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.