H&M is being condemned all over the internet for dressing up a black kid in a hoodie with the words “coolest monkey in the jungle” printed on it.
In my opinion we are not dealing with an act of malicious intent – because that would be bad for business, and bad for the H&M brand. It may well have been the result of thoughtlessness and lack of imagination.
But intentional or not, this was definitely a bad decision, that has resulted in a major backlash, including celebrities tweeting that they are boycotting the brand; eBay banning that specific hoodie from their website; and people trashing stores in South Africa.
It does not help that H&M has also previously been implicated in supporting modern slavery by employing 14-year-olds in sweatshops in Myanmar.
When the accusations of racism began, Terry Mango, the mother of the little boy in the hoodie, used social media to tell people to “get over it.” But she also appeared on the ITV show This Morning to open up about the racism she has suffered from in the past. “I know what racism is,” she said, adding later on that she had once been called a monkey on a cruise ship.
This revelation should be enough of an answer for all those who say there isn’t a problem, because it reminds us that when it comes to the use of the word “monkey” in relation to black people, there is a whole history that cannot be denied or forgotten. By this I mean the historical racism inherent in the toxic belief that black people were inferior – in an evolutionary sense – to white people.
Some of those who think the outcry has been over-sensitive ask why a black kid should feel any different wearing the hoodie than a white kid.
But the names people are called will trigger different connotations, depending on who those people are, because history has not treated everyone equally. It is unrealistic to think that we live in an historical vacuum, disconnected from the past. Therefore the H&M controversy is a timely reminder of the importance of knowing about history.
Post-Darwin it shouldn’t be a problem to say that humans evolved from the family of primates. But there were times in history when people claimed that black people were either the only ones who had this link, or that they were further back along that evolutionary chain.
It is therefore totally understandable that people have reacted so strongly to an advert that might remind us of this racist and dehumanising nonsense. And it’s right that white people as well as black people have reacted strongly – because we must all recognise that the past has been a different place for black and white people.
And so even if whoever put a black boy in a hoodie with the word ‘monkey’ on it was not being deliberately racist – the hoodie should be banned, and H&M should be slammed for being so irresponsible. Because for many black people the word ‘monkey’ still has associations with the early days of a racism. And for some of them that racism has not ended.