Earlier this week, retailer H&M faced harsh social media backlash when a picture of one of their sweatshirts went viral. The online advertisement featured a black child modeling the sweater emblazoned with the words, “Coolest monkey in the jungle.” People were shocked at the visual association and let the company know it.
— Charles M. Blow (@CharlesMBlow) January 8, 2018
The sentiment is cute (cutest monkey in the jungle, but given the racial history of blacks being referred to as monkeys), it’s clear that @hm didn’t fully think this one through.
I’d like to give H&M the benefit of a doubt & say this wasn’t done intentionally.#DoBetter
— YediydeYah Allen (@yoallen78) January 8, 2018
✊🏿 Thankfully, I’ve never shopped at @hm. A quick history lesson for those that “just don’t get it”: labeling black people monkeys/apes/anything sub-human was used as justification for enslavement, forced sterilization, Jim Crow, extrajudicial violence, and more. Shame on @hm. https://t.co/3jAvpOCq7P
— Paul Dawkins (@Paul__Dawkins) January 8, 2018
Celebrities got involved too. The Weeknd posted that he was “deeply offended” by the image and that he was cutting ties with the company. Before this fatal oversight, the Canadian R&B singer had collaborated with H&M on a special edition menswear line.
— The Weeknd (@theweeknd) January 8, 2018
LeBron James and Diddy were also among the high-profile responses to the photo. Both the NBA player and rapper posted edited artist renderings of the boy with comments calling the picture “disrespectful” and pointing out the racism represented by the image.
“Put some respect on it!! When you look at us make sure you see royalty and super natural God sent glory!!” Diddy wrote, “Anything else is disrespectful.”
“Enough about y’all and more of what I see when I look at this photo,” wrote James, “I see a Young King!! The ruler of the world, an untouchable Force that can never be denied! We as African Americans will always have to break barriers, prove people wrong and work even harder to prove we belong but guess what, that’s what we love because the benefits at the end of the road are so beautiful!!”
@hm u got us all wrong! And we ain’t going for it! Straight up! Enough about y’all and more of what I see when I look at this photo. I see a Young King!! The ruler of the world, an untouchable Force that can never be denied! We as African Americans will always have to break barriers, prove people wrong and work even harder to prove we belong but guess what, that’s what we love because the benefits at the end of the road are so beautiful!! #LiveLaughLove❤️ #LoveMyPeople🤴🏾👸🏾👨🏾⚖️👩🏾⚖️
There were a number of such renderings, re-imagining the young boy in a more powerful position. H&M issued an apology the next day, admitting that it was a gross oversight and saying they would investigate how the photo was ever approved so that this doesn’t happen again. They added that they removed the image from their website and that they would be pulling the sweater from their stores.
“This incident is accidental in nature, but this doesn’t mean we don’t take it extremely seriously or understand the upset and discomfort it has caused,” the apology reads, “Racism and bias in any shape or form, conscious or unconscious, deliberate or accidental, are simply unacceptable and need to be eradicated from society. In this instance we have not been sensitive enough to this agenda.”
— H&M (@hm) January 9, 2018
Interestingly, a few days later, Terry Mango, the mother of the little boy in the photo, spoke out, but her reaction is not what you might expect. Instead of sharing the general outrage at the photo’s insensitivity, she called it an “unnecessary issue” and told people to “stop crying wolf.”
“[I] am the mum, and this is one of hundreds of outfits my son has modeled,” she wrote in a since-deleted social media post, “Stop crying wolf all the time, [it’s] an unnecessary issue here. Get over it.. That’s my son, [I’ve] been to all photoshoots and this was not an exception. Everyone is entitled to their opinion about this… I really don’t understand but not [because I’m] choosing not to, but because it’s not my way of thinking. Sorry.”
While the racist messaging might not be that big a deal to Mango, other commenters did not feel her response was appropriate. Many were concerned that she allowed her son to be photographed in the sweater in the first place.
So wait…the mother was at the H&M photoshoot and allowed her young black son to walk out on set wearing a “coolest monkey in the jungle” sweatshirt? Whatever happened to protecting your kids? Guess that check was too nice. They picked the right one then. Wouldn’t have been me
— Jackie Chanel (@JackieChanel) January 10, 2018
the image on the h&m ad had to go through sooooo many people from the mother of the model giving consent to the editor of the ad. either no one brought up why the image was problematic or no one cared enough to change the model/sweatshirt. and either way it’s not ok.
— matt. (@maattgoore) January 11, 2018
That mom has no integrity you see nothing wrong with your son wearing a monkey 🐒 shirt and H&M mocking him .
— Tete 🤷🏽♀️10/08♎️ (@CoutureeLevel) January 10, 2018
It’s disappointing that these “oversights” are still happening and as a few commenters have pointed out, they are likely caused by a lack of diversity in the workplace. We need to do better.