Tag Archives: history

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] Continue reading

Turning Uncle Ben into Chairman of the Board

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

At a time when we’re seeing various institutions acknowledge and apologize for their involvement with the slave trade (the state of Maryland and Brown University are two recent examples), it’s sad to see one company so enthusiastically reviving a brand that was built on slave imagery.

The New York Times discusses a new campaign from Uncle Ben’s Rice that is attempting to give Ben a makeover:

Uncle Ben, who first appeared in ads in 1946, is being reborn as Ben, an accomplished businessman with an opulent office, a busy schedule, an extensive travel itinerary and a penchant for sharing what the company calls his “grains of wisdom” about rice and life.

Check out the Uncle Ben’s web site for a glimpse at the campaign.

Uncle Ben is a perfect example of the Tom caricature. From the excellent Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia web site:

The Tom caricature portrays Black men as faithful, happily submissive servants. The Tom caricature, as with the Mammy Caricature, was born in ante-bellum America in the defense of slavery. How could slavery be wrong, argued its proponents, if Black servants, males (Toms) and females (Mammies) were contented, loyal servants? The Tom is presented as a smiling, wide-eyed, dark skinned server: fieldworker, cook, butler, porter, or waiter. Unlike the Coon, the Tom is portrayed as a dependable worker, eager to serve. Unlike the Brute, the Tom is docile and non-threatening to Whites. The Tom is often old, physically weak, psychologically dependent on Whites for approval.

During the antebellum era, whites would often refer to elderly black slaves as “uncle” or “aunt.” It was a way of bestowing some respect without going so far as to treat them as actual equals by calling them “Mr.” or “Mrs.” This means that the very names of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben are directly descended from the culture of slavery. Continue reading

Radar Online’s list of racial stereotypes in the movies

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

Radar Online just published a great list called From Borat to Mammy: The top ten stereotypes in cinema history:

Hollywood has a long history of racial insensitivity—stereotypes are its stock in trade. But, as with Borat, watchdog groups are too quick to sound the alarm when things get out of hand. Unfortunately for film-goers with less-fragile constitutions, some of the most deliciously offensive characters in cinema have been relegated to the dustbin as a result. Where were the Golden Globes when Long Duk Dong dropped his L’s in Sixteen Candles? It just doesn’t seem fair. Come with us on a tour of Hollywood’s walk of shame, where we gaze, slack-jawed, upon the ten best stereotypes ever captured on film.

(Hat tip to Angry Asian Man.) So who’s on the list?

Long Duk Dong
From: Sixteen Candles, 1984
Played By: Gedde Watanabe
Groups Offended: Asians, exchange students

Speedy Gonzales
From: The Looney, Looney, Looney Bugs Bunny Movie, 1981; various Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies animated shorts
Voiced By: Mel Blanc
Groups Offended: Mexicans, mice

James ‘Buffalo Bill’ Gumb
From: The Silence of the Lambs, 1991
Played By: Ted Levine
Groups Offended: Gays, transsexuals, lesbians, serial killers, cannibals

Dick Hallorann
From:The Shining, 1980
Played By: Scatman Crothers
Groups Offended: African-Americans, mystics, Lady Cleo, Dionne Warwick, most of the Psychic Friends Network

Jar Jar Binks
From: Star Wars: Phantom Menace, 1999; Attack of the Clones, 2002; Revenge of the Sith, 2005)
Voiced By: Ahmed Best
Groups Offended: Jamaicans, nerds

Pagoda
From: The Royal Tenenbaums, 2001
Played By: Kumar Pallana
Groups Offended: Indians, hipsters

Grand Vizier Jafar
From: Aladdin, 1992
Voiced By: Jonathan Freeman
Groups Offended: Arabs, street urchins

Caiaphas
From: The Passion of the Christ, 2004
Played By: Mattia Sbragia
Groups Offended: Jews, Jews for Jesus

Mr. Yunioshi
From: Breakfast at Tiffany’s, 1961
Played By: Mickey Rooney
Groups Offended: Asians

Mammy
From: Gone With the Wind, 1939
Played By: Hattie McDaniel
Groups Offended: African Americans

Authority decides that Virgin Trains commercial is not racist to Native Americans

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which is sort of like the U.K.’s version of the FCC but specifically for ads, has ruled that the commercial below is not racist. From The Manchester Evening News:

the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has decided the commercial was a tongue in cheek pastiche of Hollywood cowboys and Indians films and not a slur on Native Americans. It said the ad was unlikely to cause serious offence.

