Contextualizing Racially Charged Images

So, I think we’re all pretty familiar with the recent controversy which emerged over a photoshopped image of Michelle Obama in which her features were blended with those of an ape. The image cropped up in Google result, a fuss was raised, and a big debate about search rankings and when/if Google should step in to remove offensive results happened. Again. As it does every few years when there’s a controversy like this.

It is, of course, terrific publicity for the people who do the Google Bombing to get their results this high, which is part of the reason why I don’t normally write about these things. I figure lots of other people are, and they’re probably saying most of the things that I would say, so I don’t need to add my voice to the chorus. I certainly don’t need to draw any more attention to the matter than we already have, and would rather see these things quietly resolve themselves.

But then, I saw numerous defenses of the image cropping up, and they all followed more or less the same scheme, so I felt driven to say something, because these defensive responses really bothered me.

These defenses revolved around the “George Bush or chimpanzee” meme which was big on the web a few years ago. I’m sure many of us can remember the multitude of websites which served up images of Mr. Bush and images of chimpanzees side by side, comparing facial expressions and so forth. These sites seem less common now that Bush is out of the public eye, but I’m sure they’re still around.

So, the idea runs that because we did it to George Bush, it’s ok to do it to Michelle Obama. It’s fine to compare the First Lady to an ape by photoshopping her face because we compared the previous President to an ape with “George Bush or chimpanzee” sites, including sites which also used photoshop trickery to impose ape facial features on those of the President. Turnabout is fair play, etc.

Except that this is somewhat more complicated.

The First Lady of the United States is Black.

And that takes these images to an entirely different level. Because, you know, there’s a long history of comparing Black Americans to apes. Some folks actually believed that they were “closer” to apes than white Americans, that Black folks were some sort of “missing link.” People argued, not very long ago, that American Black folks were more prone to antisocial behaviour because they were closer to apes. Black children were called “little monkeys,” and not in an endearing, loving, teasing kind of way.

Black men were literally called apes and animals when accused of crimes. Guilty until proven innocent, and sometimes not even innocent then. Cartoons featured Black-men-as-apes; as recently as this year, the Black=ape comparison was drawn in a political cartoon and the cartoonist tried to act like it was unintentional. Like there’s no history of this sort of thing. Like it’s perfectly ok to create a racially offensive and charged political cartoon in which a Black President of the United States is depicted as an ape because, well, we don’t think that way anymore. And it’s just a cartoon. Lighten up.

Even though it’s clear that the cartoonist was playing on this racial trope. Knew, in fact, exactly what kind of message that the image was sending. People actually put “racist” in quotes when describing this image and the Michelle Obama photo, as though there was some question about whether or not these things actually were racist.

Photoshopping Michelle Obama with ape facial features is not the same as photoshopping George Bush in the same way. In the first place, Bush was a fair target because he was a political leader and he was doing some rather sketchy things. Michelle Obama is not an elected official, and while she does lead a somewhat public life, spouses of political figures are traditionally insulated from this kind of thing. (Oh, except when they are strong, powerful women who need to be cut down.)

Sure, it wasn’t exactly nice to compare him to a chimpanzee, but it does not in any way compare to referencing a Black woman as a chimpanzee. It is not at all on the same level, and people should know better than to act like it is.

Michelle Obama is a Black woman who sometimes makes people uncomfortable with her Blackness. Who is opinionated and outspoken and strong. Who, indeed, upsets people by daring to be Black in the White House, and by refusing to compromise herself to meet a white ideal of what Blackness should be.

Do you see theĀ  problem with comparing her to an ape? Given the very loaded racial history behind it? Do you see how it’s not the same, at all, when the race of the subject of the political cartooning changes? Comparing anyone to an ape is in poor taste, of course, but comparing a Black woman to an ape is a whole different issue. It’s on an entirely different level.

And this is what people are angry about. I’m astounded to see defenses of this image, because it is quite simply not ok. This image was racially charged, it had a very clear racial context, and people should not pretend otherwise. The level of ignorance required to justify the image on the grounds that “we did it to George Bush” is rather mindboggling.

We can get into an argument about whether or not search engines should censor results (I don’t think that they should), but this is a case in which it’s not appropriate to argue about whether or not the results were offensive. They quite clearly were.

3 Replies to “Contextualizing Racially Charged Images”

  1. “Photoshopping Michelle Obama with ape facial features is not the same as photoshopping George Bush in the same way. In the first place, Bush was a fair target because he was a political leader and he was doing some rather sketchy things.”

    Wait, so you think that because someone did inappropriate things as a leader that they have a right to be photoshopped into something else? What about if Michelle Obama was a political leader doing things wrong and was still photoshopped onto an ape? Would it still be racist and not-okay, or would she “have it coming to her” like Bush?

  2. Ok, there are a couple of things to break down here.

    1. It is never, ever acceptable to photoshop any political figure (or person) in a way which is racist. If that image had been of Barack Obama, I would be just as furious, because photoshopping Black folks to make them look like apes is racist. If Michelle Obama was the President of the United States, that image would not be ok. There’s no way that anyone “has [racism] coming” to them. Ever. Period. If George Bush had been Black, I would not have been ok with the “George Bush or chimpanzee” stuff. But photoshopping a white person to look like a chimpanzee does not carry the same racial overtones, at all, as I discussed above, and acting like the “George Bush or chimpanzee” stuff somehow justifies what was done to Michelle is not acceptable, which was pretty much the entire point of this post.

    2. Yes, I do draw a line between political figures and people who are not political figures. I believe that political figures are fair targets for commentary and satire, as long as that does not cross a line into racism, sexism, etc. In other words, if you can manage to critique or comment on political leaders without marginalizing and oppressing them, I say have at it. Thus, I don’t have a problem with, say, a political cartoon in which Barack Obama is depicted as a human being. I do have a problem with things which go after the Obama family, because his family members are not political leaders. They are just trying to live their lives as family members of a political leader, and that means that no, they are not fair targets. It is not fair to demand that people take on the mantle of public leadership when they did not ask for it.

  3. Wait, so you think that because someone did inappropriate things as a leader that they have a right to be photoshopped into something else?

    There is nothing in this well reasoned post which suggests anything approaching this. White folks do not have a history (in US society) as having their humanness questioned by being depicted as apes. And as white skin is privileged over dark skin, photoshopping Bush, while childish, is in know way comparable to doing the same to Michelle Obama. Bush is not a stand-in for whiteness and only represents himself. Michelle Obama, on the other hand, IS a stand-in for all Black folks, because that’s just kind of how racism works.

    White folks = Individual
    POCs – Monolith.

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