Monkey Tee, Monkey Stew

Questions about the H&M Monkey Tee Drama


In case you’re not inundated with the stupid news of the day, here’s the recap:

A large clothing manufacturer produced a t-shirt that reads “Coolest Monkey in the Forest”.  There is a second tee pictured in the advertisement, that reads, “Survival Expert”. The first shirt is worn by a child with dark skin. The second is worn by a child with light skin. Outrage ensued, because obviously only black children can wear the “monkey” tee. If you need more, here’s the New York Times article on the issue.

Now I fully understand that white folks have used the term “monkey” as an insult to black people. From my experience, it is the most stupid of the insults used in this manner, but there it is. I had to Google it just to make sure it meant what I thought. As a woman, there’s a similar insult based on “dirty” animals that gets tossed my way from time to time. I don’t like being called a “bitch”, so I’ll assume that your average person with dark skin also does not like being called a “monkey”. Name-calling is uncool. Surely, if someone has done you wrong, you can find better ways to insult them than by attacking that over which they have no control. But I digress..

I have several questions. Feel free to answer them. They will be couched with a great deal of sarcasm, but they do come from a place of sincerity.

1. Children are Monkeys

Seriously. I’m a white woman who lives in an area that, for most of my life, has included the full rainbow spectrum of white people. Loads of different cultures, but mostly German, Italian, Greek, Polish, and good old “Appalachain, I don’t know.” At some point in their child’s growing up, a good 50% of the parents I know referred to their child as a “monkey” at some point. I mean, hello? They were called “monkey bars”, not because they were stood up for the black children, or so that white children could imitate black children, but because you looked like a monkey when you use them. Right? Ask an elementary school teacher in an all-white classroom if those kids could frequently be described as “monkeys in a jungle”. Half my family are elementary school teachers in mostly-white farm areas. The answer will be “yes”, or “not this group, but last year…”. I can recall several occasions when teachers used those words to describe a classroom where I was sitting quietly, but was the only one. 🙂

Does that make it OK to call a child with dark skin a “monkey” for the sake of insult? No. Does it mean I could easily have designed this shirt, thinking of my own kids and their youths, never once considering that someone would believe I intended insult. Probably. So is the very word “monkey” such an insult that it can no longer be used in any way, even as a description of behavior? If there is even one child with dark skin in a classroom, can they no longer be compared to a bunch of monkeys when “free time” goes awry?


2. What if the Shirts were Reversed?

If the child with light skin were wearing the “monkey” tee, would the pic have been OK? Would we all then just assume that the intent was “I’m a bit of a wild child”? And if that’s the case, are we then implying that the shirt is inappropriate for a child with dark skin to wear? Are these children immune to liking monkeys? Are there other animals black children can’t like – I’d prefer to be aware. I have relatives with dark skin, and buy gifts from time to time.

Of course, that’s ludicrous. A person’s skin color does not determine his behavior, or her preferences. So if it doesn’t make any difference which boy wore the shirt, then why is it offensive on the boy of color? Aren’t we supposed to be treating everyone the same, no matter their outsides? It would be wrong to force a child to wear the shirt, especially one who felt that force as a racial insult. But to picture a child who happens to be wearing the shirt? Come on, now.


3. We Wanted Representation, Right?

For years people of color had little or no representation in catalogues or advertising, except in those items marketed to the black community. And in light of today’s thinking, many of those ads are downright disturbing, if well-meaning at the time. The same goes for plus-sized women, short men, and a host of other groups who are not thin, white, and proportioned “just so”. We begged for change. And the companies asked the modeling agencies to hire people of color, with curves, and with visible handicaps. And they did!

Now, imagine for a moment that you’re in charge of this photo shoot. Lots of kids, lots of clothes, lots of sizes. This kid fits this shirt. Do you really want to be the person who says, “No, dear black child. This shirt is not for you. It is reserved for the white children.” ??? Who in the name of Batman’s illegitimate child is going to say that? What kind of person even thinks it? Isn’t this the kind of thinking people have been fighting since long before I was born, that some things are not OK for some races, but are fine for others? Aren’t we all supposed to behave as if we don’t judge by color? That’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to put the kids in the shirts that fit. If it makes the kid cry, you switch. Check the lighting, take the shot, send the kids to go change. Re-set and go again. Except to adjust lighting for skin tone, you don’t give a flying golden snitch what color skin the child has. Because you were raised better than that. He’s just a kid, an individual to himself no matter his skin color.

