I have kind of a love/hate relationship with monkeys. They can be adorable little fluffballs, or complete and total jerk bastards. Most of the time, they are both. Most kids have loved Curious George for generations; Disney’s Abu and Rafiki taught us how to laugh and love; even the monkey from Outbreak was cute, in a deadly, extinction-level virus-spreading kinda way.
Monkeys are also little bastards. Just ask anyone who’s walked through a wildlife preserve, or down a street in some country where monkeys run wild and free. We’ve all seen the pics and videos: They’ll steal you blind, then poop on your shoulder, and in even rarer cases, slyly try to get you to fellate them.
Monkeys are everywhere: In jungles, zoos, research labs… everywhere. But, can monkeys also be found in school classrooms, on city buses, or in office elevators? In other words, are humans monkeys? Well, some may say we evolved from monkeys (and I always reply with the old standby: “If we evolved from monkeys, then why are there still monkeys?”), but that’s not what I mean. Is calling someone a “monkey” an affectionate moniker, or a hateful slur?
Well, like most things in this crazy world, it depends on the context. I remember an episode of The Flintstones where either Fred or Wilma called their daughter Pebbles a “little monkey,” because she was scurrying here and there, and being adorable while doing it. I myself, used to call my own daughter “monkey” when she was behaving similarly. I now have grandkids, through marriage, who are my newest barrel of monkeys. And like Wilma and Fred, I mean it in the most affectionate way possible.
However, over the years the word “monkey” has taken on negative connotations. Racist connotations, specifically, when referring to black people. Some people hear “monkey” as a shortened form of the slur “porch monkey,” which is just one of the many, many things you can call a black person to tick us off. In fact, it’s pretty much the only animal a racist can use to insult someone of color. “Screw you, you okapi!” doesn’t have the same sting.
The pic at the top of this post ran as part of an ad on the website for H&M clothing stores, as part of what appeared to be a line of jungle-themed kidswear. Now, the idiot who OK’d this could be either tone-deaf, or a racist asshole. Who knows? But you’d think someone at H&M would have said, “hang on a minute” when they saw the image. “Maybe don’t put the black kid in the ‘monkey’ shirt? It doesn’t look right.” I don’t know too much about H&M (my idea of fancy shopping is the clearance racks at Kohl’s), but I’m fairly certain they didn’t set out to alienate an entire race of people, whose money is as good as anyone else’s. They sure could’ve saved themselves a lot of trouble by having more black folks in the decision-making room where they greenlight these ads, though. And it is indeed troubling that none of the non-black folks in the room could see what was wrong with that picture.
Anyway, it’s simple: don’t call someone a monkey, if you don’t know and/or love them, especially if that someone is black. Best to err on the side of caution. As for the word itself, I’m not letting the racists have the word “monkey.” If they’re too lazy to put the word “porch” in front of it, then I’m not gonna mentally fill it in for them. If you let them have “monkey,” then they’ll think it’s okay to shorten “jungle bunny” to “bunny.” And I’m damn sure not letting them have “bunny.”