Friday, February 20, 2009

The Cartoon

One of my fourth graders let the pejorative faggot slip into a classroom discussion, and the room sort of lurched the way it does when somebody says something and no one is sure what is about to happen.

For my part, I asked the boy if he knew what that word meant. He shook his head. To him, it was a vague insult word like "fool." Some of the kids knew its more specific connotation and some didn't. So we talked about it. I introduced the word, its various old meanings, and how it is used against homosexuals. No one was chastised in this conversation. I told the lad (who was a little embarrassed) I just wanted him to know, so he could choose his words with care.

It's a matter of cultural education.

Sean Delonas, a cartoonist whose cartoons appear in the New York Post, evidently could use some cultural education himself. He has apparently passed through his adult life so far without noticing that a common racist stereotype through the history of cartooning is to depict black people as chimpanzees, gorillas, and other simians. This is why his cartoon appearing in the Post this week startled and repulsed so many readers.

You may have heard about the cartoon. I am loathe to clip it and print it here, but it shows two policeman and a chimpanzee they have just gunned down. The main reference is to a recent news story about a chimp attack: some madwoman gave her pet chimpanzee Xanax and the animal mauled one of her friends, forcing police to shoot the chimp. However, the cartoon causes the room to make that awful lurch when Delonas has one of the policeman say, "They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill."

If we give Delonas the benefit of the doubt and assume his humor was not intended to be racist, we are left to consider him tasteless and ignorant. The stimulus bill is closely identified with President Obama (who else do you think of when someone mentions it?). His image is thus evoked in a cartoon showing a chimpanzee that has been gunned down.

"Absolutely friggin' ridiculous," says Delonas in response to the immediate firestorm over the cartoon.

The Post has made more than one response to the protests, including an apology to anyone who was offended, that show either a willful sidestepping of the issue or a complete lack of cultural sensitivity. The paper insisted the cartoon was about the chimp attack in the news. When it acknowledges the reference to Obama, the Post merely says it is making fun of "an ineptly written stimulus bill."

Um, this is ignoring the elephant in the room. Or rather, the chimpanzee in the room.

It is easy to point a finger and call someone a racist. Delonas might be, but again -- benefit of the doubt. It could be a simple case of ignorance. Maybe he really doesn't understand the relationship in our history between cartoons of chimps and attacks on African-Americans, or the spectre of assassination that looms over Obama.

Other cartoons by Delonas are on the internet, and I looked at many of them. He targets gays, transgenders, celebrities and politicians he does not like, with humor that is often so juvenile I wince with embarrassment for him.

His response is to dismiss the concerns as "absolutely friggin' ridiculous." My fourth grader, on the other hand, was embarrassed but mainly grateful to know. He was lucky to get his instruction in a classroom among friends. It is time for someone close to Mr. Delonas to sit him down with some historic cartoons and give the man some background. It probably wouldn't change Delonas's sense of humor, but at least he could no longer plead ignorance.


Ji Hyang said...

Good job. There's an interview I conducted with an Open Circle teacher, who gracefully introduced her class to this learning curve as well. . Children have an innate openness and kindness, good teaching can help kids stay connected to this. This month I begin leading group in Boston Latin, around bullying. It is my sense that the interpersonal bullying in public schools is intertwined with a larger cultural shadow, we are just beginning as a nation to address. Ten points to Doug Holder, this week...

Pam said...

The stupidity of the cartoon was incomprehensible.

Elementary school is the perfect venue to (beside home) teach the kids about words and how they can hurt others.

I deal with this with my own boys as well as kids at school. "Fool" and "idiot" are words I have to deal with all the time.

Not long ago Sam and Connor were discussing the word "gay". Sam said it was always a "bad" word and meant "boys kissing boys". I have pretty naive kids. Connor corrected him and said it also can be used to talk about being "happy".

An argument ensued. I had to intervene.

Elementary kids call each other names all the time. Teaching the power of words, good or bad, seems to carry weight at this age when sensitivities seem to run so high.