The Inertia Senior Contributor
An Otis Carey still from Satan Surfs.  If Satan surfs as well as Otis, hell will be a great show.

An Otis Carey still from Satan Surfs. If Satan surfs as well as Otis, hell will be a great show.

The Inertia

When I logged on to Facebook yesterday, it was brought to my attention that surf scribe Nathan Myers had written a very bad line in a story about Otis Carey in the latest edition of Australian Surfing Life. We’ve all strung together the occasional howler (myself included), and Myer’s bone-headed sentence was not even the worst that will show up in the surf media this year. Unfortunately for him, it provoked a special ire because it was deemed racist. The liberal media the world over, smelling a chance for the righteous outrage that they so relish, began to circle and by evening London time no less than the Guardian had picked up the story and the slavering narcissists on its comment boards were snarling over who could make the most pious condemnation. Here’s the sentence in all its horrific glory:

“With his apeish face and cowering hair-curtains, I expect little more than Cro-Magnon grunts from his mouth. I am caught off guard by the clarity and eloquence of his speech.”

This is an awful sentence in just about every way imaginable. And, to be fair, Australia Surfing Life has issued an unreserved apology on the matter. It’s sincere. The question is: should we condemn it as racist? I don’t know Myers, so I can’t speak for his character or his beliefs, but I’m familiar with his work and most of it is miles better than this. In fact, from what I’ve read, even the rest of the story is miles better than this. Whatever else it may be, it’s not, in my opinion, the work of a “racist.” It’s the work of a man who made a terrible, but honest mistake – in other words, Myers wrote something racist by accident.

On the face of it, this sounds ridiculous, but it’s much more common than you might think. Language is laced with derogatory descriptions and when we deal with those unlike us, they tend to come out even when there is no derogatory intent. Words like “mulatto” and “half-caste” to describe people of mixed racial descent are, for instance, still regularly employed by well meaning, if slightly oblivious people.

Furthermore, there are no rules other than long and often-obscure histories to dictate which words are part of polite vernacular and which words are inherently insulting. Here’s an example: I have a general belief bordering on prejudice that an aquiline nose – a la Patrick Rafter – is a common facial feature of white Australian men. Like the term apeish, aquiline is an animal reference, deriving from the latin aquila, for eagle. If I used it to describe a white Australian, as in “beads of water dripped off of Joel Parkinson’s aquiline nose,” there wouldn’t be anything particularly un-kosher about it. Why is it that one type of person can be compared implicitly to an animal while another cannot?

The answer to that lies in the history of language, literature, symbolism and indeed, the very idea of knowledge. Comparing people’s facial features to apes has a well documented history which hit its high water mark the pictographic racial hierarchies that were considered hard science in the 19th and early 20th centuries. These hierarchies typically showed a series of faces or skulls ranked according to erroneous notions of evolutionary development. At the pinnacle sat faces pulled from classical Greek sculptures that were then considered to hold the key to ideal facial symmetry and, therefore, beauty. Western Europeans and Nordic people came next, followed by Spaniards and other continental Europeans, and so on and so forth until, at the bottom, sat an African face just above that of an ape. Such hierarchies and the beliefs they purported to prove were used to justify the horrors of slavery, the colonization of Africa, and Jim Crowe, among many others. In the case of Australia, the supposed un-evolved, or ape-like state of the aborigines was used to rationalize government sponsored extermination which officially lasted in various iterations until the 1970’s when the last programs to remove aboriginal children from their birth parents were abolished.

Interestingly, these hierarchies were also used to show the supposed degeneracy of certain groups of what we now consider “white” people, like Eastern Europeans and the Irish.

Myers obviously didn’t know about the history of using the word “ape” to describe black people, or I would guess, any people. If he had known he wouldn’t have written it. The very proof that his statement has no racist intent lurking behind it is it’s spectacular racism. I mean, it fits almost word for word with the classic Chris Rock sketch about what white people say about educated Blacks: “He speaks so well!

It is an ignorant statement and an oblivious statement, but not, after all, a dangerous one. Real racists who write for wide audiences – and there are plenty of them – would not be caught dead making that kind of comparison because it’s too un-politically correct. Real racism in the 21st century hides in plain sight, behind terms like “up-and-coming neighborhood” and “thug.”

