When and Why We Boycott
For Streamlined Activists,
Waking up the morning of January 8th to just about everybody on the internet crowding my social media feeds with denunciations of H&M following the release of the now-infamous “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle” hoodie, I was immediately struck by the hypocrisy that this moment in H&M's long-blemished career finally warranted punishment in a court of public opinion that has long forgiven H&M and it’s contemporaries for far harsher offenses against social justice and human rights. For those of you who might have slept through the media storm, H&M drew the ire of consumers worldwide after publishing an advertisement modeling the aforementioned racially insensitive hoodie on a young Black boy. It was not long ago that white supremacist “scientists” and “academics” claimed as fact that people of color were genetically inferior and more closely related to animals. As people of color know all too well, the legacies of this ideology are alive and well and not uncommonly encapsulated in seemingly harmless advertisements such as the H&M one. So yes, the advertisement was that bad. Calls to boycott the company quickly went viral and video recordings of rioting within H&M stores were published online from several countries. So cogent was the public disapproval of the H&M ad that less than 24 hours after the story went viral, stars such as R&B/Pop singer The Weeknd were publicly declining to work with H&M in the future.
On twitter, thousands of threads were discussing the controversy, with one tweet shared over 2,000 times and subsequently featured in a New York Times online article stating, “In 2018, there’s no way brands/art directors can be this negligent and lack awareness,” (Liam) basically reminding the Internet of how many people are involved in the creation and distribution of an advertisement. Adding this layer of analysis to the conversation surrounding the H&M hoodie clearly had value to the thousands of people who engaged with the tweet, and is a valid critique of the ad, leading many people to ask what kind of structural ignorance and/or malice didn’t question an image of a young Black boy being called a monkey?
But wait. Hold up. REMIX. In the year two thousand and eighteen, did the general public of the world really need to see a racially insensitive slogan virtually printed on a sweatshirt the boy probably never modeled to be convinced not to spend money at H&M? A brief recounting of the company’s high profile run-ins with human rights infractions are in order: Has everyone forgotten when H&M and a handful of its fast-fashion ‘federates oversaw the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh that left 1,129 people, mostly women, dead? Nonexistent safety regulations and employee rights made those 1,129 people the subject of numerous international headlines which blamed the incident on the fast fashion industry’s disregard for human life and drew attention to the thousands of other garment factories that could easily suffer the same fate (Kronfield et. al). Ties between H&M's material sourcing and modern-day slavery in cotton-producing states in Africa are long documented. Fast fashion retailers source from factories throughout the global south that utilize child labor, do not pay their employees a living wage, and utilize bullying tactics to keep their employees silent in terror (Patrick). No, it's not just H&M, the entire industry is crooked. However, not only is it crooked in the way that capitalism tends to smell vaguely rotten, it's crooked in the blatantly-supporting-modern-day-slavery kind of way. So yes, the advertisement was that bad. H&M deserves your boycott, but it has deserved it for a long while now.
The morning the hoodie story broke I specifically found myself critical of the voices dominating my newsfeed whose online identities I can only describe as "woke" minority millennials, my peers. These are young people who have been calling out systems of injustice in the United States since they were thirteen years old and following the Trayvon Martin case. However, coming of age in the Black Lives Matter era while trying to digest and interact with social media, a beast our generation mostly grew up without, our activism and our online personas can sometimes interact in funky ways. We’ve had to tackle such questions as “should I share this political meme?” and “If my profile picture is of me smiling and looking generally happy, would it be odd to add a filter of the French flag to honor the victims of the Paris Attack?” Funky, indeed. Scholar Glenn Cerise describes ‘slacktivism’ as the social phenomena that describes the “disconnect between awareness and action through the use of social media” (8). This seems like an appropriate assessment of our online behavior, wherein the easy accessibility of social media makes supporting a cause as simple as a retweet. Sharing certain stories when they go viral has become a way to signal woke-ness to one's followers. Taking interest in exposing the injustice-du-jour requires little else but a screenshot of a headline, some angry emojis. The H&M hoodie incident was picked up by this online community, who then managed to make it one of the biggest news scandals of the month by doing nothing else than virtually chirping about the issue. That's power; and that's also privilege.
After our slacktivism seems to have set in motion a conversation that had meaning to so many different communities around the world, one is tempted to sing the praises of the Internet and make slipshod comments about the power of Twitter as a tool for community organizing. Isn't this a great thing? After all, the advertisement didn't last two days on H&M's website before an apology by the company for its negligence appeared in its place. Oh, social media, how you bring us together.
The social justice ideals expressed by Black Lives Matter give us an interesting tool to examine the hypocrisy of mainstream activism. Black Lives Matter was never a movement that was meant to deal solely with the police brutality issue in the United States. From its very conception, the movement preached exposing systems of inequality from every angle and inclusivity: “Although by no means consistent or complete, [Black Lives Matters’] attempts to center those closer to the margins—women, queer people, and various non-elites—through the production of blogs, reports, missives, and by simply invoking the names of unsung victims of police violence (“Say Her Name,” as a related campaign is dubbed), signal an ethos of inclusiveness and a desire for a fundamental rearrangement of power relations.” (Rickford, 37)
On the Black Lives Matter website, the “What We Believe” tab lists “globalism” as one of the organization’s guiding principles, going on to say, “We see ourselves as part of the global Black family, and we are aware of the different ways we are impacted or privileged as Black people who exist in different parts of the world.” The popularization of progressive discourse such as this on social media by my generation of young activists that stresses the malleability and subjectivity of privilege has been greatly influenced by the work of Black Lives Matter. And so… if a global outlook is our ideal and we are serious about recognizing our own privileges, the kind of mass slacktivism that got H&M shunned for the hoodie but turned a blind eye to years of headlines about the entire fast fashion industry’s exploitation of Black and Brown communities beyond our border is not going to cut it.
The H&M scandal and the massive holes in our collective animosity with the company should remind us that our slacktivism can only go so far before situations such as this will be plainly ones of 'caring' about some Black and Brown bodies more than others, saving social consciousness for an American context and treating the global Black and Brown community with ignorance. This ethnocentricity on the part of mainstream youth minority-led American social justice culture could be a source of rot in the pursuit of our greatest social goals.
So what solution do I have to offer for this? Am I suggesting that those of us who enjoy sharing social justice-related content on social media should refrain unless we are absolutely certain we know everything about the topic? No. I’m not interested in policing the internet, nor would I find it in goodwill to routinely shit on others’ attempts at exposing and undoing systems of inequality. Activist communities should continue to be welcoming spaces both online and on the ground, but preserving the integrity of our social justice pursuits requires taking the time to call out our own privileges. It’s good for the soul, people.