Racial Rumors: Do(n’t) Believe the Hype

by Racialicious special correspondent Wendi Muse

If Spike Lee said it, then it must be true . . . right?

Not exactly.

In a 1992 interview with Barbara G. Harrison for Esquire Magazine entitled “Spike Lee Hates Your Cracka Ass,” Spike Lee informed readers of a racist statement made by popular women’s clothing designer Liz Claiborne during a guest spot on Oprah:

Claiborne got on and said she didn’t make clothes for black people to wear. Oprah stopped the show and told her to get her ass off the set. How you gonna get on Oprah’s show and say you don’t make clothes for Black women? It definitely happened. Get the tape. Every black woman in America needs to go to her closet, throw that shit out and never buy another stitch of clothes from Claiborne.

His allegations weren’t true. Liz Claiborne was never a guest on Oprah and had never been quoted as having said that she thought black women’s hips and butts were too large for her clothes, among other variations of the rumor. It turns out that Lee had bought the hype. He had fallen victim to what snopes.com calls a “racial rumor,” an urban myth of sorts that relates to a specific race and/or ethnic group. While some of these double-Rs are formed arbitrarily, others find their roots in good business. If a brand does well in and/or its creator caters to a specific demographic, it may be the object of a racial rumor during its lifespan on the market. [Note from Carmen: Thanks very much to Deb for the tip!]

The Liz Claiborne rumor is just one of many. Some of you may have heard a few about Tommy Hilfiger clothing (see above), Timberland boots, Coors beer, menthol cigarettes, KFC, Starbucks, and even Snapple, just to name a few. While the original source of these rumors often remains anonymous, the myths themselves usually reach a popularity of insane proportions and are difficult to squash for several reasons. I have a few guesses of my own. . .

For one, word of mouth is one of the most powerful publicity options known to man, and the oldest. The adult version of the telephone game serves as a successful means for disseminating information, particularly that which directly affects a specific group of people. Considering the tradition of oral history within communities of color, as well as a distrust of popular media sources by many people who consider themselves on the margins of dominant culture, it is no surprise that this method of communication is popular. If one were to question why a racial rumor had yet to make its way to television, newspapers, or films, a reasonable reply would be that the mainstream media was simply withholding information, siding with The Man to protect his interests. This is not to say that people of color are superstitious or paranoid. In fact, the reliance upon information found via alternative sources is a smart choice for groups whose concerns and interests are virtually ignored by the media unless a crime is committed or by the government unless it’s voting season. Such a method of communication also has a history of providing “them”s with a chance at “us”-like opportunity. [Please see: the Underground Railroad, slave revolts, the civil rights movement, occupational advancement because someone who came here before you knew someone else who could “hook you up,” talking to family abroad to lead to immigration, and so on and so forth]

For similar reasons that people of color and other marginalized communities hesitate to trust every word uttered from a TV screen or printed on a page, a sense of distrust is also common when such people of color are finally receiving attention, and positive attention at that. People of color had been ignored as a consumer group for a long while, mainly because their buying power is still fairly new. The brown, black, and yellow bourgeoisie is a fairly new group in this country, less than a century old, thanks to restrictive immigration laws (i.e. Chinese Exclusion Act), racist banking/ financing /loan /business policies, internment, ghettoization and slavery, so when someone pays a little attention to how much money they are spending and on what goods, people become suspicious and even defensive. The new attention could be considered a case of community brown-nosing, if you will. When a brand is all but modest in its attempt to call attention to its particular connection to a specific community, accusations of sycophantism are likely, mainly because it demonstrates a role-reversal of catastrophic proportions. Wait a second, they care about US? Something MUST be wrong—hence the rumors. A bit of territorialism also works in conjunction with suspicion, thus catalyzing the rumors in their infancy.

Tommy Hilfiger clothing is a perfect example. A company run by a white American male at one point had a very large “ethnic” buying population. In addition, Hilfiger wares were being endorsed directly and indirectly by celebrities of color. What did that mean for black-owned clothing companies (i.e. Karl Kani, Phat Farm) that produced similar designs and geared their advertising directly to communities of color? Wouldn’t the introduction of Tommy Hilfiger’s clothing line to such communities affect the aforementioned black-owned design companies?

Possibly. However, as I do not know Hilfiger’s intentions, nor have I carefully considered outside factors like a) the reasons why his clothes were so popular in non-white ethnic communities or b) the level of access people of color generally had to his clothing (either by the location of stores that sold his clothing and/or based on price), the effect his company had on the success of clothing companies owned by people of color at the peak of his popularity, for example, would be hard for me to gauge and even more difficult to prove as a direct result of his presence.

Assumed market dominance plays a significant role in the perpetuation of racial rumors, due in part to the limitations people of color often face(d) as they attempt(ed) to engage in business, even that which is marketed for their own communities. Yet the rumors related to healthcare and food have a much darker history, one that is hard to ignore and write-off as simple suspicion or old-wives’ tale. For example, Church’s Chicken, a fried chicken establishment found in predominantly lower-income black neighborhoods in Memphis, Tennessee, where I grew up, faced a nasty racial rumor of its own. Church’s Chicken was rumored to have had a goal to eradicate poverty in the black community in its own way, one about as creative as a scandalous proposal suggested in 2005 as a means to lower crime: by way of sterilization. Church’s supposedly laced all its chicken with chemicals that would destroy the reproductive capabilities of all who ingested it. Of course, the rumor wasn’t true, but cases of sterilization (ahem. . . eugenics, anyone?) and biological testing on people of color, the poor, and the mentally ill happened frequently in the past and continues in the present.

With that said, racial rumors are not always established on shaky ground. Some double-Rs experience quite a lengthy lifespan due to the fact that they are either partially true or related to a similar issue in the past that was carried out by different historical actors. Let’s look at Tommy Hilfiger one last time. He never went on Oprah and said he didn’t want people of color to buy/wear his clothes. He never said he didn’t make clothes for such people. Nor did he ever say he would stop making clothes if people of color continued to wear them. However, his company has recently been chastised for a few not-so-stellar labor practices, including firing janitors who made $19/hour and replacing them with janitors who would work at $8/hour and producing clothes with a “Made in the USA” label from sweatshops in U.S. off-shore territories, meaning, in short, that some of his company’s policies do not serve the best interests of people of color and the working poor. The existence of a fragment of relevant truth when coupled with historical mistreatment and marginalization of people of color make for a perfect combination to start rumors that just won’t stop, no matter how many times you do or don’t show up on the Oprah Show.

But while I understand how one could easily accept these rumors as truth due to historical precedents, I wonder if part of our belief in such rumors is supported by abuse. Are people of color so conditioned to being bullied that they have ingested a bitter pill of eternal victimization? Also, how do these rumors affect the communities themselves? Do they make people of color appear weak, misguided, or feebleminded? Could the quick acceptance of such rumors simply be the result of a need to place blame?

No matter how hard I try, I can’t come up with a solid answer for any of those questions. Luckily, a friend of a friend’s sister’s husband’s cousin’s mom’s caseworker told me that people on this site leave comments, so maybe some of you can add a little more to what I may have left out . . .