Why Haven’t we Learned?: H&M’s Racism Scandal
H&M’s Sweatshirt Advertisement
In the beginning of January, the clothing brand H&M released an advertisement with a picture of a young boy fo color wearing a sweatshirt that read “coolest monkey in the jungle”. This advertisement sparked a lot of controversy especially on social media between many people. Where some would say H&M should be at fault for coincidently using a young black boy for this specific sweatshirt, others said that it is common for little kids to be called monkeys, especially by their parents.
Most people on social media had negative things to say about this advertisement, especially many celebrities such as singer The Weeknd who announced his resignation of partnership with H&M after the ad was released. Celebrity inclusion with issues such as this are very important, especially today when social media use is at an all-time high for mostly young kids. It is important for celebrities to use their platforms to bring light to these issues, because they have such a strong influence on young individuals.
Misrepresentation of Race
Although it may not have been intentional for the brand to use a young black boy for the sweatshirt, it is clear that they had other sweatshirt options for him. In the picture above, there is a young white boy wearing a sweatshirt which seems to be following the “zoo theme”, but why couldn’t they have allowed the black boy to wear the orange sweatshirt?
Just when it seems society is becoming more accepting towards diversity, an advertisement like this arises and causes controversy. Around the same time, the brand Gucci came out with a half face ski mask which was black with red lips. This mask was supposed to represent lipstick, however, many concerned people mentioned that this mask represents something similar to blackface, which was a stereotypical makeup method used in television and theatre to portray African American people. Since blackface, and the stereotypical term monkey used against the black community has caused many racist issues, one would hope that today these problems are not brought up anymore, but somehow, they are.
Privilege, Colorblindness, and Structured Racism
H&M released this advertisement along with the young white boy wearing a zoo themed sweatshirt at the same time, which is part of the reason it caused so many issues. If a white person were to go on H&M’s website and view both sweatshirts, they would assume everything is normal and would think “these little boys are just wearing sweatshirts”. But when an individual of color sees this, it is automatically disrespectful and hurtful to their culture. As a white person, we don’t understand the stereotypes used towards the black community, and we will never understand the hurt they feel after seeing an advertisement like this right when they think racism is becoming less of a societal issue.
Privilege is not just the assumption that whites are wealthier than others, it also has to do with how comfortable they are in society. As a white person, we can do certain things and not get judged, but if a person of color were to do something similar, there is the possibility it won’t be excepted. This is why a white person may feel comfortable seeing this sweatshirt advertisement because it seems normal to them, and they see someone who looks like them (the young white boy in the orange sweatshirt). But, when a person of color goes to look on this website and expects to see someone who looks like them, they are bombarded with yet another racist stereotype.
Colorblindness is a term used to disregard the appearance, culture, and social dynamics of an individual’s background and upbringing. H&M was racially colorblind in this scenario because when they chose this boy for the ad, they didn’t consider the consequences of the branding of this specific sweatshirt. They also did not consider how this misrepresentation could negatively affect him and others in the black community.
Another small detail in the sweatshirts that raises a larger issue is the wording. The sweatshirt that the young black boy is wearing says, “the coolest monkey in the jungle” and the young white boy’s sweatshirt says, “mangrove jungle, official survival expert, junior tour guide”. The white child is depicted as being a strong, “survival expert and tour guide”, whereas the black child is seen as being a “cool” animal. This is an example of structural racism which in simple terms means to put a certain group at a high advantage to succeed while putting another at a disadvantage.
H&M’S Response and What They Could Have Done Differently
The PR team of H&M responded with this apology:
“We sincerely apologize for offending people with this image of a printed hooded top,” H&M’s PR representative said in a statement sent to Bain. “The image has been removed from all online channels and the product will not be for sale in the United States.”
This was very unsatisfactory for most people, who felt that it was not handled correctly. Instead of discontinuing the sweatshirt worldwide, it was still being sold in the UK.
As a brand with a large diversity in their staff, H&M could have had a more cultural appropriate mindset when choosing who would wear what for this advertisement. Another way they could have handled the situation would have been to take the sweatshirt off of the website as a whole. As mentioned before, a positive outcome that resulted from this misrepresentation of colored individuals is the celebrity involvement and reaction to the racist advertisement. Multiple celebrities used their platform to bring awareness to this situation to defend the black community.