The real sin that Myers committed was not trying to sell anyone on a false argument about the inferiority of a certain type of person – which is essentially what all racism amounts to. His sin was simple negligence. He wrote about a man of Aboriginal descent without doing his homework on the ways in which such people have been described in the past. In doing so he fell into an old trap without realizing it: when describing something unfamiliar, he used a lazy, short-hand sketch instead of what his eyes actually saw. Just look at Carey. I mean, really look at him: he doesn’t look like an ape in any way shape or form. Yes, he has heavy brow which could be called “apeish” but it could also just be called a heavy brow, a strong brow, or a brow you could break rocks over.

I am not suggesting for a moment that Myers is a lazy writer. But he wrote a lazy sentence and it just happened to be about a very sensitive subject. Although it’s natural to feel viscerally offended by his words, it’s important to keep in mind that he thinks enough of Carey to feature him in his surf film, to put him in an article for a large surfing publication and write positive things about him. Myers has given a lot to surfing, and if we really want our culture to grow and progress for people of all descents and backgrounds, we need to allow for some of these types of blunders as we take nervous, faltering steps into a more racially mixed future.

  • Andrew Bennett

    That’s dude’s white and he looks like an ape. So we can’t even call white people apes now? People need to lighten up.

    • Brandt

      This is tricky. We’ve gotten to the point where we can inject “racist intent” even into the most innocent of statements. It’s like a game we are actively playing now. For example, would it be racist to say that a surfer “is a slave to the ocean”? Based on the actual intent of the statement, no way. It is just a statement that doesn’t need to get everybody up in arms about the history of slavery and actually de-personifies the word. So perhaps, we should allow somebody to compare an individual’s features to that of an animal (one we are 98% identical to based on DNA, mind you) without assuming that the writer means to attach all of the meanings that the rest of society likes to hold on to due to ignorance. Yeah, the situation can be avoided all together and it’s a dangerous line to tread, but honestly, if we would grow up a little, this really shouldn’t bother people- it seems people actually WANT it to bother people. In reality, we all look pretty damn similar to apes compared to any other animal. If we still deem a comparison racist based on the notions of those who existed hundreds of years before us, then we really have some maturing to do. Go ahead and a call me apeish- I’d consider it a compliment to my evolutionary roots.

      • Trogan Fan

        you know you didn’t actually evolve straight from an ape, right? And get real – if you’re an aboriginal and someone says you look like an ape, it’s not cool, no matter how stupid the other guy is. Now, technically, the article probably wasn’t “racist” as that word is actually defined, f uc k if it wasn’t stupid.

        • Brandt

          I guess that would depend on your definition of “straight from”… But there is certainly a lineage to the great apes from humans, and a very recent one in regards to an evolutionary timeline. And yes I agree, this could have definitely been avoided by a different word choice or comparison, but I still maintain the fact that we are overly sensitive to these issues today. If you’re going to hold anyone responsible, hold the author responsible, not the society that existed hundreds of years ago. We should be beyond that by now. We should be adult enough to see a word and not immediately assume the worst. I still say we all look like damn monkeys.

          • Stu Azole

            no, it actually wouldn’t. Humans share common ancestry with today’s apes, but humans were never apes themselves. So, before you feel so proud about your ape heritage, you may want to go back and study basic evolution. But you’re correct, the author should be held responsible. He and his mag were the dopes who allowed this to go to print.

          • Brandt

            when did I ever claim that humans were apes at one point? Simply stating that we did, yes, evolve from that lineage. Same team. But you’re probably right about me needing to go back and study basic evolution- the 4 years spent on earning a degree in said field hopefully has given me at least a juvenile grasp on “basic evolution”. But then again, degrees don’t mean much these days do they? The tangent this has lead to is more hilarious than the initial argument.

          • Stu Azole

            LOL, you’ve got a degree in evolution? Let me guess, SDSU?

    • Elizabeth Henderson

      He’s an Aboriginal man from the Bundjalung and Gumbaynggirr peoples of northern NSW. He’s not a “white dude” and he doesn’t look like a primate – he looks like a human being.

      • Andrew Bennett

        Humans are primates, so in looking like a human being he looks like a primate.

