Is H&M racist, tone deaf or just stupid?
Black American radio show host Charlemagne does not believe the monkey slogan was deliberately racist, but that H&M is clearly 'profoundly tone deaf'
How stupid can they be? These exact words were uttered by my South African and Scandinavian friends this week as the H&M debacle unfolded.
But that’s where the commonality in their response stops. While most South Africans believed that it was the Swedish clothing giant’s apparent lack of concern for racially loaded language that was "stupid", Scandinavian friends found that, although its advertisement might have been naive and embarrassing, it would be "stupid" to think that the ad was intentionally racist. Nobody would alienate a large part of their consumer base on purpose, was the crass economic logic to their argument. The disconnect is obvious.
When you follow coverage of the H&M story in Scandinavia, you quickly find that a large part of that society is struggling to get to grips with criticism from SA. As a mainly white, middle class but also profoundly egalitarian society, Danes and Swedes have huge problems grasping what it feels like to live as a black person in a fundamentally unequal society.
In some countries soccer fans throw bananas on the pitch when black players step onto it
A Danish cultural sociologist who was called upon to explain the criticism was quoted time and again in local media last week as saying that "it is understandable that people get upset, because 100 to 150 years ago, some people compared black people to monkeys".
I am pretty sure that she thinks she is siding with H&M’s critics. She probably also had fresh in mind a recent exhibition at the Danish National Museum that focused on Denmark’s role in the slave trade and the Danish Queen’s heartfelt apology to Ghana only a few weeks ago.
But by explaining the situation in a historical context only, she is also indicating that the debate is without relevance today. In a nation where most people own their own home, nobody crosses the street against a red light and the most dangerous predator is a hedgehog, it is as comfortable to keep that distance as it is naive.
My 11-year-old son, who watches a lot of soccer on TV, knows that monkey chanting happens on pitches all over Europe. Today. In some countries very close to Scandinavia, fans throw bananas on the pitch when black players step onto it.
If it happens on TV, chances are it happens in schoolyards — and also in Scandinavia. It doesn’t take much thinking to find out that monkey-calling is part of many people’s personal and painful experience today. Even Barack Obama experienced it when he found himself caricatured as an ape in the Belgian newspaper De Morgen in 2014.
An editorial in the small leftist Danish newspaper Information argued that putting a hoodie with a monkey slogan on a black boy was not racist — the people who made that connection were racist. In a South African or African-American context such reasoning is almost dizzying: to claim it is not H&M but their critics who are racist is absurd.
It could be argued that the cultural sociologist and the author of the editorial are correct in theory, but only in a very intellectual sense. In Scandinavia, where everybody gets excellent free education, debating at an intellectual level is normal and emotional debate is frowned upon.
This is not to say all Scandinavians are intellectual and all South Africans emotional — there are intellectuals everywhere and all people have emotions. But people communicate on different frequencies, and if a company such as H&M wants to communicate better with its customers and understand how they think, there has to be a sense of connection. There has to be real and easily understood empathy for customers.
I agree with the black American radio show host Charlemagne, who argued that he didn’t believe the photo was deliberately racist, but that H&M had exposed itself as being "profoundly tone deaf".
In this time and age big companies can’t afford to be tone deaf or culturally naive. Today’s customers don’t only want a bargain, they also want respect. This means companies need to invest in soft values and unconventional expertise to understand the daily lives and cultural values of their entire customer base and to be able to communicate that respect.
I wonder what it feels like to work at H&M when your employer sends out photos that "makes your heart sore", as a woman told me.
The digital world is, in many ways, amazing. It has given us opportunities and access to information at a speed that we couldn’t have imagined 20 years ago. But, ironically, it has also made us all a bit more stupid. Much of our information is now extremely superficial and we don’t have the time to have a good think about the consequences of what we do. But for companies such as H&M, this is no excuse.
• Kristiansen is a Cape Town-based guest lecturer in Intercultural Communication at the University of Southern Jutland, Denmark.