by Carmen Van Kerckhove Wow. Now it’s not only college students playing with blackface, faculty…
by Racialicious special correspondent Wendi Muse
If Spike Lee said it, then it must be true . . . right?
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] Read the Post Racial Rumors: Do(n’t) Believe the Hype
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. Read the Post Turning Uncle Ben into Chairman of the Board
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