The Coolest Monkey in the Jungle: Children, Pain, and Shame
How to immunize children from the impact of negative stereotypes.
Posted Jan 10, 2018
By now, you’ve probably seen the most contentious image of 2018, featured in an H&M advertisement that was recently pulled from the store’s website. The advertisement featured a black boy wearing a hooded sweatshirt that bears the phrase, “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle." In less than 72 hours, this visual sparked outrage, protests, and calls for systemic changes at the retail company. While some people argue that the sweatshirt is nothing more than a hip representation of pop culture and a whimsical attempt to generally poke fun at kids, others contend that because of the global history and ongoing practice of dehumanizing black people by drawing derogatory comparisons of the black race to the lower animal kingdom, this ad campaign reinforces destructive stereotypes, and is therefore psychically damaging, invoking pain and shame on black children and others in the larger race.
Why It Matters
Various data show that negative societal biases about the humanity of black children do indeed exist. This sort of research informs my stance that regardless of H & M's intent, this advertisement lacks any redemptive value. Whatever your opinion of this particular image may be, the truth is that there are children who are victimized by harmful stereotypical images or events every single day.
Is it possible then, for parents to help their kids to cope effectively with such scenarios? The answer is yes, which is a good thing because societal biases won’t go away overnight, and parents can’t sanitize their children’s environments to eliminate all the bad things that can denigrate them.
Empowering Strategies that Work
Here are three concrete strategies to help children to deal with thorny situations that threaten to assault their humanity or mental health:
1. Arm your children with information. There is truth to the saying that knowledge is power. When children learn about their personal history – the history of their family, their community, or their race, they are less likely to internalize the lies or negative notions being promulgated about them. Black children who learn important verifiable facts about their ancestry know that the oldest recorded human remains were found on the African continent. Having this knowledge will make them immediately aware of the absurdity of the idea that blacks are closer to animals or less evolved as human beings than any other race. An informed child who sees a sweatshirt with negative messaging will likely harbor feelings of disappointment or disgust, but he won’t hold on to the more harmful sentiments of personal inferiority or despair.
2. Shift your children’s focus. Teach your children to assign a minimal amount of attention to negative things, and to consciously avoid overexposure to negativity. This is an act of resistance that will protect their mental health. This does not mean that completely avoiding troubling issues is good. At the outset, a child needs to process his or her emotions and thoughts about a bad situation, first acknowledging it; then engaging in an open dialogue about it and finally determining next steps, if any to take regarding the issue. After that cycle of processing is complete, children should be taught to shift their focus from the issue altogether because constantly revisiting a situation related to discrimination, stereotyping or injustice will only serve to accelerate a child’s levels of toxic stress. If a child is being invited into a conversation, he can choose not to participate, or move the focus of the dialogue to where he would prefer it to go. For example, if asked about the image from the H&M campaign a child could respond by saying: “I’m choosing not to talk about that situation. But hey, guess what? I’m doing a really cool living history project for school with my grandma and her friends. Let me tell you all about it!” Another way to shift your children’s focus is to teach them how to optimize their social media settings. Adolescents can use the “hide” feature on their Facebook page whenever they encounter a disturbing story or image. The site’s algorithm will then be able to block the image again and again, when it would otherwise show up repeatedly in your child’s feed.
3. Affirm your children’s worth. This is not a rallying cry for vacuous compliments or praise, which child development experts know will hurt, not help. Rather it is about paying attention to your child in the most meaningful ways so that you can acknowledge her appropriately. As a child, my father’s mantra to me was “You’re as good as any and better than many!” and he cited proof from my daily life to buttress his framing of my intelligence, aptitude, and accomplishments. He later explained that he did this to remind me that I need not ever feel diminished in my own skin. When a child is positively reinforced, a negative image or situation will not have an outsized impact on his wellbeing. Instead, he will enjoy a degree of immunity from detrimental external influences and build on his own internal strength.