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The H&M advert clearly didn't mean to be racist – which is worrying in itself

Negligence that results in ‘accidental’ racism can be just as insidious as out-and-out bad faith

Edward Adoo
Tuesday 09 January 2018 12:24 GMT
H&M apologise for photo modelling hoodie branded as racist

An H&M advert which shows a young black child wearing a green hoodie with the phrase “Coolest monkey in the jungle” emblazoned upon it has caused controversy today, with many people proclaiming their outrage for what they see as racist advertising.

Many social media critics argued that allowing a young black child to wear a hoodie which had such racial overtones was deeply inappropriate and severely negligent. But was the reference racist? In my opinion, no – just deeply misguided.

As a black British person, I felt uncomfortable when I saw the advert. The historic context of the word “monkey” has caused outrage and pain to my generation and many others who came before us. It’s unsurprising The Weeknd chose to drop the company, even if I personally don’t believe that it was a deliberately racist act.

The child pictured in the advert was simply told to put on a jumper and model it. He was, most likely, unaware of the implications of that “monkey” reference and of the possible outrage the resulting image would cause. His parents were probably chuffed that he was chosen out of thousands for the role, and no doubt they were happy to see him greatly remunerated for his time.

Beyond the offensive historic context for black people, the term “monkey” is a well-recognised term of endearment for a child, similar to “munchkin” or “poppet”. In that context, we obviously recognise that it isn’t intended to cause hurt or offence, and that it has no connection to entrenched prejudice.

My godson is white, and his parents often refer to him as a “little monkey”; white friends, equally, often use the epithet for their children. At no point have I ever felt the need to call them out on racism. No one is implying that merely referring to your child as a “cheeky monkey” or similar is “not allowed” because of “PC culture”. On the contrary, context is powerful and important.

The problem here doesn’t lie in the supposed racism of H&M, but instead in their misguidedness. Their intention was clearly not to cause offence; it just obviously didn’t enter their minds to think seriously about their black customers. They could have liaised with diverse focus groups, who would have easily pointed out the racial connotations of the ad. Now they have lost potential fans by being tone-deaf.

H&M have apologised for their mistake. They should have been allowed to explain why they decided to run the advert and why they decided to use a young black child alongside a monkey reference. But then perhaps they don’t want to explain, as that would involve questioning the diversity of their own organisation and admitting that black decision-makers are clearly lacking in their advertising team and on their board. A glance at their all-white board of directors tells you everything you need to know.

When your executives don’t come from diverse racial backgrounds, it makes it supremely difficult for them – and the people who work under them – to understand the hurt and distress caused by words like “monkey” in the black community. It’s imperative to have people who can connect directly with their audience or customer base. This failure should be a wake-up call.

If anything, it’s about business. To be able to sell effectively and run successful marketing campaigns, an organisation should have the racial diversity of its customer base reflected at all levels within a corporate or boardroom structure. Some high street brands are light years away from making that happen.

H&M should not be let off the hook on this. Questions need to be asked about their marketing team and those responsible for allowing this to happen. Lessons will be learnt from their mistake.

After their apology, H&M need to regroup and devise a strategic plan in order to put their creative house back in order. They must do that in order to win trust and credibility, not just in the eyes of the black community but all communities who support their brand. Because this might not have been an out-and-out racist mistake, but negligence that results in “accidental” racism is often just as insidious.

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