This week, H&M was declared racially insensitive when a hoodie reading “COOLEST MONKEY IN THE JUNGLE” was modeled on a black child on their website. While the retailer offered an apology, this isn’t the first time where they put an offensive product up for purchase, and it harkens back to other incidents where Zara and Urban Outfitters also sold products that drew controversy.
Here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter that H&M apologized. Every time I see a big name retailer flub up, even if it’s only slightly, I’m left wondering why someone at the proverbial drawing table didn’t say, “Hey, wait a minute…” There’s a long, drawn out process that led to this hoodie being produced—from the initial design, to the production, to the photoshoot with the model. This blog receives a second pair of eyes before it’s published (my boss Sam, who you remember enjoys jumping off Niagara Falls in a barrel) and my years at a liberal arts college have left me constantly assessing the use of language and whether what I write can be potentially offensive. A piece of clothing that’s subsequently displayed on a website is seen by more people and takes longer to get to that end result than this blog does.
I could go into detail about the racist history of comparing black people to monkeys, or link you to other offensive incidents that H&M was involved in, but this being a small business blog, that really isn’t our bag. The takeaway here is that your product has a creation process, and even if you are the most independent of merchants, however you present your work still may need further review. Like pairing a black child with a hoodie that declares him a monkey.
I’m guessing the average retailer will never offend or upset, especially if they’re strictly focused on selling their merchandise. But even certain copy can err on the side of offensive, like using words such as “crazy” or “insane”, which can be considered insensitive towards people with mental illness. Discussions on political correctness always bring me back to comedian Sarah Silverman, who built her career on being controversial, and then in 2015 acknowledged that it was important “to change with the times, to change with new information.” So that “crazy” sale on your website may indeed be amazing, but even if you’re not as big as H&M and therefore not susceptible to widespread criticism, there may be someone out there judging you for the use of that word.
And then I’ll write a blog about you.