Unless you’ve been living under a rock, locked up in some solitary monastery or you’ve been in la-la land aka cut off from every form of communication, you should be aware of the firestorm that a recent H&M ad caused worldwide.
It had to do with a black boy in a hoodie. The hoodie was green, the young lad looked spunky as he struck a confident pose with a serious look on his face. That wasn’t the problem. The issue people had was with the bold white writing emblazoned across the chest.
It read “The coolest monkey in the jungle.” Ermmm…
Now cool is totally acceptable. Everyone likes cool. Cool means that you’re down with it. And monkeys..? Funny sometimes cheeky yet intelligent creatures, totally cool too. And jungles? Those fruitful, flourishing, life-giving oxygen-emitting green spaces on planet earth? Yes please!
Now…altogether the sentence wouldn’t have been a problem if it indeed was a monkey wearing the hoodie; it would simply mean that in the planet of the apes, (pun unintended), the monkey came out best, the numero uno.
However, it was no monkey, it was a boy, a black boy nonetheless in a hoodie with the offending sentence shouting from his chest. It quickly set a fire through cyberspace, with everyone chipping in their nuanced opinions.
Celebrities joined the melee, with The Weeknd tweeting that he would no longer be working with H&M, and P.Diddy offering the boy a million-dollar modeling contract.
Meanwhile, cyber-sleuths curious to know the boy’s parents, and why they would permit something of this nature be done to their son, quickly established who the mother of the boy was. She however shocked them the more, by brushing it off as ‘not a big deal;’ her boy had modeled tons of times, and she likely didn’t read the fine print, or think of it as anything but just another money-making venture. When it was discovered that she was a Kenyan living in Sweden, the discussion took a different twist.
As a Kenyan, I must confess that a good number of my educated friends, have often referred to themselves (and the whole of mankind) as monkeys, citing the evolution theory which suggests common ancestry with primates. They refer to their little ones as “cheeky little chimps,” a term of endearment.
In addition, some Kenyans have observed that in our communities and tribes, some names are symbolic references to the size, strength or cunning abilities of different animals, for example people have tribal names which can be translated to mean, “elephant, hyena, leopard, eagle or so forth.” So they would say along with the boy’s mother that it was “no biggie.”
For the African-Americans it was a huge deal. They were livid and spared no time letting their feelings known on twitter, labelling the mother of the boy an “African sellout.”
A few tried to explain the situation as best they could, stating that whites coming to Africa may be viewed differently, as “helpers” or “saviours” when they took ‘gap years’ to do volunteer work, otherwise as well-paid high-level expatriates heading parastatals or International Organizations.
Of course no one would like be reminded of the slavery era and the horrific oppression their ancestors endured, when they were forcibly uprooted from their lands; shackled with chains, branded and shipped off to other continents where they would spend the rest of their lives working without pay on plantations.
African-Americans have been subjected to insults through history, being demeaned and called “niggers” or monkeys. It was quite shocking when a government official just last year, referred to Michelle Obama as an “ape in heels” in a facebook post.
The African living in Africa though, has not experienced racism to the extent that the African-American, growing up in the United States has. While the African can empathize with the African-American, they cannot own slavery, Jim Crow and racism; same ways as the African-American wouldn’t be bothered about an African’s colonial past. The two occurrences in our different histories have had far-reaching consequences to this day. While Americans will be battling social injustices and campaigning against police brutality, reminding all that “Black lives matter;” in Kenya, tribalism is a putrid sore seeping through the nation’s psyche, in Somalia the challenge is clanism, and far down to South Africa, xenophobia rears its ugly head from time to time; all the after effects of displacement of whole societies and the drawing up of boundaries where none existed before. Then there are many countries in Africa that have had long drawn-out wars and the pillaging of their resources by neighbouring countries as well as the West, like the Democratic Republic of Congo.
I think as a black African living in Europe, despite not really comprehending how bad the oppression was in the history of America, I can comprehend the racism we experience in Europe or the tribalism and nepotism we experience in Kenya. I understand being shouted at in public transportation in my small dutch town, I know about being watched or hovered about when shopping at stores, and I have the experience of unwanted advances or being groped because the offenders first saw me as black woman, in their eyes a fetish; and not as a respectable human. In Kenya, I often avoid the questioning that follows right after being introduced to a new person. “Which part of Kenya do you come from?” or “What’s your tribe?” or snide remarks about ‘knowing me by my last name.”
My thinking as a result, when I saw the hoodie was not to brush it off as ‘no biggie.’ Instead, I couldn’t help but have the nagging feeling that it wasn’t just an innocent phrase conjured off the top of one’s head, rather that the advertising team at the Stockholm H&M were passing a subliminal message by designing the sweatshirt and having the black kid and not white, wear it.
I like what a friend said on Facebook, “Don’t worry about the symbolism that animals represent in our cultures it’s ours. You think when they call you monkey they first consider your nationality, your tribe or your totem?”
I guess that the white supremacist has no time to decipher animal symbolism in African names, or the hurt that referring to blacks from the Americas as animals causes; their thinking may point blank be, that people of colour whichever part of the globe they come from, are inferior. Just as H&M was faced with a huge public outcry forcing them to pull down the advert with an apology, any forms of racism should be rejected by all who encounter such treatment.