Before you clap back at H&M ad boy’s mother, understand that context matters Her world is a little different from yours

As a kid growing up in Jamaica, the only sport I ever played — at recess, in the house, in the neighborhood — was futbol. You couldn’t tell me I wasn’t destined to be the next Pelé, the Brazilian star who brought the South American country its first World Cup title in 1958 when he was all of 17. Futbol, in my world, was really the only sport worth watching and playing, with all due respect to cricket.

But when a packed Eastern Airlines flight touched down at Washington National Airport on May 7, 1982, American football entered my world. I became a fast Redskins fan, growing to admire the quiet but effective leadership style of coach Joe Gibbs; the bruising running of John Riggins; even the team’s brash, single-bar-helmet-wearing quarterback Joe Theismann. So big a “Riggo” fan, I asked my middle school soccer coach to assign me his jersey number: 44.

I remember watching a Monday Night Football telecast on Sept. 5, 1983, where legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell said of Redskins wide receiver Alvin Garrett: “That little monkey gets loose, doesn’t he?”

The response to Cosell’s description of the 5-foot-7, 178-pound wide receiver was quick, even in our pre-social media world. The Rev. Joseph Lowery, then president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, denounced Cosell’s comment as racist and demanded a public apology.

But Cosell refused to do so, citing his past support for black athletes, Muhammad Ali being the biggest, and stated that “little monkey” was a term of endearment he had used in the past for not just black athletes but also for diminutive athletes of all shades, white included. (Cosell is on record having used the term 11 years before in describing Mike Adamle, a white journeyman running back who played for the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, New York Jets and Chicago Bears.)

Cosell, then 64 years old, admitted to calling his own grandson a little monkey; he’d leave the Monday Night Football booth after that 1983 season, citing his waning interest in professional football.

This week I harkened back to that moment in time when the pictures of an African-American boy, Liam, in an H&M ad wearing a hoodie with the words “Coolest monkey in the jungle” inscribed on it broke Twitter.

The response on social was fast and furious. Manchester United and Belgian national soccer star Romelu Lukaku, LeBron James, Diddy, The Weeknd and many more were among the big names to slam H&M, calling for shoppers to boycott the Swedish clothing company.

When Cosell said, “That little monkey gets loose, doesn’t he?” my 13-year-old self missed it. Completely. I don’t remember my parents discussing it in the house in the days that followed. But this much I’m sure of: Even if my parents had heard the comment, I doubt there’d have been an outcry for Cosell’s dismissal from his job. Why? As West Indians, raised in the Caribbean and educated in the U.K., our sensibilities toward issues of race, racism and social activism were far different from 1983 America’s.

It matters not that Cosell used the term in reference to a white player. It doesn’t matter that he used it toward his own family. The bottom line is there are people who were offended when he used it in reference to an African-American player; therefore, he should have apologized for it and never done it again.

Why? Because he used the term out of context, and context matters.

So I understand that Liam’s mom didn’t grow up here and is Nigerian-Swedish and is not tuned in to the many nuances of being woke in America. So … she don’t get it, but it doesn’t matter — because there are people who were offended. In American context, the sweatshirt was out of context and that reference is offensive. So H&M should apologize, which it did, and never do it again. Ever.

Know this: What happened to that kid in the H&M ad could never have happened to my sons — not if I am breathing, anyway, and certainly not if I’d been on that photo shoot. No doubt, my reaction to the ad was no different from yours; I share the outrage, particularly at such a time in America where subtle and not-so-subtle racism in all its forms, from intentional and murderous to intentional and microaggressive, has dominated our lives, from the athletic field to the White House.

When the mother of 5-year-old Liam ranted on social that America’s reaction to the image was “unnecessary,” I suspected she might not be African-American. (Turns out, Terry Mango moved to Sweden from Nigeria.)

In a series of Facebook posts, Mango urged critics, including high-profile musicians and sports stars, to “get over it” and to “stop crying wolf.”

She wrote: “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 [sic]. … ‘Not coz am choosing not to but because it’s not my way of thinking sorry [sic].’ ” In a separate post, she added: “Everyone is entitled to their opinion.”

That last point is probably Mango’s best, and only, good one. Growing up in Jamaica, we all spoke different versions of the patois dialect — and that included Chinese-Jamaicans, white Jamaican and Indian-Jamaicans and various combinations thereof. Our issue in Jamaica is not one of race, it’s of class. We had, and still have, a class problem.

