Monkey Business; or, Why the “New York Post” Cartoon is a Good Thing

Okay, it’s not actually a good thing. Depicting the author of President Obama’s stimulus package as a chimpanzee shot for assaulting a white woman is not a good thing. Regardless of who authored the bill, it’s HIS bill and it’s not okay to compare black people to monkeys, chimpanzees, apes, or gorillas. It wasn’t okay to do it to the Jews. Or the Irish. It’s just not okay. And it makes me wonder who was in the room when the decision was made. Seriously. Who thought this was a good idea? I mean this isn’t like saying something offensive on television without thinking. Someone sat down and drew that cartoon and someone else put it on the page. And yet a third person proofed the page! That’s at least three people. Come on!

And like The New Yorker, the The New York Post initially refused to acknowledge that freedom of the press does not mean that the press has pure motives. It’s not as if the cultural biases that infect us all magically disappear once one puts on the hat of journalist.

I’m not at all surprised at the denial and confusion. No one ever thinks they’ve committed a racist act. Even racists don’t call themselves racists with any earnestness. It’s also not surprising that for every person who gets it, there is at least one person who is offended by those who are offended.

But I’m telling you it’s a good thing. For far too long, far too many people have been able to wander around thinking that racism is a problem of the past, and the election of the first black president sent a vocal segment of society into denial: “See! Racism is over. If they just work hard, black people can do anything!”* The Myth of Meritocracy reigns. Pollyanna rules! Of course anyone paying attention knows that it will take more than the a month of a black president and his perfect black family to rid the world of bigotry.

In fact, their presence in the White House is causing the opposite effect in certain corners of the country. I think of it as a kind of Racial Turrets Syndrome (RTS) that plagues those who have studiously avoided any genuine conversation (or confrontation) about race. The more they’ve been in denial, the more apt they are to release CDs like “Barack the Magic Negro.” The only way for this to be cured is for it to come out. Sunlight really is the best disinfectant. These outbursts force us to have conversations about difficult subjects and serve as indicators of how far we have, and haven’t, come since we elected Mr. Obama. It allows us to have an open, if sometimes messy, debate about a topic many of us would like to avoid.

The trick is to actually have the conversation. Those who “get it” don’t get to feel smug (because trust me, even if you “get” this, you’ve missed something else) and must learn to explain without preaching, to put ourselves in the shoes of the other person and explain our point of view without demonizing the person who is on the other side of the conversation. Those who find themselves criticized need to take a deep breath and open their minds to the idea that even good people make comments or gestures that are offensive.

The other reason this is a good thing is because it might finally help people learn how to apologize. The New York Post has shown us the wrong way:

It was meant to mock an ineptly written federal stimulus bill.

Period.

But it has been taken as something else — as a depiction of President Obama, as a thinly veiled expression of racism.

This most certainly was not its intent; to those who were offended by the image, we apologize.

In the first place, apologies should not be offered defiantly. Secondly, intent is a given in our culture; even those who intend to offend get to say they meant no offense. The New York Post should have simply said the piece was careless and did not recognize the power of such imagery and then apologized for being sloppy and, yes, racist. It happens, and the sooner the offenders own it and learn from it, the better off everyone will be.

Now just because a thing is called racist does not make it so. I actually felt very sorry for the poor cable anchor who used the term “Colored People” when talking about the NAACP. “Colored People” is dated, but the organization is called The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People!” He apologized, but he didn’t need to–at least that’s what I think. Maybe you think something different. Perhaps the NAACP should change its name. It’s a thing we can chat about. See how that works?

*It’s worth noting that some of the people making this claim are black people.