American Culture

Who’s the coolest monkey in the jungle?

10973723Ironically, nobody outraged at H&M

Children and monkeys go together like peanuts and butter. Search for monkey toddler costume on Google Images and you’ll get results rather like these. Associating monkeys and children goes back well before we’re done with other people changing our pants for us. Children of various ages and genders like playing with monkey-themed toys. Children like pretending to be monkeys. Parents call their children monkeys.

Somewhere between that reality, H&M, and the internet, it looks like people have collectively lost their damned minds. By now, you’ve probably heard that H&M made the mistake of…what, I’m not exactly sure. But people are offended. An artist has ended their collaboration with the retailer. Various celebrities are outspoken in the offense they’ve taken. H&M’s damage control is to vigorously yank the offending product and apologize profusely. The apology even sounds sincere. Something obviously happened, right? And it was obviously bad? Do I seem to have the basics straight?

I have to ask, because I don’t think so. Something happened. What, I do not know. I can only suppose. Judging from the news, I suppose I’m supposed to be looking for the racist behind this diabolical plot.

I suppose that, before this product line hit the market, someone came up with the idea. How? What could possibly inspire an adult to associate kids with monkeys? Oh, right. We covered that up front. I have no way of knowing who this person is. I know nothing about them. I could suppose they work at H&M. Or maybe they work somewhere else. Maybe this person drew up the design themselves. Maybe they passed it on to someone else for the graphics. I know I’m not supposed to assume the idea’s originator is black or that the graphic artist is black. I’m not supposed to assume that because I’m supposed to assume that no black designer would associate children’s clothes with monkeys. Anyone doing that must be non-black.

However it is that the design came about, somewhere down the road the design ended up being the property of H&M, which happens to be based in maybe the whitest country in the world, Sweden. I’m not blaming them for that. They can’t help it. If I say Sweden and you picture anything other than blue eyes, blond hair, or a muppet, we’re thinking two different Swedens.

As I understand it, H&M’s corporate headquarters in Sweden is probably where the product development and marketing decisions are made. I suppose that someone in product development took a bunch of different graphics, paired them up with a bunch of different types of clothing, and came up with a slate of hoodies that look like this, available in these sizes and colors, and shirts that look like that, available in those sizes and colors. There may have been meetings. There may or may not have been gigs of soul-sucking emails sent back and forth. Reply to all may or may not have been used long after it was appropriate. I suppose there was a deadline, and that there were reports, and that everybody involved did a great job and went out for bikinis and lutfisk afterward.

At first, I supposed that they must have farmed out the ad campaign, but it’s possible even that was in-house. So I suppose one day an ad person at H&M, about whom I know absolutely nothing, was sitting at their cubicle desk and got an email instructing them to start on a new campaign for more new children’s clothes. Another day, another same old same old. I don’t know how many articles of clothing are in that clothing line, but I suppose it was more than just the one item. At some point, a box of clothes changed hands, and sat in a closet for the time being. I suppose the ad person looked at a report detailing the contents of the box and the sizes of the articles therein. Then I suppose the ad person called their model agency with the sizes and over the next few days coordinated a photo shoot. I know nothing about any of the people involved in this process, but it involved no fewer than the ad person, the model agency person, and the parents that answered the phone when the model agency called them. I don’t know where the photo shoot was held. I do not know who the photographer was. Or the modeling agent. Or who any of the other parents and kids were.

But I know from the outrage that one of the child models happened to be black. I could assume that the child’s parents are black, but I could be mistaken. I can’t assume that this did not happen in Sweden, because, as it happens, nearly a third of Sweden’s inhabitants are foreign-born, so a young black child could be in Sweden as either a citizen or as an immigrant.

I suppose that at the photo shoot, the box of clothing was opened up, and clothing was passed out to the parents, probably with much playing, hooting, and hollering on the parts of the children. If I think about this, really try to picture it, I imagine it was a very happy (if frantic) day all around. The kids get to be models. The parents are probably all beaming and proud (and more than a little happy to collect payment because their kids are just that adorable).

Somewhere in all that chaos and jubilation, there was a hoodie for a child about yay-high. the hoodie just happened to read, “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle.” Somehow, that hoodie passed from the box, into the hands of maybe an ad person or a model agency person, into the hands of a parent.

I suppose we must be getting close to the very first chance for anyone to actually be offended, because up until now, at no point had the concepts of children, parents, monkeys, and blackness collided. What did the parents of the child model allocated to that widget-hoodie think? I don’t know. I wasn’t there. And so far, nobody in the media seems to have identified them and interviewed them to find out what they think, you know, the presumably black parents of the black child who got to wear a “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle” hoodie at a photo shoot because he’s ridiculously cute and his parents got him into modeling.

Unless I’m given a reason otherwise, I’m going to continue assuming this all happened in Sweden, because I’m not sure there’s good dollars and sense in farming the modeling gig out internationally. I don’t know the first thing about parenting, never having parented. I especially don’t know anything about Swedish parenting, but I assume it’s much the same, only with more bikinis and lutfisk. I suppose that if the parent had a problem with it, something would have been said at the time.

Then again, I’m projecting here. I’m projecting my ideas of parenting. I’m also projecting my idea of American parenting. At the moment, I’m particularly projecting my idea of black American parenting, in which, had this happened in the US, I suppose I’m expected to stereotype and believe such a parent here would have piped up, “oh, HELL no!” See, earlier I’d noted that up to this point in the narrative, the concepts of children, parents, monkeys, and blackness hadn’t collided. But the outrage didn’t originate in Sweden. The outrage seems to have outlets in the UK. A Canadian artist has cut ties with H&M over this. The outrage we’re seeing in the media seems to be mostly American. What didn’t collide that day wasn’t just children, parents, monkeys, and blackness, but children, parents, monkeys, and mostly American blackness.

It would be tempting at that point to suppose that what we’re witnessing is Americentrism in action, because up until now I’d pictured the day of the photo shoot as all rainbows and kittens monkeys. I could well be wrong. But here’s the thing. I didn’t know how racist Sweden could be until just then, when I skimmed through that article. Odds are good, Gentle Reader didn’t either. Odds are good Gentle Reader hadn’t considered the whole Swedish angle at all. Just tuck that bit of introspection away for the moment.

I suppose that after the photo shoot, which was by now either all laughter and jumping or a garish display of racism replete with deeply offended but eager to get paid parents, the photographer popped the top on a Carnegie Porter and sat down to hundreds (or thousands) of raw photos to batch process before culling and passing the final images along. I suppose there were more emails. There may have been more meetings.

At this stage, we enter a period where it is possible that many eyeballs had, at some point, passed across the image of a small black male child wearing the now-infamous “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle” hoodie. Did nobody pipe up and say, “whoa, that’s not gonna play in Peoria” (assuming this happened in Sweden and that Swedes use anachronistic American idioms)? On the one hand, maybe there’s no reason to assume they were prepared for the collision of children, monkeys, and American blackness. On the other, maybe those dastardly Swedes were wearing blackface at the last meeting. Or maybe, given the nature of racism in Sweden, it just didn’t strike anybody in the room as a thing at all. Were there any black Swedes in the room? I don’t know. Neither does Outraged Reader (we’re no longer Gentle or Dear now that our innocence has been ripped away).

Somewhere along the line, everybody who needed to sign off on everything signed off on everything and the photos were cropped, re-sized, optimized, and stored on a server for the webdev team to use. I know that there’s a UK site for H&M because one of the news articles mentioned that the offending hoodie had been removed entirely from the US site, but that it remains on the UK site, just no longer worn by a model. When I look at that link and scroll, I see lots of children. I see white children, black children, Asian children. There may even be Latino children, but one can’t always tell from photos. What we see there is diversity. Granted, it might be the cynical kind of diversity one expects from corporations marketing to people of all races and ethnicities and genders and body shapes and so on, but it’s diversity. On that front, it’s hard to suppose that anything about H&M marketing is driven by racism or intentionally racist decisions. Whoever signed off on the selection did an admirable job of looking entirely not racist.

I suppose that H&M uses just one Content Management System for their e-commerce presence online, and that different admins have different realms of responsibility depending on market, so maybe there’s a UK webdev team and a US one, but probably using the same system and drawing from the same resources. I suppose there’s a bajillion little checkboxes and radio buttons and search filters and all manner of ways for one group of cubicle-dwelling webdev sorts to show one item, but for another group to show a different item, and that they do these things at the whim of some mid-level manager just above them. At no point am I given to think that any of these fluorescent-lit desk jockeys has done a racist thing. By now it’s possible that someone low on the ladder might have seen the juxtaposition of black child and monkey-hoodie and thought, “this isn’t good.” It’s possible they voiced their objection to their manager. I’m supposing not. Or I’m supposing that if they did, nothing came of it.

