H&M, the second largest global clothing retailer behind Inditex, the parent company of Zara, has fallen into hot water. The company, founded in 1947, has 160,000 employees at 4,500 stores in 69 markets around the world. It has partnered with high profile Blacks such as Beyonce’, Jesse Williams, Nicki Minaj, Chris Brown, Kevin Hart and others in a bid to appeal to Blacks. Recently, they made a real blunder; they ran an ad depicting a young Black male wearing a hoodie with the words “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle.” If that weren’t bad enough, the young man was standing next to a white youngster wearing a hoodie that said “Survival Expert.”
Most Blacks instantly recognize the issue with this situation. Black people have derisively been referred to as monkeys by white people since time immemorial, yet H&M apparently missed the memo. Or did they? They have issued an apology, but as yet no one has been terminated for the outrageous gaffe. And, in response to the widespread backlash, they have reported hiring a global leader according to a Facebook post, but no photos of this individual have been seen as of press time.
This is not the first racially insensitive misstep by the giant company. In 2015 it came under fire for using only white models in its first South African store. In responding to critics, they said that the white models carried “a positive image.” How insensitive can you get? The assumption of this sentiment is that Black models would convey a negative message! H&M ended up apologizing, but that didn’t stop them from making other racially insensitive missteps like the current one.
There is an obvious reason, outside of ingrained racial bigotry, that H&M has found itself in this predicament. It has a 12-member board of directors without one Black person seated on it! In fact, when looking at the company’s leadership globally there currently are no Blacks represented in top positions. This this is why they have made costly mistakes in the realm of race relations. How costly? As a result of the “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle” ad, South Africans belonging to the Economic Freedom Fighters stormed several stores. They pulled down clothing racks, clothing displays and mannequins. H&M ended up closing at least 17 stores since the demonstrations and as yet have no plans to reopen them in the face of threats that they would also be attacked by demonstrators.
It is ludicrous, or maybe just plain stupid, that a global conglomerate that targets Black people would be run totally by white people and expect that there would be no problem with presentation. It is clearly not a solid business strategy. On the one hand, the assumption that they must make is that Black people are so enamored of their products and so unintelligent that they would not recognize a slap in the face when they receive one. On the other hand, it smacks of a super arrogance for them to think that they can think like Blacks without consulting Blacks.
Gladly, and predictably, the Black community has come out in full force to address bigotry aimed at the Black community in one of the best means possible: economic advocacy. This is a strategy that can have far reaching ramifications. Hitting bigots in the pocketbook is one way to get their attention.
The other main issue is that it is time that Black people are represented in the halls of power. It is patently one-sided to expect that people will continue to be disrespected and spend their money in places that are off-limits to them. Moreover, diversity just makes good business sense! Having a mixture of viewpoints adds variety and intellectual richness to business strategies in such a way that they can appeal to the broadest range of the consumer population. Some organizations have learned of this and have benefitted greatly as a result. Let’s hope that the blinding sea of whiteness that seems to be characteristic of H&M changes to reflect the diverse population that they seek to attract. This is the proper and smart way to go, especially if they value their pocketbook. A Luta Continua.