By Pinky Khoabane
Liam Mango, who was featured in an H&M advert that has sparked global outrage. Musician The Weekend in the picture, has cut ties with the retail company
THE controversy that has been sparked by yet another racist advert, this time by global clothing retailer H&M, reminds us of the long-standing and squalid history of how black bodies have been and are still being used as political and economic tools to preserve white privilege and oppression.
H&M ran an advert of a Black boy wearing a hoodie emblazoned with the words “Coolest Monkey In The Jungle”. In the public outcries that have followed these racist adverts, many have asked how the heck they pass the multiple stages of approval to reach the stage where they are put to the public? They ask: “Who comes up with these ideas and why do they think it is fine?” Frankly, those behind these adverts couldn’t give a damn. All they are concerned about is the ring of the cash registers produced by the sale of the products advertised.
You need to understand the system in which the people behind the advertisements are entrenched. It’s an age-old system of imperialists, white supremacists, capitalists and patriarchs. It’s a system which disregards and disrespects the black body but is cognisant of the monetary value it holds. This body is bought, sold and even though it makes money for its master, it can also be humiliated at his discretion. Narratives of blackness within the Western context and the commodification of the black body transcend the atlantic slave trade.
The pervasive racism promoted in these adverts take us back to the time when black bodies were products to be sold on white men’s fields. They take us back to the time when black women were used as baby factories to sustain the production of slaves in order to sustain the white man’s business.
H&M like all the other racist organisations – political and commercial – thrive off Blackness and couldn’t bother to train or employ people who would be sensitive to issues of diversity and racism and who would be able to pick up red flags from a mile away. But they are quite happy to use Blacks to advance their products. In this case, the Black boy in the advert, Liam Mango, and Black mega star entertainers, The Weekend and rapper Nicky Minaj. H&M and its ilk understand the influence of these Black bodies and the financial benefits they will accrue from them but they don’t respect them as human beings on an equal footing as themselves. These bodies are in an era of the New Slave.
To his credit, Canadian musician The Weekend, has cut ties with H&M. Minaj is under pressure from her fans to follow suit.
Access to Blackness A Belief That Black Bodies Can Be Owned
White people can access Blackness and Black Bodies easily and it is informed by the belief that Black Bodies can be owned. Comedian Chester Missing can appropriate a Black face for fame and money and still mock Blacks as part of his comedy.
In Johannesburg’s city centre, you’ll often find parked just outside the South Gauteng High Court, a fancy Jeep Cherokee which belongs to a white man dressed in a Zulu traditional outfit. I once stopped and asked him why he was dressed in a zulu outfit and what he was doing there. He explained that he prays for South Africa and wears the outfit so that the many African passersby can identify with him. And so why the desperation to identify? It’s because he has lots of religious pamphlets he distributes and he fancies this is the best way to to get rid of his product. It’s one of those things – to be seen to be “down for the culture” so that as a white person, you’re automatically welcomed by the Africans.
Artist Miley Cyrus whose music career was propped-up by hip-hop culture had to twerk at one of the music awards ceremonies in what was described as the worst form of cultural appropriation. But years later, she distanced herself from hip hop. Responding to Cyrus on a comment she had made on how the music awards favoured whites, Minaj said: ‘‘You’re in videos with black men, and you’re bringing out black women on your stages, but you don’t want to know how black women feel about something that’s so important?”
The African body has a long history of commercialisation and humiliation
The Black Body has a long history of being commodified by the oppressor: The Africans – estimated at between 9 and 11 million by some researchers – who travelled across the Atlantic in shackles and were sold as slaves once they reached the other side; Saartjie Baartman who was a sex slave in and on display like a zoo animal in Europe; Ota Benga who was exhibited as a monkey at a New York zoo; The LA Clippers basketball team which was owned by billionaire Donald Sterling who it emerged from taped recordings hated blacks but made billions off a sport and team that is dominated by Blacks. Like the slave masters who had sex with their slaves, Sterlin, at the time the racist rant was exposed, had a Black girlfriend; Patricia De Lille who, through her struggle credentials brought legitimacy to the racist Democratic Alliance which is about to spit her out now that she’s done her job; or the many Blacks who appear in adverts which spew nothing but racism.
Racism is Violent
Racism is steeped in stories of violence. Slaves were beaten and raped with impunity. White mobs lynched black men for trumped up charges. In South Africa, the entire apartheid system, based on racial discrimination, was maintained through extreme forms of violence – burnings, lynching, poison injection and just sheer brutality of the gun.
The oppressor knows no other language but violence. Those who condemn the EFF’s attack on H&M must ask themselves why, despite the litany of debates on why it is wrong to depict humans as animals, these adverts surface over and over.
More reading related to this article
The New York Times published an article, The scandal at the zoo, which pretty much sums up the story of Ota Benga.
“WHEN New Yorkers went to the Bronx Zoo on Saturday, Sept. 8, 1906, they were treated to something novel at the Monkey House.
At first, some people weren’t sure what it was. It — he — seemed much less a monkey than a man, though a very small, dark one with grotesquely pointed teeth. He wore modern clothing but no shoes. He was proficient with bow and arrow, and entertained the crowd by shooting at a target. He displayed skill at weaving with twine, made amusing faces and drank soda.
The new resident of the Monkey House was, indeed, a man, a Congolese pygmy named Ota Benga. The next day, a sign was posted that gave Ota Benga’s height as 4 feet 11 inches, his weight as 103 pounds and his age as 23. The sign concluded, “Exhibited each afternoon during September.”
Visitors to the Monkey House that second day got an even better show. Ota Benga and an orangutan frolicked together, hugging and wrestling and playing tricks on each other. The crowd loved it. To enhance the jungle effect, a parrot was put in the cage and bones had been strewn around it. The crowd laughed as the pygmy sat staring at a pair of canvas shoes he had been given. “Few expressed audible objection to the sight of a human being in a cage with monkeys as companions,” The New York Times wrote the next day, “and there could be no doubt that to the majority the joint man-and-monkey exhibition was the most interesting sight in Bronx Park.”