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It wasn’t only H&M- Racism from shelves and the retrospective

Alys Parsons

Alys Parsons is a second year English Literature and Creative Writing student who has a passion for all types of writing. She enjoys reading, cooking, and watching films and is interested in any story that generates discussion.

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The clothing giant H&M has faced global condemnation over its decision to allow the young, black, model Liam Mango to model a jumper bearing the words ‘Coolest monkey in the jungle’. A photo of Liam modelling the jumper went global on the 7th January when style blogger Stephanie Yeboah shared an advert for the jumper on Twitter with the comment:

‘Whose idea was it @hm to have this little, sweet black boy wear a jumper that says, “coolest monkey in the jungle”.’

The post was rapidly retweeted being shared nearly 14,000 times in just one day. The company’s decision to produce the jumper and its decision to use a black model resulted in hundreds of complaints. Both The Weeknd and G-Eazy have terminated their collaborations with the company. G-Eazy’s collection was due to be released on the 1st March but he has withdrawn his connection to the company, explaining on Instagram that he was ‘genuinely excited’ about his clothing line with H&M. However that excitement ‘quickly evaporated’ once he viewed the ‘disturbing image’. He added that he couldn’t allow his name and brand ‘to be associated with a company that could let this happen’ and that he hoped ‘this situation will serve as the wakeup call that H&M and other companies need to get on track and become racially and culturally aware, as well as more diverse at every level’. The Weeknd cut ties with the company on the 8th January tweeting:

‘woke up this morning shocked and embarrassed by this photo. I’m deeply offended and will not be working with @hm anymore…’

The company was quick to remove the item from both its shops and online store; stating the item would be recycled into new clothing.

However, different opinions were also expressed.

When Liam’s mother Theresa initially heard about the story she explained that she didn’t have an issue with the jumper and told those offended to ‘get over it’. Theresa has since appeared on the ITV show This Morning with Liam and his father Frank Odhiambo, to answer questions and explain their view on the issue. Speaking live from Sweden, Theresa recalled that the modelling shoot was ‘no different from any other day’, and it was only later that she ‘realised we had an issue at hand’. She didn’t and doesn’t make a connection between the use of the word ‘monkey’ on the jumper and racism explaining ‘I wouldn’t see such a connection other than my son modelling a shirt’. Whilst Mrs Mango may not have a problem with the jumper herself, she stated that she understands peoples’ reactions and explained, “it is not an overreaction when it comes to racism. I know what racism is. I have been at the front. I have had racist remarks to me first hand. I have been called a monkey on a cruise ship.” During the interview Mr Odhiambo revealed that the family have been forced to move home and that he is worried about his family’s safety. He told viewers ‘it’s very important that people should understand we have a son, we have other children at home, and we have an obligation to protect our children’.

The company has received retaliation in South Africa where several shops have been vandalised and looted. The company was forced to temporarily close all of its’ South African stores on Saturday after police used rubber bullets to clear rioters outside a store in Boksburg. The rioters are connected to the South African group Economic Freedom Fighters, a radical militant group founded by the former African National Congress Youth Leader Julius Malema in 2013. The countries opposition party the Democratic Alliance is also reporting H&M to the International Chamber of Commerce for breaching marketing guidelines.

A spokesperson for H&M UK and Ireland spoke to the Independent over the events in South Africa, commenting:

‘H&M is aware of the recent events in several of our South African stores. Our priority is the safety of our employees and customers. We are monitoring the security situation closely and the stores are open if we have assessed the situation to be safe. We strongly believe that racism and bias in any shape or form, deliberate or accidental, are simply unacceptable. We would like to stress that our store staff had no part in this poorly judged product and image.”

With the store announcing on Wednesday that it is appointing a new Global Leader for Diversity and Inclusiveness with the message ‘We are Listening’, has the brand learnt from its mistakes?

Whilst H&M seems to be listening to customer’s complaints, this is not the first time the company has been accused of racism. In 2015, when the company launched its first stores and marketing campaigns in South Africa, many black South Africans were unhappy with the company’s decision to use only white models in its’ advertising. H&M’s response to complaints in 2015 created further anger when they argued their advertising ‘created a positive image’, inferring only white models ‘create a positive image’.

Last year, several leading brands also faced backlash after ill-considered marketing decisions. Primark received several complaints in February 2017 after it featured a t-shirt in its stores with the words ‘Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe’ and the image of a large American baseball bat, wrapped round with barbed wire, covered in blood. The t-shirt was alluding to television show The Walking Dead’s season six finale, where Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s villain Negan used the rhyme to select which character would die before beating the chosen character to death. Although the rhyme has been changed to remove its earlier racist connotation, it was still perceived deeply offensive to black people.

The health and beauty company Dove also faced backlash in October 2017 for an online advert that appeared to show a black woman changing into a white woman after using Dove’s body wash. The company explained that it ‘missed the mark in representing women of colour thoughtfully and that ‘it should not have happened… we apologise deeply and sincerely for the offence that it has caused’.

With global companies repeatedly making the same mistakes, how have these products been allowed to reach shelves with companies only realising there is an issue once the product or advertising has reached consumers still remains a question. H&M’s insensitivity in producing their jumper seems to be the latest in a long line of racially insensitive marketing decisions that simply shouldn’t have happened whether intentional or accidental, and leads many of us to wonder just where things are going wrong?

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