A sign is seen on a H&M clothing store on January 9, 2018 in Miami Beach, Florida. H&M apologized on Monday after the Swedish clothing retailer's website in Britain showed a black child model wearing a hooded sweatshirt that said "coolest monkey in the jungle."
Joe Raedle—Getty Images
By Ellen McGirt
Updated: January 9, 2018 3:52 PM ET

A new advertisement from H&M has the public, including some very high profile celebrities, crying foul.

The ad, which showed an adorable black boy modeling a hooded sweatshirt that said “coolest monkey in the jungle,” was met with widespread derision.

The Canadian singer, The Weeknd, tweeted the offending image and this: “[W]oke up this morning shocked and embarrassed by this photo. i’m deeply offended and will not be working with @hm anymore..” The singer, whose name is Abel Tesfaye, had previously collaborated with the Sweden-based company on a collection and modeled their clothing.

LeBron James edited the offensive language out of the image and posted a new one on Instagram, with the child wearing a “King James” crown. “African Americans will always have to break barriers,” he wrote.

The company rushed to apologize yesterday.

“We sincerely apologize for this image. It has been now removed from all online channels and the product will not be for sale in the United States,” H&M said in an email statement to Fortune.

The issue is not just a cute kid in a bad hoodie.

The animalization of black people has roots in slavery, a strategic gambit to justify the abuse of other human beings that is impressive in its simplicity and endurance.

Neal A. Lester, an English professor and the founding director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University explains how the ugly underpinnings that inspired the backlash live on today, in an essay on TeachingTolerance.org:

Add incidents, headlines, illustrations and images of black people as primates to historical pseudo-scientific efforts to equate black people to animals, and you challenge the notion of a supposed 21st-century post-racial United States head on. Such is the case with former Charleston Daily Mail columnist Don Surber, who described Ferguson, Missouri, teen Michael Brown as an “animal” that had to be “put down.”

It could be President Obama imagined as a chimpanzee in a 2009 New York Post cartoon about his stimulus package, Serena Williams compared to the racing horse American Pharoah or Saartjie Barrtman being paraded around Europe as a “freak show.” It could be the depiction of Little Black Sambo, who whets the appetites of three tigers in the popular 1899 children’s book by Helen Bannerman, or the reality of black babies used as alligator bait. New or old, real or imagined, these examples and countless others show that U.S. race relations inextricably connect the past with the present.

As always, when incidents like these happen, it is correct to call for diverse teams and better processes that screen out racist and culturally insensitive concepts. But this monkey business isn’t expertise. It shouldn’t be the domain of a select few. This is us, our shared history. Unless everyone knows it and owns it, we are all doomed to repeat it, one image at a time.


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