Sunday, February 22, 2009

associate black people with monkeys and apes

Phillip Atiba Goff
is an assistant professor in the UCLA Department of Psychology, where he conducts research on racial attitudes and beliefs. When he recently published the results of a five-year study of common psychological associations between black people and primates, his anxiety about the anticipated response was deeply personal.

"When I first analyzed the data, I spent two days under the covers," Goff said. "I was sick and depressed. When I left my apartment, I felt everyone looking at me would see a monkey."

For those who like to praise America for making great strides toward racial equality, Goff's findings should have sobering implications. Perhaps the most fundamental one is that a long history of white supremacist assumptions that black people are related to apes and monkeys is not just history. Instead, as Goff has demonstrated, those racist associations remain embedded within the minds of most white people, affecting their opinions and their behavior.

Goff's work may also help to explain the motives, conscious or not, of Sean Delonas, the cartoonist who created the dead-monkey image that's provoked so much discussion and outrage this week (you can see the cartoon here). Goff's research results demonstrate that such images are not only offensive and repugnant, because they dredge up age-old associations between black people and primates. They're also flat-out dangerous, because those associations are still active within the recesses of most white minds.

In a series of six different studies, Goff and his fellow researchers subjected hundreds of participants to an array of image- and word-association tests. In an overview of the series, Tom Jacobs writes that in Goff's first study,

The participants were "primed" with one of three sets of images: 50 photographs of black male faces, 50 photos of white male faces or an abstract line drawing. As is standard practice on such tests, the images were flashed onto their computer screens too rapidly for them to consciously register.

The students then watched short films of animals, which were obscured in such a way that it was difficult at first to make out exactly what species they were seeing. Gradually, the image became clearer, so the animal could be identified.

The disturbing result: Participants who had been primed with black male faces required fewer frames to identify the animal in question as an ape. In contrast, those primed with white male faces required more frames to make the identification than those who saw the racially neutral line drawing.

"The effects were quite large -- distressingly large," Goff said. "There was a decent amount of variance, but there weren't a whole lot of folks that didn't demonstrate the effect.

"The difference between when the black face was primed and when the white face was primed was about six frames, which was about three full seconds. In cognitive terms, where you're staring at a screen you're just a few inches from and trying to tell what an object is, three seconds is a profound difference!"

Because the results from each of Goff's six studies show that racist connections between black people and primates are anything but a thing of the past, they have deep and immediate social implications. Goff's work helps to illuminate the pervasive undercurrents of white condescension, suspicion, and fear that black people routinely encounter in non-black environments.

For instance, another of Goff's studies suggests that ongoing associations between blacks and primates tend to make whites more approving of police abuse, if the victims are black instead of white.

In that project, white male students were initially briefed with words commonly associated with either apes or large cats. They then watched a video of a policeman beating a man:

Half were told the man (whose image was unclear on the film) was white; the other half were told he was black.

The students who were primed with cat words considered the beating unjustified. So did those who were primed with ape words but were told the victim was white. But those who were primed with the ape words and told the victim was black were far more ambivalent in their reaction.

"The association between black and ape left our white respondents more open to the possibility that police violence might in fact be justified," Goff said.

In the sixth and final study of his series, Goff's results also help to explain why the residents of death row are so disproportionately black. Goff analyzed newspaper reports of trials in which both black and non-black defendants were eligible for the death penalty. He found that descriptions of the trials for black defendants included far more primate-related language, such as "ape," "beast," "brute," or "jungle":

"It turned out African Americans had significantly more ape-related images ascribed to them than did whites. And among African Americans, the more ape-related images you had in your press coverage, the more likely you were to be put to death."

Goff is not claiming a causal relationship between the stories and the death sentences; juries, he noted, are routinely ordered not to read press accounts of their cases. Rather, he concluded, "the representation of African Americans as apelike is so present in the cultural ether that both the press and the juries were drawn toward it."

With, in some cases, lethal results.

If some part of a white person's mind has been trained to continually and habitually connect black people with primates, how likely is it that a white manager will treat a black job applicant fairly? How likely is it that a white police officer will treat a black suspect with an appropriate amount of respect and restraint, if some part of the officer's mind is associating that person with an ape? And isn't it likely that such subconscious associations also prevent many white teachers from crediting their black students with the same intellectual capacities as other students?

So no matter what the editors of the New York Post claim in their thoroughly unapologetic apology, a cartoon that ties together a bloody, assassinated monkey and a bill that was signed by a black president is not only racist. It's also dangerous, because as Phillip Atiba Goff's profoundly revealing work demonstrates, such images reach into the depths of white minds and reinforce the common, demeaning, and dehumanizing imagery that's already there. That's why I can't see Sean Delonas' cartoon, nor the Post's non-apology, as anything other than illustrations of a smug and vile type of irresponsibility.

And for any young white folks who think that racist ideas of black people as ape-like are mere relics of a forgettable history--Goff found that such images also exist in the minds of people who don't know anything about that history:

Goff found that even contemporary college students who had no idea this connection had ever been made apparently had this notion in their subconscious. (For one of the studies, the participants were specifically asked whether they were aware of the stereotype of blacks as apelike. Only 9 percent answered affirmatively.)

As the many clueless defenses of the Post cartoon demonstrate, Phillip Atiba Goff's valuable work deserves wider recognition. His results thoroughly demonstrate the tenacity of the associations that most of us still make between black people and primates. For white people, his work suggests that unless we work to understand that which is buried--and yet lives--deep within ourselves, we're likely at some point to enact dangerous and even lethal racist tendencies. No matter how much we might like to praise ourselves and our country for moving beyond racism.

[h/t to Kit, who alerted me to Goff's work in a post at the new Afropeace Forum. Phillip Atiba Goff's written reaction to the Post cartoon can be found here. I also recommend this excellent set of tips for cartoonists, via Ampersand.]


  1. as usual, excellent post. thank you for enlightening me to Goff's work, and it (horrifyingly) shows how deep-rooted racism is. but if we don't confront it, well, like the study demonstrates, this could have terrible consequences (and does already).

    post-racial? yeah, right.

  2. Incredible post but I have to say, I'm not at all shocked. Apparently, people don't really know what to say about this post (kind of like your Patricia Smith 'skinhead' post) because it makes many people uncomfortable. Keep writing and I will keep reading. This is the most most race obsessed country in the entire world and yet, just as the Attorney General said..."we are a nation of cowards onthe issue of race".

    I can't even utter the words post-racial out loud. Such a FARCE.

  3. In the wake of several controversies involving primate imagery, I keep hearing whites claim that they are unaware of the association of black people with monkeys and apes. And i just find that so difficult to believe.

    1. Being white myself, I think I can explain my opinion in order to shed some light on this particular idea. I think some white people feel so horrible about their almost-automatic association of black people with primates that they block it out of their mind as much as possible, even to the point that it becomes (almost) unrecognizable to themselves. They feel that acknowledging it is inherently racist, in and of itself, and they so they deny any such feelings. I can believe that a white person (who is a decent human being) wouldn't want a black person to know they make such an association in their minds, even if it was the truth. If asked the question by an African American friend, I think I would lie and say "no", in all honesty. I admit to having racist notions that automatically come forward in my mind, though I am embarrassed about it and do not like to admit it. I am educated, and was raised in a home where racism was NOT tolerated. However, I still have those preconceived notions that seem to be as ingrained in me as my very identity.

      I hope this comment didn't offend anyone, as my only intention was to be completely honest about my thoughts and feelings. If it did, please know that I realize the error in my thinking. I'm truly sorry.

  4. I'm not too surprised about this either. I read other articles on how black people are the less intelligent people in the world. That of course would be from the association with apes and monkeys. The sad part is it isnt just something that only white people believe in. Most people from other countries believe that blacks are associated with apes and unintelligence too.

  5. "I read other articles on how black people are the less intelligent people in the world. That of course would be from the association with apes and monkeys."
    Actually I think that's from studies that supposedly demonstrate that black people have lower IQs than white/Asian people.

    It's a pretty popular talking point these days, iirc...

