At this point, nearly everyone has seen the featured image: H&M’s attempt to advertise a children’s hoodie by having a black child wear a sweatshirt with a widely known, racially derogatory phrase imprinted on it. Within a week of launching their hooded top, the UK-based company was aggressively harassed by social media and big names such as LeBron James and Diddy and pressurized into issuing a company apology where they explicitly state, “we sincerely apologize for offending people with this image of a printed hooded top. The image has been removed from all online channels and the product will not be for sale in the United States.” However sincere the apology may be, H&M only commits itself to ceasing the top’s sale in the United States. What about the UK, or any of their other worldwide locations? The lack thereof signifies how vastly different race works in this country versus around the world.
In fact, mother of the model Terry Mango, who is a resident of the UK along with her son, commented, “this is one of [the] hundreds of outfits my son has modeled… stop crying Wolf all the time, unnecessary issue.” Mango’s blatant disregard, or perhaps ignorance, to the racial undertones of the hooded top is one layer of the problem, and considering that the UK does not have the same historical relationship to race as the United States, the advertisement, and the reactions of Mango, H&M and the USA come as no surprise.
So, let me clear things up: Black people are not monkeys in any jungle. The phrase came about when traditional black features— wide noses, narrow eyes, full lips, dark skin and coiled hair, to name a few— were equated to the characteristics of monkeys, thus being used as yet another reason to discriminate against, oppress and withhold basic human rights from Black folks. Any comparison of the two is overtly racialized and rooted in white supremacy dating back to slavery. So, needless to say, Black Americans, and their supporters, spoke up when H&M launched its ad campaign.
And while it’s notable that H&M won’t be selling the hoodie in the United States, their stance would have a greater impact if they stopped production of the product all together and perhaps vowed to do something to improve world-wide cultural competence and understandings of race relations henceforth. Realistically, what does the hoodies’ withdrawal from the United States really mean if they are available in other countries, especially those with worldwide shipping? Are such hoodies okay anywhere besides the United States because it’s the only country to respond with a raucous? No; after all, an injustice anywhere is a threat to the affected marginalized groups everywhere. The entire Black community digresses when microaggressions such as this hooded top are in circulation. One of the many ways to combat this historical problem is to stop printing the statement, and others like it, on clothing. Now, it would be a different story if a white child was modeling the new design, but H&M shot itself in the foot when it chose a black model, which speaks to the power of the image itself. If the response to the hoodie changes depending on the race of the model, which it does, then it is racialized paraphernalia.
Purposefully casting a Black child to model the item is a well-calculated marketing strategy that aims to increase sales among Black demographics because white people have never been, and will never be, thought of in the same context as monkeys in a jungle. Advertising to the Black community by using one of their children is an expression of white supremacy and its continuance as the standard for other races to attempt a certain level of achievement. I define white supremacy as the Black community’s, and all ethnic-minority groups in a society’s, collusion with racism, imperialism, and their political relationship to each other. For example, Mango allowing her son to model the hoodie in the first place and her subsequent statement is an internalization of white supremacy. The sad thing is, Mango and H&M aren’t the only victims and culprits of this respective internalization— other companies such as Dove and Kellogg have issued apologies after partaking in racially insensitive activities. On top of that, skin lightening creams, hair straightening serums and the modification of urban vernacular to suburban pronunciations in professional settings are a few examples of how deep white supremacy runs.
Most, if not all, of these examples are avoidable with additional education, knowledge and a priority placed on truly learning about and actively working to repair the race relations in this country and around the world. Company apologies, which seem to only be issued after public outcries, are not necessary if and when companies educate and execute actual plans of diversity and inclusion that do not result in derogatory phrases or actions as marketing strategies. Clearly, H&M, and other companies, have a long way to go before conceiving the idea to have such a plan, let alone growing it into a pillar of their company. Most recently, H&M has temporarily closed its seventeen stores in South Africa due to advanced protests of the hoodie. Perhaps these demonstrations, and America’s public response, will behoove H&M to stop printing the product altogether. Until then, who knows which company will pull the next stunt and issue the next apology.