Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Obama and the Dresden Zoo

The controversy swarming around the Dresden Zoo naming a primate after U.S. President Barack Obama, conjures the memory of a similar uproar earlier this year when the New York Post published a cartoon by Sean Delonas of two police officers shooting a chimpanzee with the caption, “They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill.” Like so many others, I interpreted this cartoon as a bigoted suggestion that President Obama is a primate – an animal of less than human intelligence. Huffington Post writer Sam Stein explained the implication concisely in his February 18, 2009 piece -- the cartoon implies “the [Obama] stimulus bill was so bad, monkeys may as well have written it. Others believe it compares the president to a rabid chimp."

The New York Post later issued a statement by editor Col Allan defending the publication of the cartoon as "clear parody of a current news event" that "broadly mocks Washington's efforts to revive the economy.” Out of fairness to the Post, I should also mention that days before the Post published the cartoon, police shot a chimpanzee dead after mauling a woman. The cartoon, Mr. Allan said, was a parody of this event. Ultimately, New York Post owner Rupert Murdoch apologized for the cartoon.

Regardless of the intent of the Dresden Zoo or the New York Post or its cartoonist Sean Delonas, even dancing lightly around the issue of a black man represented as a primate is like walking through a seismic zone loaded with land mines.

There is a long and tattered history around the cultural stereotype of the black man as a primate. At the root of the controversy is the notion that black people are evolutionarily and intellectually inferior to white people. Slave owners of the U.S. south conveniently used the argument that blacks were sub-human animals and apelike as a justification for ownership of black slaves as chattel and justification for of slavery, itself.

Long after the abolition of slavery in America, Charles Carroll used this idea as the central premise for his 1900 book, The Negro Beast.

These theories and sensitivities may seem like relics of a flawed belief system of the long ago past, but they are not. Last year a team of sociologists headed by UCLA social psychologist Phillip Atiba Goff released the shocking results of a series of six studies over five years on subconscious racist belief systems. In sum, through word and image association tests, the researchers found that study subjects were overwhelmingly likely to associate the image of a black man with that of an ape. Goff’s team demonstrated that the cultural stereotype of black men as apes has survived the abolition of slavery and the election of a black U.S. president. (The blog “stuff white people do,” written by a self-described “white guy, trying to find out what that means” published a provocative opinion piece on and summary of the studies.)

The Dresden Zoo may have not known the painful history of blacks being associated with primates –humanlike but not human. Of course, these stereotypes are culture specific and do not always translate the same in a different context. In other words, a German zoo may not understand the offensive connotation that may be drawn readily in the U.S. I am willing to give the Dresden Zoo the benefit of the doubt. In fact, the intent of the zoo is not nearly as important as the subliminal assumptions evoked by naming a primate after a black man. And using these assumptions of black inferiority, intellectual and otherwise, one can easily extrapolate the potential for greater consequences.

I am happy to see that the Dresden Zoo was willing to quickly renamed its baby mandrill; and I acknowledge that naming the mandrill Obama was probably the zoo’s gesture to honor President Obama who recently visited Dresden. Nevertheless, I hope that this series of events at the Dresden Zoo is a sign that we, as a global society, are capable of vanquishing racial stereotypes for good.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Complexion of Racism in America

I went for a jog in the park today and came upon some waterfalls where kids were squealing with joy, splashing in the warm summer sun. It reminded me of the palpable excitement I felt as a child about to jump into a pool on a hot day. I’m sure anyone who liked water as a child has a similar memory.

A group of camp kids in Eastern Pennsylvania probably felt that excitement before it was abruptly choked off, and they were ejected from a private swim club. As I understand it, the group of black children from the Creative Steps Day Camp was promptly discharged from the grounds as if they had no right to be there. One child said he overheard a woman, presumably a club member, asking why all the black children were at the club. The child said the woman thought a black child might do something to her own white child. Reportedly, once the black children entered the pool, the white children abruptly exited.

Creative Steps Day Camp had paid something in the neighborhood of $2000 so its campers would have a place to swim one afternoon per week for the course of the summer. The camp’s money was returned in full after the incident.

