Image: The fashion retailer advert that sparked outrage this week.
The time people of colour were kidnapped and trapped in pens while millions of tourists paid to stare and point at them over a fence remains in living memory. Until just 60 years ago, Europe and the United States were dotted with human zoos, where people of colour were kept like animals and black ‘exhibits’ were advertised as the evolutionary ‘missing link’.
This week, clothing retailer H&M came under fire for a racist advert showing a black boy in a hoodie reading ‘Coolest Monkey In The Jungle’ (while his white counterpart enjoys the privileged title of ‘Survival Expert’). There is much about that image which only becomes visible when examining it alongside hidden chapters of our history like the human zoo - such as how few people of colour must have been involved producing the image.
It also reminds us that the outcry is not a ‘social media backlash’; it is real people, many of whom live real-life oppression every day, and were horrified and hurt by it because yes, we still live in a world where people of colour are objectified and vilified. We need look no further than the football field to witness the taunting of black players.
Yet what’s truly outrageous here, and truly racist, has gone near unnoticed: the price, and the daily exploitation that allows this eight quid hoodie to make H&M rich on the backs of 850,000 sweatshop workers they don’t pay enough to live.
It is no coincidence that most of these workers are women of colour. The colonial system that once filled the human zoos still shapes the division of labour in today’s global economy. Its terms are dictated overwhelmingly by white executives in the global North while women of colour in the South make them rich.
H&M is the second largest fashion brand in the world with an annual profit of over $2 billion, thanks to the long shifts and poverty wages of people whose faces we will never see in advertisements. In Bangladesh, H&M claims workers earn £64.37 per month. To cover proper food, housing, healthcare and education access children, that wage would need to triple.
Meanwhile, H&M chairperson Stefan Persson could afford to personally finance that for the next thirty years. He’s worth $9.9 billion, so he could also afford proper fire safety measures in all their factories, a promise made after 1,134 people died in the Rana Plaza disaster - and still not kept.
Racism's greatest defence today is the historic inequality that splits our world into the have’s and have not's; which most often line up with the dividing lines of global South and global North; the black world and the white.
That this advert could have been an innocent mistake makes it even worse. It shows how deep the roots of racist thought go and how much of its existence remains invisible to white society. But then so too, does the outcry that followed.
It also shows that H&M is only one cog in the problem. The very fabric of the industry is rotten. Calling out H&M for this one advert is not going to bring justice. Let's say the boycott wins an ethically impeccable advertising policy - what have we won, other than a respectable cover for business as usual?
Recently, clothes popped up in Zara, Next and Mango with notes sewn into them reading: “I made this item you are going to buy but I didn’t get paid for it.” What good is politically correct advertising if all it does is help us forget about that? `
Let’s be clear. The issue here isn’t whether it’s possible for workers to be treated with dignity, the problem is that the industry has no intention of changing unless it has to. There are workers right now, making your clothes, oppressed by racism and struggling every day not just to survive but to win dignity and freedom for themselves.
How many of those angered by this advert were also supporting the spontaneous strike for living wage in December 2016, by thousands of workers in Ashulia, Bangladesh - many of whom worked for factories supplying H&M? The outrage over this advertisement forced H&M to pull the advert, pull the hoodies and apologise. Your tweets made that happen. Imagine what the garment workers, these brave and resilient women of colour who are already building a movement, could accomplish if they could count on us to stand with them.
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