Ask Lisa Advice: Don’t Dress My Black Son in Monkey-Prints!

This week, I counsel the mom of a Black, adopted son, whose White grandparents buy him clothing with derogatory implications.

Dear Lisa

I am Multiracial, Black, Native and Puerto Rican and my husband is White/French (came to the US after college). After several years of infertility treatment, we were blessed to adopt an adorable son from Ghana who is now eighteen months old. My parents and in-laws sent us many presents to celebrate his homecoming and have been thus far very supportive and welcoming. Though to be honest, both sets of grandparents had reservations about us adopting a child that is so visibly different from us (most people perceive me as White). As we were going through the process our parents eventually seemed to come around. However, this Christmas I was surprised and upset that my mother-in-law bought our son a sweater with monkeys embroidered on it and a watermelon print pajama set. I cannot separate these images from their racist connotations. Right away, I took this as a not so subliminal message from my mother-in-law that she will never fully accept our son. I tearfully told my husband this and he was totally shocked. He said he had never heard that watermelons or monkeys were racist images and that it is not the case in France.

I now accept that his mother-in-law, being European, may not have intended to be racist, but I do not want to keep the gifts. I cannot dress my beautiful, dark-skinned son in a watermelon suit! My husband says we must be gracious and keep the gifts, because his mother would be hurt if we returned them. He wants our son to wear the clothes when his parents visit. I want to explain the reason and return the gifts.

Who is right?



Dear MJ,

This is certainly a timely dilemma, coming right on the heels of the H&M “Coolest Monkey” hoodie controversy.  It seems as if everyone is pondering the question:

Is it inherently racist to dress a Black child in clothing suggestive of anti-Black stereotypes? Even if the person providing the clothing is unaware of the garment’s meaning?

It’s a question that’s come up before and will come up again, I’m sure. The biggest difference between your situation and H&M’s is that you and your in-laws are family, while H&M is a corporation with a large budget and staff all devoted to advertising. Someone in that room might have raised the alarm and somehow didn’t get her point across. Or—taking financial profit into account—someone at the photoshoot may have said: “Hey, let’s be provocative. Dress the Black kid in the Monkey hoodie. The controversy alone will mean everyone online is talking about us!”

In your situation, this is a personal, if political matter between you and your in-laws. There are several questions to ask yourself before proceeding:

One has to do with culture. Do you believe your in-laws understand the significance of watermelon, of monkey images, in the history of American racism? It sounds as if they don’t—and that your husband doesn’t either. Though it does surprise me; the derogatory likening of Black people to apes is hardly limited to America. It goes back to the ancient Greeks. Still, it is possible that your in-laws bought these items, innocently believing they were sweet, cheerful toddler attire. (H&M, incidentally, is a Swedish company; the adorable Black child model is also Swedish.)

In any case, this is an opportunity for some cultural education. Start with your husband—your child’s father—who must come to understand the insidiousness of racism if he is to raise a Black son. Talk with your husband; teach him; recommend books—do whatever it takes to raise his awareness and make him an ally in this. He will have to take the lead in educating his parents, as he has a better chance of reaching them.

On the other hand—you seem to suspect that the gifts were a deliberate smear of your little boy.

Do you believe your in-laws truly feel hostile toward your child? You said you thought they had come around and put their initial reservations aside, but what are you picking up from them aside from the gift choices? How do they behave with him? Loving and affectionate? Or cool and standoffish? If it is the latter, you and your husband must address this immediately, with your husband taking the lead again. This is your child, their grandchild. If your in-laws are to be part of your lives, they must love your son as they would their own flesh and blood.

Regarding the gifts themselves, you have two choices: keep the clothing and hold your tongue or send them back and strive for full respect and understanding of your child’s heritage.

If you keep the clothing, keep mum about how you feel, dress your son in the outfits for photos to send to his grandparents, you are opting to have a distant, surface relationship with your husband’s parents. Going this route could also build resentment on your part and compromise your marriage. (See my column from two weeks ago .) Wouldn’t it be better to take a stand? It might make things rockier now, but being honest could open the door to greater understanding and closeness in the future.

Explain to your in-laws—with your husband’s help now that you have worked hard to make him savvier—that the gifts they have chosen to have a deep, negative significance for Black people in this country. Explain about the history; explain the possible impact on your son’s self-esteem, then suggest that they exchange the gifts for something else. Your in-laws may become angry and defensive, but as grandparents who love your boy, they will hopefully find a positive way to be part of his life and yours.


Best Wishes


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Published on: January 18, 2018

Filed Under: Advice

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