Privilege Illustrated

So apparently in New York City last week a chimpanzee attacked a woman, and was shot and killed by police. It’s not particularly surprising; I think Dennis Leary covered the absurd ways that one can die in New York City in No Cure for Cancer, and having a crazed chimp attack you is frankly less odd than getting hit by a poodle dropped from fifty stories.

Anyhow, the editorial cartoonist from the New York Post decided to take this incident and use it to comment on the authors of the economic stimulus package.

If you’re remembering that our president is African-American, you’re ahead of Sean Delonas:


Now, do I think Delonas thought about the racist history of comparing African-Americans to monkeys? No, I don’t. Do I think he further thought about the history of police killing African-Americans — and it’s not exactly ancient history? No, certainly not.

But that’s because he didn’t have to think about it. It isn’t a part of his life. It isn’t a part of his experience. He may know these things, in an academic sense, the way I do — but they aren’t a part of the fiber of his being. He hasn’t seen illustrations from a hundred years ago showing his people are more like apes than the purer, smarter, obviously more civilized race. He hasn’t had to worry that an encounter with a cop on a train platform could lead to his death. These things aren’t a part of his existence — nor mine, for that matter.

That’s what privilege is — the privilege not to have to deal with the thousands of little degradations that others deal with.

But being a decent human being in 2009 means being aware that one is privileged. Being a decent human being in 2009 means putting yourself in the shoes of someone else, and trying to see the world through the filter they do. And with our nation’s first African-American president now firmly ensconced in the Oval Office, that’s something everyone who comments on politics for a living needs to do — look at the metaphors they use, the imagery they pick, and understand that not all metaphors and images are created equal.

A failure to do that turns a legitimate (if, IMHO, incorrect) argument — that the stimulus was bad and foolish public policy — into an image that causes people to draw up short, and see not that argument, but the hundreds of years of racism that stain our nation’s soul.

Do I think Delonas intended to draw a racist cartoon? No, I don’t. But intention doesn’t enter into it. The fact is that through his blindness to his own privilege, he created a cartoon that was racist. It would be nice if he’d learn from this, take his lumps, and if we could all use this as a learning experience. Of course, given the way our country discusses race, I’m guessing that he’ll sniff that he wasn’t racist at all, and after a lot of heat and no light, we’ll move on to the next topic. That would be a failed opportunity, of course, but it wouldn’t be the first, and it won’t be the last.

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28 Responses to Privilege Illustrated

  1. 1
    spot check billy says:

    You’re giving Delonas a good deal more credit than I would WRT his intentions – isn’t talking about shooting whoever he thinks wrote the bill pretty much in bad taste before you get to the racism? It’s amazing this could get off his desk let alone past the editor or two involved in putting it in the paper. For additional goodness, the Post has gone on record defending the cartoon and the decision to run it.

  2. 2
    mapaghimagsik says:

    One of the best takes I’ve read on this. I think it underscores a point that a lot of folks miss: That you can do racist stuff even when you don’t mean to.

  3. 3
    mapaghimagsik says:

    Just wanted to add, the previous poster also pointed out something I missed. This guy wasn’t operating in a vacuum, and its odd that none of the editors thought about the issues involved.

  4. 4
    Emily says:

    I don’t even understand the intent of this cartoon if it’s not to be racist. I mean, what does police in NYC shooting a monkey have to do with the stimulus package, unless you are fairly explicitly comparing the author of the stimulus package (who most people understand to be Obama) to a monkey.

    Is the point that the stimulus package is bad, so the “person” who wrote it must have been a monkey?

    There’s no indication in the cartoon that the author considers the stimulus package to be bad. There’s no drawing of the stimulus package that explains the author’s problems with it. So it’s not really a (good) political cartoon about the stimulus package. What is clear is that it is comparing the “author” of it to a monkey. That could be because the author is stupid (but as I said, there’s nothing else in the cartoon, except perhaps the publication it was found in, to suggest that the author thinks that) or it could be because the author is black.

