Between them, my two sons have about five or six items of clothing or accessories adorned with monkey designs: pajamas, a backpack, T-shirts and, until they grew out of them, an adorable pair of pants with a monkey face on the bottom.
On occasion, friends have called the boys cute little monkeys. It never bothered me — why would it?
So, when a mom posted the following message to Facebook, it stopped me in my tracks:
Please. Do not. ever. ever. ever. call someone’s little black baby a “monkey”. [I] know some parents use it as a term of endearment. But we black parents don’t. We do not like it. It makes us uncomfortable. I think for some folks, the history of how this work [sic] was used against black people is getting forgotten. But not for the black folks. So, just a PSA. Call him a little bunny, a little spider, puppy, no problem! [B]ut please stay away from the primate classifications.
The message resonated. The mom, a woman named Leah in upstate New York, is not a celebrity, yet her message provoked more than 150 comments.
I followed up with Leah after her post, and she told me that if she could go back in time, she wouldn’t change much about her message, except for this: she would have it say that “most black parents” are uncomfortable with the word “monkey” as a term of endearment for their children.
“Though I don’t know a single black parent who is okay with that, I would imagine there’s got to be some black parent out there that is okay with it, right? Seems weird to me, but I don’t want to unequivocally speak for the whole race,” she said.
Leah explained to me that since her son, now a toddler, was born, about five or six people have said things along the lines of: “Oh, look at this little monkey.”
“I was totally shocked the first time it happened because, to me, from my upbringing, that word is a huge no-no,” Leah said. “You don’t say it about any black child. Because it’s sadly really still alive and well as a racial slur.”
Leah said she’s been called “monkey” by people with malicious intent and so have her siblings … not to mention President Obama, whom an Arizona radio show host once referred to as “the first monkey president.”
After repeatedly hearing perfectly friendly people refer to her toddler as a monkey, Leah decided to share her feelings with friends on her personal Facebook account. She said she hated the thought of her friends unintentionally offending others.
“It kept coming out of the mouths of otherwise totally nice, progressive, educated people that I know are interested in promoting racial understanding. Even the people who said it who I didn’t know all that well, I knew them enough to know that they weren’t racists,” she said. “So finally I concluded, there’s obviously a big enough segment of the population that just doesn’t know about this. Probably the same segment of the population who doesn’t grow up with racist people who sit around calling black people slurs.”
Kimberly Seals Allers, the founder of MochaManual.com who writes extensively about issues facing African American moms, said that while she’s personally never experienced anyone calling her two children monkeys, she does take issue with another word that some might find surprising: Boy.
When someone once innocently referred to her son as “Boy” — the context was something as innocuous as “Boy, come over here” — Seals Allers politely informed the person that her son has a name and that’s what he should be called.
So what’s wrong with “Boy”?
Seals Allers says that the word has been used to communicate to grown black men that they’re not valued as men, but rather are still boys. To correctly state that a male African American child is a boy is fine, she explained, but to actually use the word “Boy” in place of his name is not.
“The fact that we think that all words mean the same to everybody is not true,” she said. “We have to accept that words have context — historical context.”
As for Leah, she told me she’s not trying to discourage parents — white or black — from calling their own children monkeys.
“I can completely see why someone would call any climbing, energetic, funny baby, a monkey,” she said.
And she says it’ll be quite some time before she posts anything similar to her “PSA.” The debate this one engendered, she confessed to me, tired her out.
“Honestly, I don’t know how real workers for social justice, like, people who make this their life’s work, do it,” she said. “But I’m hoping that I was able to do something small to help some people who are eager to raise accepting, open kids pave the way for lots of positive interactions with their black friends, family members, and schoolmates.”
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Photo via morgueFile.