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Chimpanzees, gorillas and racist tropes

The Radio 5 Live broadcaster Danny Baker has had an interesting week. As no doubt you and the whole world know by now, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex – Harry and Meghan – had their first child this week – a little boy they’ve named ‘Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor’ (a bit of a mouthful to be sure).


Anyway, Baker marked the occasion by tweeting a photograph of a couple dressed as ‘toffs’ holding the hands of a similarly dressed ‘toff-like’ baby chimpanzee. Baker added the caption: “Royal baby leaves hospital”.It caused a furore.


He claimed at first that he was innocent of any racist connotation of a chimpanzee with, in this case a mixed-race baby. He said that people who made that connection had ‘a diseased mind’. He later apologised, admitting the ‘joke’ was crass and stupid.

However, it reminded me of an incident I was involved in over twenty -five years ago with a black student and a children’s book.


In the early 1990s, I was teaching at a university in London - training teachers. The trainees were an ethnically diverse group and so we had quite a large number of black and Asian students as well as white from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. My sessions specialised in teaching literacy and children’s literature.


On this particular day, I was displaying and recommending a wide variety of good quality children’s books and demonstrating how to ‘read aloud’ as well as how to use illustrations to lead the text. I was showing - indeed recommending - some of the greatest British proponents of children’s literature who were both writers and illustrators – people like Charles Keeping, Janet & Allan & Ahlberg, Michael Forman, Joanna Troughton, Anthony Browne and many others.


Anthony Browne was well known at the time – and still is - for children’s books that deal with psychological and emotional issues in childhood. He published a series – still available - about a gorilla who would often appeared as an enigmatic anthropomorphic character struggling against the odds to overcome loneliness, shyness, bullying and other kinds of personal adversity.


As I was showing and reading Anthony Browne’s books to the trainees, I was interrupted by a black student in the group who objected to the use of a book that depicted a gorilla as a human-like character. She said, it was ‘insulting to black people’. When I asked her why she thought that, she went on to explain that – and I’m paraphrasing now as it was two and half decades ago – ‘children would look at these pictures and associate them with racist images of black people’ and that ‘such images were damaging to the already low self-esteem of black boys, in particular’.


I challenged both claims. I replied, first that I didn’t think children would look at the gorilla in these particular books and associate them with racist stereotypes and second, I said I didn’t think black boys had low self esteem. Indeed, my experience of working in places like Hackney and Tottenham for many years was that black boys, far from having low self-esteem, were more often seen as ‘trend-setters’ of popular culture and more often the subject of envy and admiration by their white peers.


The student was unconvinced. She was adamant that I was wrong. She insisted these books were tantamount to peddling racist stereotypes and I complicit by recommending them. She said I didn’t know what I was talking about. She asked me, as a white middle-class male, what could I possibly know about being the victim of racism. After some continued discussion, which included some comments by other black students that challenged what she said, we agreed to differ on our interpretations of the books and continued to the end of the session – amid some tension I must admit.

Then as now, I thought she was wrong. While I accept that racist tropes have included the use of animal images – such as chimpanzees and gorillas – to depict black people, I think in this case she was wrong. I also think she was wrong about black boys having self-esteem issues. I think in fact, this trainee was struggling at that time in her life with her own issues of self-esteem, which on this occasion produced in her an over-reaction to the image of a gorilla in a context that was anthropomorphised.

A year and a half later, when the trainee was graduating, she came to me to apologise for disrupting the session that day and admitted she had over-reacted. She went on to be a very good teacher. Danny Baker has been fired from his job at the BBC. It remains to be seen whether his fulsome apology will lead to redemption.


Is depicting an anthropomorphised chimpanzee or gorilla a racist trope? The fact that it is to some people doesn’t necessarily mean it is to everyone.


But that’s one of the problems with racism isn’t it? It gets under our skin, into our heads and fucks up the way we see things. It does that to all of us – white and black.


That’s why your job as a teacher is so important.