I’m still shaken by the recent H&M marketing campaign. Despite the defensive posts that I read about how, purportedly, “Children don’t really understand these things. It doesn’t matter what they wear.”
Granted, understanding may be vastly different than the depth of experience and historical knowledge of adults, but my littles are becoming more and more aware of appearance. Appearance of dress. Appearance of things. Appearance of skin tone.
I think it is a mistake to assume that this is only part of the adult world. So, when I was recently apprised of this H&M advertisement and the following controversy, it gave me pause. I was saddened by how many people continue to think that this type of messaging isn’t a problem.
As with most small children, mine like a variety of animals, including monkeys. And there a plenty of stories about cute monkeys and their mischievousness that we also enjoy. (How can we avoid Curious George and his antics?!)
Seriously, though, to ignore the racial connotation of the word monkey in this advertisement perpetuates racial oppression and widens our already too expansive divide.
For those who somehow are unaware, monkey was (and still is) used as a derogatory term to dehumanize blackness. Furthermore, there is an assertion of similarity in features. (Remember this slur being used about Michelle Obama? More. Than. Once.)
And, absolutely, I wish for a world where we have restored human dignity and equality is our new norm and I don’t have to think about what other subtle messages my children’s clothes might be sending. But with our history (e.g., slavery, colonization, systemic oppression), then, well, we have large groups of people who have experienced historical trauma and current systemic oppression that sometimes shows up as anger and sensitivity.
It’s not “just a word.” Words define ideas that shape behaviors. Behaviors that have been used to keep power over groups of people.
Certainly I understand that depending on our own personal history and experience, as well as our brain wiring, we will have different responses. However, coming from a place of privilege in this instance, I have a responsibility to listen to the people being targeted (i.e., people of color), who are reminding me that given our current political climate, this is not only thoughtless advertising, it is offensive.
Positive intentions don’t change hurtful impact. I love how these artists (see link) creatively responded to the impact.
And, as a reality check, I asked my littles (individually, so as not to influence each other) to see what they would say about this advertisement and the slogan. Here are their responses.
Henry (age 5): Aw. So cute. But it’s not kind to call people names. It’s cracks our heart. And some people say monkey as a mean word for people who are brown. (Apparently this issue came up at school last year. Not really surprised.)
Alexandra (age 3): That’s not nice! But I like green. And monkeys. And zebras. And ponies. I looooooove ponies.
Victoria (age 3): (sighed) We don’t say mean words to our friends. (And went back to her play that I was apparently interrupting.)
George (age 3): Hmm. Is he sad? I give him a cheese stick? (And went to the kitchen to get said cheese stick.)
Oh, and for the several people who already called me a snowflake when I was sharing my concerns about this topic…I survived winter in Florida last week … with new mittens.