When I was 8-years-old, I had a friend named Jade. Jade lived next door and was an only child to adoring, attentive parents. I was a year or so older than her and we went to different schools, but we bonded over our shared admiration for her impressive suite of Barbies. Her parents weren’t crazy about our friendship. Their strained smiles and forced politeness were obvious even to my 8-year-old senses.
On the day of Jade’s birthday party, I showed up at her house as her white school friends arrived for the party. “This is my friend, Rumbi”, Jade said. And then, in a stage whisper, “Sorry she’s black”. I was mortified, and unsure of why my blackness warranted an apology to these girls, before I had even spoken a word to them. I smiled and stayed at the party.
In retrospect, Jade’s parents’ antipathy made sense. They didn’t like me because I am black. More than any other emotion, I pity Jade’s parents. What Jade said about me – to me – was obviously a product of conversations she’d overheard between her parents. The unrestrained transmission of casual hatred in a household in which sugary cereals were verboten strikes me as desperately, quietly sad. But the saddest part of this story? Jade and her parents were coloured. Close enough to me to make them victims of the same disdain they subjected me to.
Last week, a massive furore was raised by the H&M campaign featuring a black child in a hoodie with “coolest monkey” emblazoned on it. Who, in the year 2018, doesn’t realise that relating black people in any way to anything simian is questionable at best, and just plain racist at worst?
Part of the deserved anger and outcry includes a series of artists’ re-imaginings of the offending image. Some featured the little boy as King. The images are beautiful. They take a moment of humiliation, a triggering image, and turn it into something to inspire. But the images also reveal the way racism steals childhoods.
I’m not sure if the little boy featured in the campaign knows, or understands, the controversy and the emotions his image has stirred. I hope his innocence and trust in the world’s general goodness is not spoiled by H&M’s wilful ignorance and insensitivity. I hope he’s been spared the inspirational images, too. Don’t get me wrong: they are beautiful. They come from a strength that’s developed from the injury of racism. People of colour have had to learn how to celebrate our blackness, how to wear it proudly, even as the world finds new and creative ways to denigrate us. Those renderings of the boy as King are an expression of resilience that is hard-won by people who bear ugly scars.
Children like this boy, like Jade, like 8-year-old me deserve complete freedom from the evil of racism. They deserve the time and the chance to become kings and queens. They shouldn’t have to grow up in a world that expects ingrained regality from kids. Kids deserve to mess up, and make mistakes and make glorious, wonderful messes. They deserve a chance to figure out who they are, before they are forced to call themselves kings and queens in the face of those who would brand them as monkeys.