  6. Haaaa! I scoff: He needed [funding for a] five year study to illuminate what has already been known for centuries in this country about how whites (and I agree with one of the other commenters here, that it is not only whites, but all other racial "groups" other than blacks) see blacks as not being too far removed from primates? What a waste of money and time.

    As a black person, do you think that I do not know about the results of this study already? You'd be hard pressed to show me a black person who doesn't know that whites (and others) see us as apes. (I think that the conductor of this study, by his reaction to the findings, is one of a very few blacks living in America who does not know that whites and others view blacks as apes, gorillas. Really, what rock has he been living under his whole life? Oh, I know, the rock of black bourgeois assimilation that had him believing that whites see us as their equal--even with the election of a black-bi-racial man as president of the US? As Malcolm X said: What do they call a black man with a PhD? Answer: Nigger. Really, not much has changed since we supposedly gained first-class citizenship within these borders.) Of course, I do not like this attitude that you (whites and others) have towards me and my kind, but WTF does this study propose that I and my kind do with this information? What does it propose that white and others do with this information?

  7. Why did you publish this, macon d?

    Talk about putting lipstick on a pig. This is the same shyt that I can find on the white supremacist hate sites, only dressed up and sweet smelling, because it was delivered to us by a black man academic. But, underneath, at its heart, is the same racist and hateful tripe that is spewed from the keyboards of those white supremacist hate websites.

  8. redcatbiker, I published it because I think whites should know that they have such associations buried within themselves so that they can actively work against them.

    I see what it says as very different from what white supremacist hate sites would say. They'd say that black people ARE related to or closer to monkeys and apes, that they're "brutes" who need to be controlled, watched out for, and so on. Those are beliefs that most white Americans now reject, consciously (and vocally, if they hear them). But as Goff shows, a part of them still accepts such beliefs, and even encourages them in some cases to react accordingly.

    I think Goff's studies deserve more attention because they show how embedded white supremacist ideology still is, and how such things as that Post cartoon are irresponsible and outright dangerous because they revive and reinforce such horrendous associations.

    My blog is largely about how white people are trained to be white. A lot of that training amounts to having racist fears, attitudes, and so on, despite a belief a white person might have that he or she would never, ever say or do anything racist. Goff's work demonstrates one of the more pernicious ways that white training (and white power) works, by encouraging white people to think of themselves as superior to others.

  9. macon, were any of the test subjects black?

  10. Follow the link to the article, Anonymous. As far as I can tell, no. Why do you ask?

  11. well, i just ask because i don't find it that surprising that a culture with such a profoundly racist past--a culture that actually held slaves and that stigmatized these slaves as apes and so on for hundreds of years--would still not have "forgotten" that association. my guess is that this association would exist across races in that culture. in other words, if it were my experiment, i would proceed with the hypothesis that black subjects would display about the same readiness as whites, once "primed," to make the association (if that's what the difference in response time actually means, that an association is being made. the experiment doesn't make that indisputable).

    so not knowing whether black people were also included makes it hard to draw inferences about whether this is a part of white training, if calling it that is meant to draw distinctions between the way white people as opposed to other kinds of people think.

  12. Further more, not to get too off topic. But, Macon D do you think that white people have a cast system for different POCs? I looked at the hate group site Stormfront, and they have a general respect for Japanese culture, yes they don't like the Japanese but they despise blacks more. Which to me seems that way with a lot of whites. They prefer Asians, Hispanics and then blacks are usually last. Do you think this is true?

  13. Chrissy, I don't think that's off the topic. I think that while whites often do prefer some minorities over others, to call that a "caste system" would be to overstate such hierarchies, because there's more than one (some minorities are favored more in some contexts than they are in other contexts), and because whatever "system" of this sort exists varies depending on context, and on which sorts of white people you're talking about. I also think that in some contexts, especially educational settings, whites have ways of considering themselves below another minority group, those they perceive as Asians (or sometimes as Asian Americans). On the other end of the hierarchy, yes, I think black people are usually least favored/most feared and despised, but sometimes Hispanics take that spot when they get labeled "illegal aliens." So yes, rankings by whites clearly occur, but rather loosely, and differently in different contexts. And as in Goff's study of associations commonly attached to black people, there are discernible sets of associations that get attached to other groups of people that help to determine where white minds more or less place them in a racial hierarchy.

  14. ok, but once again, macon: we don't seem to know if goff's experiment does that, right? we don't know how many of the people who associated "african" faces with monkeys were themselves black, so therefore we can't say that the experiment reveals "discernible sets of associations that get attached to other groups of people that help to determine where white minds more or less place them in a racial hierarchy."

    i'd be really interested in knowing, by the way, anyone has information about how many of the subjects were non-white. (and how that might have been defined)

  15. Let me start of by saying, we live in a EUROPEAN influenced society. Many of our ideas and philosophies are influenced by European thought. The standard of beauty and attractiveness worldwide is a European standard of beauty. I am Black and Filipino...Filipinos have wide noses (the more primitive ones/pre-colonial ones at least), and rounder faces. White people have pointy, narrow noses (that'll damn near poke your eye out) and strong jaw lines. Being that the differences in physical features are drastically different, of course people would associate blacks with being relatives of an animal. The history between Europeans and blacks says it all. America may be diverse, but it is European influenced. If a foreigner wants to "be more American", they adopt Euro-centric habits, not black. Those habits include adopting attitudes toward blacks. Honestly, the article does not bother me one bit because it is expected that white people think low of us. The civil rights era wasn't that long ago, and having a (half)black president doesn't mean much either. Nonetheless, interesting topic. It sparks a conversation that is long overdue.

  16. This isn't an exclusively black phenomenon. I've been -publicly and randomly- called a monkey several times and I'm brown (a halfsie who looks primarily Mayan).

    Not a fun experience.

  17. Macon, about your response to Anonymous regarding if any of those studied were black, I think there's a real relevance, and an importance in including both traditional minorities and traditional majority populations in the research.

    There's another line of research that (and forgive me for not remembering the specifics) found that blacks carried the same subconscious negative stereotypes of blacks as whites did. Check out the WNYC radio show RadioLab on Race. It's an amazing, and depressing study.

    On a side topic, I was listening to the Kinks song "Apeman" the other day, which i really dig, but hadn't heard in forever, and realize how implicitly racist it is, lyrically.

    The basic lyrical intent is to suggest that Ray Davies is heading back to an earlier stage of primate ness to escape the crap of western culture. But the lines "I'm a King Kong man, I'm a voodoo man, I'm an ape man." draw way too thin a line between simians and black African culture to play now days.

  18. Thanks Shenzhen Sam, that is indeed depressingly relevant information. The concept of "internalized racism" comes to mind, as does the realization of how relatively rarely the opposite psychological phenomenon for whites gets discussed (let alone lableled--IS there a label for it, one that has any real currency?).

  19. Apeman, by the Kinks...Hmm I was thinking of that too. When Ray Davies says, "I'm a Voodoo Man, I'm an Apeman," it is just too obvious to dismiss.

    Knowing as much as I do about Vodoun, in all it's complexity and mystery symbolism, and then to hear Ray Davies sing "voodoo man" along with "apeman" in his fake caribbean patois, is to reduce it down to a Jar-Jar Binks type of silliness...

    And then there's Black Messiah, from the Kink's 1978 album Misfits ( "I don't want no Black Messiah,") hmm...I wonder.

    And then you've got to consider the statement on Apeman about "overpopulation," where Ray Davies repeats the standard Social Darwinistic line that's being peddled today in the Al Gore movement.

    I mean, I like the Kink's musical ability, and some of their songs sound great, but after reading these lyrics and listening to these songs more clearly, I wonder. What was in Ray Davies' mind regarding Blacks?

  20. Well seeing that since all people of the earth origins started in Africa. Wouldn't that make everyone have some relation to the primate? Or is that too convienant to forget?

  21. I know this is really pedantic and not entirely on-topic, but - humans _are_ primates. I'm half European half South-Asian, but I'm _all_ primate. If you aren't you must be a super-intelligent horse that's learned to type or something. Or perhaps a robot.

    So, strictly, the issue is white people having racist associations of black people with _non-human_ primates. Perhaps there is also an issue of people not knowing what the word 'primate' means.