    I think it’s AT LEAST a toss-up on which of those two interpretations is more likely to occurr to most people, and if you don’t already know the author’s opinion of the stimulus package, then the racist interpretation is MUCH more obvious/plausible than the other.

    It would perhaps be a better political cartoon if the shooters were to resemble, or be labelled as well known critics of the stimulus package (such as some republican senator or think tank or something). That wouldn’t do away with the racist element, but it would make for better political commentary at least.

  5. 5
    Silenced is Foo says:

    I’m with Emily. If not racism, the cartoon barely has any meaning. Is it meant to imply that the stimulus bill was written by monkeys? I guess. That’s not really much of a punchline.

  6. 6
    Ampersand says:

    It’s not much of a punchline at all, but don’t underestimate how deeply mediocre and unfunny most political cartoonists are. This is a common technique of hacks; find a way to refer to two news stories in one cartoon, and presto!, that’s your gag.

    There’s a discussion of the cartoon here, in which most of the people participating in the comments are themselves political cartoonists.

  7. 7
    PG says:

    Minor factual correction: the chimp mauling was in Stamford, CT. The animal weighed 200 lbs. and was very highly trained (had been in Old Navy TV ads and basically was treated as a family member, complete with keys to get in and out of the house), but also had been given alcohol, caffeine and Xanax and was being medicated for Lyme’s disease.

  8. 8
    RonF says:

    You know, I was at first inclined to discount your point. But after reading through the post I’ve decided you’re right. This was at the least a very unfortunate imagery. And spot check billy is spot on – the whole idea of killing whoever wrote that bill is not a great image to present either.

  9. 9
    Mandolin says:

    “also had been given alcohol, caffeine and Xanax and was being medicated for Lyme’s disease.”


  10. 10
    Lulu says:

    Regardless of the poor taste, intentional or unintentional racist overtones, the cartoon itself wasn’t funny. If you want to go out on a limb and push the envelope on appropriateness in the name of humor, you should at least be humorous. This wasn’t.

    But your comments were spot on. I think the times we live in are going to redefine privilege for years to come. Great post!

  11. 11
    marmalade says:

    That’s what privilege is — the privilege not to have to deal with the thousands of little degradations that others deal with.


    This reminds me of a piece by NY Times columnist Judith Warner from last week that really bothered me. She writes about how she (white, middle-class, normally-abled, straight, gender normative) and her daughter and her husband are so happy that they are “wierd” and eschew “normalness” in its entirety. Evidence she produces to support this claim is that they let their faucet drip rather than fix it, that she uses cutlery with a European affect, and that her daughter does not dress like a fashion plate.

    Most posters wrote in to say that they and their (straight, middle-class) families are wierd too! and are so happy about it! and would never be boringly normal!! A few posters wrote to say that for a lot of us actually (and many times uncomfortably) on the sidelines of “normal” . . . that self-congratulations based on non-conformist fashion choices seems shallow and insensitive.

    Privilege is proudly claiming that you are “not-normal” because your daughter does not wear Ugg boots.

  12. 12
    PG says:

    That Warner column is a masterpiece of obliviousness. Lady, you’re not “weird,” you’re just lazy. I say this because I recognize myself in most of what you describe as “weird” (the never-fixed faucet drip, the lack of manicures and fashionability, a distracted manner, slouching), and I know I’m lazy. Also cheap.

  13. 13
    Cathy says:

    Coming from the perspective an art student soon to be graduating and looking for jobs, I really have to wonder. My years of practicing, understanding the competitive nature of what I do, constantly trying to better myself by studying the works of masters, networking, improving my portfolio, and apparently it was all a big joke on me. If I had known it was as simple as doing crappy, bigoted artwork, I could have had a job ages ago. Maybe I’ll look up New York Post after I get my degree in March.

