Case Study: H&M’s Coolest Monkey in the Jungle
H&M faced backlash across the globe in January 2018, when it advertised an image of Liam Mango, a 5-year-old Black male, modeling a green hoodie sweatshirt emblazoned with the words “coolest monkey in the jungle” in white capital letters. The term monkey is considered a degrading stereotype of people of African descent. Liam is the son of Kenyan immigrants.
H&M, a fashion retailer based in Sweden, has 51 markets with online shopping and 5,000 stores in 74 markets across the globe, according to its website. At the time, H&M owned stores in 69 countries on six continents. The clothing brand states that diversity strengthens the company and that it values “diversity in people and ideas, as much as in personal style.”
H&M also notes the following in its inclusion and diversity statement: “In an inclusive and diverse environment, everyone can contribute to optimising decision-making and team performance by reflecting, respecting and relating to our employees, customers and communities.”
Social media users, activists, and consumers across the globe condemned the ad as racist for using the word monkey, which is considered a racial slur.
Equating Black people to apes dates back to the 16th and 17th century in Europe and America and was used to sanction slavery, segregation, and second-class status, historian Arica L. Coleman explained. Whites viewed Black males as subhuman beasts and brutes who lusted after white women. This image was reinforced in the 1930s movie King Kong, according to Wulf D. Hund. The movie was under production at the same time as the rape trial of the Scottsboro Boys, nine Black male teens on trial for allegedly raping two white women.
“The racist ideology of the ape trope is no joke,” Coleman asserted. “It has had devastating effects on Black people globally.”
On social media, Kate Osamor, a Black UK Labour Party member, tweeted, “I was totally shocked, dismayed to say the very least to find this online imagine [sic]. @hm do you think this imagery is an appropriate representation of a young Black boy?”
The Weeknd, a Canadian artist of Ethiopian descent, tweeted, “woke up this morning shocked and embarrassed by this photo. i’m deeply offended and will not be working with @hm anymore…” The Weeknd had been appearing in H&M ad campaigns since 2017.
Course of Action
H&M apologized on January 8, 2018, for offending others, but not for posting the ad, and said it removed the ad from its online stores. However, media outlets found the sweatshirt ad running without the model the same morning, on European sites later that day, and in Spanish countries the next day.
When the media and public criticized the apology, H&M issued a more detailed statement the following day. The brand stated that it stopped selling the sweatshirt and recycled it. Part of the updated apology posted on the H&M website reads:
“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.”
Over two months after the ad ran, H&M named Annie Wu, a Taiwanese immigrant raised in Queens, New York, as the global leader for diversity and inclusiveness. Wu, who had worked with H&M since 2012, said she planned to meet with supporters and critics in the United States and South Africa.
Here are some other H&M initiatives that occurred after Wu took the helm, according to Annie Wang, who spent time at H&M headquarters in Sweden:
- Hired a Nigerian-American as the North America head of inclusion and diversity
- Created a seven-step processing system for all new clothing before they are for sale
- Created a system where at least 12 people in the studio will see a photo after it is uploaded
- Created a system to flag clothing at every stage and make notes about sensitivities
- Increased from one to five the number of people doing final-round quality checks
- Pledged that by 2025, 100 percent of employees would feel they have the same opportunity as anyone else and see visible diversity in leadership positions.
The company faced boycotts and protests, which forced it to temporarily close some stores in South Africa.
Members of the South African Economic Freedom Fighters demonstrated, marched through malls, and destroyed some H&M store property. Their protests were held in locations including Cape Town, Pretoria, and Johannesburg.
Additionally, Terry Mango, Liam’s mother, faced backlash for defending H&M and the ad. She was called a traitor to her race, and H&M stepped in to relocate her when journalists showed up at her home.
H&M’s finances took a hit in the aftermath of the sweatshirt fiasco, but the company also was dealing with other issues that contributed to the decline. In the first quarter of 2018, H&M had $4.3 billion in unsold clothes, a pile that had grown 7 percent in the past year, The New York Times reported. Additionally, the company said operating profit dropped 62 percent between December 2017 and February 2018, which forced the shares to their lowest closing price in 2005.
Critics questioned whether H&M lacked diversity, but “each office was close to a real reflection of the ethnic demographics within the cities they were in,” Wang wrote, detailing the story behind the sweatshirt. Compiling ethnic data is against the law in Sweden and voluntary in the United States.
