Diversity Past The Runway

By: Sinalo Mkaza

source: businessinsider.com

H&M’s Summer 2018 digital campaign, which featured a black boy wearing a hoodie with the slogan “coolest monkey in the jungle” recently spewed controversy all over the internet. The Africans and African diaspora worldwide didn’t take kindly to the ad and South Africa’s Economic Freedom Front (EFF) political party took matters into their own hands by protesting at various H&M stores across the country.

So why would a slogan on a kid’s hoodie cause such upheaval? Well… Monkey is not a neutral term in South Africa, or anywhere. Historically, ‘monkey’ is a derogatory term to refer to black people since the dawn of the race war. Animalization has long been utilized by racists to dehumanize oppressed groups that remains to be a malicious and effective instrument. By boldly placing this slogan sweater on a black boy,H&M has perpetuated the psychic bearing of racism on mass society that permanently places black people as barbaric creatures who are inherently inferior to whites. The fact that the boy’s mothers lack of offense is permissible, reasonably so, (I mean she was compensated for her sons modeling skills and I’m certain she was immensely proud that her handsome boy got picked out of thousands of kids to be on an international retailer’s campaign and as a result) her judgement was clouded. It would be inapt to blame her! I guess that’s why it was evermore so necessary for the African community globally to speak out and up. We simply cannot turn a blind eye to racial slurs dressed up in cool fonts emblazoned on pretty textiles. We cannot be so docile that we are so easily bribed into submission and accept such as our reality.

An H&M store in South Africa following the EFF protest source: iol.co.za

Africa’s wholesale and retail industries contributed an astounding $30.55 Billion dollars (that’s ZAR 361 577 500 000) to the continents GDP between 2002 and 2007. The global fashion apparel industry is the 2nd largest industry in the world valued at a whopping $3 Trillion (R 35 565 000 000 000) and accounts for 2% of the worlds global GDP. Lastly, H&M is one of the top 5 fashion retailers in the World, with its South African division increasing sales to R356 million in the first quarter of the 2017 financial year. So by virtue of us spending so much of our hard-earned money, we have all the reasons to be outraged.

It’s a dense mistake that could have serious implications on the H&M brand and its positioning in the modern social psyche where consumers are emotionally tied to brands and perceptions are driven by how brands communicate with their consumer now. I think it’s about time diversity in the fashion industry transcended the assortment of models on the runway, time inclusivity and representation surpassed black celebrities dubbed “firsts” on magazine covers, time the institutional disregard for black people perished, its time and the time is NOW! The only solution is that the barriers to entry are broken down, that people of colour are employed in the helms of the fashion hierarchy and are active voices of authority. Adequate representation doesn’t end on the catwalks and the fashion spreads.

We need to be outraged or we will find ourselves meticulously conditioned and desensitized by the dehumanizing, violent innuendos that mold the fabric of racism. We can no longer sit back and watch the industry monetize on humiliation people and cultural offenses. The homogeneity of the fashion industry is no longer a valid excuse.