Then comes the big day! The product is now online, worn by a black child and ready to be viewed by any pair of eyeballs that comes along. Hopefully the eyeballs of a parent, grandparent, or other adult with a credit card and a child in mind that acts like a monkey or is affectionately called a monkey passes over this image and inspires a sale. Cha-ching! Money in the bank!

Now we get to observe the collision between children and clothing and monkeys and blackness. Judging from the concentration of outrage, it’s mostly American blackness, but there’s that Canadian artist to consider, and the fact that the UK site removed the model but not the item, while the US removed the item altogether, so maybe it’s more of a collision with Western blackness since Sweden is Northern European and, as we’ve learned, occasionally racist as all get out, but again, nobody busy outraging probably made it a point to know that.

I’m not suggesting black Americans and other anti-racism Americans are wrong to make the monkey-blackness connection. We have a long, racist history of that particularly racist pairing. But I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that not all smoke is evidence of a fire. For another few moments, I want to suppose a few other things.

I suppose it is entirely possible that a white, Asian, or Latino American buyer might conceivably buy such an article of clothing for their white, Asian, or Latino American child gift recipient. Should that happen, there’s no reason to suppose for even a moment that racism is involved in that purchase or act of giving.

I suppose that if someone from any of those demographics gave that hoodie to a black child in America, there would be hell to pay, because what the hell is wrong with people that they would do that?

I suppose that a black American gift giver could give such a gift to a child of any other race or ethnicity and it would never be an issue.

I suppose it is possible that a black American gift giver could give that article of clothing to a black child, but I feel like there’s a minefield there. I suppose said gift giver would be aware of and make the connection between blackness and monkeys and racism and wouldn’t dream of stuffing their little loved one in that thing…not because of what the kid would think, but because of what observers might think.

But here’s another thing I suppose. I suppose it is entirely possible that there are black Americans who know a bright, beautiful child, boy or girl, an angel of a child who jumps around and makes “ooh ooh ahh ahh!” monkey noises, because love of monkeys strikes me as universally child-like. I suppose that there are black American parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and siblings and friends who might even call such a darling child a monkey and mean nothing but love by it. And I suppose such a person might be deeply inclined to buy that child exactly that kind of gift, or a monkey costume, or a monkey mask, or a monkey outfit, because they love their little monkey (and I  mean that in the best possible way).

And I suppose that same aspiring gift-giver then thinks, “well, shit.”

To me, that’s the crying shame of this outrage, right there. We’re so busy being outraged, black and white alike, most of us American, that we’ve come around full circle. In our ardent defense against all things racist, we have gathered up our children, set them safe in the middle, and circled the wagons around them, lest any racist harm come their way. That’s fine and noble. But along the way, there’s an accidental message.

There is something cute and fun. That something cute and fun is a monkey. You can be a boy and like monkeys. You can be a girl and like monkeys. You can be a white, Asian, or Latino child and like monkeys. You can screech like monkeys, and ook! like monkeys, and jump like monkeys, and swing like monkeys, and even dress like monkeys.

But not if you’re a black child. One hopes that child, as of yet, knows nothing of racism, or at least, nothing of it they can actually understand. We’ve precious little innocence left in this world, and that’s a type of it I hope they can hold onto for as long as possible. But adults with our issues, because of our historical hatreds and affinities, offenses given and amends made…because of our inability to get along past our dermatologically superficial and historically abysmal differences, we have set aside, at least in the Western world, one type of child that may not revel in their inner monkey as the rest of us do.

Way to go, American Outrage. You’ve stripped away a little more innocence. If Dear or Outraged Reader has an extra moment or three, please go back to my introduction. Click through the links. What you will find there is mostly an exercise in American whiteness. Apparently there is little in the world as utterly, blandly white as acknowledging and indulging the monkey-hood in children.

I suppose no black children were asked what they feel about being excluded from all things fun and monkey.





4 replies »

  1. I have to take this in its larger context. I wish to hell shit like this never mattered, but globally there’s this nasty racist monkey=black thing and there’s just zero way around it. In football around the world you have black players being abused by opposing fans throwing bananas and hooting like monkey (hell, it’s happened with the player’s OWN fans). Surely we all remember the Obama/monkey thing. And on and on.