    This is a pedantic point rather than a political one. I get the impression from the extracts that the Professor who did the study didn't make this error, its one introduced by the blogger. If so, maybe its unfair to the Prof to associate him with it?

  22. Posted this on the study page.

    "In follow-up tests, Goff and his colleagues tried to pinpoint the source of the association. Perhaps, they theorized, Americans associate blacks not with apes per se; perhaps the association was of blacks with Africa, and Africa with apes. But a study that attempted to establish a link between African men and the big cats that reside on that continent failed to do so. Instead, it confirmed that the association is with apes."

    The conclusion in this part of the study may simply have to do with the association of humans with apes. We are closely related. Goff's original theory may have been correct.

  23. Maybe the results came out this way not solely because of racism but because black people actually have many features which resemble apes moreso than other humans. They have dark tone, wide nose, prominent brow, and other features which are closer to various primates than are the features of asians, middle eastern people, indians, whites, and other races.

    That said, THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH HOW BLACK PEOPLE LOOK!! It is just a comparison which cannot be said or written without being looked at as racist. Because these associations were historically (and still are) used in a derogatory manner to attack black people and dehumanize them, they are very taboo and offensive.

    However, if you take an objective look at the features of black people and apes, it is hard to argue that there aren't similarities which are more striking than the features shared between apes and other races.

    Once again, I am not racist and have nothing against black people. Just because some features happen to look like a certain animal does not mean there is anything ugly or bad about the way they look. I voted for Barack Obama, I think many black people are very attractive and beautiful, and I have a number of good friends who are black. Still, I would not bring up my thoughts on this comparison to them because it would likely offend due to the historical context.

  24. @Tangerine - Your last paragraph contained a few typical disclaimers that people who have (subconscious) racial prejudices use to deny it:

    1) "I am not racist and have nothing against black people..."
    2) "I voted for Barack Obama..."
    3) "I have a number of good friends who are black..."

    See these posts:

    Which part of this beige face looks like a black person?

    Which part of this red haired body looks like a black person?

    Does this one look like a black person you know? Or a white person?

    And this one?:


    POCs in parts of the world which have had little exposure to white people will tell you that white people look like monkeys because of the body hair, pale skin on their face, and skin type because they think humans should look like them. I'm sure that's a surprise to you isn't it? I've also heard people telling me that Asians look like monkeys. What you're saying about appearance is not a fact. It is perception.

  25. Interesting post here showing that the Chinese are not averse to this either:

  26. I was actually told (this week) that I looked like 'a primate' as I was eating a banana. I'm black.

    This is definitely something that 'white people do', and commonly, too.

  27. "black people actually have many features which resemble apes moreso than other humans. They have dark tone, wide nose, prominent brow, and other features which are closer to various primates than are the features of asians, middle eastern people, indians, whites, and other races."

    Assuming you mean Africans when you talk about black people, then you are wrong about black people having more prominent brows.

    Many African groups have very small brows in comparison to many Europeans. There are some groups that have about the same size of brow as Europeans and some Europeans that have about the same size of brow as many Africans.

    I would say you could find close similarities to apes and monkeys in all humans. It may depend on which apes and monkeys you are comparing to them, though.

  28. I think you might have read the findings of Goff a little wrong. BOTH white and black people primed with ape images behave similarly. Its not just a white problem. Its a societal problem - all of us.

  29. Johnathan,

    Yeah, so? Have you noticed the title of this blog? I wonder just what it is that compelled you to point that out?

    Please refer to #9 in the commenting guidelines.

  30. What's interesting to me is that while the black = ape/monkey association increases tolerance of police brutality against blacks, I suspect a number of those same indifferent WP would be outraged if they saw the cops beating the stuffing out of a young monkey/ape the way those SeaTac deputies did to poor Malika Calhoun, a 15-year-old girl. A child. The unfairness of it all would somehow be more salient to them, less blame/suspicion involved, more good will. Also, I don't hear WP -or any group, really- associate apes or monkeys with being violent.

    The inconsistencies of this non-human primate stereotype would be laughable if its social ramifications weren't so devastating.


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