The One Story: HBCUs And The Gatekeeping Of Black Culture
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Back in the fall of 1996, a rumor involving famed fashion mogul Tommy Hilfiger (pictured) had a cyber explosion. The rumor accused Hilfiger of being a staunch racist, and alleged that the designer made racist comments while on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” stating that if he’d known that Blacks would be wearing his clothing, then he would never have made them.  WHAT!?

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And that wasn’t the end of it.

Another version of the rumor mill allegedly ballooned to include Asians, “If I knew that Blacks and Asians were going to wear my clothes, I would have never designed them,” Hilfiger purportedly said.

The rumor went on to say that Oprah actually threw Hilfiger off of her show for his incendiary statements.

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Even though folks were up-in-arms about what Hilfiger had allegedly uttered, no one was quite sure what he had in fact said, whom he’d said it to, or to exactly which ethnic group.

Yet Hilfiger’s clothing line was boycotted by those who believed the damaging myth.

To counter the slander that had spread like wildfire, Hilfiger representatives sent out notices, stating that he had never appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” Oprah also attempted to come to Hilfiger’s rescue on January 11, 1999, by emphatically stating that Hilfiger had never been a guest on her program:

So I want to just set the record straight once and for all.  The rumor claims that clothing designer Tommy Hilfiger came on this show and made racist remarks, and that I then kicked him out.  I just want to say that is not true because it just never happened.  Tommy Hilfiger has never appeared on this show. 

READ MY LIPS, TOMMY HILFIGER HAS NEVER APPEARED ON THIS SHOW!  And all of the people who claim that they saw it, they heard it, it never happened.  I’ve never even met Tommy Hilfiger.”

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Even the Anti-Defamation League, an organization that was formed to fight anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry, got involved and delved right in to the out-of-control conspiracy theory that was wreaking havoc on Hilfiger’s reputation. In 2001, the League summarized its findings in a letter to Hilfiger:

Dear Mr. Hilfiger:

The Anti-Defamation League has received recurring inquiries regarding a number of defamatory rumors that have been spread on the Internet and by word-of-mouth in recent years about you and your company.

Based upon our investigation, it is apparent to us that you never made the statements that attribute racist remarks to you. In some cases, the rumor alleges that you appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show and made racist remarks, causing a supposedly irate Oprah to ask you to leave.

We have concluded that these rumors are completely false, and it is apparent that you never made the statements attributed to you, nor did you appear on The Oprah Winfrey Show.

Ironically, nearly 12 years after the rumor got its legs, Hilfiger finally did make an appearance on Oprah’s talk show on May 2, 2007.  He discussed the conspiracy theory at length, stating that he still did not know how the myth got started.

The clothier also mentioned that in his pursuit to get to the root of the rumor, he even enlisted the assistance of the FBI, who conducted an investigation. The disparaging theory was traced back to a college campus, but the agents could not zero in on anyone specifically.

The fashion icon told Oprah during the interview that the rumor, “Hurt my integrity, because at the end of the day, that’s all you have. And if people are going to challenge my honesty and my integrity and what I am as a person, it hurts more than anything else,” he says. “Forget the money that it has cost me.”

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The humanitarian, who is the founder of a summer camp for inner-city children and one of the driving forces behind the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Fund, the group dedicated to creating the monument to the slain civil rights leader in Washington, D.C., told Oprah during his visit with her that all he has ever wanted to do was to create a fashion line for everyone, “I wanted to sell a lot of clothes to a lot of people.”

Conspiracy theories are usually overwhelmingly convincing even if they don’t make sense and there’s no proof. To this day, I still raise an eyebrow whenever I pick up something from his clothing line….


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