By Cheryl Mattox Berry
The controversy over clothing giant H&M using a black child wearing a hoodie with the words “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle” reminded me of an encounter I had with an opthamologist in the 1990s. When I took my 7-year-old daughter to see the eye doctor, he walked into the exam room and said, “How’s this little monkey doing today?”
I almost fell out of my chair.
“What did you just call my daughter?” I said.
I didn’t wait for an answer because I heard him loud and clear. l told him that he had used a racial slur, and we were offended.
He turned bright red and apologized, saying the word monkey was used by whites as a term of endearment for their children. I told him it’s not acceptable for whites to call black children monkey in my culture. I reminded him of the backlash sportscaster Howard Cosell faced in 1983 when he exuberantly exclaimed, “Look at that little monkey run!” during a Monday night football game between the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins. The doctor said he remembered the incident, but he obviously didn’t check himself.
Since then, I’ve heard whites call their kids monkey many times in public, on TV shows and in commercials. Still, in this day and age, whites should be aware of words that blacks consider racially insensitive. Because many don’t get it, we must tell them and show them (with the power of our purse) it’s not acceptable.
Surprisingly, the mother of the child didn’t take offense to the wording. She claimed critics were making much ado about nothing. She said it’s no big deal in Stockholm, Sweden, where they live. But the hoodie sparked outrage in Johannesburg, South Africa, where shoppers ransacked six H&M stores on Saturday. Incidentally, the boy’s mother is originally from Nairobi, Kenya.
H&M has apologized and pulled the ad, and removed the sweatshirt from store shelves. Why don’t these companies hire some black folks on their advertising/PR team to flag potential problems?
I question whether H&M, Pepsi and other companies that launch controversial ads do so to call attention to themselves, thinking there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Let the sellers beware that their poor judgment – intentional or otherwise – will drive away shoppers.
Footnote: I used the incident at the doctor’s office to teach my daughter the importance of never letting anyone call you out of your name and to stand up for yourself.