Fired for a racist tweet. But was it really racist?

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Roseanne Barr has had her show cancelled because of a tweet suggesting former Obama aide Valerie Jarrett is the product of a union between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Planet of the Apes.

ABC Network, in cancelling the show, issued a statement calling Barr’s tweet “abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values”.

But what was so abhorrent or repugnant about the tweet?   Some have argued that it is deeply insulting to all Muslims, which is obviously nonsense given the Muslim Brotherhood is a small group of mainly Sunni Muslims, with fairly fundamentalist Islamist beliefs, and as such Roseanne’s tweet was a comment on Jarrett’s political beliefs rather than any comparison to Muslims as a whole.

Popular consensus, though, is that it was deeply racist, due to the fact that Valerie Jarrett is African-American, with brown skin, and comparing a brown person to an ape is about the most racist statement one can make.

But why? Why, given we are all evolved from apes, is it only racist when comparing a black or brown person to one, but not when making the same comparison in relation to somebody who is white or yellow?

Calling somebody an ape – or, in the example of the recent blog-post by the Secret Barrister, referring to a group of people as “knuckle-dragging cheerleaders” – is certainly an insult.  It is a way of saying that the person, or group of people, to whom one is referring, is primitive, unevolved, backward, or uncivilised.

Yet we don’t see anyone calling for the Secret Barrister’s book to be removed from bookshelves as a result of his / her recent use of the term “knuckle-dragging cheerleaders”.   Presumably because it is understood that the majority – if not all – of the people he was referring to, are white.  So that’s perfectly acceptable, then.

By saying that it is racist to refer to a black or brown person as an ape, but not a white or yellow person, are we not, in fact, simply reinforcing the notion that a different set of rules and norms needs to be followed when dealing with black and brown people, than with white and yellow people?  Is that not deeply racist?

I understand the argument that the reason it is racist to refer to a black or brown person as an ape, is because for years, racists have used that very insult to refer to people of colour, implying that they are less evolved than white people.

But this is where context matters.  A statement that refers to ALL black people as apes is, of course, racist – because the insult in this case is directed specifically at their race.  But a statement such as Roseanne’s, directed at one particular person, has to be viewed as a comment on that person alone. In which case it shouldn’t matter what colour skin the person has.

Roseanne, of course, made matters ten times worse by apologising for the tweet and seeking to blame tiredness and sleep deprivation for her error of judgement.  What she should have done, was to demand to know why it is that ABC – or anyone else for that matter – feels that Valerie Jarrett’s skin colour is relevant.

We saw the same confected offence-taking a few months ago, over the H&M poster campaign which showed a young black boy wearing a jumper with the words “Coolest monkey in the jungle”.  Cue outrage at the decision to use a black child rather than a white child.  Never mind the fact that parents of all colours and races have for decades referred fondly to their children as “cheeky monkeys”. Or that the mother of the child in question saw no issue with the slogan.

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If we truly want to have racial equality, surely one of the first steps we must take is to acknowledge our common evolutionary origins?  That must include the right to insult and offend each other equally.   Roseanne’s tweet was offensive – which it clearly was intended to be.  But it takes a pretty racist mindset to actually see it as racist.

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3 Responses to Fired for a racist tweet. But was it really racist?

  1. rollo says:

    An interesting viewpoint, but I would tend to take the view that the target of the insult is probably better equipped than I am to comment:


    • ilikewords23 says:

      Well, I’m not really a fan of the argument that the person a comment is directed towards, is uniquely equipped to decide whether or not it was intended to be offensive, or racist, or homophobic etc. as I think that’s a slippery slope – somebody can make a comment that they intend to be completely inoffensive and can then have it interpreted as racist, or homophobic, or transphobic, on a whim. In this case, though, I did actually read Jarrett’s response and found it interesting that she effectively chose not to comment, simply saying that she’s fine, and choosing instead to talk about very real everyday instances of racism. Almost as if she didn’t actually feel Roseanne’s tweet was a particularly big deal. Yet she’s happy for Roseanne – and everyone else working on the show – to lose their jobs over it. Make of that what you will.


  2. Michael Lamb says:

    Comment posted here as our original exchange has been blinking quantum-like in and out of existence:
    ]You are so right to shout from the housetops how PC just keeps piling on its own reductiones ad absurdum.

    PC has long since morphed into something that goes way beyond language — Perversity Canvassing or Perversity Coercion might be more enlightening expansions of the acronym. Black people, women and LGBTIQ seem to have been prime candidates for the canvassing of offence-taking or vicarious offence-taking.

    So it is with this ‘ape’ farrago. My impression is that it has taken hold over the course of my own lifetime, at first perhaps because of increasing bona-fide sensitivity in the use of language and since PC set in, because of the admirable idea of consciousness-raising becoming a drive for grievance-raising.

    But it is striking how most of this is driven by Anglophone PC warriors, and obviously a great many of its shibboleths have been specific to English. AFIK in German Affe, which is obviously cognate with ‘ape’ is no more of an offence than say ‘twerp’, and even in English certain collocations have not yet been identified as deserving of PC demonization: I guess both black and white people can still ‘go ape’ and call their children ‘little monkeys’ when they misbehave.

    As a lifelong descriptivist, I see this is as rank prescriptivism. It’s not supposed to happen these days, let alone change the language. Who’s for rehabilitating these expressions? Characterizations of Trump, for example, would be a good start, and might deflect the charge of racism to where it belongs — with the stirrers of faux-outrage at well-established common parlance. Hey, Trump might be our best hope of this happening — there was the precedent of Georg W and the shaved monkey.

    Liked by 1 person

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