Most toddlers’ idea of a fun time would be a set of markers and a white wall. Extra-ambitious ones might sign up for piano lessons or gymnastics. But when Liam Mango turned three, he asked his mom if he could be a star. Terry Mango uploaded a photo of Liam to an open call for a popular Swedish children’s modeling agency, Miini, where he caught the eye of casting agents at H&M — a brand that Terry had already shopped for herself and her three kids. In the two years since, she and Liam have gotten the routine down: Every month or so, she shapes up Liam’s fade haircut in the family’s kitchen, and then they make the 30-minute drive into Stockholm’s central business district after school. They’ll enter a massive photo studio with a vegan café and a lounge where Terry likes to relax, especially if she’s had to work extra hours at her night job in healthcare. But mostly, she likes to bask in Liam’s energy.
“His photos are off the chain. He’s a real model! He dances, he’s outspoken,” Terry says over her speakerphone one February evening from her home in Tumba, a suburb outside of Stockholm. She’s just finished cooking dinner for Liam, his two siblings, and her husband and is about to drive to work to begin a 12-hour evening shift at a nursing center. It’s one of the few times in the day that she has to herself.
She continues as she gets into her car. “From the moment we arrive, he’s asking questions and saying hello. I have to calm him down, like — ‘Liam, shh!’ He’s talkative and asks questions. He protests when he doesn’t like things. Especially hats. He hates wearing hats.”
After an hour and a half in front of the camera, the two of them will make the drive back home. A while later, a check will be deposited into a special account that Terry set up for Liam, to which he’ll have access when he’s old enough. Some time after that, the pictures will appear online on HM.com. Terry likes to post the especially adorable ones to her Facebook and WhatsApp profiles.
But one day last January, Terry got an unusual phone call. They were driving away from the studio when Justine, a woman she knew at H&M, rang Terry with an apology. She explained that an upsetting image of Liam was circulating online and she and H&M were sorry for putting her and Liam in this position. If Terry or Liam needed anything — somewhere to go, someone to field requests, someone to talk to — Justine wanted to know how H&M could help.
Terry was initially concerned, but felt better after seeing the image. It was Liam in a Kelly-green hooded sweatshirt imprinted with the words “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle” in plain block letters. There was a simple explanation, after all. It was all a misunderstanding, a terrible accident. If she had the chance to explain herself, people would understand and feel foolish that they were making a big to-do about nothing. Part of her was actually intrigued that she was in the middle of one of those “PR nightmares” she had been reading about on one of her favorite online communities, Black Vogue.
Run by author, activist, and makeup artist Lovette Jallow, Black Vogue is a Facebook forum focused on trends and issues for Afro-Swede women. It posts makeup videos along with discussions of anti-Black discrimination. Even though Terry oftentimes disagreed with Jallow’s belief that certain commercials and advertisements were as racist as they appeared to be, she enjoyed the debate. So, when she saw Liam’s unusually stoic face staring back at her on Black Vogue with hundreds of comments denouncing the company she had grown so fond of, she didn’t think twice about entering the fray.
“Am the mum and this is one of hundreds of outfits my son has modeled…….stop crying Wolf all the time, unnecessary issue here……..get over it,” she wrote in the comments, reiterating that she had been on set, and at no point did she feel disrespected by H&M. Later, she appeared on local U.K. television to repeat her opinion that people were reading too much into what, in her mind, was just one image out of thousands that Liam had shot for the retailer: “I’m just looking at Liam, a Black, young boy, modeling a T-shirt that has a monkey on it.”
But to millions of people around the world, it wasn’t a random image. It was a shocking admission that white companies still saw Black consumers as a degrading and ugly stereotype. Here was an anonymous Black child — his face empty, his brows pinched and almost furrowed, an unnervingly adult expression for a 5-year-old. His hands were in his pockets but his back was stiff, as if desperately channeling a fake nonchalance. In this sweatshirt, he looked like he might be aware of the humiliation. He was not Liam, the happy, boisterous, photogenic son of Kenyan immigrants. He was the butt of one of the longest-running, least-funny jokes in history.
— Charles M. Blow (@CharlesMBlow) January 8, 2018
H&M removed the sweatshirt from its stores and apologized on its social media accounts, its website, and through statements to the media. It promoted Annie Wu, a Queens-raised Taiwanese immigrant who had already been with the company since 2012, to a new position as the global head of diversity and inclusivity based in Stockholm.
Still, the fallout was swift and severe. Petitions called for global boycotts of H&M. Demonstrations were held around the world. The newly opened H&M store in South Africa — the first in Africa — was broken into and vandalized by protestors. Past collaborator The Weeknd publicly vowed to never work with the Swedish retail giant again, and other celebrities like LeBron James, Diddy, and G-Eazy denounced the brand in emotional, unequivocal condemnations.
But it wasn’t just Liam who had gone viral. Terry was surprised to see that her own comments had also caught fire. Black Americans, Afro-Swedes, and other members of the African diaspora called her a traitor to her own community, an Uncle Tom in fast fashion. “I had the worst backlash,” Terry remembers. Someone even sent her a Photoshopped pornographic image of her son. “I was surprised when my own people, Kenyans, started speculating that I’m a single mom just looking for money and selling my son to white people.”
When reporters started showing up at her front step in Salem, a neighborhood in Stockholm, Terry made a phone call to H&M and asked for protection. The company relocated her family to a temporary home to wait it out.
The attacks grew more conspiratorial. While reporting this story, multiple people told me that Terry had signed a contract with H&M prohibiting her from disparaging the company. I heard ugly gossip from some that she was a home-wrecker and ruthless when it came to money. Swedish tabloids reported that H&M had found Swedish Nazis within their ranks who had orchestrated this whole thing, and were subsequently fired. An activist in Stockholm even told me that H&M was in a secret bidding war with Diddy for future rights to Liam’s image that was worth millions.
But there was no contract. There was no secret plot. There were no Nazis. Diddy never called. As I heard Terry, H&M employees, and those on set that day describe it in a dozen interviews, there was nothing intentionally racist about any of it. And yet, one of the most blatantly racist images meant for modern mass consumption was still created.
In the time since, H&M has quietly been turning the company inside-out in a search for answers. Was it their employees? Was it their processes? Was it their culture? For Terry, it was more fraught. Who’s the bad guy here? Was she?
It was the question everyone has been asking: How did this happen?
Theory 1: H&M Wasn’t Diverse Enough
The most obvious conclusion — and one that was repeated the most often in the days following the incident — was that if there were Black people in the room and on set, this would have never happened. The fact that Terry had been there complicated the matter, but the point still stood: This happened because H&M lacked diversity.
Annie Wu watched these comments roll with dread. From her vantage point as global manager for employee relations for H&M, the sweatshirt incident drove her insane because, if that premise were true, it would have been a simple fix: Hire Black staff. But it wasn’t simple. “It hit me to my core because we are a very diverse company,” she explained to me once in March of 2018, shortly after she was promoted to global head of diversity and inclusivity. “I was just in shock. No apology could make this better, because it was completely appalling. There’s no defense to it.”
At the time of the sweatshirt incident, H&M had stores in six continents, in 69 countries (as of 2019, it’s in 72). Its workforce included hundreds of nationalities, ethnicities, and backgrounds, which — yes — included Black employees, many of whom are found in the Stockholm offices, including the photo studio.
Each office was close to a real reflection of the ethnic demographics within the cities they were in. While the Stockholm office was a lot whiter than the New York office, I noticed that the people filling its hallways were browner and Blacker than the sidewalks of the business district outside. “I was actually surprised to see so many foreigners and so many non-Swedes,” admitted corporate diversity expert Laurence Romani, an associate professor at the Stockholm School of Economics, who led workshops and trainings at H&M’s Stockholm offices before the sweatshirt incident. However, like most global companies, H&M gets less diverse as you move up the corporate ladder; its own board is entirely white and European, though it does have more women than men.
Additionally, accurate data is hard to come by. In the United States, the law requires that the information can only be volunteered, which makes it difficult for large companies to accurately track demographic changes. H&M spokespeople confirmed to me that they do not have data on the ethnic breakdown of their workforce: “Sweden compiles no official statistics on people’s ethnicity as it is against the law.”
But diversifying its staff had been a major goal for the company, including efforts to recruit global candidates to move to Stockholm and work out of the corporate office. And it wasn’t just the team. In advertisements, campaigns, and on the website, too, models of color constitute about 30% of all faces. For its children’s lines, which Liam modeled, it’s oftentimes more than 60%.
To Wu, H&M seemed miles ahead of the competition. The company was intent on becoming more inclusive. Focusing time on being less racist seemed irrelevant. So, when Wu first saw Liam’s face in the green sweatshirt, her Queens-bred heart screamed out, but her systems-minded brain started churning. How could a company that had long ago made inclusivity and diversity its own core values do something like this?
The problem wasn’t that there were no Black people in the room. It was that either no one in the room — Black, white, or otherwise — saw the sweatshirt as a problem, or they weren’t emboldened to question it. That would be a much more difficult problem to solve.
Unlike most American businesses where corporate culture is top-down, Sweden has what’s called “consensus culture,” a work climate where decisions are made in aggregate, and your coworkers are more likely to be your same level than above or below you. If American corporations operate like petite dictatorships, Swedish companies operate more like a democracy. When it works, it can be an environment that promotes diversity: “People enter into a debate of ideas and try to convince each other,” insists Stockholm School of Economics’ Romani. “Then, you benefit from diversity.”
But from Romani’s perspective, heavy-handed consensus culture can also drown out diverse viewpoints, whereby inclusion becomes no different than assimilation. In other words, under consensus culture, a diverse workforce is no different than a homogenous one.
Was that happening at H&M? “Because everyone has to agree on decisions in our consensus culture, we also don’t like to speak up about spikes of good things or bad things,” Wu tells me. “They actually have a word for that in Swedish. It’s called lagom, which is ‘everyone’s kind of just in the middle.’ You don’t want to stick out in any way.”
Whether or not H&M nullified its own diversity became a central question. Determining that relied on understanding how open its employees were to other viewpoints and ideas that challenge their own. Unconscious bias trainings have become standard HR fare at corporations, and Wu was keen to learn about H&M’s own biases that may point to what exactly may be happening, culturally, within the photo studio and the company at large. Were they anti-Black? Were they risk averse? Or was it something else? It’s hard to imagine someone seeing a Black boy in a monkey sweatshirt and not think that it’ll be a problem, regardless of consensus culture.
There has been a kind of copy-and-paste, one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to how we’ve grown.
I sat in on an unconscious bias workshop in the H&M office in New York, consisting of 21 managers hailing from New York and Canada. A quarter were people of color. Nearly half had a global background and were born outside the United States. Most had been with the company for at least 10 years. And despite the elephant in the room — everyone was well aware of the workshop’s inciting incident — the mood was buoyant. I didn’t know if this was because it’s H&M’s culture, because there was an outsider in the room, or because it feels impossible to enter into a discussion as fraught as this without anything short of total positivity. I’d imagine all of the above factors were at play. When asked to describe themselves and their background, one Swedish transplant named Mark offered the following that felt like it could be the workshop’s guiding principle: “It’s my life’s philosophy to not talk about negative things.”
Before the training, we were all asked to complete a series of tests that pointed out our blind spots among a dozen indicators. They ranged from biases regarding race and gender to disability and weight; there was even a test that measured anti-Donald Trump bias. Going around the room, they were asked to share if any of the results caught them off guard. Surprisingly, most stories revealed a self-sabotaging prejudice. One white Canadian woman who was raised by a single mom said her tests showed she favored men, and a Swedish woman in her 50s admitted a bias against older people. The one Afro-Swede in the group was the only one who revealed that she had a race bias. “Growing up in Sweden looking like I do, I never felt all that at home there,” she admitted. “I was raised by a Caucasian mom, so maybe that was it.”
No one else copped to anti-Black or racist biases. But the majority of employees revealed a ubiquitous, pervasive, H&M-specific bias against those who didn’t come from the H&M family.
One blonde woman noted that it’s typical for H&M employees to spend their entire careers at the company, and new job openings are typically filled by internal promotions. “I remember when I started, someone said to me, ‘FYI you’re external, so expect a little bit of pushback.’ But, wasn’t everyone external at some point?”
“I honestly can’t even remember when we worked with external companies like Accenture to help guide us through a difficult time,” she went on, describing this particular workshop that was a collaboration between H&M and professional services company Accenture.“There has been a kind of copy-and-paste, one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to how we’ve grown.” The rest of the room vigorously nodded in agreement.
Overwhelmingly, the managers at the workshop agreed that it was an established part of the company culture to have a bias against people and opinions from outside of H&M. “H&M has its own culture, our own values. We’ve built our own mini culture even in the city of Stockholm and the country of Sweden,” Wu tells me. For her, H&M’s strong company culture contributed to an anti-external bias. It was evidence that the diversity of H&M’s workforce didn’t necessarily lead to a culture of debate, where diverse thoughts, opinions, and actions are expected and encouraged.
This understanding has distinguished the way that H&M is tackling internal changes. Take a look at how other fashion labels have handled their own “sweatshirt incidents”: Prada had a “keychain incident,” Burberry a “noose incident, ” and Gucci a “blackface incident ” that all rightfully incited similar outrage and disbelief. In the months since, these brands have pledged to implement awareness-raising workshops for its employees, diversify its talent pipeline regarding hiring, establish scholarships and other charitable programs, and enlisted external celebrity stakeholders — DeRay Mckesson and Will.i.am at Gucci; Ava DuVernay at Prada — to hold these fashion labels to task while lending legitimacy to their pursuits.
But these brands all assume that they were not already diverse and that a diverse workforce will prevent racist products from being made. H&M’s diversity and inclusion journey shows that it takes much more than just representation to combat racism.
To get there, Wu has set a number of goals that’ll hold the company to account. “We’ve decided that by 2025, 100% of our employees will feel that they have the same opportunity as the person sitting next to them,” Wu tells me in Stockholm, a year after her promotion. That number will be tracked by internal employee engagement surveys. Besides that, H&M has also pledged that by 2025, 100% of its employees can see visible diversity in those holding leadership positions, wherever they are.
These big goals can feel like lip service, but H&M is known for setting fantastical finish lines and actually making good on its word. In sustainability, H&M is lauded for its pledge to transition to 100% sustainable cotton by 2020; as of this year, it’s around 95% of the way there. Similarly, the company made it a goal to only use recycled or sustainable materials by 2030, and it’s been closing the gap by 10% year over year. These goals have been prioritized by the H&M founders and majority stakeholders, the Persson family, and are seen as crucial to the long-term health of the company in spite of short-term financial consequences. Wu says that the same is happening with its diversity and inclusivity initiatives.
“It shows the ambition level of what we’re trying to do,” she states, assuring me that there are quantifiable metrics that these goals are measured on.
To get there, Wu has beefed up her team. Notably, she’s hired Nigerian-American Ezinne Kwubiri as the North America head of inclusion and diversity at H&M, who received both praise and flack for taking the job. “The backlash was a lot of, ‘Oh, another Black woman comes in to save the day,’” Kwubiri tells me one afternoon in February of this year. “But if we want to see change, we also have to be part of that change. I have a seat at the table. I have the attention of the main stakeholders. This is step one of the change. I want to respect the journey.”
Wu has also collected over 1,000 initiatives that are currently being implemented. Some are general (changes in how the company on-boards new employees) and some are ultra-local. In China, some teams leave an empty chair during group meetings to make sure that, even symbolically, it’s visible that there’s someone with a crucial perspective who’s not in the room.
Theory 2: H&M’s System Was Broken
One cold afternoon in January, I took a tour of H&M’s Stockholm headquarters to see what’s changed since Wu was put in charge. Walking through the design floors, I learned about the obligatory legal and ethical workshops that all designers now need to attend. There, they learn about and talk through how different prints and graphics can be interpreted in good and bad ways around the world. There are lessons on regional irony and jokes, cultural and religious sensitivities, as well as legal protections regarding certain designs.
Beyond the trainings, there have been changes to the boring but necessary stuff: structures, routines, and processes. I saw this in action when I went to visit the same 3,400-square-meter photo studio in which the sweatshirt image was taken. An expansive, packed hive of a warehouse space bustling with well-dressed people loaded with garments and boxes, the studio has the energy of the village scene from Beauty and the Beast.
“People have all been trained in Annie Wu workshops, and we had a lot of internal workshops here right after the accident happened,” explains a spokesperson from the H&M photo studio. “There’s collaboration now that we didn’t have before.”
All new clothing items that will eventually be available for purchase have always been processed through a seven-step system that’s straightforward but labyrinthine. Every image that is uploaded to the site will pass through at least a dozen individuals inside the studio (which isn’t even counting the number of people involved in designing the garment in the first place). To keep organized, each item is assigned a barcode that keeps track of everything from when it’ll be for sale and which other clothing models will wear it with, to whether the item is part of a limited run, in which case it shouldn’t be too heavily promoted.
Since the sweatshirt incident, there are now opportunities to flag garments at every stage of the process and make notes about particular sensitivities ranging from where it should (and shouldn’t) be sold to how it should be styled to who should be wearing it on the site. “We’ve learned a lot from the head office in the United States about different prints that are okay in some countries and not in others,” explains the spokesperson. “For example, we learned that cherries on teenage clothing could be sensitive in the U.S. due to references to virginity. That’s not a problem here in Sweden. Every time we learn something new, we spread the word around.”
“Like sunflowers in China,” I offer, thinking about the time Katy Perry wore a sunflower dress during a performance in Taipei and got herself indefinitely banned from China (there, sunflowers have a pro-Taiwainese connotation, a politically controversial view).
“Is that really? I’ll send an email,” the spokesperson responded, matter-of-factly.
Any flagged items are now discussed in meetings that bring together various departments. There are email groups where anyone can submit a concern and weigh in on items. They’ve also increased the amount of people who do the final-round of quality checks, not only to prevent visual fatigue but also to establish objective distance between the checker and image. “You get blind looking at so many images,” the photo tour spokesperson says. “We only had one person doing them before, but now it’s been divided between five people.”
The spokesperson could not tell me who it was who reviewed Liam’s monkey sweatshirt photo. But as one of the people who now performs quality-control checks, they concede that too much information about the mundane aspects of the photoshoot — which kid wanted to wear what, which item sells better than another, whether Liam was happy that day or cranky — can prevent someone from seeing the obvious. In other words, instead of a young Black boy captured in a racial slur, it’s easy to see it as just Liam, the biggest personality on set, who hates hats, loves cars, and just lost a tooth.
Theory 3: There’s No Anti-Black Racism In Stockholm
Last January, Lovette Jallow was in her kitchen when her phone’s notifications started going off. Looking down, she saw a familiar image. The previous day, a Black employee at H&M wanted a gut check on a photo of a Black child model that was slated to run on the website. “They said, ‘This is really uncomfortable for me to see. Do you think there is going to be a big fallout?’” Jallow remembers. “I said, ‘Abso-damn-lutely this is going to be a huge issue. Do we have a chance to change the narrative before it comes out? Just switch the shot?’”
But the shot wasn’t switched — Jallow doesn’t know why — and Liam’s image started getting shared on Black Vogue almost immediately after it went live on HM.com. Jallow watched as her own community of readers wrestled with the implications. But Jallow’s thoughts immediately turned to Terry, who she knew as a commenter on Black Vogue. “My first instinct was a human one,” she recounts. “I have a huge amount of respect for her as a mother and a fellow sister. This is a mother who takes pride in her children. I didn’t want [the community] to attack her on a personal level.”
Even though Jallow wanted to, as she put it, “pump the brakes,” Terry’s dismissive comments inflamed the discourse far beyond the private Facebook group, with some women saying that African immigrants like Terry were betraying the cause. “There are a lot of women like Terry who were born and raised in Africa and have one foot in Africa and one foot in the Western world,” Jallow explains.“They have a different definition of what systematic racism means. Everyone has their journey. No one’s born woke. We all start somewhere, and we end up where we want to be.”
But Jallow knew that marketing “mistakes” were sometimes actually malevolent. Just the year before, Jallow, who’s also well known in Sweden as a makeup expert, was cast to appear in a national campaign for a massive Stockholm-based retailer who wanted to promote its line of makeup for deep skin tones. But on set, they didn’t have any products that worked for Jallow. During the shoot, they made her remove a necklace she had purchased in Africa, because it wasn’t “Swedish” enough. Jallow felt humiliated by the experience: “They called their colleagues over to touch my so-called ‘exotic hair.’ I felt like an animal. They wanted my Blackness, but they wanted it in their format.”
We’d had enough. Black people are voicing their concerns a lot more. There’s been a revolution.
So, in the days and weeks after the incident, Jallow was exasperated to hear a common refrain from international media: that the monkey sweatshirt was an unfortunate incident, but it was a reflection of America’s racial injustices, not Sweden’s — as if anti-Black racism is a uniquely American concept, and calling a Black boy a monkey was just not a big deal in Sweden.
On some level, it’s understandable that other countries — especially America — would see Sweden as some kind of golden child when it comes to inclusive and progressive policies. It’s taken in more refugees per capita than any other country in Europe. It’s got one of the smallest pay gaps among men and women and the longest state-guaranteed parental leave policies. It’s a place where preschools teach girls to scream and boys to draw themselves with eyelashes. There are even articles toying with the idea that Black Americans should escape America’s overt racism by moving to Stockholm.
But, anti-Black racism exists in Sweden.
Afro-Swedes are the victims of more violent and non-violent hate crimes than any other minority group (Swedish diversity-focused research firm Mangkulturellt Centrum reports that incidents have also risen by 24% since 2008). It’s well-reported that Afro-Swedes are discriminated against in the housing and job markets, and experience higher levels of unemployment than other minority groups. A recent study by Stockholm University found that only 17.4% of job applicants submitted with African names received responses, compared to a 65% response rate from similar applications with Swedish names. “There’s an arrogance in thinking that everything’s hunky dory here,” Jallow tells me. “Swedes like to pretend that they’re so forward thinking, but they always forget the voices of marginalized people.”
Even though Afro-Swedes have a different history than Black Americans, discrimination still plays out in explicit ways. “Our Black people are not the descendants of slavery. In Sweden, it’s an immigrant thing,” explains Okoth Osewe, the editor of Kenya Stockholm, a publication that addresses issues affecting the Kenyan diaspora in Stockholm. Osewe tells me that in the ’90s, immigration to Sweden exploded while its economy was in the middle of short-circuiting for entirely unrelated reasons (an overheated real estate bubble popped, unemployment skyrocketed, and Sweden began losing its industrial titans like Saab and Volvo to foreign parent companies who scooped them). By the early 2000s — when Terry first immigrated to Sweden and moved in with an uncle in the immigrant neighborhood of Tensta — anti-Black tension was on the rise.
“As far as people who have been here for quite some time are concerned, this society has not been racist. Racism is a development that has come about because of the increased rate of immigration at the same time as the welfare system benefits vanished,” Osewe says.
“Racism existed before, but it was not as pronounced as it is today. Ordinary people began being influenced by right-wing politics that said that immigrants — not banks — were the cause of all this shit.”
In recent years, white Swedish nationalists have openly demonstrated in the center of Stockholm to deliver racist and xenophobic speeches that often turn violent. The Sweden Democrats, whose main policy is to oppose immigration to protect Sweden’s white nationalism, received a disturbing amount of support in recent elections; they currently hold 17.7% of Parliamentary seats. There are many examples of police stopping foreign-born Swedes to check their IDs, harass them, or worse; Osewe told me that he himself has been assaulted by law enforcement. A week after he told me about his own violation, news about a pregnant Afro-Swedish woman who was dragged off a train by security guards went viral. Footage showed guards brutally pinning her to the ground while her child cried next to her. The crime sparked an outcry throughout Sweden.
Stereotypical depictions of Black people isn’t a new phenomenon either. According to a report by Mangkulturellt Centrum, depictions of Black people in Sweden have long been negative, stereotyping and stigmatizing those of African descent as wild and primitive across art, literature, advertising, teaching materials, and news. To put it simply: Calling a Black person a “monkey” has always been as recognizable a slur in Sweden as it is in America.
Issues of cultural isolation, segregation, and discrimination are present in Sweden, as is the call for minority groups to assimilate rather than integrate. The difference may be that talking about race in Sweden is still considered to be taboo. But according to Jallow, the monkey sweatshirt may have been the last straw: “It came at the wrong time. We’d had enough. Black people are voicing their concerns a lot more. There’s been a revolution.”
Theory 4: H&M’s Employees Just Didn’t Care
Terry has moved on — literally. A few months after she and her family were temporarily relocated by H&M, they purchased a home in a predominantly white neighborhood of Tumba. Out of the 16,500 residents in her municipality, only 200 are of African descent.
