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.
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.