Okay, so if you follow me on Twitter you may be aware that I was invited to a fancy dress party aimed at helping the environment. The theme was, naturally, the jungle. Needless to say, I was very upset. I immediately sent off a message to my contact in the organisation in charge of the party (I didn’t want to step on his toes by complaining to the wrong person) and asked who I should contact and whether he had anything to do with it. He called me back a few minutes later. He wasn’t responsible for the party, but he said that he was doing some anti-racism work and he’d make contact for me.
This organisation prides itself on being inclusive and I’ve seen them live up to that under immense difficulties on a number of occasions. Two things. a) I get the impression that most of the high-up staff are European. b) This is out of ignorance, it would most likely not have occured to the people in charge that there were racial connotations. (Nevertheless…)
Well, I can help out with option B with a little 101.
A few months ago, Feministing reported on American Apparel’s new “Afrika” line, the promotional materials of which feature a bunch of white women in jungle prints. The comments are both good and bad and all should give you some insight into both the nature of this racism and how invisible it is to many white people. In comments, sanjata has an excellent summary, in which the emphasis is mine:
For people who have not been exposed to critical race theory or the study of colonialism and cultural appropriation, the new Afrika line probably doesn’t look racist to you. The reason it doesn’t look racist to you is because the attractiveness of the line is meant to play on the unconscious attitudes that non-african westerners have about africa. Here’s a set of association words:
I can go on, but you get the point.
Over at Urban Dictionary – and I warn you, this link may be upsetting – is a page of definitions of jungle bunny.
And then there were the infamous and indefensible illustrations (sorry, I’ve just realised that the alliteration sounds flippant, those are just the words that best express what I’m trying to say; take it as a means of emphasis instead) from Amanda Marcotte’s book It’s a Jungle Out There. They featured white women fighting African tribal warriors as a visual metaphor for feminists fighting oppressors or, possibly and dehumanisingly, oppression.
Yes, white people. There are jungles in places other than Africa. Some people have pleasant associations with certain animals and therefore with animal prints. You don’t think you’re racist. Not a whole lot of people do, but racism is still there, right? It’s systemic and you need to do your best to learn to identify it and mitigate your privilege as best you can.
There’s a reason this post is light on analysis. You need to do your own research. You need to go out from your enclave and quietly listen to the words of others. You can’t determine what’s racist or not, because it’s not your oppression. When you’ve done a lot – a lot – of learning, assess if you’re ready to act to help out. Then you’ll think twice about watching The Jungle Book or buying from American Apparel or giving a jungle-themed party (oh, my head hurts). And please, don’t immediately go to the defensive. There’s more at stake than your anti-racist cred. Be nice. Do the right thing.