Popular clothing line H&M entered the new year with a lot of controversy surrounding an advertisement featuring a young black boy in a sweater that read “Coolest monkey in the jungle.” The advert went viral and ignited uproar and impassioned calls for boycotting. The ongoing debate about whether this sweater was poor marketing or intentionally racist is one that I was often asked to participate in. However, I was much more interested in the attempts by members of the black community to fix the wrong that they found in the sweater.
Photoshopped pictures of the boy wearing sweaters with altered messages quickly popped up on the internet. The words were changed from “coolest monkey in the jungle” to “coolest king in the world” and other similar positive messages. Black Panther Party images and the Basquiat crown symbol were also placed in lieu of the monkey phrase. I even saw a GIF of the boy in front of the Egyptian pyramids, with a rotating crown above his head. These pics were shared by high-profile celebrities like LeBron James and Diddy, with captions that called for the need to change the monkey narrative to one about black kinghood and royalty.
This sort of reaction is very familiar, and it is part of the larger movement of uplifting the black community. This includes slogans such as “black excellence,” “black girl magic,” “black king” and “black queen.” These slogans can be found on clothing, in music lyrics and even on social media biographies. It is a collective effort to overwrite the negative connotations that, historically, have often been associated with black people. It’s all done to contrast the way that our history and our persons have been portrayed in school curriculums, books and the media. I recognize that this movement is necessary, especially around Black History Month — a month that is handled lazily by academia through the constant highlighting of slavery.
The idea of being a black “queen” or “king” often involves the achievement of excellence while displaying dignity and strength, even in the face of adversity. The issue with this idea, and uplifting the black community, is that it devalues black vulnerability and weakness; there is no room for mediocrity in the struggle to successfully navigate spaces that have historically been constructed to keep us out. This movement, positive though it may be, has unfortunately created a pressure that forces us to outperform in order to prove that we aren’t lesser than our non-black counterparts.
The phrase “we have to work twice as hard to get half of what they have,” or some variation of it, is one that most black people have heard several times in their lives. This phrase especially applies to black people in spaces like Western University, where there are more geese than black people on campus. To be a black student at Western is to be either the only or one of the few black people in the room, which often creates a pressure to outperform our peers and show that we deserve to be here.
The toll that this can take on the mental and physical health of black people is enormous, and it is a topic that requires much more attention and investigation than it currently gets. Showing behaviour and emotions that are opposite to the ideas of strength, dignity and excellence is something that I also feel black people should be able to do without feeling guilty or inadequate.
The attempts to turn the H&M monkey sweater into a celebration of “black excellence” and “black royalty” is one that I recognize as well-intentioned and, to an extent, even necessary. The term “monkey” has historically been used to dehumanize us and excuse past mistreatment. However, I believe that this movement should make room for and celebrate traits and actions that may not fit into the mould of what we currently deem “black excellence” and “black royalty” to be. We are human first, should be allowed to be human and should be treated as such without having to always claim our royalty.