This incident reminds me of a similar affront directed at the legendary black performer Dorothy Dandridge, who after sticking her toe into a pool at a hotel where she was performing, suffered the humiliation of the management draining the pool to avoid contaminating white swimmers. Dorothy Dandridge died in 1965, 44 years before the children from the Creative Steps Day Camp were expelled from the Valley Swim Club.

For how many more decades will black children in America be taught that they are inferior to white people?

At 47, I carry with me deep scars of racial discrimination and rejection. My first scar etched its way into my consciousness when I was five years old. I was in kindergarten. During cookie time, one of my white classmates began rummaging through a trash can so that she could eat the cookies other children had discarded. Moments after I walked over to her to warn her that those cookies were unsanitary, the teacher intervened. I remember telling my mother the story when she asked me why I had an “unsatisfactory” mark on my report card. I told her I hadn’t eaten the cookies; it was Barbara H, and the teacher blamed the wrong person.

I was in second grade the time I explained to another white classmate how the word “our” is properly pronounced; the pronunciation differed from that of the word “are.” My teacher heard the chatter in the back of the room and confronted us. When my classmate explained the nature of the discussion, the teacher told her in a hushed tone, “colored people speak differently from white people.” I sat silently in my anger, afraid to defend myself to the authority figure that was my grossly mistaken teacher.

I shared these stories over brunch with my husband, and I felt my eyes well with tears. My stomach felt numb, still all these years later.

Just as these childhood experiences in the 60’s and 70’s misshaped my perception of who I am today, and challenged my notions of what I am capable of achieving in life, so do these experiences negatively impact the children of the Creative Steps Day Camp. They are as helpless now as I was then.

For years I was functioning naively under the illusion that the burst of racial and ethnic diversity showered on the U.S. over the last few decades had morphed U.S. society into a place of racial tolerance. Even as I was experiencing racism in school, my classes in my elementary school in Western Pennsylvania taught me how America was a wonderful melting pot of cultures. Through my pain, I was proud of that America.

My pride for America quickly dissipated into disappointment years later when I visited with my sister in north-central Pennsylvania. We were together in a shopping mall when my three-year old niece became captivated by a little blonde girl around her age. My niece fell into what appeared to be a trance. She followed the little girl everywhere, but didn’t dare speak to her. My niece behaved as though she was not worthy of speaking to the girl. Instead, she seemed to silently worship the girl.

I mentioned my niece’s strange behavior to my sister. My sister surmised that the behavior had something to do with another little blonde girl refusing to play with my niece because, she told my three-year old niece, she was not allowed to play with black kids. I wanted to cry. Indignant, I replied, “I went through this when I was a child. This is not supposed to be happening 20 years later.” My niece was not supposed to be the same kid I was, struggling with identity, pain from within uncomfortably disguised outwardly with a smile.

Naturally, I am hoping that what happened at the Valley Swim Club will not leave a similar indelible scar on the psyche of those 65 day camp children. But beyond that, I wonder how those children can be expected to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” as we are taught to do as Americans, and contribute positively to our society when these children are taught at a young age that the color of their skin is a negative.

I now live in Germany where society is much more homogenously white than in the U.S. In Germany I am a minority in every sense of the word. Yet, I feel about as secure in my black skin here as I did in America. I am in a foreign country that is infamous for the basest form of racial hatred in modern history, and I don’t speak the language, and I feel as secure as I did in America. It shouldn’t add up, but it does. True, somewhere in my gut, I am always concerned that I will get on a tram and be confronted by a neo-Nazi. But in this country, I know who the villains are. The villains are the radical fringe, by definition; they have nothing in common with normal. In the U.S., on the other hand, the villains can and do pass themselves off as normal, masquerading as our school teachers and other authority figures we are taught respect. The kids from the Creative Steps Day Camp probably believe that the racists who expelled them are normal. And if those kids ever want to get anywhere in life, if they really want to pull themselves up by their boot straps, they’ve got to be accepted by these “normal” people. White people. Upper-class people. Adult people. Authority people.

Obviously, some people can squeak by with their self-worth in tact, against all odds. I am a living example. I was lucky. My niece, now 21, was lucky. Being lucky, however, does not come without deep emotional wounds and big psychotherapy bills. And do we really want to live in a society that requires children to rely on luck? I know we can do better than that.