The Avoidable Dangers of Racial Insensitivity


H&M entered the retailer hall of shame this week with a racially insensitive advertisement that featured an African-American youngster wearing a hoodie with the words, “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle.”

H&M apologized, pulled the product from its website and blamed its procedures for the misstep. That didn’t prevent a barrage of high-profile tongue-lashing from LeBron James, Questlove and Abel Tesfaye, a Grammy award-winning artist whose The Weeknd has collaborated with the Swedish-owned apparel retailer.

There also has been a call for a boycott and cynical social media posts like this one:

“I’m sure the apologies are a coming. And the ads will be pulled. I’m certain there will be media fixers and whatnot and maybe a grand gesture like a donation to some charity (donations under these circumstances are the corporate version #SomeOfMyBestFriendsAre move if there ever was one) all this tells me about @HM is that the seats in the boardroom lack something...wanna take a guess?”

Other apparel retailers have stumbled into equally thick quagmires, which should serve as a reminder to conduct a sniff test before unveiling a consumer-facing product or service to ensure it entices, not offends.

Some may dismiss dust-ups like the one enveloping H&M as “politically correct” controversies. A better analysis would be H&M’s product displayed a stunning tone-deafness. It seems inconceivable that a team of people – of almost any makeup, age and ancestry – couldn’t spot trouble on that boy’s chest, even in the so-called fast-fashion industry.

A quick Google search underscores why African-Americans are sensitive to any simian allusions, and not just because of some ancient, ante-bellum cartoons depicting blacks as apes. NBA star Michael Jordan, President Barack Obama  and First Lady Michelle Obama have been portrayed as monkeys. An anti-Obama campaign button in 2008 featured a monkey and a banana. The anger these allusions whip up is real, not manufactured. And the anger isn’t restricted to African-Americans.

Ethnic and religious stereotypes extend beyond African-Americans and can be equally ugly and insensitive. Brands, restaurants and service providers that dare dabble in this realm should beware. You may have no idea of where you step. What you think is a compliment could actually be an insult.

Ask around before you offer up products that are even borderline questionable. Consult friends. Show it to your spouse. Meet with those who might take offense. Run it by your investors or sponsors. You will reduce the odds of a “surprise” reaction by shopping your bright idea before you put it under the bright lights.

Better yet, avoid getting too close to the border of insensitivity. Think of something just as creative and less likely to ricochet off the wall and hit you in the foot.

Finally, ditch excuses such as “I never thought,” “that’s what we always used to say” or “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it.” Those who are offended don’t buy it, and most of your customers won’t either.

You can be full-throated about your product without being foolhardy in how you present it. If you don’t know what’s offensive, get some street smarts. If you harbor ill will toward any group, keep it to yourself or get some help. Don’t enshrine it on a hoodie.