        • Elizabeth Henderson

          That’s the kind of response I’d expect of a primary school student.

          There’s probably no greater slur that anyone can level at people of colour than to call them an ape or monkey. It has nothing like the same impact when levelled at a white person. You’re just repeating the slur at him yourself.

  • Chuck Allison

    English is such a complex language , it’s actually amazing that people don’t screw it up more often. Mistakes happen, this seems like a case of the brain not being firmly connected to the output device .

    • Gorik Badinskas

      Wow! English must really be a complex language, it almost seems to me you’re calling the writer… dumb?

      BTW, how many languages do you know or speak?

      • Chuck Allison

        Actually, I speak /use three in my job and daily life……but, since I learned English as my first , it wasn’t that hard to learn. So maybe I was calling the writer dumb. Question now is which writer was I referring to?

        • Gorik Badinskas

          Of the languages I know, English is by far the easiest and less intricate, so I have no idea what’s your point there.
          What I do know is that only a really dumb “person” wouldn’t be aware of the racist connotations of calling a black/coloured/aborigine a monkey. The fact that he is American (US) only makes it worse with it’s well documented racial segregation and history. Endo trying to sell us the “lazy” argument is trying to pass us as the dumb ones if he thinks we’re going to buy in to that…

          • coldgreenwaves

            psst……otis isnt black.

          • rod

            do you know otis

  • glenn woods.

    What’s important to learn from this story is that we often take these short cuts in describing someones looks or behaviour not so much from ignorance but from lack of awareness about what we have been socialised to think and feel about so-calked race and difference. If we are going to collectively and thoroughly change this we need to be able to move from saying “”hey your a racist, that’s bad” to saying “wow that was actually a thought or statement based on racist ideas – what made me say that”

  • Gorik Badinskas

    Man… I’m impressed!

    I think Hitler could’ve done with someone like you writing his biography. You are such a good writer it would really come in handy having you in one’s corner, I’m sure you could’ve reduced the whole WW2 to “accidental”.

    A little off, you might say, comparing Myers to Hitler?

    Shit, I was oblivious to the implications of that, sorry, my bad. Also bad because you’re obviously of Japanese descent (name), but then again you guys (see what I did there?) were his allies in WW2… I’m sure you’ll excuse my “honest mistake”.

    Of course I could also say that you are protecting a fellow colleague, but that would be speculative of me, much like your speculation as to how sincere Surfing Life’s apology is or how narcissists people posting comments on Guardian are.
    See, we can pretty much use the language, even one’s statements against himself.

    If Nathan Myers is oblivious to the “…history of using the word “ape” to describe black people” or a lot of non-(pure)white people, he shouldn’t be allowed to write anything in Media, it’s a bit like putting someone without a driving license driving a bus full of people.

    Hell, my kids would be better suited to writing for media than him, and they are 10-14 yrs…
    Hell over, his Mamma should be the one being crucified here for not having taught him why it’s not right to use certain words to describe people.

    What really astounded me was the fact that not only he didn’t realize the implications of his use of words, but the fact that it went through revision (?) and editorial scrutiny and absolutely no soul thought that would be sensitive material.

    In resume, we need less “negligent”, oblivious, lazy and yes, abusive people in Surf Media, but that would probably imply shutting down all rags…

    P.S. Congrats on writing about this, as most Surf Media (oh, the surprise!) has chosen to ignore this one.

    • Surfing Tongan


  • Trogan Fan

    So it’s all good if the writer is too stupid to understand he’s a racist? Only in surfing.

