“Coolest Monkey in the jungle” are the words written on a H&M hoodie which went viral and received social media backlash for being “racist”. The outcry was the result of the hoodie being modelled by a black young boy from Sweden. Even though the mother of the H&M model found this hoodie to not be racist, people from all over the world did. Subsequently, H&M issued an apology and pulled the advertisement featuring the boy as well as the product from the market. This paper will draw on the key dilemmas introduced in articles on the hoodie and the reaction from the public.
According to de la Rey & Duncan (2003), racism is the institutionalised systematic domination or marginalisation of a specific race by another racial group. This is evident in the introduction of apartheid within the South African context whereby the government enabled white domination overall racial groups in the country which then subsided in 1994 ( (South African History Online, 2017). Within the modern context, De La Rey & Duncan (2003) argue that there has been a rise in symbolic racism which is unlike the traditional racial hostility and discrimination from the Apartheid era. Rather, there has been a rise in symbolic racism as well as subtle [racial] discrimination. De La Rey & Duncan (2003) conceptualise subtle discrimination as discrimination that can either be intentional or unintentional, not visible to the beneficiaries, and difficult to prove. This form of discrimination or racism usually takes form in stereotypes such as in the case of the H&M hoodie. Good!
Hennes & Mauritz is a global fashion brand that started in Västerås, Sweden. Hübinette & Tigervall (2009) argue that Sweden has the image of being the most progressive Western country and is a Third World patron through its progressive transracial and transnational adoption policies. They also point out that there is “strong resistance and reluctance” to talk about race and in Swedish culture and academia and race is a taboo subject within Scandinavian countries(Reference??). Within the Swedish context, they stand outside of the terrain of colonialism and imperialism, and the experiences of segregation such as the Nazi’s Holocaust. This is in contrast with the United States of American which was were the biggest critics of the ‘coolest monkey’ hoodie.
People of colour for decades have faced a series of dehumanisation from the West and the word monkey or ape have been part of the popular discourse used to demean them. According to Howard (2014), drawing from simian metaphors and the depiction of Africans as monkeys or apes started between the years 1790 and 1840 as well as the eradication of the slave trade. The portrayal of Africans as simians was the first attempt to portray Africans as less than European humans(Goff, Eberhardt, Williams, & Jackson, 2008). Subsequently, for years going forward the simian trope was used to justify racial naturalism or in other words a colour-blind society with the rise of Obama as president of the United States of America. However, for years this comparison of non-whites to animals was found to justify racist violence as this colourblindness or ‘racial disappearance’ plays out violently for black as it dehumanised them. As a consequence, this is why the use of a black model to model the “coolest monkey in the jungle” is found by many to be racist.
The H&M scandal can easily be used to highlight the key concepts used by Fanon and Steve Biko. It is important to note that Fanon and Biko were both writing in historical periods such as Colonial and Apartheid, respectively. However, as argued by Hook (2004) post-colonial society have inherited the problems of the colonial past and this Fanon’s theories still inform the post-colonial periods. Colonialism, similarly to Apartheid, is the forceful appropriation, dispossession and control of non-Western terrorities whilst imperialism is the theoretical and ideologies that justify colonialism (Hook, 2004; Said, 1978). Unlike most countries like Algeria which Fanon spoke, Sweden was devoid of this. Fanon(reference?), in summary, argued that the psychological need to be looked at in conjunction with the historical, social, political, and social contexts as these factors tied in with the individual’s subjectivity. Within the social and historical context of Sweden, the word “monkey” is not associated with the simian tropes which have been used as means to demean, dehumanise and exclude African people. Good!
As a result, the word monkey for people is violent which explains the reactions from non-whites. According to Hook(2004), Fanon looked at the violence of colonial society. In this paper, we’ll look at violence according to Bulhan (1985)’s definition which states that violence is any condition by which a group violates the integrity of another person or group. In this case, H&M violated the integrity of non-white individuals from all over the world. When H&M released the image of the black model with ‘monkey’ inscribed hoodie, they received negative backlash from celebrities and political leaders such as EFF’s Julius Malema except from the mother, BBC online (2018) reported. This article outlined the outrage from all over the world which made the hoodie go viral. For the public especially, especially people of colour the article reminded them of their place in their world and how the term monkey had been used negatively against them essentially their lived experience of marginalisation and oppression. This Hook (2004) argued to be political consciousness which is the “awareness of how one is crucially part of the world and its conditions and of how one can and should attempt to change the world on the basis of a carefully considered political project. This political consciousness aggravated the EFF party to loot H&M stores.
“We are not going to allow anyone to use the colour of our skin to humiliate us, to exclude us,” the EFF leader exclaimed in response to why they looted the stores (?? ). Furthermore, in another article by Newsweek – for Stephanie Yeboah, this image reminded her of an incident where she was called a monkey in efforts to humiliate and dehumanise her (Silva, 2018). In another article by TheUndefeated, the writer expresses how the image in itself prompted rage from her at first glance as she saw it as antiblack because it reminded her of the simian trope that has been used for centuries (Scruggs, 2018.) According to Fanon(reference?), this rage and sensitivity to the word “monkey” experienced by these different individuals in different contexts this is the process by which black people internalise the prejudices of the white world. This can be used to show why the mother of the model did not see this as racist because of their perceived colour-blind country. The rage can also be seen to demonstrate affective erethism which is the “pathological condition of hypersensitivity which arises in oppressive or colonial environments and which involves both a sense of inferiority and a constant nearness to anger and/or rage” (Hook, 2004). The looting of H&M stores, social media calls for boycotting, and the rage that was directed towards H&M is a clear indicator of how the post-colonial society inherited colonial issues.
H&M is a global fashion company and should be more politically, historically, and culturally aware as mentioned by G-Eazy who was one of the celebrities who cut ties with the company. It is also important to note that as much as Sweden has an image of colour-blindness, immigrants and people of colour do experience racism (Hübinette & Tigervall, 2009). However, they have difficulty talking about it because they are socialised to not talk about racial differences. As a result, transnational adoptees doubt and try to steer away from labelling their racist encounters as such. One of Hübinette & Tigervall (2009)’s interviewees mentioned an incident where a fellow Swede chanted ‘damn negro’ amongst other things which left him feeling unsafe. Therefore, the argument that the hoodie in the Swedish context could not have been racist is flawed on these grounds. Therefore, this can be used to argue that the mother’s response that she saw the hoodie as just a hoodie with word “monkey” to be a statement that any Swede would make as they come from a social context where racialization is taboo.
In the last part of this paper, we will look at how some people of colour decided to turn this moment of rage to something more positive. Instead of sharing the ‘racist’ image, Diddy and LeBron James edited the image to say, “Coolest King of the world” and “King of the world”, respectively
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Morgan, R. (2018). Controversial H&M hoodie ad not racist, parents say. Retrieved from https://www.sbs.com.au/news/controversial-h-m-hoodie-ad-not-racist-parents-say
Scruggs, D. (2018). H&M’s ‘coolest monkey’ hoodie and how racism wastes our precious time; Retrieved from https://theundefeated.com/whhw/hms-coolest-monkey-hoodie-and-how-racism-wastes-our-precious-time/
Silva, C. (2018). Mother of H&M model in ‘racist’ monkey hoodie tells people to ‘get over it’ Retrieved from http://www.newsweek.com/mother-hm-model-racist-monkey-hoodie-tells-people-get-over-it-779000