Worldwide apparel retailer H&M issued an apology and vowed to review their internal policies on diversity and inclusion after controversy erupted over a page on their web site promoting a hoodie with the slogan “Coolest monkey in the jungle.”
The page (since revised to replace the offending image) featured a photograph of a black child modeling the hoodie—an article of clothing that took on specific meaning for the Black Lives Matter movement after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. The juxtaposition of the black child with the slogan struck many as redolent of racist imagery dating back more than a century in which dark-skinned people were likened to, or represented as, apes and monkeys. That insulting characterization has persisted over time; notably President Barack Obama was often the target of such racist imagery during his term of office.
The outcry on social media was swift. Models of Diversity, an organization devoted to promoting equality and diversity in the fashion, beauty, and media industries, condemned the promotion in a tweet:
— Models Of Diversity (@ModsOfDiversity) January 8, 2018
New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow also spoke out against the image, questioning the company’s sanity:
— Charles M. Blow (@CharlesMBlow) January 8, 2018
Vox Media brand designer Alex Medina called the display “negligent,” observing that white models were used for other sweatshirts in the same line:
In the year 2018 there’s no way brands/art directors can be this negligent and lack awareness. If look at other sweaters in same category they have white kids. We have to do better. pic.twitter.com/Av4bS4t6yn
— alex medina (@mrmedina) January 8, 2018
We reached out to H&M’s media relations department, who replied with this brief statement:
We sincerely apologize for offending people with this image of a printed hooded top. The image has been removed from all online channels and the product will not be for sale in the United States. We believe in diversity and inclusion in all that we do and will be reviewing all our internal policies accordingly to avoid any future issues.
The company did not respond to direct questions about how or why the image was used in the first place, although a subsequent statement provided to us on 9 January said the incident was “accidental”:
We agree with all the criticism that this has generated – we have got this wrong and we agree that, even if unintentional, passive or casual racism needs to be eradicated wherever it exists. We appreciate the support of those who have seen that our product and promotion were not intended to cause offence but, as a global brand, we have a responsibility to be aware of and attuned to all racial and cultural sensitivities – and we have not lived up to this responsibility this time.
This incident is accidental in nature, but this doesn’t mean we don’t take it extremely seriously or understand the upset and discomfort it has caused.
We will now be doing everything we possibly can to prevent this from happening again in future.
Racism and bias in any shape or form, conscious or unconscious, deliberate or accidental, are simply unacceptable and need to be eradicated from society. In this instance we have not been sensitive enough to this agenda.
Please accept our humble apologies.
Updated [11 January 2018] Added excerpts from more detailed statement from H&M.