Hmmm… I wonder how many Native Americans are in the ASA?

Our friend Rob from Newspaper Rock is not amused though, and nominated the commercial for his Stereotype of the Month award:

In the ad, stereotypical savages on horseback attack a train but – silly savages! – they don’t realise it’s not the old-fashioned kind they can leap onto from the saddle. They slide down the metal sides of the train and fall off! Ho ho ho! Toward the end, an Indian wordlessly demands through the window glass a book that a white traveller is reading. The traveller refuses and the Indian menacingly raises his tomahawk to smash the glass but – phew! – the nasty savage is wiped off the side of the train by the front apron of a tunnel. Oh, my aching sides.

Oh Rob, lighten up! A committee of white men has decided for you that it’s not racist. So just listen to them — they know what’s best for all Native Americans.

I certainly hope that one day you will be able to grasp Virgin’s humor.

If you’re reading this in an RSS reader and can’t see the video, please click on the post headline.

Has Russell Simmons become a paid mouthpiece for the diamond industry?

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

The movie Blood Diamond has the diamond industry so freaked out that they’ve been waging a massive PR campaign to refute the movie’s revelations about conflict diamonds. From LA Weekly:

The timing of the film’s release, moved up from December 15 to December 8, is a nightmare for the diamond industry since the Christmas season accounts for up to 50 percent of a fine jeweler’s sales and 75 percent of the profit. And then Valentine’s Day will coincide with Blood Diamond’s Oscar campaign. I’ve heard estimates that the World Diamond Council has earmarked a $15-plus-million spin campaign to deep-six Blood Diamond’s impact…

Apparently, part of this spin campaign has been to recruit Russell Simmons, of all people, to send out the message that the diamond industry isn’t really that exploitative. The Diamond Information Center, which is basically De Beers’ marketing and PR arm, sent Simmons and his entourage on an all-expenses paid trip to Africa. From The New York Times:

Representatives from the Diamond Information Center declined to say how much the trip cost, although Mr. Chavis said about 14 people were in the group each day, including local security and support staff as well as the 9 people who had traveled from the United States.

Davey D wrote an excellent piece about Simmons’ new role as the diamond industry puppet and pointed out the fact that countries selected for this “fact-finding mission” were very specific:

Please note that the horrific bloodshed and genocide of the early 1990s that the movie focuses on took place in countries like Sierra Leone and Angola. In my opinion those conflict zones should’ve been included in any sort of fact-finding mission. By only going to Botswana and South Africa, and by defending the diamond trade in those countries, Simmons by default wound up defending the De Beers Company, which held a worldwide monopoly for decades and brutally ruled the diamond business in those two countries for more than a century.

I first heard about Simmons’ new gig as diamond champion from this post from Bol at XXL. He does a great job of breaking down the hypocrisy behind Simmons’ so-called “Diamond Empowerment Fund,” which is supposed to educate Africans on how to better benefit from the diamond trade:

In the New York Times the other day, it was revealed that Africans are getting raped big time on the sale of these diamonds. They only get paid $15 for a diamond that would cost us (you) $5,000.

Will the Africans in Rush’s Diamond Empowerment Fund make any more money from diamonds than they would otherwise? Pshaw! Rush’s response to a reporter who put forth this question:

“No, I’ll answer him because I’m a business man and this gentleman obviously is not.” Simmons then countered that it takes about 25 cents to make a t-shirt you can sell for a $100. “Kimora can sell it for $500 or $600,” he added.

Wow. So in other words, the people in Africa don’t deserve to benefit from their own natural resources on the same level as Rush because they aren’t as good business people.

I swear, I’ve seen some sad shit in my life, but this about trumps everything.

