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What’s So Wrong About Roseanne Barr's Tweet

Exploring the psychology behind Barr’s assumptions.

Roseanne Barr set off a media firestorm yesterday when she tweeted that former President Obama adviser, Valerie Jarrett, was a child of the “Muslim brotherhood and planet of the apes.” The response from ABC was swift—her hit sitcom was immediately cancelled—but the story has sparked a heated debate online. Most of the arguments bouncing back and forth across cyberspace today seem to boil down to one simple question: “What’s so wrong about comparing a Black woman to an ape?” To address this question, let’s look at what psychological science has to say.

But before we get to the science, let’s take a quick detour through history. To understand the context of Barr’s tweet, it is important to know that likening Black people to apes has a long, murky past. The idea that Black people were less evolved than White people, and therefore genetically closer to apes than Whites, was historically used to hide the justification of slavery and unequal rights in a cloak of science. Such “scientific racism” spread the false idea that Blacks are inherently inferior to Whites. As a result, the portrayal of Black people as apelike became an iconic representation in the 19th and early 20th century.

So when someone makes an analogy today, they are not just comparing an individual to an animal the way you would compare a woman with a long neck to a giraffe or a boy with large ears to an elephant. Comments comparing Blacks to apes cuts much, much deeper because they tap into a long, violent legacy of dehumanization and exploitation.

But that’s all in the past, right? I mean, people in modern society don’t actually think Blacks are apelike, do they? Work by psychologist Phillip Atiba Goff indicates they do. In a series of studies, he found that most Americans—liberal and conservative, White and non-White—hold an unconscious association between Black people and apes. And this isn’t just among racist people; their studies found the association existed in even the most egalitarian individuals.

So despite the 50-plus years since the Civil Rights Movement, most Americans still unconsciously associate Black people with apes. But as long as those associations stay unconscious, who really cares, right? Well, as anyone who’s read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink can tell you, the problem is that unconscious associations still affect our behavior, often in ways we don’t even realize. As Goff said himself, “Some racial associations are embedded so deeply that they are difficult to recognize, much less eradicate–and they continue to shape our behavior and ideas.”

So does the Black-ape association produce any real-world harm? Once again, let’s revisit Goff’s work. In one study, participants were shown words on a screen so quickly that they were unaware of what they saw, but their brain still processed them on an unconscious level (researchers call this technique “subliminal priming”). Half were shown ape-related words (e.g., chimp, gorilla) and the other half were shown neutral words (e.g., chair). Next, all participants watched a videotape of police officers violently subduing a suspect. Some were led to believe the suspect was White, and others were led to believe the suspect was Black. When these individuals thought the suspect in the video was White, those primed with ape words showed no difference in their judgments of police brutality. However, everything changed when they thought the suspect was Black. In that case, those primed with the ape words were more likely to think the suspect deserved the police brutality. To put it another way, the unconscious association between Blacks and apes lead to an endorsement of violence against a Black victim (but not a White victim). This tells us that the association between Blacks and apes is anything but harmless.

Interestingly, when these study participants were asked explicitly about the association between Black people and apes, not a single one reported being aware of it. So where did this association come from? Such unconscious associations likely exist because of subtle suggestions in our environment that come from jokes and comments (like Roseanne Barr's), television, movies, and magazine covers (for example, see the controversy over LeBron James’ 2008 Vogue cover photo). But wherever they come from, the point is that even though we are not consciously aware of these associations residing within us, they can still be activated outside of our awareness and subsequently guide our behavior.

This is why Roseanne Barr’s tweet is not just a joke made in poor taste. And neither are the other recent examples comparing Michelle Obama to “an ape in heels” or photoshopping a banana into a Barack Obama photo. These are insidious and harmful comments that reflect a deep history of socialized racism. But they are also more than that. Not only do they reflect racism, they perpetuate it.

Note: Parts of this post are excerpts from my chapter “Prejudice in Twilight” from the book, The Psychology of Twilight, where I discussed the historical association of Native Americans with wolves.