There was a girl in my class who looked like a monkey. She had highly mobile, flexible lips. The fine hairs on her face were vaguely reminiscent of something animal. Even though her face was pretty narrow and her cheeks were not overly fleshy, there was something, well, monkey-like about it. She was not an unattractive person – vivid brown eyes, long dark hair – but the hard wiring of my brain always said ‘monkey’ whenever she was around.
There’s nothing wrong with this type of hard wiring. There are theories that such casual groupings and distinct first impressions are how we identify and associate experiences with words. How else can you tell that this dog, which you can see and touch and feel, is in some way similar to some other dog you may encounter at some future date? How else do you know that a tomato is not an apple, if not by such proprietary groupings? The problem comes when such distinctions and identifications become stereotypes and stigmas. No one wants to be known as a dirty monkeyface.
Still, sometimes politics causes the protection of individual or group rights to go too far. Take Wal-mart’s decision to take a Mexican comic book off their shelves. Yes, the hero’s physical features may seem derogatory to African Americans, because the main character emphasizes and embodies certain negative physical stereotypes about African Americans. Still, I’m not sure this is a bad thing. The character is, after all, a hero. Wouldn’t the embodiment of negative stereotypes shown in a positive light help to dismantle some of the negativity surrounding those stereotypes? Isn’t that the empowering tragedy of many of the best superheros? That despite misfortune, loss, horrible scarring, mutations, and ugliness, they can still do good and be good? I don’t mean go Pollyanna, but it seems like a Mexican cartoon icon could have had a positive impact on the American public if he had been allowed to stay on the shelves.