It’s happened again. Another major international brand has broken the internet. Yet this time, it isn’t a snazzy product release. It’s another blatantly racist advertising campaign that is offending consumers around the world and back. The culprit is fast fashion giant H&M.
In a product advertisement for its UK site, the brand uses a young black child to model a hoodie that says “coolest monkey in the jungle.” Reactions began Sunday, with many consumers taking to Twitter to voice the outrage for a brand that, based in Sweden, prides itself in selling to a global consumer. Questions have arisen around the judgement or lack thereof in making such a decision in the first place, given the overtly racial implications against a demographic who have for centuries been demeaned by comparisons to monkeys.
When I read the headline on Sunday evening, a familiar cold wave of emotion rushed down my spine. It was a mixture of shock, anger and embarrassment, paired with not at all being surprised. Every month, there seems to be another blunder, whether from an insensitive marketing campaign directed by an out of touch marketing agency, or an advertisement produced in house. Each time such a campaign flashes across the computer screen I become upset and offended all over again. My identity becomes under attack. My heritage becomes further alienated- a cheap ploy to sell more product.
I am a 26 year old black American of mixed cultural roots spanning from Afro-Caribbean to Afro-Cuban on my mother’s side, with my father’s side being from the American South, only so many generations removed from being enslaved. I began a career in modelling upon turning 18. It was the same time I decided to turn down a full scholarship to study medicine to instead pack my bags and move to Los Angeles to pursue a career in fashion, media and entertainment. I was young and ambitious, with an entrepreneurial head on my shoulders. The harsh reality quickly set in. Finding an agent to build and represent my brand proved a challenge. The first ten meetings were riddled with questions not around my look, but my skin colour. I heard everything from “we already have our black model” to “blacks aren’t working this season, check back in six months.” One agent called himself being paternal and pulled me aside upon reviewing my portfolio to say, “look, you seem very intelligent. You’re also black and unless you want to do extra work for film television, or live in a loop of going from unsuccessful casting to unsuccessful casting, I suggest you switch gears before you dive in. You are very handsome, and have great features, but you’re too dark.”
Typing these words to this day still bring back a visceral response. He then proceeded to showing me zed cards on the wall of the one black model who was working. He was light-skinned, with wavy hair and hazel green eyes.
Perhaps one of the most striking things told to me, was at a casting for a well known designer who will go unnamed. It was for a catwalk for fashion week, and the casting reps got excited when they saw me. They murmured amongst themselves, then began to speak more loudly.
“He’s stunning”, one replied, “but wow, I wish he was black black. You know like charcoal crispy black black.” I didn’t get the job because I wasn’t black enough. In the same week at another casting for another international designer, I was advised to bleach my skin to get a fairer complexion, in hopes of getting more jobs. Otherwise, I should consider another profession.
Working in fashion and entertainment, it’s understood that one must have very thick skin. It’s one of the few industries in the world where your physical self is the product. My concern as a model, as a content creator, and as a citizen of the beautiful black and brown diaspora comes from actions which manifest in the form of the inherent insensitivity that H&M has committed. I wonder what my youngest brother, or my four month old nephew may perceive when they see the images? Will they look at themselves as monkeys? Hooligans inferior to their counterparts, unable to find their place in society?
They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Brands set to tell stories and sell products through marketing campaigns need to wake up. One question being asked repeatedly in light of H&M’s controversy is how? How can such an advertisement make it through the ranks of marketing, to an executive decision maker and ultimately to the mass public, without any flags being raised? The answer is because of a systemic racism and lack of diversity within these organisations. It’s a shame it takes a PR crisis for these companies see their errors. To remedy, brands will have to embrace diversity in hiring decisions. Multicultural diversity for decision makers, for executives, and for everyone who internally should have stopped this advertisement from ever seeing the light of day.