To handle with kid gloves: The H&M blame game

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To handle with kid gloves: The H&M blame game

Sam Mwakasisi, Opinion Editor

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Even a passive gander at recent news is all it takes to realize that racial divisions are a prevalent American issue. With a recent gaffe from H&M, a dialogue has been reignited barely two weeks into the new year–one that’s larger than a company and wholly encompasses our society.

This past Monday, Swedish clothing company H&M fell under fire when they showcased an online ad featuring Liam Mango, a five-year-old child model, posing in a green hoodie that carried the phrase “coolest monkey in the jungle”. Liam also happens to be African-American.

Although the use of the word “monkey” very easily could’ve nodded towards an active and playful child (as in “monkeying around”), its connotations as an anti-black slur inevitably shined through. Although the hoodie was sold in H&M’s UK stores, America was the main source of the swift and staggering online backlash that ensued.

The hoodie was accused of racism to a tone-deaf extent; not helping was the fact that Liam was the only African-American model in the nature-based clothing line that it came from. Other hoodies (with less problematic slogans such as “Mangrove Jungle Survival Expert”) were modeled by white boys.

Liam received ample support from the Internet, with edits and drawings of his ad editing the hoodie’s slogan to messages like “Coolest King in the World”, “Young Black King”, “Amazing Black Boy”, and “Godly”.

Notable detractors to the blunder included famous celebrities, some of which decided to distance themselves from H&M following the news, such as musicians The Weeknd and G-Eazy. “Whether an oblivious oversight or not, it’s truly sad and disturbing that in 2018, something so racially and culturally insensitive could pass by the eyes of so many…and be deemed acceptable,” G-Eazy said.

The company subsequently removed both the ad and the hoodie from their stores, alongside issuing an official apology, but the damage had thoroughly been done by that point.

If you ask me, this was a mistake that could’ve been predicted from several miles away by anyone with even a fraction of common sense. I’m sure that there are writers at The Onion as we speak going, “Why didn’t I think of that?” This is the type of oversight that transcends the limitations of human nature; it requires skill to be this ignorant. The image of this ad making its way past dozens of eyes on the H&M team without a single objection is more laughable than infuriating.

However, the story doesn’t end there. In the days following, it only got more interesting.

While there were still many that adamantly believed H&M’s faux pas was racist, just as many believed that the entire situation was blown out of proportion and supported the idea that modern society is growing too sensitive. Notes were made that the controversy wouldn’t have been nearly as massive if the “monkey” hoodie was modeled by a boy of another race, and that the only racism present in the situation rested within those who immediately equated the word “monkey” to African-Americans.

An example of people taking offense on a grand scale manifested in a “protest” this past Saturday in South Africa–a country that didn’t even sell the hoodie. The “protest” involved affiliates of socialist party Economic Freedom Fighters vandalizing and looting several H&M stores in the Johannesburg area, directly leading to the temporary closing of all stores in the country.

(I put “protest” in quotation marks because I’m using it in a very loose sense of the word that’s probably giving too much credit to people willing to destroy a store over a sweatshirt. You’re really sticking it to the minimum wage workers that’ll have to clean that up.)

Perhaps the most noteworthy individual accusing the public of overreacting is Terry Mango–Liam’s mother.

“This is one of hundreds of outfits my son has modeled,” Mango said. “Stop crying wolf all the time, [it’s] an unnecessary issue here. Get over it. [I’ve] been to all photoshoots and this was not an exception. […] I really don’t understand but not [because I’m] choosing not to, but because it’s not my way of thinking. Sorry.”

Following this seemingly reasonable statement, the pre-existing discontent among the public metastasized into an ugly mess of hypocrisy. Mango received a torrent of hatred–some of it coming from people who supported her son–that went as far as to call her the slur that started this whole debacle: a monkey. “How can you fight racism if you make racist remarks?” Mango said.

Ultimately, the snafu surrounding H&M’s gaffe has shown itself to be far larger than a clothing company, and a harbinger of the trajectory that society is heading in. This trajectory is a boggy marsh of outrage culture propagated by the now-common tendency of emotions distorting the truth and creating non-existent problems to get offended over.

The notion that Liam Mango was made to model that hoodie due to the color of his skin is ridiculous, as is the notion that the company should lose all of their credibility for this error. Words only have as much as power as you give them, and if we as a society can’t thicken our skin and move beyond our hunger for heads on silver platters, how strong can we be?

Featured image composed by Sam Mwakasisi

Original images from H&M, Alex Mitchley, BlueInq Story Art, JayToon, Chris Classic, and Akomicsart