Dear Race Manners:
Last night we had a couple over as dinner guests. The wife is an old friend of my wife’s, from Chicago. I never liked her. She moved to Australia and got married, and she and her husband were here visiting. At one point, discussing the aboriginal people of Australia, she said, “They have a very simian—a very apelike—look about their faces” (I was almost more offended that she thought I didn’t know what “simian” meant).
It was a wild moment. She saw absolutely nothing off base about it at all. Spoken in a black home! I could have come back with something really rude about her appearance, but I’m a gentleman, so I didn’t. I was speechless. Is there anything I could have said? —Mortified by Monkey Mention
Good call on not replying with an animal comparison about your guest’s looks. As I’ve said before, I don’t think that humiliating people for race-related slights of the clueless and ignorant variety is the best idea (although it’s definitely tempting).
In the moment, maybe you could have said something that both communicated your shock and encouraged her to reflect on the implications of what she said, like, “Apelike? Wow. How do aboriginal people feel about that comparison?” Or “People have said that about African Americans, too. Hopefully [insert your wife’s name] and I don’t look ‘simian’ to you—or do we?”
But it’s not too late to address this, and you should.
Despite the geographic differences, it’s no surprise that you took the comment personally. Recent findings indicate that indigenous Australians—a classification that refers to the original inhabitants of the Australian continent and nearby islands and includes more than a dozen diverse groups—are believed to be descended from the first humans to migrate out of Africa. Although racial labels don’t translate perfectly from one country and culture to another, indigenous Australians have been referred to as and have called themselves black. And in any case, it make sense that hearing them (or, really, any group that suffers oppression because of its ethnic background) referred to this way would raise a red flag for you.
This whole “simian” thing has roots as old as the creation of race itself. The notion of blacks as apelike “began with the first European contact with Africans,” Phillip Atiba Goff, a UCLA psychologist who has studied the topic, says. You have to look no further than news about taunts (and tossed bananas) from the stands of soccer matches and hateful photos of Barack and Michelle Obama to realize how stubborn this association has been.
The worst part is, it’s not just old, inspired by racism or embraced by racists. It’s also potentially harmful in real life.
Take two studies that Goff worked on: In one, students who were primed with words associated with cats before seeing a video of police officers beating a man considered the beating unjustified. So did those who were primed with words associated with apes but were told the victim was white. But those who were primed with the ape words and told the victim was black weren’t as sure.