February 08, 2020
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Why 'Monkey' Is Racist

Inequity and oppression is a two-way street, Indians should know that

Why 'Monkey' Is Racist
Why 'Monkey' Is Racist
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Indians, worshippers of man and beast, things live and lifeless, have been asking in strident a voice: "Is calling someone a monkey a racial insult?" Indians can do with a quick course on race relations. They must understand that you cannot call a person of African stock 'monkey' and expect no outrage. As Mike Marqusee explains, "Calling Africans monkeys is placing them on a lower rung of the evolutionary ladder, associating them with the primitive and sub-human," he says. "By the way, in Britain the monkey insult is also used against people of South Asian descent."

"It's often an insult, highly offensive to a black man, that he's come from the trees," Australian cricket writer Mike Coward adds. "Symonds is half-Caribbean, of African stock. It might not be very obvious that he's black, but that's his ethnicity. So it was an insult, a racial one, if he perceived that he was being called a monkey."

Marqusee believes the monkey chants aimed at Symonds by sections of the crowd during the India tour last year were clearly derogatory. "Symonds and others made amply clear that deriding people of African descent as monkeys was racist, unacceptable," he says.

Symonds, it is learnt, had spoken to the Indian players then and the matter ended, or so he thought. "The reason Ponting took it straight to the authorities at Sydney was that he believed it was again a lapse by Harbhajan, though indeed it was Symonds who provoked Harbhajan by needling him," Coward says. And by the Sydney Test, Marqusee points out, there was no good excuse for Harbhajan to not know that the insult was racist and out of bounds, especially as he's played so much cricket in England, where the "monkey chants aimed at black footballers are widely known and condemned".

In the event, the charge against Harbhajan did not hold...there was no evidence. But there are lessons to be learnt, not only for Harbhajan, on why playful words become insults across seas and among nations sharing a past of inequity and oppression.
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