This week, we received a news tip in the form of an e-mail. The e-mail was basically regarding how the Tommy Hilfiger clothing brand should be boycotted because its designer, Hilfiger, is racist.
Apparently, Hilfiger was slated to appear on the “Oprah Winfrey Show” in the 1990s, but he was kicked out after Winfrey asked him if he made statements like, “If I’d known African Americans, Hispanics, Jewish, and Asians would buy my clothes, I would not have made them so nice. I wish these people would not buy my clothes, as they are made for upper class white people.” He apparently said yes, he did make such statements.
Something about the e-mail was fishy. Why would a well-known public figure commit career suicide by telling media queen Oprah Winfrey — who also happens to be Black — that his clothes are not for people like her?
So we looked into this. Turns out that this was a hoax from as far back as the mid-1990s. In 1996, a news article was published in a Philippine tabloid, quoting Hilfiger as saying that he wished people of Asian descent wouldn’t wear his line. This resulted in a loud call for boycotting Hilfiger clothing and products. Hilfiger had always denied the claims, but generally, people didn’t believe him.
In 1999, Winfrey also spoke out against the rumor, stating, “I want to 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 this is not true because it never happened. Tommy Hilfiger has never appeared on this show. … I’ve never met Tommy Hilfiger.”
Hilfiger finally did appear on Winfrey’s show in 2006, partly to address the rumors that had plagued him for more than 10 years. He said that he actually hired investigators to find out where the rumors originated. They traced the rumors back to a college campus, but they were unable to find more specific information.
On the show, Hilfiger said, “It 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. Forget the money that it has cost me.”
Hilfiger is the founder of a summer camp for inner city children and is one of the driving forces behind the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Fund, according to Winfrey’s website.
Now, this editorial isn’t meant to definitively declare that Tommy Hilfiger is not racist. The point is that we just don’t know. What we do know is that there is nothing in his public persona that should lead us to believe that he is racist. If anything, the rumor seems to have really hurt him. It’s sad that, over the years, he’s publicly stated, again and again, that the rumors aren’t true, but people generally are unhearing.
It’s also interesting that the hoax e-mail is still alive and circulating, 15 years after it was conceived. The lesson here is to be skeptical. Just because it appears in print doesn’t mean it’s true. Always consider the source.
We also need to strive to be fairer to people. Many people of color become very upset when they feel they are being slighted because of their ethnicity. However, sometimes, they forget to stop and think how equally hurtful it is to be falsely accused of being racist. ♦