Black and White


Remember that word, it will come in handy later.

This an article about Marilyn Davenport, the Tea Party activist who giggled and then forwarded an image of Barack Obama’s face superimposed over that of a monkey’s. It also had two other monkeys, who represented Obama’sparents. The subject line read Now you know why no birth certificate. Not only is Davenport seemingly unaware of racial discrimination’s history, she also reads emails with subject lines that resemble the way a three-year-old might speak.

This is the second time in about two years that someone supposedly rendered Obama as a monkey causing controversy and angry people to fling poo over it. When the New York Post ran a political cartoon by Sean Delonas illustrating police shooting a monkey with the words “They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill,” written in the speech bubble, it drew ire then, too.

The problem with these two scenarios is not that a leader was portrayed as a monkey. George W. Bush was drawn as, or similar to, a monkey several times. No, the connection being made here is much deeper. The problem is that people recognize this as potentially being racist because of the longstanding connection between referring to black people as apes or monkeys in a derogatory manner. Similar issues arose when a cover of Vogue showed LeBron James and Giselle Bundchen in a striking likeness to another magazine cover where an ape clutched a woman.

The problem with the image that has Davenport hand-cranking apologies for the press was about its racial ties, even if on another level it pertained to the “birther” issue, that is, whether or not Hawaiian-born President Obama was actually born in the U.S.

So, imagine for a moment that a different image had been forwarded, one that had Obama standing among empty suitcases with his palms raised upward and his shoulders shrugged as to say, I’ve got nothing else. And imagine its subject line read, Did they forget the birth certificate with the cargo? What would happen, other than Davenport wanting to forward the email with the subject line, Why no birth certificate with cargo?

Well, what happened would depend on a person’s knowledge about the word “cargo.”

If while reading this the meaning was already known, or it was inferred through some light (or heavy) thinking, then congrats. For others that might be setting off smoke alarms, the word “cargo” could be seen as a derogatory comment referring to how blacks were shipped across the Atlantic like common cargo. Although most non-human cargo during that time was probably treated better.

After that insight, suddenly, the aforementioned joke about the cargo might have just become racist. Before, it was just a word, like monkey or ape. However, with historical context it becomes something different – a perceived racial joke.

Yet, why would there be a problem with the joke being racist? Richard Pryor and Chevy Chase performed a skit featuring many of the derogatory terms that (some) people are familiar with during a Saturday Night Live taping. Of course, that skit shifted the balance of power, placing Pryor’s character in the dominating role. Furthermore, it also had the comedic editorial appeal on the use of the word. It also helped that Pryor was black.

Davenport is not black. She also, assumingly, is not part of a comedy club or any other profession where the use of derogatory terms is sometimes allowable, such as the music industry, film, or satirical media. Even that is only a part of the problem, even if she does have black friends.

The bigger problem is not even race. The underlying dilemma with this is society’s double standard of equality.

In an attempt to overcome the differences between people and see each other as equal, the contradiction is that people still see each other as different. If the Obama picture was one of Bush, then it probably never receives the negative media attention that Obama incident witnessed.

The American society needs to realize that for all the civil rights laws passed and all the movements to create equality, no one is equal. If they were, then depicting anyone as a monkey would not be a problem.

Now, Obama could always say that he finds the picture humorous. In effect, he could show that he prefers to be treated as a person rather than as a black man. Of course, that could lead to further complications and similar pictures of other figures. That could cause further tension, unraveling the little progress that American society has made so far.

Apparently, electing a black president does not mean an end to racism and a move toward equality.

And that is the overlooked issue in this fiasco – equality. In order to have it, everyone must have the same level of inequality. A person is a person no matter his/her background. But what hope does a society have for equality when it cannot get past the issue of race, and that does not mean some metaphorical expression of everyone being color blind? Besides, black and white are shades, not colors. (Of course, that would give new historical context to, “Shades of Willie Mays.”)

In the U.S. there is still division. Instead of ignoring differences and working to find compromise, this country’s leaders are working for the parties they serve, for the people who give them money, for whatever it is that goes against those who oppose them.

What it means is that some in Congress, the Senate and the House of Representatives, cannot see past race; nor can some of the citizens of the country they represent. The heart of the American public is so hung up on whom each is individually that that it cannot see itself as one.

Given that, maybe we all deserve to be depicted as primates.