We need to talk about H&M

I’ve taken a couple of days before putting pen to paper about this issue as I needed to really take my time and think about it outside of all the hype and trigger-happy commentary.

For those of you unaware (where have you been?!), I’m talking about an image that appeared on H&M’s website of a young black boy wearing a sweat-shirt with the slogan ‘coolest monkey in the jungle’. The result was uproar calling for boycotts of the brand and high profile celebs cutting their ties with the retailer, accusing it of racism.

I’m not going to show the image because I feel the poor child’s face has been plastered around the internet enough.

Do I personally find it offensive? No

Do I think it was a intently blatant racism? No

Do I think it was intentional to offend thousands of people? No

Do I think the mother is ‘lost’ for defending the photo? No

Do I think she thought about the image and considered the implications? No

Do I think everyone calling for boycotts of the organisation are justified or unjustified? No

Do I think everyone saying it is ‘just a t-shirt and we need to get over it’ are correct? No

Why? Because it is a complex issue.

Firstly I understand the concerns the image raised and I genuinely believe that it’s important for anyone saying it’s not an issue, black, white or otherwise, should be fully aware of the reasons why it could cause offence.

The referencing of black people and monkeys is historic. Go back to colonial days when white people called black people monkeys as a means to justify slavery. By referring to us as inferior, less intelligent beings, gave them ‘reason’ to enslave us, beat us into submission, take women as sex slaves (i.e rape them) and steal their children.

Fast forward to more recent times and you still hear stories of footballers receiving monkey chants and having banana skins thrown at them from the side lines. This is racial abuse and repulsively wrong.

Everyone needs to be aware of this, before they belittle the situation.

However, I am ‘guilty’ of calling my children and their friends, cheeky monkeys. Some of my kids’ cutest clothes have had apes or chimps emblazoned on them, so I won’t stand up now and declare anything with a monkey on for a black child to wear is racist. The term itself is widely used by people to describe kids of all ethnicities.

My issue with the image is that it is very racially insensitive. It shows a complete lack of education, understanding and awareness of the sensitive issues and connotations of linking black people with monkeys, intentional or otherwise, across the organisation.

Maybe there was an element of unconscious bias (stemming from the afore mentioned facts) that lead for stylist to put the black child in the monkey top and the white child in the ‘survivor’ top. We’ll never know.

We can all questions why nobody at any point raised concerns about the image, but how do we know that didn’t happen? Having worked in agencies for longer than I’d care to remember, I’ve seen the various approval processes that copy and images can go through. And yes, sometimes people will question or raise concerns only for them to be shot down or ignored for ‘the bigger picture’, which in this case, was a cute child a coloured top that looked great on him. But actually some people in the process will, understandably, simply focus on their specific task: Is the lighting correct, are there any loose hairs, are both eyes open? Tick all of those boxes and you’re done. You’re a photographer, not a historian, social affairs expert or reputation adviser. The person that designed the top months ago may not have had any idea of who would be wearing it.

Let’s not assume that there wasn’t a single black person involved in the process. But if that person didn’t personally find it offensive, or didn’t feel empowered or confident enough to speak out, then that is a problem. We can’t expect them to be the voice of black people everywhere! But if and when someone speaks up, their concerns should be listened to.

But that doesn’t mean we should let them off, or any organisation that produces similar images.

We need to make sure that everyone is better educated on racial issues, past and present. We all need to understand that racism isn’t just a ‘black issue’. This is why I believe that more steps need to be taken to integrate black history into the mainstream curriculum.

We can talk about ‘white privilege’, but if we let people go through life unaware of challenges and issues outside of their world, then how can expect more of them when they are in positions of power and influence?

It is our collective responsibility to help people understand these issues. It is my job as a parent to make sure my children and their friends are aware of terms, phrases and actions that are inappropriate or offensive, even when used without intention. How will they know if I don’t tell them?

In a world where we diversity and equality are so widely being spoken about, we need to use this opportunity to really educate people about implicit and historic issues so they have the knowledge and context to refer to before making decisions.

If you want to boycott H&M, go ahead. If you want to do a massive shopping spree in support, do you. But regardless of your opinion on this retailer, you must be prepared to educate yourself on the issues raised by this event and be prepared to explain and inform others.

Only then will we get to a point where everyone is able to challenge, question and understand in order to generate positive content – written, visual or verbal.


NOTE – this is of course all my own personal opinion. Racism is a serious issue, I cannot and will not tell people not to feel racially offended, so please don’t feel hurt or betrayed my view

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