  • Ryan Kuja

    You make some good and interesting points, but in many ways miss a key factor in what racism is today in the West. It is covert, hidden racism. It comes from the very people who say “I have three black friends,” and “there is no race only the human race,” and “I am color blind.” These statements speak to the unconscious level with which structural, systemic racism is integrated into the pscyhes of those who have privilege: white people, like me. Racism is built into the very fabric of the society of places like North American and Australia. These countries were built on the shoulders of racist tenets. While I appreciate some of what the author is trying to say, it simply lets Nathan Meyers, and all the rest of us, off the hook.
    “Why is it that one type of person can be compared implicitly to an animal while another cannot? The answer to that lies in the history of language, literature, symbolism and indeed, the very idea of knowledge.” No, the answer lies not somewhere propositional, or immaterial; it lies in the here and now of today. It lies in the fact that the beneficiaries of racism-white people-continue to benefit from it even now. Racism is not a thing of the past. The main issues is not the beligerant, cruel, outardly violent acts of white supremacists, thought that is indeed vile and atrocious. The sadder, more insidious element to racism is that it is alive in well in so many of us, and we are not aware of it. It is so deeply ingrained within that we have ceased recognizing it. The racialization of society (Australia or here in the USA) creates the context for a guy like Nathan Meyers to write extremely racist words–without even knowing it. That is a sad state of affairs. Letting him off the hook by saying “Oh, he didnt mean it” simply disengages from the conversation. Someone paid a price for those words, regardless of his intention. I am not in any way scapegoating Nathan Meyers, as I am as guilty as he. Issues like this of covert, systemic racism are an invitation for us to engage in hard, uncomfortable conversations about what it means to live in a racialized society and begin doing the hard inner work of grappling with difficult questions.

    • Daniel Schoeman

      Mate, you ever been to China, Japan or Korea?

    • Surfing Tongan

      I agree. This is an opportunity for engagement with the difficult conversation. Surfing culture will not grow or progress by ‘allowing’ blunders but by engaging with them, letting them be called out and acknowledged.

  • Ryan Kuja

    true words…well said

  • Jim

    There is a distinct difference between racist and a prejudice perception! Seems like most journo’s have a knee jerked assumption for the racist tag to garner interest. In this day ‘n age racist & sexist is done, for most part everyone has equal rights or opportunities so its time to drop the sensitivity to a stereo typing. Gee I think Myers gives a great insight into breaking down preconception of how, what & who we regard as a representative of colour, creed or religion…good on him on being refreshing, f*&% the rest for being ubre hyper politically correct about creating sensational spin about nothing.

  • coldgreenwaves

    Sorry to be the purveyor of truth here but there is nothing racist about “apeish features’. Simply an adjective in this context. In fact to suggest that simply using the word apeish denotes racism is a much clearer example of racism than its use in the first place! Common sense is the most lamentable sacrifice at the alter of political correctness.

    • Trogan Fan

      LOL. Right. It wasn’t just apeish, but also that he expected grunts from the cro-magnun (he really meant neanderthal, but was too stupid to know it).

      • coldgreenwaves

        Please reveal your racism by explaining how neanderthal, cro-magnon or even caveman are racial slurs

    • uncleaina

      Google images of “Obama Ape” and tell me if any of them look defamatory or insulting. No, no, it’s just smart people like you pointing out how we all evolved from apes. Your kids look ape-ish, btw. And your mom.

      • coldgreenwaves

        Smart people like me? WTF do your Obama ape images have to do with anything? I never pointed out that we evolved from apes that is your conjecture. My point which I will restate again is that to describe someone as apish is not racist. If you are drawing a connection between apes and race you sir are a RACIST! By the way Otis would be considered a white dude by anybody not trying to earn a percentage of his $200K lawsuit or using this bullshit to further their racial agenda.

  • Trogan Fan

    If I don’t know better, is it ok to say Teddy looks like a power plug?

  • HB

    I’m surprised that your article and the apology in ASL focus solely on one word. And your argument goes into justifying the erroneous use of that word, which would inherently be racist. You are wrong. The word is not inherently racist, not more than aquiline. Nigger, mulatto, Jap, kike, cracker, etc… are inherently racist. Here, the sentence compares, in meaning, not in vocabulary, a person to a large monkey and to a prehistoric man without so much as the gift of knowledge. So it is the meaning of the sentence as a whole, and thus its intent, that is hateful. Not an accidental use of a word.
    Furthermore, it serves to show the correlation between absolute imbecility, ignorance and offensive racism. Cro-Magnon is basically the caucasian type. So much for a grunt.
    I am appalled that you would go through so much effort to argue and defend something inexcusable. Perhaps that’s showing how deeply ingrained racism is, that it will always have people to shrug it off as just a silly mistake, when that mistake has caused more violent deaths and abuses than any other factor. I will not be reading your publication anymore.

  • Raul Quintanilha Messias

    Absolutely appalled that you took time to defend SL and Mr myers lame excuses. I pity you

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