Associations of black people with monkeys and apes have been used for centuries to make them seem less-than-human and justify hatred and exploitation.  This associations continue to be propagated (e,g., here, here, and here).  This week Costco pulled the black “Lil’ Monkey” baby doll from its shelves, along with its white “Pretty Panda” counterpart, as a result of protests that it was racist.

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As you can see, the black doll has on a hat that says “lil’ monkey,” is surrounded by products that have monkeys on them, as well as a stuffed monkey.  A peeled banana points at the child’s mouth.

Here is the white counterpart, the “Pretty Panda” doll:

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The manufacturer of the dolls is claiming that there was no intention to be racist.  Specifically, they argued:

We don’t think in that way. We don’t operate in that kind of thinking.

Social psychologists have shown, robustly, that any given member of a society, even those who are the target of negative stereotypes, will hold pre-conscious stereotypical beliefs common in that society.  (If you’d like to test your own unconscious biases, and see aggregate test results of others, I highly recommend Harvard’s Project Implicit.)

The fact that we are all racist already, whether we like it or not, is the point that the manufacturer completely misses.  They do think in that way.  We all do.  Not thinking in that way consciously doesn’t mean that racism didn’t play a role in the manufacturing of a black Lil’ Monkey doll.  In fact, their defense actually makes things worse.  Their refusal to think about racism, in favor of a defensive reaction, is as racist as the doll itself.  We can’t fight racism unless we’re prepared to admit that we hold unconscious biases.

By the way, in my opinion, the proper response should have been: “Oh hell, we messed up bad. You are absolutely right. We are really bleeping sorry,” but with stronger curse words. And also: “Can I say I’m sorry again? In addition to racist, we were profoundly insensitive to centuries of violent hatred… and it is simply not okay.”

UPDATE: Commenters alerted me to alternative media coverage that made it clear that “Pretty Panda” and “Lil’ Monkey” dolls both came in black, white, and “Hispanic”:

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I’m not sure why none of the media coverage I came across noted this.

In any case, I think this raises an even more interesting question: Does the history of associating black people with primates, and I will refer you again to this post, actually make any product that does so problematic?  Does the fact that the doll comes in white and Hispanic erase any concerns about the fact that the black doll exists?

As usual, our readers are quick to ask difficult questions and this discussion is already well under way in the comments.  What do you think?

Images from here, here, and here, via Resist Racism.

UPDATE: Comments on this post have been closed.

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Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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