the suffix “-ist” refers to an active, outward, purposeful nature.  Someone who is racially insensitive, however, is defined by her or his ignorance.  To be clear, then, this post isn’t about racism.**  I don’t know the cartoonist, Sean Delonas, and I won’t pretend to know his motivations.  My problem is with his ignorance.

He should’ve known the conclusions many of us would draw.  The New York Post should’ve known this, as well.  And that should’ve mattered to both of them, regardless of whether they agreed with our interpretations.  It’s not about bending to every whim of any group of readers.  It’s about a cognizance of the classic stabs at black presence in America.  It’s not like we’re a secret.  It’s also not like there’s only about a thousand of us (not, of course, that that would serve as justification).

Racial sensitivity is, perhaps ironically, about acknowledging the context of your own existence.  We don’t live in bubbles, at least not solitary ones.  And with that shared residence comes shared responsibility.  It’s what grown-ups do: they mature, then they appreciate and then they understand.  We forgive sensitivity mistakes in children because they haven’t had the time to experience difference.  Our patience for adult missteps is shorter.

But maybe that’s why the tone for this post is different than it would have been years, or even months, ago.  I’m not asking for repercussions to befall the paper or the cartoonist, because while my patience has long run out, so has my desire to scream about it anymore.  I’d love, once and for all, for us to have actual conversations about these dilemmas.

The true conclusion for this entry will be posted tomorrow.  But for now, I’d really just love for any people who read this to ask how readily they forgive themselves for not knowing about a life they don’t lead.  I do it all the time.  While I can confidently say I don’t do it like Delonas did, I do it.  I do it because it’s easy.  But I shouldn’t, ever.

I think one of the biggest pitfalls for the American conscience is the notion that none of us are mind-readers; that we don’t ever really know what others are thinking and feeling and that, therefore, we’re allowed to make huge mistakes out of that ignorance, and/or that we’re allowed to demand of the very people who are very often voiceless that they scream, only in a language the rest of us understand, loud enough for us to acknowledge as alarm.

But it’s really all just intuition.  We really are just other human beings.  It’s not nearly as difficult as we convince ourselves it is.  And that’s why the constant failure to empathize hits harder, each time.  Because we could just choose to be different, to be better, but we don’t.

*On another day, I’d have time to discuss our history with police violence in this country…
**Though, I don’t believe the nouveau theory that insensitivity is worse than racism. The power of active, direct hate seems unparalleled.


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