Protests in South Africa forced H&M to close down shops across the country and hire a “diversity leader” to repair damages.
One has to actively avoid media to not know what is happening with H&M and the controversy surrounding the clothing brand. The company ran online ads of black child Liam Mango wearing a hoodie with the words “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle” in bold text, which caused a great deal of backlash.
The backlash H&M currently faces includes lighter issues such as musicians G-Eazy and The Weeknd cutting ties with the brand to more pressing issues like having their storefronts in South Africa ransacked by followers of the well-known socialist group the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) of South Africa.
The protests turned violent quickly, and the leader of the group Floyd Shivambu approved greatly. He took to Twitter and said, “Well done fighters who physically confronted racism,” and, “Racism must fall and we will never tip-toe around racists.”
H&M’s response via Facebook lacked substance. They claimed it was unintentional, which is fairly believable. The statement said, “Our commitment to addressing diversity and inclusiveness is genuine, therefore we have appointed a global leader, in this area, to drive our work forward.”
Is the hoodie truly racist? The intention certainly was not to be racist, but one anonymous USM student said, “Kids like animals. They also like being cool. Are people saying no black kid is allowed to like monkeys?”
Junior nursing major Joshua Robinson said, “It was at the very least negligent on the part of H&M, but it does not warrant such a violent reaction from the public.”
It all boils down to the simple fact that the sweater is just clothing, but H&M should not have been blind to the connotation that monkey holds throughout history. Terry Mango, the mother of the boy featured in the ad, said that she saw no racism in the hoodie and only saw her son modeling a sweatshirt that has “monkey” on it.
South Africa has a very racially charged political climate, and it has come to the point where a hoodie can incite so much hate and violence. This violence only works to tear people apart. That is not to say there are not racial issues that need to be dealt with; they simply should not need violence.
Martin Luther King Jr. said in a 1964 lecture, “Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral… It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated one.” Violence against violence will only solve the problem momentarily, but in the long term will build cracks and scars that fuel tensions more.
Should a “diversity leader” be necessary? In a world where anything can be misconstrued, most companies should automatically be questioning the choices they make in branding. No amount of PR can stop groups from calling something racist, but trashing stores maintained by the people you are supposed to be helping is not the way to bring about freedom and peace.