Wang’s report revealed that the strong H&M culture led to employees rejecting outside opinions, an idea revealed in an unconscious bias workshop.
Moral of the Story
Get your apology right the first time.
Employing people from diverse ethnic backgrounds is not enough to combat racism.
”If we’re honest, we must admit that there is some truth in the fact that we have maybe been too centralized and that we need to challenge ourselves in an open and constructive way to get everyone, everywhere to be more culturally sensitive, racially aware, and more critical of how the outside world might see what we do,” Wu said in an interview.
About two-and-a-half years after the incident, in June 2020, H&M pledged to donate $500,000 to the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Color of Change, and the American Civil Liberties Union. The move came after the world erupted in protests following the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, in Minnesota.
“We also acknowledge our past mistakes and they have made us acutely aware of how much we still need to learn. As a company, we are growing, but we can and must do better,” stated Helena Helmersson, CEO H&M Group. "We re-commit to taking tangible steps to challenge racism and support our colleagues, customers and communities. Symbolic support is not enough – we will take action.”
- Reflecting on H&M’s actions over two years after the sweatshirt fiasco, what is your opinion of the organizations that the company chose to donate to and its reasons for donating?
- What recommendations do you have for a company that already has a diverse workforce but still is accused of being racist?
Coleman, A. (2018, May 31). Here’s why Roseanne’s tweet was a racist slur, not a botched joke. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/made-by-history/wp/2018/05/31/heres-why-roseannes-tweet-was-a-racist-slur-not-a-botched-joke/
Fortin, J. (2018, January 13). H&M closes stores in South Africa amid protests over ‘Monkey’ shirt. The New York Times - Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/13/world/africa/hm-south-africa-protest.html
Helmersson, H. (2020, June 1). We stand with and support the Black community – today, everyday and everywhere. H&M Group. https://hmgroup.com/media/news/general-news-2020/we-stand-with-and-support-the-black-community---today--everyday-.html
H&M issues unequivocal apology for poorly judged product and image. (2018, September). H&M Press site. https://about.hm.com/zh_cn/news/general-news-2018/h-m-issues-unequivocal-apology-for-poorly-judged-product-and-ima.html
Hund, W. D. (2016, February 28). Comparing Black people to monkeys has a long, dark simian history. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/comparing-black-people-to-monkeys-has-a-long-dark-simian-history-55102
Interview with Annie WU. (2018, March 29). H&M Group. https://hmgroup.com/media/news/general-news-2018/interview-with-annie-wu.html
Paton, E. (2018, March 27). H&M, a fashion giant, has a problem: $4.3 billion in unsold clothes. The New York Times - Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/27/business/hm-clothes-stock-sales.html
People are boycotting H&M over ‘racist’ hoodie. (2018, January 13). The Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/fashion/hm-hoodie-racist-boycott-advertising-people-h-m-a8149246.html
Picchi, A. (2018, January 8). H&M monkey hoodie sparks outrage for "racist" image. CBS News - Breaking news, 24/7 live streaming news & top stories. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/h-m-the-weeknd-coolest-monkey-in-the-jungle-racist-hoodie/
Stack, L. (2018, January 8). H&M apologizes for ‘Monkey’ image featuring Black child. The New York Times - Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/08/business/hm-monkey.html
Stump, S. (2018, January 9). H&M apologizes following outrage over 'monkey' hoodie ad seen as racist. TODAY.com. https://www.today.com/style/h-m-apologizes-following-outrage-over-monkey-sweatshirt-ad-seen-t120979
[@theweeknd].Twitter. (2018, January 8). Welcome to Twitter. https://twitter.com/theweeknd/status/950447182829699072?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E950447182829699072&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.nytimes.com%2F2018%2F01%2F08%2Fbusiness%2Fhm-monkey.html
Tan, E. (2018, January 9). H&M apologizes and removes 'racist' sweatshirt from stores. US Home. https://www.prweek.com/article/1454063/h-m-apologizes-removes-racist-sweatshirt-stores
Wang, C. (2019, July 23). The real story behind H&M's racist monkey sweatshirt. Refinery29. https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/2019/07/237347/h-m-racist-hoodie-controversy-diversity-problemNext Page: Lesson 2 Assessment