For Parents and Educators: Monkeys and Anti-Blackness

I’ve recently has another parent ask me about how to talk to their school about Blacks, and non-human simians. I’ve been gathering ideas and information for years, but it’s more about representation in media rather than practical applications in schools. So, I had to give this some thought. This is what I’ve come up with to get started.

This equation between Blacks and apes has been around for such a long time (hundreds of years) that many of us, Black, Latine/x, White and Asian American, will ‘tease’ a Black person about being or looking like an ape or gorilla without fully understanding the implications of what is being said. Many simply don’t know that people of African descent have, through scientific racism, been equated with simians. We don’t have to know this history or be consciously aware of this bias to know that somewhere deep in our mind, we think that ‘Blacks are apelike’. Thinking this doesn’t make us racist, but it should make us aware of the systemic ways racism is built into our culture through our language (see ‘monkey chanting’), our jokes, the books we read, and the movies we watch.

There are, of course, long term consequences for this bias. Associating humans with animals is dehumanizing to Black people. It’s a unique form of anti-Blackness. When we take away someone’s humanity, we take away their moral value as humans. We believe they have lower cognitive ability. And, because of the physical size of gorillas and apes, we assume they have greater than human strength. AI (which is programmed by humans) on Google (2015) and Facebook (2021) has confused Black skin with apes and monkeys.

This bias is certainly a source of intergenerational trauma that lives in the DNA of both the oppressed and the oppressor. In the oppressed, this trauma can lead to long term stress related illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure. These are the same diseases that left people more prone to long term effects of Covid. It wasn’t that Black people had a different immune system, but it was because of intergenerational trauma wearing on bodily systems.

Whether we’re consciously associating Blacks with non-human simians or not, because we have these dehumanizing thoughts in the back of our mind, we are afraid of Black people. Black children are more likely to be suspended in school, Blacks will face stiffer sentencing in the courts, Black girls will be adultified and sexualized. And, we’ll be to likely to agree that police are justified in shooting and killing Blacks. Look for some of the research by Jennifer Eberhardt and/or Phillip Atiba Goff.

Even though they play a role in perpetuating this equating between Blacks and non-human simians, we have to change these images, but we can’t stop there. It’s about more than Grumpy Monkey, Curious George, and Monkey With a Toolbelt, and Mr. Monkey. It’s about way more than the books.

Studies show that Blacks are much more aware of race and racism than White people. I’m sure there are several reasons for this, the most basic being that White people haven’t had to be aware of it. Even now, as race awareness grows, schools, teachers and parents, mostly white parents but Black parents too, resist talking about race.  Those who do have conversations about race, prejudice, or bias with their children tend to wait until they think their child is old enough to understand race. The thing is, though, the children began to see race as early as 6 months. As a result, they will formulate their own ideas. Children are smart little sponges! They pick up what they see and hear around them. When a television show, and a relative make the same off-hand remark about a Black person, whether it be in jest or not, the child will pick up that belief. So, the unconscious bias continues. Read them some Monkey Not Ready for Kindergarten and imagine the messaging they’ll pick up.

It can be hard for parents or teachers to have conversations with children that they themselves have never had but, you know what? It’s an incredibly rich experience when adults and children learn together. It’s OK if an adult says to a child, ‘I don’t know either, let’s find out’.  There’s so much information available at our fingertips on these phones we carry all the time: call or email someone to arrange a conversation; search the Internet to find anit-racist action kits, books, things to say, strategies, or listings of local resources, some that are uniquely created for educators.

And, in doing this you will learn about all the anti-Black myths and stereotypes and the books, movies, songs, and words that perpetuate them. Trust me, I know it’s not easy to realize I’ve been doing something wrong for a long time, but I really enjoy understanding what was wrong with what I had been doing and learning a better way, especially when others benefit.

Here are some resources to help along the way.

In case you’re wondering if people really to call Black people ‘monkeys

LA City Council president resigns after she was caught on tape calling the Black son of a fellow Democratic politician a ‘monkey’

Connecticut Democrats Forced to Remove ‘Racist’ Tweet Portraying Black Republican Congressional Candidate as Monkey ‘Curious George’

Michigan school suspends teacher for worksheet comparing Obama to monkeys

Facebook’s algorithm misrepresents blacks and monkeys

Reagan Called Africans ‘Monkeys’ in Call with Nixon, Tape Reveals

White News Anchor Apologizes After Saying Black Co-Host Looks Like Gorilla

The Racist Trope That Won’t Die


Monkey chanting

Porch monkey

Alligator Bait

Songs and Games with racialized histories

Five Little Monkeys

You Might Be Left With Silence When You’re Done”; The White Fear of Taking Racist Songs Out of Music Education

Top Ten Children’s Songs With Racist Origins

Helpful Research

Sullivan, J, L. Wilton and E. P. Apfelbaum. (2020) Adults delay conversations about race because they underestimate children’s processing of race. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication.

Campbell, E. (2019) Monkeys: Racist imagery associating simians with Black people has a long history. School Library Journal.

Goff, P. A., Jackson, M. C., Di Leone, B. A. L., Culotta, C. M., & DiTomasso, N. A. (2014). The essence of innocence: consequences of dehumanizing Black children. Journal of personality and social psychology106(4), 526.

Jacobs, T. (2020) Study confirms unconscious linking of Blacks with apes. Pacific Standard.

Book Evaluation Tools

What to do until Utopia arrives: guidelines to evaluate the treatment of gay themes in children’s and YA literature. (1976). Wilson Library Bulletin50, 532–534.

Breslin, Amy K.; Dahlen, Sarah Park; Kwisnek, Kristen; & Leathersich, Becky. (2021). APALA rubric to evaluate Asian American and Pacific Islander youth literature

Council on Interrracial Books for Children. (1980) 10 Quick Ways to Analyze Children’s books for Racism and Sexism.

Derman-Sparks, L. (2016). Guide for selecting anti-bias children’s books. Teaching for Change Books.

Hussain, A. and Aleem, M. (2022) Evaluating Muslims in Kidlit: A Guide for Librarians, Educators, and Reviewers. Hijabi Librarians Blog.

Jimenez, L. (2016) Represenations in graphic novels. Booktoss Blog.

Nasatir, D. and E. Horn. (2003) Addressing disability as a part of diverstiy through classroom children’s literature. Young Exceptional Children. 6(4). 2-10.

Reese, D. (2019) Choosing excellent children’s books by and about American Indians. Embrace Race.

One thought on “For Parents and Educators: Monkeys and Anti-Blackness

  1. This is SO IMPORTANT for teachers and librarians to understand. Parents too. I saw that someone in the family had gotten Grumpy Monkey as a gift and I felt so disappointed. Since reading about this connection a few years ago, I’ve stopped using any books depicting monkeys in human ways at storytime, and cut out any and all rhymes and songs that feature monkeys. There are so many great books and songs that it hasn’t affected the quality of my storytimes one bit.


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