This is a post for all those of you who have seen the original H & M advert of the little black boy wearing the hoodie with the slogan ‘Coolest Monkey in the Jungle’ on it.
He was pictured next to a white boy who had the slogan ‘Survival Expert’ on his hoodie. Because it seems like this is still being discussed, and because a whole lot of white people seem not to understand why a whole lot of black people in particular might be upset about it, it seems like it might be helpful to share some thoughts.
i decided to use the Chris Classic improvement of the pic, rather than the original offending pic, because it does not need to be shown again and because if you’re reading this you have likely seen the original…
This is the status i stuck on Facebook:
White people who might not see the fuss in the recent HM advert, please consider that there might be two stories at work here.
The “but we were called monkeys when we were kids” line is true and why it would not have been offensive had the shirts been swapped around. Because white people have never been called monkeys or animals or thought of as them or less than them. So when we were called monkeys as kids or when we call our kids monkeys the focus has been on playful and fun and naughty and it is all positive.
For black people and other people of colour the opposite has been true. They have been called monkeys [and worse] with all seriousness and their humanity has been questioned and stripped away and animals in many cases have been treated better than them, certainly during apartheid/slavery/Jim Crow times and so a black child in a monkey top is hurtful, painful and deeply offensive regardless of intention.
Also if you take a look at the top the white kid is wearing and think back to the movies where typically black people could be the villain or the help [or possibly token black kid in the slasher movie killed off third] while white people could be president or explorer or doctor or lawyer or love interest or captain or pilot or astronaut or CEO or heck, even Jesus, there is a deeper narrative running there.
If we care about those around us we need to think more deeply about these things – this is a case of one thing that is not offensive for one group of people [switch the tops around and there is no problem] that is offensive for another group of people.
This is an opportunity to learn, to build a bridge, to step towards. It was not good enough and how are companies still getting this stuff wrong in 2018 and all of us need to be more careful which is being more loving.
A number of black artists jumped on to Instagram to register their protest in the most creative and stunning way so make sure you check this out. A number of them have cut ties with H & M or refused to work with them any more.
But white people really seem to struggle to get this stuff. A friend of mine posted this comment with the picture in question on Facebook:
The recent controversy in which a large clothing brand was accused of racism for having this child model this hoodie brings to mind a story from my own life which I believe is of relevance.
The high school I went to employed a staff of assistants; by and large, these were black men who helped with various tasks – from groundskeeping and repairs to the transportation and toiletry needs of the children. During my time there, one of these men would playfully refer to myself (and other kids of this country’s divergent racial groups) as “inkawu”, the isiZulu word for “monkey”. There was no malice behind his use of this word and as I’ve said, he did not reserve it for any particular type of kid.
I do not deny that there are racists among us who compare black people to monkeys and apes, the point I am making is that if you see an innocuous image such as this and immediately make that connection, perhaps you are the one with the problem, not the hoodie.
To which i responded:
i don’t think one can view the ad and your story in the same light and i think it is super important to stop and listen to black voices on this one – being called a monkey has never been a negative thing for you and so the association does not come naturally. It has been a negative thing for black [and other] people and even this last week i had to work to get someone kicked off Twitter for calling black people animals not in any kind of endearing way.
Centuries of oppression vs a statement that for white kids was a term of endearment because no-one ever assumed we were monkeys – that is the difference right there.
Also notice how the people patting you on the back for your statement are white people and i will assume white people whoa re not having the tough race conversations and trying to educate themselves and learn from people of race. As a white person i want to say to you that my initial gut reaction is the same as yours [because of how i remember being called a monkey when i was a kid was a fun and cute thing and for the reasons above] but when i take a moment to look at this through the new lenses i have been wearing and trying to see the country though and even just listening to some of the black commenters on this post, the pain and hurt is obvious and you will be worse off for not recognising that and hearing the pain and rethinking your position on this.
Being called a monkey has been a reality for black people in this country and across the world. An ‘innocent image’ of a black kid in a monkey top [especially when you read what the white kid gets – think movies where black person would typically be the villain or the help and white person could be professor, hero, love interest, president, astronaut, explorer, doctor, lawyer, heck even Jesus] is so completely loaded when you consider the respective histories of yourself as a white person and others as black people. Please don’t miss this one!
