In civilised society we like to think that racism is a vestige of our barbaric past, a hateful thing which has no place in modern society. No-one would admit to holding racist views and we can presume that all reasonably minded people would consider racism a stain on their character. We know that it was responsible for the worst aspects of mankind’s behaviour and feel ashamed and sorry about it. While we know it should be a thing of the past we are still aware that it is encountered today and it continues to blight the lives of many. Few things are as unambiguously wrong, and potentially evil, as the belief that your race is superior to other races. It can be the first slipepry step on a slope that descends to barbarism. It is for this reason that we need to be vigilant and decry racism whenever it raises its head.
I was therefore distressed when I saw reports that there were calls to boycott H&M on account of a racist advert which I have included here. Normally I would not repeat a racist image or text but it is important in this case. I looked at the advert for quite a while trying to see the offense which was intended but failed. All I initially see was a handsome young man modelling a hoodie. I wondered if it was the association with the “hoodie” that was the problem but after reading the text and other articles I discovered that it was the slogan which was causing concern – “The coolest monkey in the jungle“.
The hoodie was part of a range that had the theme of animals and the jungle, some of the other hoodies had featured lions and giraffes and some had been modelled by young white kids. I discovered that the outrage was at the use of the word “monkey” in an advert using a young man of colour. Now lets be clear, the phrase “monkey” and “cheeky monkey” are commonly used to describe kids, especially boys, of any colour or race. It is an affectionate term and, at worst, the mildest of terms of opprobrium. I found it hard to see that this was an insult.
On reading further, it was clear that some people thought that this use of “monkey” and “jungle” was a slur on people of colour but one has to consider who has made this into a slur. It is inconceivable that H&M intended to insult its customers and estrange a large part of the buying public, especially as this advert was aimed at its South African market where they would be the majority of its customers. It would be for this reason that it had a young guy of colour as the model as previously they had been criticised for their lack of diversity in their models. Their intention would have been to be more diverse and more inclusive not to insult or mock.
This is reminiscent of when Benedict Cumberbatch said “I think as far as colored actors go it gets really difficult in the UK.” His intention had been to draw attention to the racism that exists in the media industry (Having just worked on the film “Ten Years a Slave”), but he was drawn over the coals and called a racist for the use of the term “colored”. No-one genuinely thought that he had racist intentions but some people thought that they could call out the race card and increase their own social standing.
This is what happened here. A number of celebrities saw the opportunity to use racism to further their own careers. Choreographer Somizi Mhlongo, the singer Abel Makkonen Tesfaye, known professionally as The Weeknd, Rapper Diddy, and others saw the opportunity for cheap self-promotion through calls to boycott H&M. In their minds there was a connection between jungles, monkeys and young men of colour even if no-one else had thought this. They started the calls for attention, not so much to fix and evil, but to praise their vigilance and to raise their own profiles. Their campaign was vociferous and in a very unpleasant twist lead to the mother of the young boy in the advert being at the receiving end of racist abuse.
If there was racist thinking here, it was in the minds of those that started the campaign against this advert. It was they that thought such unworthy thoughts and it was they that tried to use the issue of race to their advantage : no-one else. As the boys mother said :-
“[I] am the mum and this is one of hundreds of outfits my son has modelled. Stop crying wolf all the time, unnecessary issue here. Get over it.”
She is also right on the big risk here. We all remember the little boy who cried wolf so often than when the wolf really did arrive nobody believed him. When people call “racist“, knowing that this was not intended nor the case, they make it more difficult to be aware and ready when the real call to action arises. Repeated false alarms lead people to ignore the warning signs. Watching what is happening in the world, in America and the Middle East especially, we know that racism is sometimes just bubbling under the surface of our lives. We need to remain vigilant and campaigns like this are a dangerous distraction we need to be able to hear the signal over the static.
I’d be tempted to boycott The Weeknd and Diddy to teach them a lesson but given I never buy any of their products anyway I guess it would have a negligible effect.