Ninna Makrinov portrait

Written by Ninna Makrinov

Organisational Psychologist with over 20 years' experience in Higher Education. Currently the Chair of Governors at Water Mill Primary School.

Someone I respect, who works in education, recently shared the sketch on a social online meeting as one of the best comedy sketches of all time. My immediate reaction was physical discomfort. It felt totally inappropriate. I strongly believe this material is racist and we need open conversations about why people still find it funny. In this blog, I share the reason for my reaction. My aim is not for you to watch the sketch (although I have added a link below), but to share some points that might help a conversation if you ever find yourself in a similar situation.

About the sketch

Gerald the Gorilla is a short sketch that portrays an interview where a white professor talks about his work on communication with a gorilla. The gorilla is a white man dressed in a gorilla suit. The gorilla acts as a human and acts as more intelligent than the professor acts. The professor dismisses every comment the gorilla makes.

My reaction

I suppose it is useful to know I am white; I was born and grew up in Chile. It is also useful to know that I have been learning about anti-racism for the last 4 years. I should also point out that I share the view that we are all racist because we live in a racist society (if you want to know more about this, explore Critical Race Theory). I am not judging the individual who shared this, but the specific choice to have shared this material. I am quite sure I might have had a different reaction to the sketch had I watched at some other point in my life. I take this as a sign we can all learn to be more sensitive to the lived experience of people of colour.

When I watched Gerald the Gorilla now I reacted with disgust and disbelief. My visceral reaction was so strong that my body ached for an hour after the meeting. Even as I was experiencing this, I doubted myself. Was the material inappropriate or was I being racist for seeing the link between a man dressed as a gorilla and a black man?

My immediate actions

I did not call the sketch out as racist during the meeting. I wish I had. But I did not. Instead, I looked shocked on camera. I also sent a message off meeting to a friend who was also there to gauge if I was overreacting. They did not see anything wrong so I downplayed my reaction and was saved by the bell, as I had to leave for another meeting.

After 1 hour, I was still uncomfortable. So I Googled: Is the sketch “Gerald the Gorilla” on “Not the Nine O’clock News” racist? I did not find a response. I learnt a little bit more about the programme. I also learnt that people seemed to agree it was very funny. This did not sit right with me.

I then contacted two other great friends who are involved in anti-racism. They both thought the content was shocking and inappropriate. I am sorry I did this, as I caused them additional pain. They both have mixed race children. But I am also glad I shared it with them, as their conviction gave me the energy to take the next steps.


Why the sketch is racist

Historically, black people have been compared to (non-human) apes. This has been used as an excuse for slavery and genocide. You can find out more in this great article on the Historical Foundations of Race by the National Museum of African American History and Culture. For a more specific example, read the article “The man who was caged in a zoo” in The Guardian.

Black people are still mocked by being called monkeys. The term ‘monkey chanting’ is defined by the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary as “rude and offensive comments shouted at a black player by white people who are watching a contest, especially a football (soccer) match.”

I am focusing my reaction on racism. As this was the most obvious to me. I also noticed homophobic and misogynist comments. I might have missed others.

Being anti-racist

The day after the incident, I took action. I posted a comment on the meeting chat. I said:

Dear all, anyone who saw my face on camera during one of the skits shared yesterday will know I was shocked. I will not explain further here. However, if you want to know more about what I felt, or just drop me a line or call. I did not raise yesterday as I did not feel comfortable about it, but I have been reflecting since and cannot leave this unsaid.

Also, if anyone else felt there was something inappropriate and would like an ally, an informal chat or even a confidential one, please let me know.“ 

This has sparked conversations. At various levels. Mostly very personal. I am glad that I felt safe to share. I also wonder if others, particularly people of colour, felt othered or directly offended; I imagine they might also have felt that they could not speak up. I hope the conversations keep going. I still have questions: What conversations do we need? How can we understand the lived experience of others? How can we be allies?

Moving forward – how can we prevent this happening (again)?

To finalise, my top ideas on what we can do to prevent situations like this:

  1.       Make a point of meeting and understanding people who are not like you, whatever ‘what you’ means to you. I have learnt a lot about how judgemental I could be through my friends. Those who don’t have the same level of education, who come from different places, who look different, who disagree with my views.
  2.   Organise conversations about race. For me, participating in the anti-racist pedagogies forum at the University of Warwick has been life changing. I have since also organised an anti-racist book club with my (white) friends. I am thinking of an anti-racist film club at work, it feels more relaxing. For those who work in Further or Higher Education, this Box of Broadcast curated list on Law, Race and Decolonisation by Dr Foluke Adebisi is a great starting point.
  3.   Ensure your organisation’s diversity policy is clear on behavioural expectations, available support and formal procedures for complaints.
  4.   Let people know that you support antiracism.
  5.   Be an active bystander, I took the step a little later than I would have wanted. I hope next time I will speak on the spot. Think back to occasions where you have acted, what happened? When you did not, what could you to when you experience something similar again?

I thought this video proves my point. You can see a family’s reaction while watching the original sketch. Spoiler alert: they were not shocked. Please beware that the contents might be sensitive (it angered me so much I wrote this blog).