To which he replied:
Your entire argument rests on the assumption that the hoodie was designed specifically to demean and insult black people. The “lenses” you refer to make you look at that photo and see a racist conspiracy. What I see is a cute kid in a nice hoodie. I’m sorry if you think I’m the one with the issue.
Which, was not even close to what i meant, so i tried to explain again:
No, i don’t think you’re hearing what i’m saying. i am saying quite the opposite. i am saying that regardless of why the hoodie was designed or even why it was chosen for the shoot, it is problematic because of all the reasons i mentioned before – thatassociating black people with monkeys is a hurtful thing [because people do that for real and actually believe it and say it] – ask your friends of colour or at least listen to those who have already commented – look at the fact that white people are telling you that what you said was okay.
The picture is not so much the problem as the history behind the picture which as i said before is different for white people than for black people which is why it would be fine if the hoodies were on the other kids – the problem is not the hoodie – the problem is that when black people see a black kid in a hoodie it re-emphasises a message they have gotten in many different ways/shapes/forms [slavery/Jim Crow/Apartheid being three of the biggest] and white people refusing to hear and understand that just adds to the problem. Try let this not be about you for a second Lachlan cos your words and disregard are adding to the hurt of black people. Take a moment to consider there might actually be a valid opinion that is not yours here. And hear this from a white person who is fighting for the dignity of black people which has been stepped on for so long.
Which was followed by his:
You are advocating for black people to be treated differently than white people. Despite the flowery language, your argument boils down to “you’re white, so shut up.” Sorry, but that isn’t going to happen.
And lastly [so far, there will be more i’m sure, but i suspect i’m largely done there]:
i am advocating for all people to be treated with respect and dignity – because the slogan means different things in the history or white and black people a different response is required but that is not asking that black and white people get treated differently – Look at who is liking your comments here and look at who is liking mine and ask yourself if that fact that white people are backing up your sentiment means that just perhaps you have this one wrong?
It’s not “shut up” so much as listen which you clearly don’t seem to be doing. Can you hear an opinion on this that is not your own. Can you see why a black person with a history of being called an animal might be offended by clothing that calls him an animal even if meant in a non-offensive way? Do you want to understand why your black friends might be liking my comments and questioning yours?
Because on that last point, that is the very interesting thing here. If you are claiming something is not racist and only white people are agreeing with you and black people are agreeing and liking and sharing the person who is suggesting it IS racist, then maybe it’s time to think your position.
This is a framework i use to judge conversations a lot of the time. Someone makes a statement – looks who likes and shares it. If they all look, think and sound the same, that might be a warning bell.
What was stunning for me with this particular example though, was the number of artists who took something that was seen by many as offensive and hurtful and got creative with it. There is a line in a letter written by a guy called Paul to a church in Rome once that says this powerful line:
‘Do not be overcome with evil. But rather overcome evil with good.’ [Romans 12.21]
So please don’t miss this article which illustrates how creative people can turn a mess into a beautiful thing. If all of us could get more creative and intentional in our overcoming of evil with good, the world would be a much calmer and more vibrant place.
Swap the hoodies around and it’s a whole different story [so it’s not the hoodie, that’s the problem but rather the lack of understanding of the history of the culture]
There really are so many great enhanced images coming from a variety of people ranging from LeBron James to P Diddy and they are all great, but the one i really like, especially with Black Panther as one of my most anticipated movies of this year is this one:
i also just saw this response from H & M which deserves to be mentioned here:
A spokesperson for H&M told MailOnline: ‘This image has now been removed from all H&M channels and we apologise to anyone this may have offended.’
The brand also took to Instagram to express further apology, it said: ‘We understand that many people are upset about the image of the children’s hoodie. We, who work at H&M, can only agree.
‘We’re deeply sorry that the picture was taken and we also regret the actual print. Therefore, we’ve not only removed the image from our channels but also the garment from our product offering.’
So what do you think? Too much fuss, or not enough? Should we start boycotting companies that mess up like this or do they deserve a two strikes and you’re out second chance? Let us know in the comments below.