Last week, the wholesale giant Costco issued an apology for selling a Black doll cuddling a stuffed monkey with the label “Lil Monkey” on the doll’s hat. That effort has done little, though, to quiet the anger and frustration of Black customers still deeply offended by the words on the doll’s outfit and packaging.
Viral e-mail chains complaining about the doll – some even calling for a boycott of the Washington-based company – have been making their way around the Web and into inboxes.
“I can’t believe this,” wrote one self-declared former Costco customer who forwarded the e-mail and photos of the doll to her e-mail listserv. “Well, I will go and see for myself and then cancel my membership. Wow, I can’t believe what companies think they can get away with. Hidden racism.”
In its damage-control attempt, the company claims it was a simple oversight. "We are sensitive to any complaint that a product we carry would cause discomfort to any segment of our membership," said Costco CEO Jim Sinegal in an official press release. "As soon as it became clear to us that this toy item was offensive to some of our members, we decided to remove it from our warehouses. We don't believe there is room for argument in matters of this type, even though it was an honest mistake, made while we were attempting to do the right thing."
What was the right thing Costco was attempting to do? The Lil' Monkey doll has a White counterpart cuddling a panda. Her name is "Pretty Panda."
What’s worse than Costco selling a doll many of its Black customers find insulting is the fact that the company’s decision comes off as completely thoughtless and provocative.
The association of Black people with monkeys, apes and gorillas over the years – sometimes subtle, other times bold – has been widespread and frequent. You can find examples everywhere: in pop culture, the media, our collective imagination and in many corners of art and the academy. Any pairing of the two immediately arouses racist suspicion or discomfort. So Costco's explanation defending its decision appears disingenuous at best and dishonest at worst to its Black customers.
Black children ingest critical perceptions of race in their formative years. One of the most-quoted research findings on race is psychologist Kenneth Clark’s 1954 study that proved an overwhelming number of his subjects – all Black children – chose White dolls over Black dolls when asked which they preferred. The study’s findings were used to help argue Thurgood Marshall’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case. Looking past this oft-repeated truism and not recognizing the potential psychological damage a doll like this could affect makes Costco appear even more clueless.
Only about a month ago, during the Gates-Crowley-Obama drama, the whole country was embroiled in a conversation about race. One hot topic was the Boston cop who in an e-mail described Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates as a “banana-eating jungle monkey.” That story was followed by a number of commentaries detailing the racist history of equating Black people to primates. Did Costco miss out on this conversation, too?
"In order to make this into yet another "teachable moment," let's ask ourselves this question: Why didn't someone notice that it might be offensive to refer to a Black baby as a "lil' monkey?" Syracuse University professor Boyce Watkins suggests, “One possibility is that the company does not truly embrace diversity in its management ranks, leading to incredibly flawed and insensitive upper level decisions. So, the individuals deciding how to produce, market, finance and distribute this product could be, as with many corporations, completely ignorant about how to do business with other ethnic groups.”
As messed up as that is, let’s hope this is the case.
But even if it is, Costco still has some making up to do with its Black customers. From all indications, this controversy won’t just simmer down as many cases like this do. As more e-mail forwards land in more customers’ inboxes so grows the disappointment with the popular retailer. There is no organized campaign around the “Lil Monkey” yet, but dissatisfaction with the company is high and growing. Costco’s half-hearted apology has not connected with Black customers still scratching their heads trying to figure out how an error like this could happen in America in 2009.
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