Thanks to H&M, it looks like we’re caught in yet another rinse-and-repeat cycle of racist brand blunders. Over the weekend, social media was on fire when an image from an H&M UK campaign showed a young Black boy wearing a sweatshirt that read “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle.”
— The Weeknd (@theweeknd) January 8, 2018
Criticism of the racist imagery was swift as were calls for H&M boycotts, including a tweet from The Weeknd stating that he was ending his partnership with the retailer. The international clothing retailer responded by pulling the sweatshirt from their stores and sites and issuing a lukewarm apology — but H&M isn’t fooling me. Ad campaigns based in willful ignorance are the laziest form of marketing strategy, and as a Black woman, a mom and a part-time model myself, I’m not buying what they’re selling.
In the history of anti-Black racism, monkeys (and other primates) have played a prominent role. From grotesque depictions of Black people as apes, to bananas being thrown at everyone from Black athletes to Black government officials (and me, as a kid when I walked home from school), monkeys have been utilized by racists around the world to dehumanize Black people for generations. A 2008 study showed that many Americans — even those born after the Jim Crow era — still subconsciously associated Black people with apes. “This was actually some of the most depressing work I have done,” said Jennifer Eberhardt, a psychology professor at Stanford University who co-authored the study. “This shook me up.”
With all of this background, it’s unfathomable that H&M’s decision-makers were completely oblivious to the impact of putting a Black child in a “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle” hoodie. If anything, they were perhaps oblivious to their own biases, or to the glaring lack of diversity in their executive ranks. (Not-so-fun fact: H&M has an all-white board of directors.)
The photo reveals problems behind the scenes
In my own dabbling in the modelling industry, I’ve seen both how critical decisions are made, and how homogenous most crews and marketing teams are. When corporate money and reputation are on the line, choices aren’t made at random. Everything from the colour of a model’s shirt to the angle the sunlight falls on set is mulled over and considered in terms of branding and the emotion the ad is meant to evoke. A model’s outfit is chosen conscientiously — and even when a stylist decides to get creative and try something out of the box, every look is vetted by a number of key shot callers. In H&M’s case, this particular hoodie was chosen for this particular child, and that says so much about bias and the empty lip service behind many corporate diversity and inclusion initiatives.
I only need one hand to count the number of non-white crew and executives I’ve worked with on photo shoots over the years. That lack of diversity creates an enormous blind spot in imagery and messaging. When implicit biases are left unchecked, and when there’s no one available to catch glaring errors and provide necessary perspectives and nuance, we end up with gaffes like these.
Let’s look at how brands are portraying children
As a mom, it’s particularly hurtful to see a Black child at the centre of this firestorm, especially since I’ve explored modelling with my daughter. While we don’t know this child personally and don’t know if his parents were aware of the choice of attire made for him (I’ve been on sets where parents have been informed of kid model’s clothing decisions, and others where they haven’t had that level of participation), it’s painful to have yet another reminder of the myriad of ways that Black children are devalued. It pushes me to be even more vigilant in how my own children are seen in the world, on set or off.
Thankfully, celebs like Diddy and LeBron James have done what they can to right the wrongs of this ad.
Put some respect on it!! When you look at us make sure you see royalty and super natural God sent glory!! Anything else is disrespectful. pic.twitter.com/QVaxgngwh1
— Diddy (@Diddy) January 8, 2018
Did H&M actually intend to offend?
Offensive content has become a way for brands to get noticed in the 24/7 social-media chatter, and marketers have taken notice — making this H&M gaffe seriously questionable.
Did H&M bank on “Black outrage”? Did they make a deliberate decision and not care to apologize until it started to affect their bottom line? Did they actually think that this was merely an unfortunate oversight?
If I was a betting woman, I wouldn’t put a dime on H&M’s innocence — too many companies have made too many similar errors, so at this point a safer bet would be on the one that says these executives simply don’t care. Only the decision-makers know what their intent was, but we, the public, have made them clear on the impact.
Maybe one day, brands will realize that hate clicks don’t translate into dollars, and offer solid accountability instead of empty apologies. Maybe one day, brands will make meaningful progress on employing and empowering decision-makers from a variety of backgrounds. Maybe one day, brands will engage Black and other underrepresented consumers with more respect for our humanity and our buying power. That day eluded H&M once they decided to put a beautiful Black boy in an ill-chosen hoodie, but hopefully that day is coming soon.
Editor’s note: After this story was originally published, H&M issued a second apology on Jan. 9. “Our position is simple and unequivocal — we have got this wrong and we are deeply sorry,” reads the statement. “H&M is fully committed to playing its part in addressing society’s issues and problems, whether it’s diversity, working conditions or environmental protection — and many others. Our standards are high and we feel that we have made real progress over the years in playing our part in promoting diversity and inclusion. But we clearly haven’t come far enough.
“We agree with all the criticism that this has generated — we have got this wrong and we agree that, even if unintentional, passive or casual racism needs to be eradicated wherever it exists. We appreciate the support of those who have seen that our product and promotion were not intended to cause offence but, as a global brand, we have a responsibility to be aware of and attuned to all racial and cultural sensitivities — and we have not lived up to this responsibility this time…We will now be doing everything we possibly can to prevent this from happening again in the future.”