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.