During a Monday Night Football game Sept. 5, 1983, Howard Cosell, a renowned sportscaster, emphasized Washington Redskins receiver Alvin Garrett’s excellence that night by commenting, “…that little monkey gets loose, doesn’t he?…” Early this month, clothing retail company H&M came under fire and fury for a related “mistake.” The company featured an African American child wearing a sweatshirt with the words “coolest monkey in the jungle” printed on the front.
Cosell refused to offer an apology claiming that “monkey” was a term he had used playfully before, even while referring to white athletes. He lost his job anyway. H&M on the other hand, could not afford to walk away without the last word. The retailer balked under pressure and issued a public apology as well as removed the garment from worldwide circulation: an admission of guilt for a comparison taken out of context and one that should not draw as much ire as it did 35 years after Cosell’s comment, knowing as much as we know about our evolutionary cousins.
According to the National Museum of Natural History, humans and chimpanzees evolved from a common ancestor between 6 and 8 million years ago. That is enough time for the two species to evolve in very different ways. The contrasts between our two species are clear to see on any trip to the zoo. However, the preference to bare it all publicly and eat ticks off each other’s backs belies subtle similarities that, once acknowledged, should lead to the conclusion that these apes are not that different from us after all.
Louis Leaky, a distinguished archaeologist, famously responded to Jane Goodall’s description of chimps using sticks to gather termites, “Now we must redefine ‘tool,’ redefine ‘man,’ or accept chimpanzees as human.”
The chimpanzees were manipulating the environment to their advantage; a human attribute that was considered a hallmark of our industry and eventual conquest over earth. Chimpanzees have also been shown to be more than just the savages that are driven solely by an appetite for bananas, but sentient beings capable of displaying qualities that we humans thought made us distinct: emotions, cognitive ability and an ability to form patterned ways of communicating.
Most people would be more accommodating of anything that bears so much resemblance to us. After all, we adore our dogs, knit holiday sweaters for them and call them “our kids” because we are entranced by the “puppy eyes” that stare at us with love and yield to most of our requests to “sit.” Yet, as far as apes are concerned the attitude takes a turn for the worse. Perhaps context and history drove this wedge between apes and humans.
It is undeniable that the comparison between man and monkey has often been made to assault the cognitive ability of humans of African descent. When fans hurled bananas at Mario Balotelli, a black Italian soccer star, the intent was unmistakable, to degrade and debase. However, when Mrs. Smith, a British college student, doing a mission abroad at my kindergarten in the heart of Africa joined us in chorus “…Three little monkeys jumping on the bed…one fell down and hurt his head…,” I could not detect ill intent and do not do so to this day. How is it then that a term that is used to characterize monkeys as playful can also be used to denigrate fellow humans?
The mother in the case of H&M, who consented to her son’s appearance in the advertisement, has since issued a statement claiming that she knows for a fact that H&M meant no offense in their campaign. Too little, too late! Several public figures, who ironically have more say in this matter, had already expressed their disgust. Twitter fingers are indeed the new age “crying wolf” and as Samuel Croxall warned, “when we are alarmed with imaginary dangers in respect of the public, till the cry grows quite stale and threadbare, how can it be expected we should know when to guard ourselves against real ones?”
It is undeniable that the likes of Lebron James, The Weeknd and G-Eazy have lent their voices time and again to mitigating prejudice. It is also undeniable that our society is still permeated with cases of racial discrimination. This was simply not one of them.