Norwegians don’t really debate racism. We have strong opinions when someone says that we shouldn’t use the word negro. We usually start the debate with whining, and it doesn’t get any better from there. I was surprised to find out that the Americans do the same. Not all of them, or maybe it is something they learn when they move here? I’m a member of a Facebook group for Americans in Norway, and their partners. When the group discussed H&M yesterday it was just like a Norwegian discussion about negroes.
H&M published a photo of a black child wearing a hoodie with the text COOLEST MONKEY IN THE JUNGLE. Many couldn’t understand how calling children monkeys was anything but cute, and maybe it would have been without the black child, but it’s hard to believe that no one knows anything about the history behind.
There is a long history of depicting Africans as monkeys. It goes back at least to the 16th century with books by European thinkers describing Africa south of the Sahara as a place where animals and humans had sexual intercourse. Jean Bodin even described Africa as a breeding ground for monsters because of this sexual union between humans and animals, and he used this as a justification for slavery. Josiah Scott and George Gliddon wrote several books in the 1850’s where they tried to establish a hierarchy of races, and Africans were in their view between Greeks and chimpanzees.
This is just a little of the large amount of information people can find online if they are interested, and it continues with relatively recent books like The Bell Curve (1994). Some Europeans may be ignorant about this today, but a lot more know about racism in football. You don’t see it as much today, but just a decade ago you could hear fans making monkey sounds and throwing bananas at black players. I don’t think anyone saw that as a compliment.
The maddening thing about the story I read in several outlets yesterday was the fact that H&M were only sorry this offended people. They didn’t see that they had done something wrong. I was also irritated when I read the comments on some of the websites that wrote about this. When people say that they are offended it’s not our right to tell them how they should feel. I wouldn’t stop shopping in H&M because of this, as some have suggested, but I don’t agree with those who seem to think that consumers shouldn’t speak out when they think a business has done something wrong.
My wife is African-American and our daughter has visible African ancestry. According to some people racism doesn’t exist anymore because they were raised to see only human beings. They were not raised to see skin colour, but I have been in many situations that tells me that people are not going to respect us if it’s up to them. It’s not that long ago that my daughter would have been too black to be fully included, and some people still see her as less because she is less white. Those attitudes may never go completely away. Perhaps the best we can do is to insist that people behave. It doesn’t matter what they think as long as society makes them behave, and correcting errors or ignorance is perfectly acceptable.
A Swedish company should know better, but maybe they just don’t get it? This is a story from 2012 where the Swedish culture minister opened an installation about female genital mutilation, Her job was easy. She was going to open the event by cutting a piece of cake, but understandably the event made the headlines for the wrong reasons. Art is supposed to shock I guess, but perhaps the minister should have been more circumspect in this case:
We have the same thing going on in Norway. We seem completely unable to see other people’s point of view because we don’t experience racism ourselves, but perhaps we should try harder? Autism research talks about theory of mind, aka mindreading or mentalizing, which means that you can predict what’s on other people’s minds. Autistic people take longer time developing this skill, and some don’t. Maybe few neurotypical do when it comes to racism? Theory of mind involves observation and interpretation, because the information isn’t always available to us, but in some situations it should be pretty obvious. Do you think I would be happy or angry if people started referring to my wife and daughter as the monkeys?
It’s not a pleasant sight, but if you want to understand a search for “blacks as monkeys” or “coons” would fill you in That’ll give you some idea of what experiences you haven’t had.