H&M boasts of having 161,000 employees from different backgrounds and nationalities. And despite that they went ahead with a black child modelling a sweatshirt reading “coolest monkey in the jungle”, sending clear signals of racial discrimination to the world. The heavy backlash that they have faced from almost every nook and corner, owing to which they have withdrawn the online ad, comes as no surprise.
But isn’t it weird and crazy? That in today’s world, an international organization of this big a size based in the west, where racial abuse allegations are taken extremely seriously, could have made this kind of an error.
And it’s not that such cases were not unprecedented. Not so long ago, amidst a huge racism controversy, a mayor of a US town had to resign when she called Michelle Obama “ape in heals”.
Then how on earth did H&M miss it? What could have gone wrong?
Can we find the answer in children?
Let’s have a look at this cute but mind-boggling video created by BBC last year, where young children from different backgrounds are asked how are they different from each other. Their responses would immensely surprise you and make you smile.
As you have seen in the video, none of the children talked about physical or colour differences. The BBC study showed that these children did notice the physical differences but just did not care about them. That’s the mindset and innocence that they were born with. Sadly, it’s only a matter of time though when they would start thinking about the differences, thanks to the great societies that we have built.
Now, imagine if we give these children the exercise to select models from amongst them for various sweatshirts including that green monkey one, what would be the result? My bet is that they would probably go something like this, “Let’s give the red to Ahmed, the green to Mark and yellow to Mikhail”, irrespective of who is black or white.
Their decision would probably be driven by their imagination of how the sweatshirts’ colours would look good on each one of the models rather than any stereotypes because remember, these children are yet to be polluted by those. Anyone of those three kids could be a black child. It would not matter to them. What would matter to them would be which piece of cloth would suit whom the best.
Did H&M somehow fall prey to this innocence syndrome?
On the face it, the answer would be an obvious and bloody “No”. They are adults and crossed their lines of innocence ages back.
Let me now share a nuanced personal experience.
I am from India and have lived and worked in Europe and the UK. When I was in Europe, I found people to be tremendously considerate and kind towards me. I seldom had to take the bus to my office because there would be three colleagues who used to offer me a lift every day. When I fell sick, colleagues offered to take me to the hospital. When I was alone, they would invite me to their places for dinner. The cultural sensitivity that they showed towards me was exemplary. This special treatment was not meted out to any new European guy who joined the company. That’s because they were locals who ought to know their way around. I got it because they had an empathy for me as I was from a far-off land with considerable cultural differences.
Now, the UK, in my opinion, is one of the most politically correct and socially courteous countries in the world. But when I shifted here, I did not get the special treatment that I enjoyed in Europe. People did not understand that I might have had issues with the variants of English accents because I was an Indian guy who had just shifted from France.
Rather, I was kind of treated as a local. Someone who knew his way around here. Kind of like, “Aah, you are not a guest in our house; go and get the pudding from the fridge yourself”.
This is obviously because of the historical relationship and the sheer large number of us who have been living in this country for decades. I was no more an exotic specimen here as I used to be in Europe where we were quite less in numbers. (Just to be clear, whenever I mentioned that I recently landed in this country, that special treatment came back).
Diwali celebrations have become a common feature in a lot of modern organizations here in the UK – a great indication of celebrating diversity. But at the same time, are the boundaries of being culturally diverse getting blurred in modern companies, almost making us one and the same? Like what we saw in the video above.
Could it be possible that H&M never saw the difference between the black and the white guy when choosing the “monkey” sweatshirt because for them they were just two kids from Sweden and the green one just turned out to suit one of them – who, in this case, happened to be the black guy?
Unknowingly, did they just show that they were not limited by any stereotypes that were created by our forefathers?
Did they actually take diversity to the next level where none of us is different; where anyone could be a “monkey”?
Let’s dig a little deeper.
Could it be possible that they got blinded by business?
Naomi Campbell, the black powerful supermodel, was the face of H&M’s Fall collection campaign last year. According to Naomi who has been sharing a relationship with H&M since the 90s, the company is one of those few brands which has always been diverse.
According to this article, everyone is using black culture as inspiration. Naomi herself has agreed that “some brands are now seeing women of colour as zeitgeist and a way to tap into a popular cultural trend, casting a small handful of women of different skin shades in a bid to win press attention for the courtesy of them doing so……this is insulting at its worst”.
Amongst these fake diversity bullshit, H&M supposedly shined as an epitome of diversity.
Has then H&M started treating black models in the same commonplace way as they do with white models? Has black then become so much of a norm inside their company, from a marketing point of view, that they never associated it with an ape? Never saw any stereotypical difference between the two human colours in their quest to do good business. Perhaps the focus on business was so much, that they missed this blind spot altogether.
If all of the above is true, then we are witnessing one of the best examples of diversity, albeit unintentional, in the modern world. But sadly, this cannot survive in our world unless we have some kind of button that would reset everything to zero related to racial stereotypes created by our ancestors.
Therefore, my belief is that H&M was not being intentionally racist. In fact, they were probably on the other side of the field. But that other side can’t survive in this world owing to the existing stereotypes. Look at the doll test to see the extremity of this stereotyping.
So, what could have saved H&M from this fiasco?
Their website shows that they have employees from all over the world. But that is mainly because they are present in as many countries.
The important question is, do they have employees from different parts of the world in one office/country? I saw examples of gender diversity on their website but did not notice any cultural ones. Their all-white board of directors today indicates something. The fact they have only now, after this incident, has hired a diversity leader exposes this hole.
My understanding is that in one specific country, they hire people locally which may include people from various ethnic backgrounds. But what they need is active cross-country employee exchanges and teams. For example, they need someone from Africa to be working in their Sweden office and not just someone who is of African descent but born and bred in Sweden (which itself is an absolute necessity). What the former may notice, the latter may not. And this should be reflected vertically and horizontally across the company.
If immigration laws are a bottleneck they could create virtual teams across different countries which would give people the opportunity to appreciate the nuanced cultural differences. Plus, the advantages of cross-cultural teams are huge. My own personal experiences of working in international teams have been massively positive. The different perspectives that you can get on a particular topic are unimaginable and always bring out better outcomes. This report from McKinsey and Fast Company concludes that a diverse workforce leads to better performance and innovation.
So, what do you think? Were they really racist or were they unknowingly quite diverse with some mix of stupidity and innocence? Or was this some kind of insensitive greedy marketing gimmick?