Homecoming theme changed due to concerns about negative connotations

Illustration by Ella Prillaman,
Photo courtesy of Stuart Rodgers

Illustration by Ella Prillaman, Photo courtesy of Stuart Rodgers

This year, the original homecoming theme “Into the Jungle” was changed to “Rainforest” due to concerns raised about the negative historical connotations related to the word “jungle.” Concerns were brought up by the Black Student Union (BSU) and the Social Studies Department, according to Jeannie Logan, instructional supervisor of the social studies department.

Black Student Union encountered issues with the theme when discussing the design for their homecoming parade banner, according to Raelyn Roberson, co-president of the club. BSU sponsor and South social worker Andrea Ball-Ryan said that after discussion, the club decided to stick with the theme, but shared the concerns they had about the theme with a member of the administration.

“Our biggest concern was putting animals on the banner,” Roberson said. “The theme was ‘Into the Jungle’ and the first thing you think of with ‘jungle’ is animals. We didn’t want to be associated with animals because of the past history [African Americans have] had with that.”

The term “jungle,” if misused, carries negative connotations referring to people of color as culturally inferior, said Logan. Ball-Ryan mentioned that the term was historically used to depict people of color as animalistic, and its misuse today can continue to reinforce such stereotypes.

“I understand that most high school students don’t really have that context,” Logan said. “But I think when we talk about the jungle, the media and pop culture references that young people have been exposed to continue to reinforce that idea.”

After the new theme was announced, some confusion arose amongst students and parents, Principal Dr. Lauren Fagel said, explaining that she received many parent emails claiming the change was “oversensitive” and creating a problem where there was not one before.

“I’m okay with being oversensitive,” Fagel said. “I would rather err on the side of being oversensitive than offending our kids or their families.”

There were also concerns about homecoming week activities like the schoolwide “find the monkey” search (subsequently changed to “find the bear”), according to Emily Ekstrand, Students Organized Against Racism (SOAR) sponsor and social studies teacher. She felt such activities should have been stopped by adults because students may not have known all the historical connotations the word “monkey” holds. Ekstrand explained that the original theme created a burden for students affected by the racist historical connotations, while others could freely enjoy homecoming festivities.

“[The theme] put an extra burden on students who are already sometimes left out of the dominant group,” Ekstrand said. “Students within that dominant group are able to have fun with this theme ‘jungle,’ and I think the biggest problem was that it made some students feel like they had to do more work to participate.”

After concerns were reported, Student Council worked swiftly alongside GBS administrators to create a new theme and spirit days that were appropriate for all students and staff, but would not change the original concept radically, according to Sunny Choi, student body president.

“We really have to look at all the possibilities and think about not just the average high schooler, but even that one high schooler who could take it the wrong way,” Choi said. “[Our job] as Student Council is to make sure that not one person is excluded or feels left out. We want to make sure that each student has the best high school experience.”

After discussion, the theme was changed to “Into the Rainforest,” according to Matthew Whipple, social studies teacher. Although the switch from “jungle” to “rainforest” was not a significant shift in topic, it did work to remove the negative connotation of “jungle” perceived by students and staff.  Ekstrand was appreciative of the way the theme change was handled, applauding the administration and student council for their attentiveness to concerns.

“I think Dr. Fagel handled [changing the theme] well in that she listened, heard that students were feeling uncomfortable, and decided to change it,” Ekstrand said. “That was a super bold move to do the weekend before [homecoming].”

Because the theme controversy had a large part to do with race, Logan finds it important to make sure that the community represents everyone when making a decision for the entire student body. Logan hopes that going forward people will be more aware of others’ viewpoints.

“I hope that this [event] encourages people to examine their thinking and things they took for granted,” Logan said. “We all have blind spots, and we don’t take into account the impact they might have on someone else.”