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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Robert Samuels: How it feels to be called a monkey

By Robert Samuels Special to the Washington Post

The first time I was called a monkey was in high school. I was groggily emerging from a nap in the auditorium during a debate tournament at Bronx Science, when a teammate sitting in front of me told his partner that black people were more likely to get AIDS because we stayed in Africa longer, hence continuing to have sex with monkeys.

The logic was so shocking that I didn’t fully believe what I overheard until my classmate looked at me and said “ooh-ooh-ahh-ahh,” mimicking the sound of a monkey. I chose to ignore it. At the time, I thought that’s what it meant to turn the other cheek. I was young.

I found myself transported back to that moment from 20 years ago on Monday, when Roseanne Barr posted – and then deleted – a tweet that compared former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett to an ape, writing “muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj.” Within hours, ABC canceled her show. News outlets unflinchingly labeled the comment “racist.” Even Barr’s co-stars on “Roseanne” forcefully denounced her comments.

Rarely does this racist trope receive such a fervent backlash. For many black people in America, being equated with a primate is a familiar smear. For me, the incident at my high school debate tournament wouldn’t be the last.

The second time was in college. I was the editor of Northwestern University’s student newspaper, and members of my newsroom created a fake edition that derided me as “Northwestern’s favorite affirmative action case.” After climbing the ranks because of my race, the fake story said, I was pleased to learn and exploit a recent discovery that I had Down syndrome. The proof, the story insinuated, was a picture that accompanied the piece – a real photo of me smiling with my mouth open while editing a story.

“It’s not like we called you a monkey or anything,” someone in my newsroom said, an attempt to justify what had happened.

I led an all-newsroom discussion about tolerance a few days later. The words were so shocking, so toxic that, as a leader, there was no other choice. I still consider that meeting to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Hours before I started, members of the publishing board had persuaded me not to resign.

The third time I was called a monkey, I was reporting on anti-Donald Trump protesters at a Trump campaign rally in Louisville, Kentucky. While police escorted the protesters out, I took notes on the crowd’s reactions. I was scribbling with such intensity that I didn’t realize one of the comments I jotted in my notebook had been directed at me: “Look at the monkey write.”

Two hands were soon on the small of my back; they were of two police officers who believed the men who told them I was a protester and didn’t believe me when I showed them my press badge and said I was a reporter for the Washington Post.

“Monkey,” someone yelled at me again.

I didn’t object as the police walked me out. I was terrified that the officer might assault me and no one in the crowd would come to my defense. It turns out that the crowd included members of a white-nationalist group, and one of them would be sued for aggressively shoving and yelling at a young black woman at the rally, an incident caught in a viral video.

I can’t forget the feeling of relief when I made it out safely and continued to report the story. To this day, the whole thing makes me feel so cowardly.

I mention these things not to draw attention to my own anecdotes, but to show the debilitating dehumanization that comes when a black person is debased to a lower life form. They happened in a city where the “East Coast liberal elite” label is worn with pride; on a college campus in the Midwest; and at a conservative rally in the South. They involved friends, and they involved strangers.

During a televised MSNBC town hall on Tuesday, Jarrett dismissed the impact Barr’s tweet had on her. She turned the focus on the casual racism that people of color experience daily.

“I’m worried about all the people out there who don’t have a circle of friends and followers who come right to their defense – the person who’s walking down the street minding their own business and they see somebody cling to their purse or run across the street,” she said.

To respond with such dignity does not mean that the words don’t hurt. None of these moments has ever fully left my mind, even when I tried. Each chipped away at my trust in other people and raised my suspicion; they made me angry and stung my self-esteem. I’m thankful that I had learned to believe in the good of man early on and that I have such a diverse support system that helps to soften the blow. I love my job because it replenishes my optimism for this country far more than it depletes it.

So I wasn’t surprised by Jarrett’s response to Barr’s comment. What did surprise me were the people who said that Roseanne’s tweet was just another part of President Trump’s America. Trump’s America is simply America, and no sliver of the country harbors sole ownership of its shortcomings or its goodness.

That response made me think about how easy it is to dilute the existence of that ever-present, insidious racism into some basic discussion of blue and red, ignoring the slights that happen before our eyes each day. How often friends and co-workers dismiss the experiences of people of color when they say that an encounter with a police officer, a boss or a stranger didn’t feel right. How often we ignore our friends and acquaintances when they traffic in hateful rhetoric because, gee, they’re good people, and words are harmless when you think about it. For people on the receiving end of that talk, those words aren’t harmless.

I get why we distance ourselves. Treating Roseanne’s comments as some unfortunate feature of some other place can provide absolution for the self and serve as an analgesic for a broken society. May we all be so lucky that everyone could one day treat them in the same way, without endangerment or deluding themselves from reality.

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