    I’d hope that someday we can all look back on this and marvel that anyone was ever that dumb. In other words, however much I sympathize with your take, we live in the world we love in, and you know every bit as much as I do about it.

    For now, though, I think two things about H&M. First, no way was this intended the way it’s been taken because no company is that stupid. And second, people need firing, because you have to be forging new frontiers in idiot for this to have happened and gotten past you.

    • That’s why I picked this apart as well as I could. The pairing is indeed an unfortunate aspect of the world we live in. But when I picked at it more and more, the pairing happens so far into the process as to eliminate anything intentional. You’re probably more familiar with some of these processes than I am. Who would be responsible for knowing that the item would offend some but not all viewers and only if paired insensitively? According to H&M’s own apology, they have a process for preventing this. I guess if you’ve previously marketed something emblazoned with a skull inside a Star of David, you would have to have such a process. So I agree, someone there is responsible for having a clue and pulling the plug on dumb moves.

      To me, the dumb move was the pairing, but that’s why I’m stuck on the significance. Is it socially conscious advancement on our part to resolve that so long as the hoodie only appeared on a child of a non-offended race, it’s okay? Are are we so hellbent on sanitizing all potential racism from our sight that we would let the whole pairing of monkeys and children generally be erased? If not the latter, I’m stuck thinking the former. In which case, are we doing any better to suggest that some products, while innocuous in and of themselves, are just not to be sold where the potentially offended might see but only when paired incorrectly, innocently or otherwise?

      As far as I can tell, nobody was harmed in this pairing. I’m still working under the assumption parents were present at the shoot, for instance. The child probably likely didn’t even know anything was potentially amiss. In many ways, this strikes me as akin to holding an author to account because some of the readership completely took something out of context, sincerely or otherwise. But somewhere there’s a Canadian artist who probably didn’t think through the process of a photo ending up in a store’s online merchandise to realize that at worst some low/mid-level button-pusher let something through that the parents were apparently okay with, and rather than addressing the matter with his corporate partners at H&M, decided to forego all his past work with them and grandstand, as though this moment were somehow indicative of…what, exactly? Now the press is on it, and people who mostly know not the least damned thing about H&M, Sweden, or boring corporate processes are having real-world influence on H&M’s actual financial value, which can readily turn into actual human joblessness and hardship, and for what? So that someone primed by experience elsewhere to take offense at a thing that has no offense in it but for the manner in which it is perceived can express outrage and walk away feeling they’re on the moral high ground because yet again, there’s *proof*, *proof*, I say, that bad people are up to no good.

      I don’t like the direction any of this takes us. I’m as anti-racism as anyone I know, and I think there’s something perhaps even more pernicious in overzealously sanitizing all things out of an abundance of caution. Case in point: kids and monkeys. If it was a fine product for just about everyone, and I’m inclined to think it was because of that whole kids and monkeys thing, this whole approach boils down to being one step away from simply tagging the item, “not for black kids” when it’s not the kids who are taking offense. Failing that, we just remove the subjectively offensive item so no kid gets to wear it. The problem is that we’ve let people who look for examples of racism where there isn’t one take precedence over the much simpler and self-evident point that kids and monkeys are a natural pairing. I don’t think we make progress in racial justice by cowering every single time the race card is played.

      To me, this is a step backward. If we let this be proof of racism and a victory of some sort now that the item is history, where does that kind of reasoning start serving us well? When flat earthers look at the parking lot they’re standing in and take it as confirmation of what they know about the shape of the world? When climate change deniers look at a cold winter and feel vindicated? When that one anti-vaxxer has an autistic kid and doesn’t understand that correlation isn’t causation? Now we’ve got this, and the moral of the story seems to be that it’s okay to cry wolf when there’s no wolf just because there are actually wolves out there, but dammit, someone should absolutely go hungry over this.

  2. FWIW, it seems the child’s mother and I are in agreement, at least in part.

    “”He has no idea what’s going on, he’s only five… Liam has not experienced [racism yet],” Mrs Mango said. “I just want him to have innocence.””

    We still don’t know where in the chain of responsibility any actual racist did an actually racist thing. To me, it still reads as just a case of really bad optics. Meanwhile, the press ran with this and the result? Destruction of private property in SA, and security concerns sufficient to cause the family in question to move, because this is a fire that clearly needed gas thrown on it.