Month: January 2018

h&m

Now that we’ve reacted to the H&M controversy let’s take time to actually understand it. I hear people passionately screaming but few are putting serious thought to why they feel what they do and whether there is just cause for anger.

Why Are Black People So Mad?

There is a long history of denigrating people by equating them with monkeys/apes. Saint Gregory of Nazianzus and Saint Isidore of Seville were comparing pagans to monkeys way back in the 1st century. Yet no group has been identified with simian qualities quite like black people. Indeed, Types of Mankind, the leading American text on racial differences in its day, presented racial hierarchies with illustrations comparing blacks to chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans. In Europe black soccer players are routinely targeted with bananas. Even Barack and Michelle Obama couldn’t escape the ape slur  — a Belgian newspaper printed images of the Obamas with ape features. The history is clearly racist and hurtful.

But H&M Isn’t An American Company, They Didn’t Know

H&M is a Swedish company, a country not so far from Belgium. If the newspaper in Belgium knew to use the ape motif against the Obamas, I’m sure the good folks in Sweden aren’t completely clueless. If black soccer players all over Europe regularly get bananas thrown at them, we can safely assume someone in H&M’s European operation was at least aware of the history.

H&M Surely Didn’t Mean To Be Racist, Can’t We Let It Slide?

If I joked about sending people to gas chambers but wasn’t in any way thinking about the Holocaust, I’m sure some Jewish people would take exception. Would any of us think it strange if they did? No. Universally, the suffering of whites is taken seriously. If we can understand one group’s sensitivity to their historical oppression and give deference to it, we should find it easy to do the same for black people — unless we are prevented by racism.

It is interesting that the UK H&M site that was selling the infamous “monkey hoodie” also featured a young white boy modeling a different hoodie. The caption read, “Survival Expert.” Dr. King often talked about unconscious racism. That is, without consciously trying to be racist, it is so embedded in us all that it still manifests. Maybe the folks at H&M did not consciously mean to suggest blacks are animals and whites lord over the animals but we must question whether or not their whiteness could have accepted the two boys switching hoodies. In the end H&M is a global company doing business in a digital age — all things connect. An ad in London can show up in the US in seconds. As a multinational it is H&M’s business to assume this and be aware of any cultural landmines.

But The Model’s “Mum” Didn’t Have A Problem With It

Jerry Seinfield is Jewish. Once on his sitcom he had a little fun with the film Schindler’s List. Does that mean every Jewish person should accept it if people take away from the serious nature of the film? Hardly. Further, it must be acknowledged that the boy’s mother is Kenyan and apparently lives in Europe. That said, it’s possible that some of this discussion might possibly be lost on her. In the same way, I may not grasp certain insults leveled at one people group in Kenya to another. On the other hand maybe she absolutely gets it but simply doesn’t want to rock the boat. Her child is getting work from a global fashion brand and to speak out might jeopardize future work for her son. In the end I’ve never met the woman and can’t speak for her. Still, it is dangerous to dismiss the entire issue because she has.

What Now?

H&M isn’t the first company to put out a questionable ad — we were all mad at Dove a few months ago, remember? Another company will mess up soon, I’m sure. If our goal is to make white companies be nicer to black people then feel free to continue this cycle. H&M has issued an apology but it did not create any more black wealth. Dove’s apology did not end disparities in employment between blacks and whites. Perhaps we as black people should stop asking the powerful to be nicer to us and focus more on building black power for ourselves.

jay-z-kevin-hart-nba-finals

Black people must be twice as good for half the credit. I heard that as a child but evidently things have changed. 2017 was a yearlong celebration of black mediocrity, a collective demon I hope 2018 will exorcise us of. In 2017 Cardi B was a thing. We celebrated the fact that a woman with African blood will join England’s royal family (as if white acceptance affirms black value). Kevin Hart continued to pack out arenas even as his comedy and personal life progressively slid into mediocrity. We lost our minds when Beyonce gave birth to twins, as if women don’t do so daily. Eminem was anointed savior after his anti-Trump freestyle but black pundits like Van Jones were ignored before the election when they warned us that Trump could win. Mediocrity was consistently declared the big winner of 2017 and black people are no better for it.

Donald Trump is a monster but he’s not the first in politics. Politicians much more racist than Trump existed in the 1890’s in Louisiana and yet black political leaders figured out how to get funding for Southern University. That was a concrete win for black people, even in the face of great hostility. Adam Clayton Powell served in Congress when lynchings were still commonplace and few of his colleagues cared. During his career Powell not only pushed legislation that made lynching a federal crime but was also instrumental in expanding the minimum wage and abolishing the poll tax. Those were all tangible wins for black people. In 2017 the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) made their biggest mark simply by refusing to meet with Trump in June. Black America has any number of political concerns but there is no strategy to address them. Refusing to meet with the sitting POTUS and not securing any tangible wins for black people was the CBC’s signature, mediocre achievement.

Jay Z is closer to 50 than 45 years of age. Ironically he was applauded for his “maturity” this past year because he figured out that infidelity is wrong. No, seriously. Critics and fans across the board — including black folks — praised Mr. Carter for the deeply personal lyrics on his 4:44 album, which included apologies for infidelity. Why is that an accomplishment at 50? In what black mediocre fantasy do men at that age not get laughed to scorn when they announce to the world they’ve just figured that out? How is it that when his sexual abilities are certainly on the decline we praise his growth and evolution in that area? I look at Fred Hampton’s maturity at 21 and can’t help but notice the embarrassing disparity. When black men are allowed to parade their mediocrity the culture is diminished and we all suffer.

This past year we celebrated the most mediocre of accomplishments and elevated the most mundane of individuals. On one hand black mediocrity signals a weird racial progress — mediocre white men have been winning for centuries. It is refreshing that mediocre black people are winning in journalism, entertainment and even in the academy — I won’t name names. Indeed the true measure of how post-racial we are as a society is the degree to which black people are allowed to be mediocre and achieve similar results as our white counterparts. On the other hand the history of black progress is a history of black excellence and we should never forget it.

Black excellence is what kept black families together under the most challenging of circumstances, since before the Constitution was written. Black excellence is what built our HBCUs and banking institutions, well before any legislation existed to protect them. Black excellence gave America its seasoning — metaphorically and literally — and enriched the broader culture. Our history suggests that we cannot tolerate mediocrity, despite the apparent benign nature of its various manifestations in 2017. If we are to adopt a collective resolution in 2018 it must be to reclaim black excellence and shun mediocrity.