A chimpanzee in a suit. It’s a racist caricature associated with times gone by – ones we’d like to imagine we had left behind in the 20th century, a period characterised by segregation, dehumanisation and, well, comparing black people to animals. So understandably, all hell broke loose on Wednesday when the BBC Radio 5 Live presenter Danny Baker tweeted a picture of a couple with an ape descending a flight of steps, captioned: “Royal baby leaves hospital.”
Baker was sacked faster than you can say “racism”, but nonetheless claimed the tweet was misinterpreted.
“Never occurred to me because, well, mind not diseased,”
was his initial response. He later clarified that he intended it to be a gag comparing the royal family to circus animals “in posh clothes”. This defence seems like a reach to me.
But even if we give Baker the benefit of the doubt, the incident shows that a subset of the population seems to be on a different planet when it comes to conversations around race.
There’s a long, grotesque history of black people being compared to animals – one Baker should have been aware of. Although there are examples from as far back as the middle ages, there was uproar only two years ago when a West Virginia county employee called Michelle Obama an “ape in heels”.
In football – which Baker follows obsessively – the problem is endemic, raising its head in racist abuse from the stands and banana skin throwing incidents. According to a BBC report this week, black under-14s are regularly exposedto monkey chants.
How could Baker not have made the connection? As with Angela Smith’s reference to people of a “funny tinge” and Amber Rudd’s use of “coloured” to describe Diane Abbott, racial so-called blunders tend to reveal something telling about the speaker (or the tweeter).
A quick glance at his post set alarm bells ringing not only for paranoid PRs, but also for a large chunk of those online who saw it. If prominent BBC presenters continue to be ignorant of the connotations of certain images, they proceed at their own risk.
Although Baker says he would have made the joke about any child, his tweet manifestly failed to acknowledge the sensitivities surrounding this birth in particular. The royal family is a historically white, archaic institution like no other – and as a black royal, the Duchess of Sussex has received scrutiny and vilification from the rightwing and mainstream press.
There has also been fetishisation of the baby’s race, with Rachel Johnson describing Meghan’s “rich and exotic DNA” as a thickening agent to bolster the family’s “watery, thin blue blood”. Now, just 72 hours after his birth, newborn Archie, swaddled in privilege, has nevertheless been exposed to the realities of British prejudice.
This leads us to the question: has anything really changed?
While many hailed a family portrait with the Queen and Prince Philip joined by Meghan’s mother as a historic moment for black Britain, I’m sceptical. Not even those at the literal top of the pecking order seem to be shielded from crass discrimination. This baby has a lifetime to come in the public eye and, I fear, a lifetime of the lowest forms of racism too.
Written by: Micha Frazer-Carroll
Micha Frazer-Carroll is a freelance writer and opinions editor at gal-dem magazine.
First published 09.05.19: