Should We Boycott H&M

Reflections on Martin Luther King Jr. and Economic Equality

As we celebrated Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life yesterday, in part, we acknowledged his fortitude; his fight for justice, civil rights, and economic equality; his leadership through boycotts, marches, and protests; and the lasting impression his legacy has had our culture.

Yet, despite the strides this country has taken to make Dr. King’s dream a reality, many Americans still encounter instances of blatant racism, overt discrimination and oppression today. As we continue to recognize Dr. King’s legacy and contributions to the civil rights movement, how do we emulate the methods, teachings, and strategies he and countless others employed to steer the course of civil rights and economic equality today?


Let’s start by fast forwarding to last week when an H&M advertisement circulated picturing a young, black boy adorned in a t-shirt that read “coolest monkey in the jungle.” Perhaps for some, the t-shirt debacle was no big deal and just another issue sensationalized by social media. Yet, to others, the coolest monkey in the jungle tee became an insurmountable blunder the clothing retailer would not soon, if ever, forget even if the ad was attributable to no more than H&M’s unintentional wrongdoing, ignorance, failed business controls, or cultural insensitivity.

But why are people mad? In perhaps an oversimplified explanation, the ad was a reminder of the prolonged discrimination, inhumane treatment, racism, bigotry, and oppression black and brown people have faced around the globe.  The ad infuriated many and left others confused as it bared resemblance to times when such words were used to dehumanize and oppress (and in some instances, is still used to evoke those same feelings today).

If history is remembered correctly, although perhaps hard to fathom in 2018, black people have historically been viewed as human-like, rather than human, and more akin to primates. So fast forward to last week and there we were unexpectedly staring at photographs of a black boy in a “coolest monkey in the jungle” t-shirt and trying to come to terms with how the clothing retailer, with teams of people and stores around the globe, could include the image in its digital media campaign. 


But even if people stop wearing the brand, nothing will change, right? Not exactly. I’d like to turn your attention to the case of Tommy Hilfiger and a rather controversial issue that occurred in the 1990s. If you were around in the 1990s, you might remember Tommy Hilfiger as the “it” clothing line of the time. It was colorful; it was exciting; it was fresh. It was at one point the hottest thing in the streets, but just as quickly as it rose to acclaim (and from what I remember it became popular very quickly), word spread that the retailer’s namesake stated something like he didn’t make clothing for black people, and it was wrap. I have no idea whether Mr. Hilfiger actually made those comments or the exact words he was accused of stating. All I remember is that he allegedly expressed some type of dislike for black people and I have not worn Tommy Hilfiger since. As far as how other people felt about it, the only thing I’ve heard about Tommy is people ask what happened or mention they use to like Tommy Hilfiger clothing. Conversely, Tommy is still around today. After some corporate restructuring and market adjustments, Tommy Hilfiger survived, but it definitely took a major hit.


So, how do we apply Dr. King’s philosophy to retail, fashion, discrimination, boycott’s, and protests today? In his last speech which addressed the Memphis sanitation workers, Dr. King spoke, in part, about economics and the power of collective wealth. He surmised that although we might be poor individually, our collective wealth had the ability to make a powerful statement. With that in mind, my takeaway is that while times have changed, a lot of the underlying issues remain the same. Consequently, Dr. King’s philosophy on economic injustice is still relevant today, and being mindful about where we spend our money is one way to demand equality.  As for H&M, if you’re wondering whether I think people should boycott the retailer amid what has become a public relations crisis; H&M’s acknowledgement of the issue; and several H&M apologies later: perhaps (and as H&M South African stores have been temporarily closed due to the circulation of the image, there are clearly other people who are wondering the same thing). Yet, as I ponder this question for myself, I acknowledge the decision to boycott is one for us to make individually. Conversely, what I ask those reading this, including myself, is to be more conscious of the statement we make when spending. Secondly, I ask people, not just black and brown people, but all people, to invest more in black businesses and communities to achieve economic equality, stabilization of the black economy, and create growth for black people. After all, according to Dr. King, economics has been, and must continue to be, part of the framework in the push for equality. 

Lastly, I’m sure you’re wondering if supporting black businesses is sustainable? It’s difficult to change shopping preferences and habits because, of course, you like what you like. Thus, instead of making a drastic shift, how about we start by, at a minimum, being more conscious about our consumerism, how it affects our communities, and the statement we make by where we choose to spend money. I leave you with this quote from a renowned businessman, activist, and philosopher: “financial freedom is our only hope.” – Jay-Z

Thanks for reading! This post is completely different than any post I’ve written on the blog in the past. So, let me know what you think. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments!


14 Replies to “Should We Boycott H&M”

  1. Very profound! I couldn’t agree with you more when you stated that it’s an individual choice “to or not to” boycott, protest, or whatever the situation. Some only desire the fight and not the win. Therefore, joining any movement that “seems” to be for good reason but lacking persistence in finishing the fight… We’re more passionate about fighting for who and what we love, including those things that directly affect us. But what we fail to realize is, it all directly affects us! How many of those who “stopped wearing Tommy” are buying it again? Not me! I’m pretty sure we have H&M friends that avoided the store for a weekend or so but returned to normal shopping thereafter. Persistence is necessary for change…

    1. Likewise! Enjoyed reading your perspective as well. I agree that it all affects us, and persistence is necessary. In this day and age with everything moving so quickly, I think it’s difficult for people to remain focused for more than a few minutes. I guess time will tell what impact our efforts today (or lack thereof) have on the future.

  2. I really enjoyed this, Malaka. You’re so right about Tommy Hilfiger. As soon as I see the TH logo, I drop the item. We have power we don’t even know we have. Thanks for the reminder!

  3. Ashley Williams says:

    This was a great read. I was recently talking about how it’s easy to just purchase what you need or want without thinking about where/who you’re putting your money into. I plan to do better about that myself. Small step to take but it’s a step forward. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks for reading, Ashley! It’s hard to do a complete overall of purchasing habits. Small steps are still steps and will probably stick around.

  4. Nicely done! It’s funny you mentioned the Tommy Hilfiger brand. I grew up around the time the controversy arose. So, it baffled me to see Black youth sporting his clothing nowadays, assuming they didn’t know he was racist (as I grew up believing). So, I decided to research and get the facts. Come to find out, he did say he didn’t intend for it to be worn by Blacks (rappers and sports players loved the brand) but never meant it in a racist way. But the company took a hard hit from the rumor. However, I don’t expect H&M to do so because we are quick to”forgive and forget” now. If it all, people will stop shopping there for about a year, then go back, since it wasn’t blatant as to whether the image was intended to be racist or not.

    Many Blacks, however, are becoming so conscious now. So, you make a great point of being mindful of where we shop. For me personally, investing in more Black businesses is not at the forefront of my thinking when I buy clothes. It’s not that I wouldn’t, but I just buy what I like, no matter who makes it (unless I know the brand supports something I disagree with). I’m really not aware of what companies are black-owned and aren’t. It would take Blacks in high positions and word of mouth to make our culture aware of these things, but that’s just not happening.

    Do I think a Black economy is sustainable? Possibly. But for some reason, we Blacks (not including me) expect handouts and discounts from Black business owners. And we disown the company even more when we don’t feel like they give back to “the people.” Our expectations for these businesses our different and therein lies the problem.

    1. Billy, I agree with pretty much everything you said. This happened a couple months ago, and I think we’ve already forgotten about. Maybe that’s a bad things. Maybe it just is what it is. I also agree that our expectations are different. I know we like to hold each other accountable, but at the same time the standards may not be fair. Thanks for reading, and thanks for raising additional thought provoking points!

  5. Great article. Thought provoking and empowering. It’s time to harness our collective power. In every arena I can think of money talks. We can surely make a big difference if we make small changes.

    1. As always, thanks for reading! And I couldn’t agree more: money talks. We have to start somewhere.

  6. Great read and awesome points. To this day when I’m in Ross Dress for Less and I’ll see a cute purse , hand towel sets and it’s Tommy I quickly drop it like it did something to me. I remember that controversy.

    It’s so strange at times it feels like we have come so far and other times like not much has changed. Argh.

    1. I agree with you. It’s hard to let it go. I did buy a Tommy dress from the goodwill a few years back for a 90s party. I felt some type of way about it, but resolved that since it was from the good will, it would be okay. Thanks for reading.

  7. This was such a thought provoking post! I agree, finances will always reign supreme. Activism is partly making others aware/educating them and after that we have to take action. I feel that’s where we come up short at times. We could be more untied in our actions to bring about change. In today’s social climate, more people are becoming aware which is a first step and definite hope for the future.

    1. Thanks, Sheena! I agree. It’s not something everyone cares about, but in my opinion, it’s something we should at least think about. Thank you for reading, and thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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