To point fingers at the parents and ask why they didn’t say no is a distraction. To suggest H&M <enter stage left riding their Scandi-white-horse> were acting as moral guardians, reclaiming the word “monkey” and saving black people from its use as a racial slur (a necessary step in securing a post-racial society donchaknow) is so far-fetched I would laugh. If it was funny.
The more likely explanation is that this is another incident to add weight to the argument that when businesses, brands and organisations are largely homogenous and/or unaware, things go wrong.
At best the offending image is tone deaf: it is a symptom of an organisation so steeped in a single story that no one sounded the alarm, or at the very least no one listened.
At worst it is outright racist.
In another life as a teacher I once had to discipline a teenager in my care for calling another child a “monkey” during a dispute. I also had to explain to his father why his son being called “yellow teeth”, while cruel, was not the same.
In amongst the anger and disbelief at the image, plus the consequent reactions of some people, I always try to remember that father is probably not alone in his lack of awareness.
So here goes:
The word “monkey” was used to dehumanise black people in order to justify their enslavement and the brutality of colonial rule. As “monkeys” black people were less intelligent than white people – we were doing them a favour in taking over their lands and putting their natural resources to work making us money. As “monkeys”, black people did not “feel” the same way white people did, so when we bound them in chains, beat the men, raped the women, and stole the children, we could tell ourselves it was just like working and not paying an animal; whipping a mule to make it move faster; mating a cow and a bull to create more livestock. It was all justifiable because black people were “monkeys”; they were not human.
And to anyone who says the word “monkey” is not used as a racial slur anymore (we’re not in the 1980s wrote one Tweeter) – just Google “monkey chants football” to find the easy answer to that.
But beyond who was to blame, and why it was offensive, one more thing has struck me about our reaction.
A day after the offending image went viral across UK social media, the outrage has spread across seas. The heartfelt response from many has been to produce counter-images of the little boy in question: pictures of crowns, the words “king”, and “regal”, have replaced the offending slogan and been reposted across social media.
But not on all parts of social media.
Perhaps it is my own fault for the timeline I have curated, but even when I searched #shame #handm on Instagram for the images it seems to me that most (all?) were being posted and reposted on accounts owned by POC.
But the original picture was not styled, taken, approved and published because the room was full of black people. This image is the result of many, many rooms full of white people, blinkered by their privilige.
This picture and the issue it exposes is, by its very origins, a white people problem.
So why are POC doing all the work to correct sH&Me’s “mistake”?
Why are white people being so quiet? Why aren’t we paying the same attention to this as we do when Oprah makes a speech? Who are we trying to protect by not speaking out?
And I say this from a place a empathy. I am a white woman. Every time I dip my toes into the quagmire that is race relations my insides clench and I question the validity of my voice. We don’t have lived experience so have to finely balance being vocal about the injustices we see, while being respectful to the people who live those injustices every day. We can empathise without speaking for people.
If you find that difficult to navigate then join the club! But if you truly believe in working towards a more equal society then you have to see this risk for what it is – a tiny speck of insignificance in the face of the onslaught of inequality POC experience every day. White people and our feelings are not the priority here.
Instead, the priority must be to voice our dissatisfaction – not meekly behind closed doors, not in a tut of disgust in response to a social media post, not just a comment on something someone else has written. We have to get our hands dirty.
Raising our voices and saying THIS IS NOT ACCEPTABLE has never been easier. The keyboard warrior is a figure of scorn in some circles because it’s easy to sit at home, post a picture, signal your virtue to the whole world, and go on with the rest of your life unaffected by the actual issue. And I don’t disagree with this criticism – indeed, activism does not and should not stop at the blue light of a phone screen.
But the power of social media is undeniable – #metoo has proven that.
So if you care, if you no longer want to be complicit, but you’re not sure you have the right words, go and read. Go and learn. Do the work. Google shit. Channel your anger – don’t ignore it because you can and the issue is not “yours”.
In the same way that women’s rights are not a female issue, racial equality is not a “black” issue. They are both human issues.
And in the meantime, know that your voice counts, your dissatisfaction is valuable, your offence is valid. If you’re still not sure what to say, just say this: “This is wrong. I don’t yet have the words to explain why but I know it in my bones. I stand with you.”
Because yes, we must listen to People of Colour to learn; yes, we have to be careful what we say; but this is not the same as saying nothing at all.
Want to know where to begin?
Google these terms: unconscious bias; white privilege; intersectionality; complicity; inclusion; diversity; micro aggression; whitesplaining
Read Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race by Reni Eddo-Lodge
Read anything and everything here http://www.gal-dem.com/politics/
There is a list of books here http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/16-books-about-race-that-every-white-person-should-read_us_565f37e8e4b08e945fedaf49
And that is just to start you off 😉