“For a while, I was really upset with people. I was disappointed that human beings can get to that level,” Terry confesses, remembering the backlash she experienced after she spoke her mind. On a personal level, Terry has a hard time forgetting the way her own community — both strangers and friends, Swedes and non-Swedes — came for her head during the dustup, especially when she remembers H&M’s regard for her family in the aftermath.
“I remember thinking that we’re doomed as human beings. But me being a Christian and a Catholic, I see the ways of the world. We don’t live in a perfect world, and mistakes are meant to be forgiven. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t feel offended. Everyone has a right to their own feelings. If anyone felt offended, I would say sorry. But it’s not my place to say sorry. It’s H&M’s. And they did that.”
One of the most revealing things about this incident is that no one remembers what exactly happened that day. Terry nor anyone else I spoke to remembers anything out of the ordinary. Terry herself couldn’t recall whether the stylist chose the sweatshirt specifically for Liam or if he himself preferred the green sweatshirt over the other one (which occasionally happens on set).
Perhaps it’s too generous of me, but I believe them when they say that the day, the sweatshirt, and the image didn’t feel extraordinary when it was only them in the room. It’s the same reason I don’t find it racist when my sister pulls her eyes taut to make fun of how puffy my eyes get after seeing a sad movie or when my friend puts on an Indian accent when describing a funny conversation she had with her immigrant mother. We see each other as humans, we know each other’s intentions, and the context is so personal and the audience is so small that it couldn’t ever feel insulting — even though if the same situation was recreated in a commercial, we’d immediately perceive it as wrong.
“[My mom] can call me a monkey,” Jallow explained in an off-the-cuff video she posted to Facebook in response to the uproar over Terry and H&M in the Black Vogue community. “I know where my mom is coming from. She’s not being racist toward me. You can call your children whatever you want in the comfort in your own home.” Terry posed the same rhetorical question: “If I had bought that shirt for Liam and put it on him, and I took photographs, would someone feel offended that I did that to my son?”
To this day, adult versions of the sweatshirt can be found all over the internet. On third-party sites like Amazon, TeeSpring, AliExpress, and Zazzle, manufacturers are, at best, ignorantly capitalizing on a controversial scandal. At worst, they’re selling to racists looking for a way to slyly proclaim their own anti-Blackness. After clicking on a link to a sweatshirt on eBay, the online auction site automatically sent me an email, informing me that, to date, 599 monkey sweatshirts had already been purchased.
This is not the kind of cultural legacy anyone would want. And despite the outpouring of support for Liam in the days following the event, he has not gotten any additional work. In fact, at the moment, H&M is Liam’s only employer. Currently, he’s all over the site, wearing sharp white oxford shirts and stylish joggers. Except for one photo where he’s begrudgingly wearing a hat, Liam is cheerful and happy; his wide grin shows off one adult tooth that’s filling in what used to be a gap.
I ask Terry whether last year’s events made her question whether Liam should be a commercial model. After all, her instincts as a mother, as an Afro-Swede, and as a frequent reader and commenter didn’t stand up to the backlash of internet virality. But, she was quick to respond. “If Liam wants to stop modeling or [shooting for] H&M, I’d be like, ‘OK bubba, we’ll stop.’ But if Liam wants to continue, then we continue. I don’t believe in stopping anyone’s dreams.”
She pauses the conversation to back into a parking space. I overhear noises as she enters a building, greets a few coworkers, and ducks into a quiet room to wrap up our call.
“You ask me what I’ve learned,” she says. “I’ve been in this world for 37 years. I’ve been taught by a lot of things. My middle child had cancer for three years. Being in hospital with that boy… that was a life lesson. This thing with H&M was big, and yet not so big that it could change my life. I know racism. I see it every day. A Black pregnant woman being dragged from the train? Racism is still going on. I’ve been a victim of it myself. But I’ve been in this world too long to know when something was a mistake.”
She sighs deeply, her exhaustion — from our conversation, from the drive, from her long day, from her long year — reaches me on the other side of the screen.
“Sorry I’m so busy,” she apologizes. “I have a busy family. I have so much to do. Liam’s actually going to a photo shoot tomorrow.”
It’s the same routine that she and Liam have shared for years. “I still have to shave his head!” Terry chuckles.
But this time, for better or worse, so much has changed.
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