    America should not be allowed to consider itself in the current year of 2009 until shit like this becomes common sense not to create, let alone publish.

  14. 14
    heron61 says:

    I think you’re being far too generous with Sean Deonis – here’s some examples of his previous work. He looks like a deeply scary bigot rather than an accidental racist. I’d love to see him get fired over this, but given what I’ve read about the New York Post, I suspect that this is deeply unlikely.

  15. Pingback: Alas, a blog » Blog Archive » Racism 101 For White Cartoonists

  16. 15
    Silenced is Foo says:


    I’m still not convinced. All those comics are so utterly weak that I now believe he could have seriously ran a comic with the joke “hee hee, stimulus package = monkeys”. The man is one step away from being The Onion’s cartoonist.

  17. 16
    Phelps says:

    Apparently, after years of being told that if you don’t see people as people instead a member of a race that you are racist, it appears that if you don’t see someone as a member of a race instead of a person, you are a racist.

    That’s awful close to, “if you are white and don’t kowtow to all black people, you are a racist.”

  18. 17
    Radfem says:

    He knew what he was doing. The New York Post knew what he was doing and paid him for it. But then this publication always backs the NYPD officers when they kill Black men like Sean Bell and Amadou Diallo so it’s hardly surprising. But it makes it difficult to believe that they didn’t know that they were taking the police’s shooting of Black men and making humor out of it.

    He drew plenty of homophobic cartoons during the Prop. 8 thing. There are artists and writers in this country who make a pretty good living even in a recession for bigotry. In fact given the scapegoating that often takes place in difficult economic times, maybe they’ll make even more money.

  19. 18
    PG says:


    Who’s getting called a racist?

  20. 19
    Kristin says:

    What is with all the clutching of pearls in hope that the cartoonist didn’t *mean* to be racist? I find this to be an ignorant assumption, but let’s just give you that for a moment…

    Would it change anything? Would the cartoonist’s supposed *good intentions* make any difference here? Would it not *still* be racist?

    Right, then, *why* the focus on whether or not the cartoonist *meant* it or not? Seems offensively misplaced.

  21. 20
    Elusis says:


    I’m sorry, did you just insinuate that bringing up race, makes you a racist?

    Nice try. Pull the other one; it’s got bells on.

  22. Pingback: The New York Post cartoon: this is my unsurprised face. « The Angry Black Woman

  23. 21
    Cathy says:


    “if you are white and don’t kowtow to all black people, you are a racist.”

    Yes, in a world where ‘kowtow” means expecting to be called out on producing bigoted imagery as though you are completely ignorant of the historical meaning of what you’re illustrating.

  24. Pingback: Malnurtured Snay » On Chimps And Bills

  25. 22
    Godheval says:

    As the first commenter said, you’re definitely giving this Delonas guy too much of the benefit of the doubt. If you look at his history, he’s been in controversial situations before, with anti-gay, anti-Muslim, and other comics with a clearly prejudiced slant. Delonas knew exactly what he was doing here.

  26. 23
    Eileen Gunn says:

    From the What Could He Have Been Thinking Department:

    After reading everyone else’s suggestions, it occurs to me that what the cartoonist was intending may have been a humorous analogy to the thousand monkeys with typewriters eventually writing Shakespeare’s plays — the cartoonist was suggesting that there were many Congressional hands in the creation of the package.

    This is not an excuse: Jeff’s point that the cartoonist should have thought about the implications of what he was saying is quite true. Anyone whose mouth is faster than their brain (like mine) knows that you can say something really offensive without meaning to. (There is real need for a brain/mouth barrier.) It seems that this particular cartoonist can draw faster than he can think.

    But is this also true of his editors? Didn’t at least one of them think, wow, this certainly has some racist implications? If not, I wonder why that would be? (Fe)

    For one of them to draw attention to that would not be censorship, imo. A real wit does not insult someone accidentally. I wonder if there was someone at the Post who could have opened his mouth but didn’t.


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