The Elephant Behind the Monkey: H&M and Decolonization of Fashion

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“This sh*t is bananas!” To quote cultural entrepreneur Gwen Stefani, herself no stranger to lucrative cultural appropriation, the H&M kidswear wardrobe malfunction is b.a.n.a.n.a.s! Unlike beauty, racism is not in the eye of the beholder; it’s in the system. Future fashion historians might note this moment as a definitive crack in the style matrix based on white supremacy. Bare/bear with me as we checklist the process of #decolonization. Items represent ideas. Ideas amount to ideology. Ideology governs production of items. The full circle of imagination, agency and property spirals onward. Let’s break down the making of a racist bargain in three open-ended questions.

What’s wrong with this hoodie? The Item.

There is nothing wrong with hoodies, monkeys, jungles or kids acting cool. Black boys and other people should wear whatever they want, including “the coolest monkey in the jungle” hoodie. The problem with this garment, its marketing and subsequent market reaction is a one word verdict. Whiteness. The blight of it. For the past few centuries, whiteness has thrived on construction of perverse narratives casting everyone and everything that isn’t of proto-European origin as inferior, subhuman, plaything. (Except for natural resources, of course; those were and continue to be violently extracted from indigenous people’s lands at the rate of four brutal assassinations per week in 2017!) Now, as the hegemony of whiteness begins its overdue decline, colonial imagery and mindset are being called out and cast out. One hoodie at a time. Part of white privilege is ability and capacity to enforce context. I’m calling this boy a monkey as a racialized slur. I’m calling this boy a monkey as a term of endearment. I equate this boy with a jungle so I can exploit his labor. I equate this boy with a jungle so I can fetishize him. I proclaim this boy unworthy so I can profit from him. I proclaim this boy the coolest so I can profit from him. Questioning of my economic and emotional profiteering shall be met with skepticism, ridicule, and when all else fails, annihilation. The system whiteness designed had worked really well (for its beneficiaries). Until now. Until this.

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Aren’t all hoodies created equal? The Idea.

Whiteness cannot exist in a social vacuum. Otherwise, it’s just shared humanity and where’s unadulterated profit in that?! Whiteness relies on creating cognitive subjugation through superiority narratives. So, one out-of-context hoodie won’t do. There just had to be another hoodie. And there was. “The Mangrove Jungle Official Survival Expert: Junior Tour Guide”. Wow. All. That. Official. Expertise! Must be a White Man. And it was. Such oppositional Caucasian casting perpetuates the Western (global north) cultural tradition of upholding white males as de facto superheros who have spoken Earth into existence by belatedly mapping it in Latin-based languages. As a white male myself, I was bred to identify with the story-lines that cast indigenous people as mortal enemies or reduce them to exceptional sidekicks, coolest monkeys, playthings. A corresponding print on the white boy’s hoodie would have read “The Coolest Grouse in the Bog” or something similar based on wildlife and habitats of ahem… origin (?!). But it wasn’t. Because whiteness can’t help itself; it’s not how pathology works. It can only be eradicated. Through education, vigilance, exposure and boycott. That’s the agency.

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Whose hoodie is it anyway? The Ideology.

When you connect the dots, the big picture is neither innocent nor fun. The reason this story went viral is at least twofold. H&M is a whiteness-compliant white-owned business. With over 4,500 stores worldwide, this private Swedish company serves as one of very few global gatekeepers on modes of self-expression. Wherever you are, there’s likely an H&M within reach (in sixty two countries). We express ourselves through items curated by approval in H&M boardrooms clearly void of intercultural competency.  We pay billions to do so. Sweden’s shortlist of billionaires features five (!) individual H&M heirs, including Tom Persson, the founder’s grandson. That’s third-generation billionaire. Who’s the coolest monkey now? The Kamprads of IKEA are on the list, too. Recap, two Swedish (white) families get to control what’s fashionable and define a home through ownership of means of ideation and production worldwide. So rejecting one particular hoodie becomes an act of resistance against an empire. The struggle is real.

So are the tools. The second reason for this story’s breakthrough impact is social media. Visual literacy is growing as we sift through unprecedented volume of images daily. We process information faster; watch out for the dots!  French President Emmanuel Macron claims Africa’s problems are unmanageable-y civilizational and linked to multiple childbirths. Twenty six Nigerian girls die while being sex-trafficked across the Mediterranean. Donald Trump, the First White President of the United States, refers to Haiti and African nations as “sh*thole countries“. Actual slave trade flourishes along the coast of Libya as intercontinental migration crisis grows. I see it in my newsfeed. I see it on that H&M hoodie, too. “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” so to say. Amid growing protests, H&M has temporarily suspended all store operations in South Africa. Times up.

The Elephant Behind the Monkey. What’s next?

The image of a black boy in a green hoodie has claimed its place in fashion media iconography by inspiring people to substitute the print with celebratory slogans. Check ’em out! (Now watch any mass market fashion conglomerate dare to start selling that as merchandise…) It is taking the anti-racist, decolonization discourse within the fashion industry to another level. Granted, that’s not particularly hard in a notoriously unabashedly appropriative and predatory industry. Talk among yourselves, I give you a topic. “Selective outrage.” It is also opening market presence to alternative brands more authentically in-tune with historic cultural realities. SHOP HERE.

In the spring of 2015, based on my reading of tea leaves menswear trends, I “predicted” subsequent Oscar win for Leonardo DiCaprio and the political rise of Donald Trump in a Toronto fashion week review titled “Dis/Comfort of Power“. It had to do with toxic (white) masculinity and its hyper-stylized manifestations. Fashion is never abstract nor is it void of context. My next “prediction” is that H&M’s Monkeygate could mark a cultural point of no return for the decline of white supremacy in matters of style (and substance). Onward!

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