Do we want something different than that? Do we want a world where you can’t put any monkeys on shirts, ever, for fear a black child could be photographed wearing it, and you’ll be shamed by all of the internet? No funky Warhol-inspired tees with white bread logos or cracker boxes? No elephants, since they’re sacred to some cultures? Which brings me to my next question…


4. What if the Animal and Kid are Different?

What if the shirt read, “I’m the coolest Giraffe on the Plains?”, but was worn by a very tall child? “I’m the gnarliest Zebra in the Gang“, worn by a child whose skin color was maybe not quite “dark enough”? “I’m the strongest Elephant in the Herd“, on a girl struggling with obesity? Ooooohhh… how about something informing… bats. Bats are really beneficial, but rumors have caused humans to find them distasteful. So you find an adorable bat drawing, you put it on a tee, and write “Cutest Bat in the Cave“. Animal rights folks love it. Then they publish it in a catalogue on a girl who happens to be wearing glasses.

Now, my daughter is blind in one eye. She doesn’t have perfect vision in the other. She would wear the bejeezus out of a shirt like that. I, on the other hand, a fairly normally nearsighted kid, would have been mortified to wear it. But does the potential that I could be offended mean my kid shouldn’t get to do her photo shoot? Does it mean she has to wear a different shirt, and be sorted according to her disability? How is that more right than abjectly leaving her out of the shoot altogether because she’s “different”? Is it the fault of the shirt and the company, or the fault of the person who so actively thinks about differences that they assume ill intent where none exists?

Now for the Rant…

This comes back to equal treatment for everyone. We don’t shame people for who they are, we judge people based on how they behave. How they treat others. What they do with their time. Please, for crying out loud, can we stop looking at a person and believing we know ANYTHING about them from that glance? Can you pretend for just one minute that it would be OK for a black child to want to grow up to study monkeys and other fun animals? That he just might freaking live in a world where a monkey is just a jabberdy-fluking monkey? Can we not, those of us who hate racism, even believe for a moment that more and more children grow up in a place where they have no concept that this even could be an insult?

Can we not leave these old-fashioned and wrong-thinking ideas about these otherwise innocuous words to the pages of old books and unwilling minds? Can we not at least try to live in a world where a black child, a white child, an Indian child, and a Jewish child of lesbian parents can all wear the same freaking t-shirt? Must we try to continue the traditions of segregation by working to find any remaining bits of potential racism, or can we shine light on the real threats to equality in this country? Talk about employers who don’t hire gay or transgendered people. Talk about places where laws are unequally enforced in a racial manner. Take these people to court. Remove bad laws. Talk to your freaking neighbor and share your views. Ensure your children know that any kind of friends are OK, as long as they treat you well – their parentage, color, or home life aren’t things they control. Make it your business to conduct yourself accordingly.

But if someone feels the need to make a big deal about this tee, haven’t we come an awful long way? Racially motivated thoughts will occur. Bad deeds will (or, should be) punished. We will never end racist thoughts in the minds of small people. But I feel like the person who saw racism in this ad could only have done so if there was a little bit in their heart. I don’t know them. I don’t know all the facts regarding who said what in which boardroom. But how about we not spread the petty racism accusations when it’s not necessary?


Those are my questions.

Rant Over.

One Comment

  1. A Black Woman

    I love and wholeheartedly agree with your rant, in its entirety! I think SO much is trivialized and it just becomes silly. I figure if you don’t want your child to wear, drink, eat, use, whatever product don’t buy it. Why do they have to totally remove the shirt from store shelves. SILLY!! And was not the child’s parent present at this shoot? Perhaps!? Did not the black woman in the Dove ad (mentioned in the NYTimes article) agree to shoot the ad? I don’t see the need to make a mountain out of a molehill over everything. Let people do and feel what they want to do and feel and keep it moving. Let the kid wear the shirt!

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