Is Referring to a Black Person as an Ape Actually Racist or is it Just Mean?



    I was compelled to explore this issue after a discussion on social media. Let me start by saying that the thought that referring to a black person as an ape or a monkey seems undeniably racist to me. I had filed this assumption within my own mind as a given and common knowledge. What I found through my discussion and the subsequent research is that apparently there are those who claim no previous knowledge of the racist history of such a remark. It was wrong to assume that the racism accompanying this association is considered common knowledge within our society. 

    My task has been to research well thought out articles and rigorous studies to explore whether my assumption is correct. Is it actually racist to refer to a black person as an ape or monkey? I believe I can show that it is. Furthermore I endeavor to convince you that intent of the comment or ignorance of the racist roots of this association are irrelevant when considering the harm and not a valid defense for these racist remarks.

The History

    Comparing a human to an ape for the purposes of showing superiority dates at least back to Plato and perhaps even further. Humans were compared to apes to show that they were beneath the Gods. Through time the church denigrated the pagans by adopting this comparison. (HuffPo - You could argue that these comparisons were religious in nature and not related to race at all. However as humanity progressed and explored more of the globe, people worked to explain the differences in the people and the societies that they found. As the technology improved and eased the channels of communication, ideas were shared and theories were written to explain the origins of humanity.

    These explorations led to such works as “Method for the Easy Comprehension of History“ by Jean Bodin excerpts of this work were used in “Race in Early Modern England” ( to this extent.

Because self-control was difficult, particularly when plunging into lust, they gave themselves over to horrible excesses. Pro- miscuous coition of men and animals took place, wherefore the regions of Africa produce for us so many monsters."

    We also have Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” ( He believed that natural selection would weed out “savage races” such as the African and the native peoples of Australia (

    These works and many others helped to solidify the belief that the European, Caucasian human was far superior to the African. This helps to show that this reasoning and these beliefs have been ingrained in our society for hundreds of years. Beliefs this systemic are not easily extricated.

The Data

    Phillip Abita Goff of Pennsylvania State University performed a study in 2008 to explore the comparison of black people as apelike in our society. The study is titled "Not Yet Human: Implicit Knowledge, Historical Dehumanization, and Contemporary Consequences" and can be found here. I encourage you to read it in its entirety and review the data for yourself.

Professor Goff and his staff performed six studies to explore this issue.

Study 1: "we tested the principal hypothesis, namely that there exists an implicit association between Blacks and apes. We also examined the extent to which this association is broadly held (i.e., by both Whites and non-Whites)." (GOFF, EBERHARDT, WILLIAMS, AND JACKSON 294)

Method: Test subjects were primed with images to see if the association of black faces would increase their response rate at recognizing ape images.

Results: “Simple exposure to Black faces reduced the number of frames participants required to accu- rately identify ape images.“ (GOFF, EBERHARDT, WILLIAMS, AND JACKSON 296)

Studies 2 & 3: "we tested the bidirectional strength of this Black–ape association and investi- gated whether apes might also be associated with other non-White groups (i.e., Asians)." (GOFF, EBERHARDT, WILLIAMS, AND JACKSON 294)

Method: Test were primed with ape images and then asked to identify black, white, & asian faces to see if the the same heightened association occurred in the other direction. This part of the study also compared the difference in association with white and Asian faces.

Results: “We have clear evidence now that a Black–ape association is present and strong—exerting influence on both visual perception and attention; yet, to what might the association be attributed? We argue that the association can be driven by implicit knowledge— even in the absence of strong, anti-Black prejudice.“ (GOFF, EBERHARDT, WILLIAMS, AND JACKSON 300)

Study 4: "we argued that the Black–ape association is maintained through implicit knowledge. We docu- mented participants’ lack of explicit awareness of a Black–ape association and demonstrated that implicit attitudes about Blacks do not predict the strength of the association." (GOFF, EBERHARDT, WILLIAMS, AND JACKSON 294)

Method: Test subjects were provided word associations using stereotypical black and white names to match to culturally neutral words as well as to cats and apes. The speed and type of the associations tested the subjects’ implicit bias. They also completed a “steryotype knowledge” questionnaire to see what stereotypes they are farmiliar with.


  • “Only 9% of all respondents indicated knowledge of the stereo- type that Blacks are apelike.” 
  • “94% of present respondents who indicated being aware of the stereotype that Blacks are violent, and the 89% of respondents who indicated being aware of the stereotypes that Whites are rich and culturally insensitive.” 
  • “across four studies, we have shown that participants associate Blacks and apes.”
  • “the Black–ape association functions without the benefit of explicit cultural knowledge of the association.” 


Studies 5 & 6: "we demonstrated that this dehumanizing association is linked to dire outcomes in criminal justice contexts."  (GOFF, EBERHARDT, WILLIAMS, AND JACKSON 294)

Method: Test subjects were again primed with ape images and then asked to react to the justification of a criminal beating when they thought the suspect was black. Also, criminal case studies were examined for apelike representations in the text and those cases were evaluated to see if those associations were more strongly tied to sentences of death. 


  • “Study 5 demonstrates that the Black–ape association can alter participants’ judgments about violence against a Black target.” (GOFF, EBERHARDT, WILLIAMS, AND JACKSON 302)
  • “apelike representations were associated with the most profound outcome of intergroup dehu-manization: death.” (GOFF, EBERHARDT, WILLIAMS, AND JACKSON 304)

    This study and its findings are a compelling argument for how strongly the black-ape association is ingrained in our culture. I hope that you can also see how the implicit comparison can be made without malice and how even that comparison is damaging to our society and dangerous for black people in our communities.


    I would like to add another reference for consideration. That reference is the definition of racism from Merriam-Webster:

"a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race" 

    One question faced today is whether racism requires the explicit belief that race determines the inherent superiority of a people. Through the historical references and data I have provided I would argue that the explicit belief is not required and that the implicit bias is also damaging to our society and dangerous for our black neighbors. This does not mean that I argue to label those who have made a racist comment or post online as racist individuals. I call this out to show how careful we all need to be as we work against the hundreds if not thousands of years that have conditioned our society with this bias.

    As a father of young children I would like to draw a parallel to explain my position in not labeling people as racist. When my child does something that we would call “bad” it does not mean that we look at our child and tell them that they are a bad person. We are clear to help them understand that they made a bad choice and that what they did may have been bad but that does not make them bad overall. This is the way I see the labels of racist and racism. An individual may make a comment invoking an ingrained bias without conscience knowledge or intent of implying superiority over another individual based on race. However, if this action did pull from an implicit bias and is seen as racist and damaging to another person then it needs to be addressed. Could the offended party be too sensitive or completely wrong regarding the bias whether it is implicit or explicit? Of course they can. This is where a conversation is required as well as empathy from both sides to realize that perhaps the reference made could offend some and should be avoided in the future. Conversely it may mean that the person who was offended needs to back off and call off the witch hunt.

    No matter the intent or the implicit bias we all need to work together against the racial bias ingrained in our society. It was not wiped away by affirmative action. Aside from holding each other accountable for intended or unintended offenses we also need to realize that humor sometimes masks the support of the implicit bias. The defense that you have black friends and that you make racial jokes aimed at each other in good fun is not a defense. I would argue that if you claim you are not a racist by referencing your black friends then you are trying too hard and need to rethink your position. Your black friend may see it as “all in good fun” when you call him an ape after he calls you a cracker. However, you have to realize that you just bolstered a bias that is centuries old and all he did was make a small chip against the age-old pillar of white supremacy that has led us to this point. There is a big difference. You may also be strengthening your own bias which could come into play if you are called to jury duty sometime in the future and hold the life of a black peer in your hand as you deliberate whether or not they deserve the death penalty. 

"We want to dress like, talk like, dance like yet we just stand by. We take all we want from black culture but will we show up for black lives?" - MACKLEMORE & RYAN LEWIS FEAT. JAMILA WOODS - WHITE PRIVILEGE II