By Jennifer Ruffin
In early January, H&M released a hoodie, without considering the context behind the words. The hoodie’s graphic sparked an uproar of disapproval. But, maybe it was a mistake taken too far because of hypersensitivity. Read to find out.
In early Jan. 2018, H&M released a controversial photo of a young, black boy modeling a hoodie with the words, “Coolest monkey in the jungle” printed on the front. Many celebrities took to social media to show their frustration and anger. But, when I first saw it, I didn’t know what the fuss was about. I didn’t know that the word monkey had such a negative connotation toward black people. And, because of this lack of knowledge, people made rude comments about how clueless I was and how I wasn’t as angry as I should be.
For example, my “black card” was revoked several times. As a black person, my black card is an essential element to my blackness. If I walked up to a fellow black person and asked what her favorite New Edition song was and she did not know who New Edition was, I would then revoke her black card. Needless to say, it is embarrassing when one loses her black card. In my experience, I feel completely alienated from the group I thought I was so clearly apart of; I was isolated. Another embarrassment I experienced after the H&M blow up was being called a “token black” because my lack of anger meant that I was supposedly “defending whites and their ignorance.” You’ve all seen token blacks in culture before -- the person who paints the picture, or illusion, of diversity. Being called the token black and having my black card revoked was heartbreaking because I like to think of myself as aware. Maybe everything I think I know, I don’t.
Obviously, I was hurt by these accusations and comments not only because the criticism came from people belonging to the same community as me, but because I felt as though I was uneducated on the words that are perceived as negative in my own community. I kept wondering if I had ever heard a word that was historically racist and did not defend myself — simply because I didn’t know I should. After I had my pity party, though, I realized one major thing: If I, an educated, young, black girl who is aware of my background did not know that “monkey” has a racial connotation, then there has to be another black girl or boy who had the same thoughts. I can’t be the only one with questions.
When I had conversations with those who were livid about H&M’s mistake, I asked them why the word “monkey” was considered such a bad word in this context. To my surprise, they would not tell me. The “answer” that I received was, “You’re black. You should know.” I am very aware that I am black, but I still didn’t understand the controversy. Though their lack of answer frustrated me, their response got me thinking. Why won’t they tell me? Don’t they want me to know? And, upon further consideration, I found an answer to my own question: it’s hypersensitivity at play.
The bottom line is that not every person in this world is “woke.” They might not be as aware of current affairs as others expect them to be. And apparently, if I have questions about a word I’m unfamiliar with, I am not either. I believe that not every person’s objective is to be racist. Not every white person is so desperately trying to make blacks, or any minority for that matter, feel inferior. Not everyone is a secret member of the KKK or deep down holds hatred towards black people. Some people, rather, are just like me. We may not be aware of the racial connotation attached to every single word or phrase, and that may cause us to make mistakes in our consequent interpretation of them — but it doesn’t mean we have a racist intent.
These questions and mistakes are the ones that deserve our answers — not our judgement.
If we, as a society, want to get past racial uneasiness and tension, we must answer the questions, “Why is this not talked about? Why can’t I do this? Is this okay?” We cannot allow ourselves to get mad when a person asks us a question simply because the answer seems clear to us from the perspective of our own individual experience. Some of the biggest challenges that we as a country, and as people, face can be solved by simply asking questions. Though the questions often might be tough to ask and the answers even harder to give, we must be willing to answer — and choose not to shut down, disregard, or shame. Instead of being hypersensitive, we must be sensitive to our ability to help explain these things. We are all so different, so why should we not ask the questions that can bring us together?