I think Dumi at BlackatMichigan.com pretty much sums it up:

For years, I saw Russell Simmons as I saw Bob Johnson, a damn good Black capitalist (not endorsing this just calling em like I see em). Now with his explicit support and retort to Blood Diamond, I see he’s graduated to a damn good (Black) capitalist pawn… I wonder is there a difference between the two?

New documentary about Japanese girl kidnapped by North Korean spies

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

This new film, Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story, from Jane Campion (The Piano) looks interesting. Here’s the synopsis:

JAPAN,1977. A dark, lonely road leads to the windswept shores. This is the remarkable story of a 13-year-old Japanese girl abducted on her way home from school by North Korean spies. For 20 years, her parents had no idea what had happened to her or if she was even alive. Then, one day the whole world learned the shocking truth.

An extraordinary tale of mystery, intrigue and most of all, love, the film’s told through the eyes of the girl’s mother and father who have been searching for their daughter for nearly 30 years. The film begins with the day Megumi vanishes, traces the astonishing course this personal tragedy takes, as it becomes a battle between two nations, rising to a shocking climax.

North Korea’s government always denied having anything to do with the disappearance of Japanese citizens like Yokota, until 2002, when North Korean president Kim Jong Il confessed to then-Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi that his country’s spies had abducted 13 Japanese citizens between 1977 and 1983. The abductees are believed to have been used to teach Korean spies how to impersonate Japanese citizens.

White supremacy by any other name

by guest contributor Kai Chang, originally published at Zuky

lige danielsWhen now-disgraced comedian Michael Richards screeched into his microphone “Fifty years ago we’d have you upside down with a fucking fork up your ass!” followed shortly by “He’s a n—-r! A n—-r, look, there’s a n—-r!” he was obviously attempting to drum up the vibe of a lynch mob closing in on its target. That’s some funny shit, eh?

Here’s how hilarious it is: To your left, Lige Daniels, lynched in Center, Texas, on August 3, 1920. To your right, Rubin Stacy, lynched in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on July 19, 1935. Here are but two among tens of millions of murders attributed to America’s long history of genocidal white supremacy.

As you can see, these are mirthful family affairs. The children are smiling innocently. The parents are proud and upstanding.

rubin stacyI guess this is Michael Richards’ comedic vision of America, and that of all those who are defending his invocation of the twisted pathology of sexualized white supremacist violence.

Yes, the n-word is “just a word”: a word that has historically led to scenes such as these. If you’re cool with such scenes, by all means continue supporting this word’s use by “edgy” white folks (you say “edgy”, I say “coward hiding in a mob”). You know why black folks “are allowed” to use the n-word (though it remains deeply controversial in the black community)? Here’s a hint: look at the pictures and see if you spot any black folks among the living. Okay I’ll fill you in: they’re the ones being murdered; white folks are the ones doing the murdering. Get it? In the context of the n-word’s countless unpunished crimes, black folks are not the accused.

“Just a word”: what a moronic defense. I suppose “war” is “just a word” as well — unless you happen to be among those getting bombed and shot. “I intend to kill you and your family” are just words too, but if someone were to say those words to me, my response would be very unwordy. I think it’s bizarre that middle-class American liberals appear to have become so comfortably, mentally astral that they believe that language and reality are somehow disconnected; as though words and thoughts are powerless postmodern playthings that have no consequences in the real world; as though every actual atrocity in human history didn’t begin with “just a word”.

Michael Richards and his ruined career are not the point here. The point is that if we’re ever to move beyond our current racial strife, we need to begin with enough intellectual honesty to acknowledge and understand America’s glaring legacy of white supremacy. As this popular comedian’s tirade shows, that legacy is alive and kicking in the American psyche. Shrugging it off as a “politically incorrect” use of an insensitive “racial epithet”, or as some mysterious “hostility” that bubbled up out of nowhere, demonstrates a profound ignorance and denial of this country’s past and present. And as long as such ignorance and denial dominate our national discourse, we will remain unable to accurately and meaningfully talk about, think about, and transcend the blood-soaked, heavy-hearted legacy of the American Color Line.