Mango’s reaction tells me that this simply wasn’t her reality growing up; the American reaction irked her, maybe even surprised her too.

I have two black sons, ages 16 and 13 (and a daughter too). The world they live in scares the bejesus out of me; I worry about them walking home from school or, God forbid, driving my car without fear of being randomly harassed by police, who are supposed to protect them. Those are the fears that sparked this “quick” reaction, and Mango, I suspect, doesn’t understand that because that is not her reality. For those reasons alone, the national reaction cannot be deemed a small deal.

As you’d imagine and may have seen, Mango has taken more than a few hits on social, and for her comments, perhaps it’s well-deserved. She won’t have to defend herself to me. But I do hope that when the dust settles, she will look at this episode as a teachable moment — for herself and for young Liam, because the world in her head is not the world little Liam will live in.

The controversial H&M ad has been reimagined by artists and the internet With a focus on royalty and #blackboyjoy

After the recent controversy sparked by H&M’s decision to depict a black child model in a hoodie that read “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle,” several illustrators took it upon themselves to reimagine the image. Almost everyone stuck to a royalty theme, declaring the young boy a king and drawing crowns on top of his head.

Although the mother of the model, Terry Mango, has told people to “get over it” and doesn’t see a problem with it, the connotations of the original ad obviously struck a chord with many visual artists.

We’re not entirely sure whether turning the child into a billboard for other corporations, throwing him in Timberland shoes or adding pyramids in the background is doing the model any favors, but it is certainly interesting to see how so many different illustrators responded with images of their own.

Instagram Photo

Instagram Photo

Instagram Photo

Instagram Photo

Instagram Photo

H&M’s ‘coolest monkey’ hoodie and how racism wastes our precious time As Toni Morrison taught us, the ongoing cycle of ignorance keeps us from our work

When I first saw the now-infamous H&M ad of a beautiful black child wearing a hoodie that reads “The Coolest Monkey in the Jungle,” my initial reaction was rage. Here we are, almost two full decades into the 21st century, and we are still seeing images that equate black people with monkeys, an ugly trope that has existed for hundreds of years. However, my rage was quickly followed by a deep weariness. I was reminded of the words of Toni Morrison when she addressed racism during a 1975 lecture on race and politics:

“[K]now the function, the very serious function of racism, which is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and so you spend 20 years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says that you have no art so you dredge that up. Somebody says that you have no kingdoms and so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary.”

Racism, and specifically anti-blackness, manifests itself in a myriad of ugly ways. We seem to be in an endless cycle of:

  • Person/company says/does something horribly offensive
  • Offers a half-baked apology
  • Waits for the outrage to die down
  • And then it starts up again.

H&M issued an apology today: “We sincerely apologize for this image. It has been now removed from all online channels and the product will not be for sale in the United States.” Sadly, it isn’t the first company to release images with racist connotations and it won’t be the last. Nivea recently published an ad stating, I kid you not, “White is purity” and pulled it after white supremacists started sharing the image as a rallying cry. Dove came under fire a few months ago for an ad that showed an image of a black woman taking off a brown shirt to reveal a white woman underneath, as if blackness is something dirty and needs to be scrubbed off. And who could forget the recent Pepsi gaffe that treated the last few years of protests against police brutality, led primarily by black women, like a carefree day at Coachella?

What makes all of this so insidious to me, as someone who analyzes images for a living, is knowing the lasting impact that images can have on the psyches of people who consume them. Despite the apologies offered and the insistence by these companies of how much they believe in diversity and inclusion, the images are out there and the damage is done. And what I am also intimately familiar with is the energy and time wasted in fighting against this kind of messaging. What is lost when, instead of focusing that energy on ourselves, on elevating and lifting each other up, we are instead mired in a fight against the kind of messaging that tells us we’re not human.

Do I think everyone at H&M is a racist? Well, that is hard to say. But what I can tell you, as someone who has often been the only black woman in a room full of decision-makers, is that there probably aren’t enough people of color in their chain of command. There aren’t enough people in the room who have been on the receiving end of callous and insensitive remarks about their race or ethnicity. There aren’t enough people in the room who have believed they had to constantly prove their humanity time and time again. There aren’t enough people in the room who don’t have the privilege to feign ignorance about racist tropes that have existed for generations.