The real hero of the H&M controversy

John Kane-Berman says our age of 'diversity' demands uniformity of opinion and experience

South Africa's Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) no doubt regard themselves as heroes for their acts of vandalism against H&M retail fashion shops in various parts of the country, but the real hero of this episode is Terry Mango, mother of the five-year-old boy who posed for an advertisement wearing a jumper bearing the words "coolest monkey in the jungle". 

Ms Mango, a Swedish national born in Kenya, said that she had previously been a victim of racist abuse: "I know what racism is." However, she did not think the words on the jumper were racist. They did not "chime" with her own definition. "Everybody should act differently based on their own opinions of what racism is." Liam, her son, had modelled hundreds of clothes, and people should not blow the issue out of proportion. "Stop crying wolf all the time," she wrote. "Get over it."

For these politically incorrect views she has herself been described as a monkey, according to Gulf News. Fox News reported that she had been labelled as a sell-out and "embarrassment to the black and African-American people" because she had "sold my son for money". And according to Fox News and the BBC, the family moved out of their home in Stockholm following the violent action in South Africa.

Ms Mango's offence is that she did not buy into the fashionable narrative in terms of which all black people everywhere are automatically victims of racism, even if they do not see themselves as such. This narrative is fed by social media and endorsed by the usual clutch of celebrities, forever eager to radiate their virtue signals across the globe.   

H&M, a Swedish company, has apologised for its supposed lack of sensitivity and will appoint a "global leader" to address issues of diversity and inclusiveness. Here in South Africa the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation thinks it "imperative that H&M's directors, management, and its marketing division, both globally and locally, undergo compulsory anti-racism and diversity training, so that there can be a change of attitude within the company around issues related to race."   

Presumably somebody will explain to Terry Mango that she too needs "anti-racist, diversity, and exclusiveness" training so that she will in future be better equipped to understand that she and her son are actually victims of racism even when they do not think they are. According to the foundation, the image of a monkey has been used to "racially demean black people for generations". This, it says, is the correct "historical context".

Maybe Ms Mango is unaware of this. Maybe she does not care about it. Maybe she believes that all people, black and white, are descended from apes. Whatever: she will presumably now have to be persuaded to see things in the correct "historical context".

South African advertising practitioners said the advertisement showed lack of understanding of the "lived" experience of black people. Ms Mango showed that there is no such thing as a uniform "lived" experience. But in the brave new world of "diversity" there is evidently no room for diversity of opinion or experience.

As for the EFF, the foundation would have "preferred that protest action be undertaken without vandalising stores". No doubt the foundation is canny enough to recognise that if it offered training in peaceful, as opposed to violent, protest to the EFF, it would get short shrift. The EFF in fact says H&M's apology is not enough and that its actions against the company will continue. Fortunately, Afriforum, has laid charges against three EFF officials for inciting violence.

That said, the most significant aspect of this affair is the abuse of Ms Mango. She may not express herself freely but must adhere to the "correct" viewpoint. To express her own viewpoint is tantamount to thought crime. Here is a woman who has experienced racism in the past, but sees no racism in the advertisement depicting her son. She is being told that she has got it all wrong, that she and her son are actually victims, even though they do not know it. This is insulting, arrogant, and absurd. It is also immensely sad.

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom.