An actual jungle

Welcome to … the jungle?

Five roughly college-aged people -- by appearances only, two boys and three girls -- stand in a field. They're smiling broadly at the camera and the girls are waving. The boys are each holding a girl on his back. There is very little apparent racial diversity, although the woman in the middle (who is not on a boy's back) has a hair type normally associated with Black women.
This image appeared on a college’s social media during welcome week.

Several weeks ago, I came across the image above on a college’s social media feed. For the purposes of this blog post, the institution shall remain nameless (including any notable characteristics of the institution). Suffice it to say, the entirety of this graphic was … well. I have a lot of thoughts, on the many layers here, and I’m going to devote this blog post to unpacking those.

But first, a caveat: Without saying anything specific, I truly believe that this graphic was made with only the best of intentions by smart, capable people. I do not impute malice onto this image, despite what I’ve written below. I just wish they’d workshopped this with a few more people before putting it out in the world. Because MY GOODNESS. It’s many, many layers of problematic.

Outer layer: Does this image match the institution?

The first thing I noticed when I saw this graphic was the five young-ish people portrayed. I wondered if they were actually students at the institution. (My gut instinct is that they are not.) It is ALWAYS RISKY to make assumptions about identities (as they are socially constructed) from an anonymous photo. That said, the woman in the center has hair that suggests she has some Black heritage. Still, while there may be some racial or ethinic diversity here, the five young people all appear to have sufficiently pale skin that they could be white-passing socially.

The institution, however, is far more racially diverse.

Next layer: What does ‘jungle’ evoke?

When you hear the word “jungle,” what springs to mind?

Dictionaries talk about the jungle as “a place of ruthless struggle for survival” or “a situation in which it is difficult to succeed because a lot of people are competing against each other.”

Please don’t make me talk about why this is a HORRIBLE METAPHOR for greeting first-time students?! (Even if, in a picture-perfect Freudian slip, it turns out to be totally true?!) Moving on…

Tiki torches don’t belong here

If you take a look at the graphic frame of the text, you’ll see tiki-like borders. That’s because the institution has fully embraced a kind of jungle-meets-beach vibe of a tiki-torch-adorned adventure. Let’s not forget that tiki torches suffered something of a brand disaster in 2017 when white nationalists used them at a deadly series of protests in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The inventor of the tiki bar, a guy who called himself Donn Beach (his name was Ernest Gantt before he changed it legally), was going for a South Pacific/Polynesian vibe with his aesthetic. Beach went on to open the Beachcomber in Waikiki Beach, Hawaii. While there is certainly wildlife in the South Pacific, when we think “jungle,” we generally think of … NOT a breezy beach vibe with rum drinks.

The mixing of Polynesian decor with jungle words is further complicated when you find out — as I did — that there are tiki-themed wayfinding signs around this campus, featuring (inexplicably) toucans on top.

Suffice it to say, there’s some serious mixing of metaphors happening here. Toucans — which are birds — wouldn’t likely exist in a jungle; they’re more of a rainforest sort of creature, as jungles have very little canopy by definition. (This page has a wonderful discussion of how to distinguish between jungles and rainforests.)

But then, I guess, “Welcome to the rainforest!” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, does it?

But this is pretty superficial. Let’s get to the really meaty stuff…

‘Welcome to the jungle’ has baggage

The most commonly recognized instance of the phrase “welcome to the jungle” is the Guns and Roses song featured on their debut album in 1987. It was hugely popular among those who liked hard rock–it was certainly in the consciousness of my GenX high school peers. (If all this is giving you strong nostalgia, watch the video here.)

But the song itself — from its inspiration to its lyrics — comes with a lot of baggage that feels … strange for an institution of higher learning to take on.

For example, Axl Rose (the lead singer and lyricist of the band) said the lyrics were inspired by an encounter between him, a friend, and a homeless man on the street when the two friends were deboarding a bus in New York City. The homeless man reportedly yelled to them: “You know where you are? You’re in the jungle baby; you’re gonna die!” Slash (the band’s lead guitarist) said later of the metaphor of jungle: “If you lived in Los Angeles — and lived in the trenches, so to speak — you could relate to it.”

The song’s lyrics are … *cringe*

You can read the entirety of the lyrics here, but let me share just a few snippets:

Welcome to the jungle, we got fun and games
We got everything you want, honey, we know the names
We are the people that can find whatever you may need
If you got the money, honey, we got your disease
(first verse, emphasis added)

A college that’s ?unintentionally? calling on a song that claims, in its first verse, to have everything you want … “if you got the money, honey” … well. Yikes.

Welcome to the jungle, it gets worse here everyday
You learn to live like an animal in the jungle where we play

If you got a hunger for what you see, you’ll take it eventually
You can have anything you want, but you better not take it from me
(third verse, emphasis added)

This is probably the most unintentionally honest part of the entire graphic above. Because while I won’t share the institution that produced this image, I can verify from both objective and subjective perspectives, it is indeed getting worse everyday (for the people who are existing within its ecosystem).

You know where you are?
You’re in the jungle, baby
You’re gonna die

This is the callback to the inspiration for the song, but its inclusion in this song just reiterates how deeply uncomfortable this song feels when (intentionally or unintentionally) called to mind during welcome week of an academic institution.

Finally, and I really can’t believe I have to say this … (apologies for screaming):

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