Another day and yet another blot of racialized rhetoric smeared across the Twittersphere and Facebook — this time, H&M are the perpetrators. The famed factory outlet has been at the centre of a tumultuous advertising disaster which centred on 5-year-old Liam Mango, a Swedish boy of Kenyan descent wearing a green hoodie. The words, ‘Coolest Monkey in the Jungle’ were emblazoned across the front.


 

A swell of rage hit social media. USA artists, The Weeknd and G-Eazy dropped the chain as their clothing supplier while celebrities like rapper, Diddy, footballer Romelu Lukaku and basketballer, Lebron James voiced their various forms of protest.

South Africa’s Economic Freedom Fighters’ party (EFF), in a fit of anger, ransacked H&M stores nationwide. While the trashing was vilified from many corners, its leader Julius Malema condoned the actions of his ‘fighters’, saying that the store, ‘Called our children baboons’.

H&M 'baboon' scandal: Sell-outs or progressive Africans?Image Credit: Floyd Shivambu / Twitter

 

Questions were raised by insulted personnel as to how the child’s parents could allow their son to participate in such insensitive advertising. And yet days later on social media, Terry Mango, Liam’s mother released the statement:

‘Am the mum and this is one of hundreds of outfits my son has modelled … Stop crying Wolf all the time, unnecessary issue here … Get over it’.

She elaborated her views on The Morning Show saying, ‘Everybody should act differently based on their own opinions of what racism is’.

 

Terry was subsequently accused of playing the role of ‘Aunt Jemima’ (the female Uncle Tom) — slave to the lucrative deal on offer from H&M for modelling her son. An emerging theme which became endemic to the social media finger-pointing centred on the ‘sell-out’ mentality that Liam’s parents allegedly carried.


To Be or Not to Be Offended?

At what point was it fair to dismiss this stance as a form of racial ‘Stockholm Syndrome’?

The truth remains that the subtext for the hoodie is not simply a boy modelling clothing with reference to a primate. There is something deeper, something more sinister and far more complex at play than first meets the eye.

The image of the monkey or ape depicting its ‘black’ anthropomorphic parallel is an all too familiar stain synonymous with colonial history. To draw assimilations between a black person and a monkey (simianization), speaks to the historical methods which were used to racialize and dehumanize African slave workers. Indeed, ape comparisons have appeared consistently in world media to this very day.

For Julius Malema, this attacks the very core of ‘blackness’, yet for others like Liam’s mother, this is no more damaging than any other word.

‘I’m just looking at Liam: black young boy modelling a t-shirt that has the word ‘monkey’ on it. And I think that everyone should respect different opinions based on racism’.

How then can it be that two people can feel emotions so dichotomous in nature and yet both find their homogeneity so consistent in a history of oppression?


The Answer Lies with Power.

Many a person associating with an identity of whiteness has come forward to rebuke the actions of those protesting, arguing points such as: ‘Would it have then been so different if a white boy had been pictured wearing the hoodie?’ or ‘What’s so bad, it’s just a monkey, a term of cheeky endearment?’

Those arguments would hold credence if social power was equal amongst all racialized groups and indeed across all identity groups. In earnest, it is not. Statistically, it stands that power is still held systemically and institutionally by people who are historically identified as ‘white’, while other races remain constrained by these socio-economic mechanisms. However; that power discrepancy is not always felt by those on both sides of the coin.

So, back to Terry Mango finding nothing wrong with the advertisement. It is her right not to feel offended just as it was the EFF’s right to feel offended. Through situation or circumstance, Terry could very well associate herself free of historical prejudices and this comes down to her reflexive power relative to that of her immediate world. For the same token, the EFF were right to feel aggrieved (although the methods used to display these grievances were highly questionable). Again, this relates back to the asymmetrical power relations between ‘black’ and ‘white’ which remain so deeply entrenched in South African society.

It was in America, Britain and in South Africa where the story gained the most traction and the hurt was felt the most. Through no coincidence, these were countries which historically adopted legislature designed to oppress and economically enslave those who identified as ‘black’. Centuries of hurt can still fester and be felt through one seemingly innocuous advertisement, yet to not feel offended does not insinuate ignorance of one’s past, as has been levelled against Terry.


Struggles in Definition

The murky dissonance that the term racism brings, stems from problems with its very definition. ‘Racism’ is not a user-friendly concept. To this day, there is no clear consensual agreement on its meaning. In a raw sense, it is an instrument of subjugation. It can be personally mediated, institutional or indeed reflexive. It is the residue of a system of economic scarcity — one could even argue a capitalist ethic. Those who aim to have, racialize the have-nots by subordinating them and restricting resources that would otherwise ensure equality. The modus operandi can be achieved through various means, but the most common method is literally a skin-deep ‘othering’.

When the othering is no longer felt, intentional or not, despite being acknowledged as having existed, could we in fact infer that transformative thinking is in progress? Could racial attitudes ever dissipate so long as disproportionate power remains? And at what point then, if ever, can the attitude of Terry Mango be said to represent a step forward, towards an inclusive society?