H&M: Boy, Monkey & the N word

When I heard about the H&M controversy, I thought here we go again. Racism in the US is different than other parts of the world. However, it does not excuse ignorance. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” When people say that they do not understand why non-black people cannot use the “n” word, I ask whether they question why people do not say “Heil Hitler” or wear swastikas? Why is it that when it comes to the oppression, genocide, and degradation of white ethnicity that people understand that those things are an affront, crass, and insensitive? Yet, when it comes to the oppression and degradation of people of color, the world turns a collective blind-eye or say that we are making a big deal of nothing. We will not allow monuments that celebrate Nazi Germany propaganda and the genocide of Jews, but Confederate monuments that celebrate the enslavement, oppression, and genocide of blacks that nearly divided this country are acceptable? The hypocrisy is appalling. We will #PrayforParis and gather to help hurricane stricken in Texas, but Puerto Rico can waste away without power. Why is it considered okay to wear blackface or use the “n” word? Because people of color are still separate and unequal. Our pain is not real until a non-black person independently verifies it, #RIPHeatherHeyer.

Black men and women serve on the police force, yet if they are not in uniform they are subject to die from a traffic stop like any other black person. People said that Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the anthem disrespects their ancestors that served in the military. Blacks have always served and died in the military only to be neglected and not receive the same treatment and benefits as white servicemen and you want to say our kneeling disrespects those that have served? The gall and audacity of that statement alone makes me ill. We kneel because despite our service to this country, we are made to be the poster child for every ill in this society and imprisoned at greater rates than whites for the same crime. Yet, our achievements and accomplishments for this country are not taught or simply erased from history. I am not referring to music and sports because our contribution to science, technology, medicine, politics, and innovation are nowhere in school textbooks. Hidden Figures is but one example of untold stories.

African-Americans learned to survive by taking tools of oppression and re-purposing them as a means for survival, many times via doing the “dozens.” When slave masters meant to insult us and our blackness with the word nigger, we re-purposed it to nigga, a term of endearment. Gregory Lewis wrote an article about the dozens and its prominence in black comedy quoting historians. “They was playing to teach themselves and their sons how to stay alive…The whole idea was to learn to take whatever the master said to you without answering back or hitting him ’cause that was the way a slave had to be, so’s he could go on living…The dozens, capping, are forms of survival,” said Cecil Brown, a professor at the University of California. “Being able to keep cool and not take insults personally are things that allow black people to be so effective.”

If you do not joke about the Holocaust, do not joke about the enslavement and dehumanization of my people and culture just because you heard it in a song. Our survival in American culture depends on the words you callously mutter to a song. Understand that the word “boy” and “monkey” were used during slavery and afterwards to keep black men, women, and children “in their place.” A grown black man was commonly referred to as “boy” instead of Mister to reiterate that he was unequal and less than a white man. Young black babies were often called “monkeys” instead of babies. They could not be cute babies, instead they were “cute jungle monkeys.”

My father was born in the South, but when they moved to Chicago my grandmother made him and his siblings spend their summers in Alabama to remember their roots and the struggle. Southern whites commonly referred to black babies as “cute monkeys” such that my dad would be furious if anyone referred to us or his grandchildren as cute because “cute monkey” was typically the southern derogatory slur. My father insisted that we were pretty, beautiful, and handsome. He forbade and refused to refer to us or any black child as cute due to the racist roots of the slur.

As a fourth grader in Catholic school, I recall the nun insulting me and my classmates. She was white and assigned to all black Catholic school. She had no problem letting us know that she did not like us. She announced to the class, “You’re all stupid jungle bunny monkeys that need to go back to Africa.” We gasped. What could we do? One brave boy, Ulysses, stood up to her. Unfortunately, this was when you could get punished, beat, and paddled in Catholic school. What the nun did to Ulysses that day scared the crap out of me and my fellow classmates. The nun walked to Ulysses, grabbed him by the collar, pulling him so fiercely that the desk lifted from the floor, and body slapped him against the black board and repeated “stupid jungle bunny monkeys.” We were in shock. I did not tell my parents because I feared my dad would kill her and go to jail. None of my classmates ever told our parents. Who would believe us? I was a straight A honor roll student before, but the entire class received Ds and Fs. We were all failing. I forged my mom’s name on report cards and progress reports. For a semester we endured racial slurs and daily denigration from our fourth grade teacher, a nun. At the beginning of the second semester, the smartest girl in class said she had a solution. Clarisse received a cassette tape recorder for Christmas. She put the recorder in her backpack and recorded one day of class. She gave the cassette to her mother, who played it to the principal. They fired the nun. When the school informed our parents, my mother was upset at me. She asked why I hadn’t said anything before? She knew that I was a capable student and would have stepped in. But I was nine living in Chicago and experiencing something that I only saw in the movie Roots and heard happened in the South. I was afraid.

For those saying people are making a big deal out of nothing, take several seats at the back of the bus. As Hegel said, “What history teaches is that men have learned nothing from it.” JFK said, “The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie – deliberate, contrived and dishonest – but the myth – persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.” Stereotypes and myths about black culture, sexuality, and criminality perpetuate because of the H&M incident, Pepsi ad, and others who profit from black culture but give nothing to black communities. Your ignorance is not an excuse. If companies and non-blacks want to appropriate black culture while perpetuating harmful stereotypes, then do not be surprised or upset when we respond via Twitter or a boycott. These ad campaigns go through many layers of approval and no one took a moment to wonder if this might be insensitive? The marketing departments in these companies did not overlook the meaning behind the insinuation, they simply did not care.

 

Ronda Lee
Founder, Editor-in-Chief
Ronda is an attorney, writer, and entrepreneur. She is a contributing writer for the Huffington Post. Originally from Chicago, she has lived in Los Angeles and New York. She loves to travel and is passionate about education equity, especially for first generation college students.