Oprah Winfrey, Tommy Hilfiger and Subtle Racism

Feel the power even of the anarchic online media? Let’s remind ourselves of the Pepsi-Kanye West chain mail. It claimed that the relationship had gone sour following his political rant and Pepsi had fired him. After a few weeks of online activisms, Pepsi declared that it was not the case at all. That Kanye West and the people of color should continue the support to Pepsi.

Recently the Oprah Winfrey and Tommy Hilfiger mail has started doing the rounds again. So once again, I received a mail that carries a subject line hailing Oprah in order to condemn racism. To substantiate it, there is a chain email which narrates her “interview” with Tommy Hilfiger.

But this time, it was from a friend in India. Clearly people in the Other World also got affected by racism. The accompanying text to condemn racism was the same: that a black man was discriminated against on a BA flight. Popularly known as “BA Flight anti racism” mail, you can read the entire content here:
And here. This piece has become sort of a joke to be appearing on even the humor sites! In fact the same narrative is offered on another page where it says it was not a black man, but a Hispanic man…

Since such attempts to “stop racism” has become so fashionable online, I wanted to offer a perspective. Also to correct bloggers like Adorable, who think Oprah said the same statements in a recent show (December 2005) although Oprah had denied it way back in 1999 (a fact which is never discussed since such emails are meant to be forever relevant…!)

Here follows the email conversation, slightly abridged.

“Let me offer an explanation. First off, you have not quoted the point of reference, as to where did you get this mail from. That way, the readers could have investigated the source for themselves. Secondly you should have yourself investigated the source too before sending such mails out, lest they end up misinforming.

Tommy Hilfiger is no social activist. He is in fact an elite designer serving only the capitalistic cause of wealth celebration. But clearly he never had such a show with Oprah and he has never given any such comments, let alone such blatantly racist ones. Oprah has in fact never met with him and had never him on her show.

This is part of the same junk mail chain letters that you receive increasingly about almost everything (from refinancing your house, to pay off credits, to get Viagra for cheap). It is well evidenced by Oprah’s own refutation of the incident. On a live “The Oprah Winfrey Show” taped on January 11, 1999, she had already clarified the same:
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.” Her own magazine cites this show.

And for the knowledge, Oprah is a big loyal fan of Tommy. She adores Hilfiger and personally gives testimonials to the public so that they can go buy them. There are countless examples.

On the online front, there have been disclaimers to reinstate Tommy’s lost image too:

So now that we know that Tommy is actually innocent and a “poor victim”, what do we learn from this recurring mail (which was already refuted way back in 1999!). Surely someone like me would have quite easily read between the obvious lines and sent proofs to the contrary, as they have done. Just like I read the exchange among the people on a BA flight. Was it 1934? Was it 1962? Or was it 2005? No one knows. But that chain mail about British Airways incident is also very unlikely. And no airhostess would make such comments: “However, given the circumstances, that it would be scandalous to make someone sit next to someone so disgusting.” At least not in today’s world as we know it. Not because the white airhostesses are not racists. Then why not? I am explaining.

If those two chain emails are so grossly wrong, what good do they achieve? What is the motive of the people who are originating such mails? To fight racism? Nah…actually to perpetuate it. You see, after the Tommy incident was deconstructed, people started celebrating his designer lines. “Oh you see, he is not a racist. He never said. So we folks should buy his clothes.” The negative publicity actually did quite good to Tommy. Tommy was known to be making white clothes, but was in need of the black market (just like Kellogg’s needs an Indian market for its corn flakes). It did quite good to Oprah too in promoting her television show (in 1999, more people were watching dumb Disney shows than they were watching her). Today, both Tommy and Oprah are big superstars without any merit. They have used numerous cheap publicity stunts like this to become the symbols of success.

Likewise everyone who lives in the US or western world (since these mails were primarily meant for the first world—not many in the Other World actually buy original Tommy lines in India and flies first class of BA) know that no one makes such racist comments and get away with it. So there is a celebration also to the point that we are not a racist world any more. If someone asks “Do you hear such racist thing anymore?” The honest answer is “Of course not. You must be kidding. Look at all those black people in the first class. They have bought those tickets. Look at the diamonds on the hip hop stars. They are not rented. Blacks are successes.” Even look at Oprah Winfrey.

Precisely, that is the whole point. A first class seat need not be considered so dignified as to create a class barrier among people. Quite the contrary folks should not feel happy or lobby for a black man to get into the first class. Or should not cheer for Oprah Winfrey for any matter. The reason is both smack of downright celebration of undeserved opulence. Oprah is no different from Tommy Hilfiger, in that she wears million dollars jewelries herself and walks with pride on those red carpets of elite Hollywood. Top line designers are her close buddies and the club of suckers make pathetic acting sessions on those shows on how people should have freedom to do what they want to do. They even offer personal examples of their past lives and how gloriously they have left them behind (in other words, left behind the poverty and the poor people).

You know the reason why they chose Tommy to be the point of scandal with Oprah? Precisely because both of them had never met (Oprah had other designers to her show before….). So they knew this myth will be broken and the public will sympathize with both businesses well. This is what the spin makers do for the capitalists.

Racism is not frivolous. It’s not counted in terms of who gave what slurs. Most black ignorant people sing “nigger” today and call their women “bitch”. That does not make them racists/sexists. But if the white racist folks will say the same terms, they will be sent to jails. That’s because the white supremacists have created a yardstick to judge what racism should constitute. They claim it has to be ‘uttered’ by the privileged class. Now there is a popular argument that if the blacks can say nigger (and that’s because they have been conditioned to speak like black folks—in order to star in a movie you should talk like “black people” using an accent), then the whites should be allowed to. But yet it finds no taker. They are no fools. They will not utter such words in public. Because they don’t talk. The white privilege is acted out. They practice racism in the way it was meant to be.

Part of the reason why racism has become so implicit. It’s very subtle in nature. How many people in India will come out and say that because they are Brahmins, they are superior than the “lower castes” (sic) or they believe in untouchability? Yet the Brahmins in India will make friend circle largely with Brahmins, they will protest against reservations (not in terms of caste, but in terms of ‘merit’—a word whose parameters they themselves define), they will certainly not invite a non-brahmin person to preside their religious functions. Are all non-brahmins actually uneducated about citation of Vedic hymns? Think of our own discriminations and how it works in India to understand the basic nature of racism.

Racism has to be so subtle, so illusory that it has to be normalized. It has to be normalized into our fabric without revulsions. Just like the ‘majority’ democracy or the ‘free’ market economy. Do you really think majority governs or the market is free? No, just like their social counterpart, racism also does not become visible.

If it becomes pronounced, racism becomes easy to be checked. All of us will get really angry if Tommy actually said that! Or if a tribal girl is actually raped. After taking action to an ‘event’ we are lulled to silence. And then we thank ourselves that “lo! We imprisoned that guy. Now, don’t call me a racist”!

What we don’t recognize is that we often lend our help to the racism that prevails by implicitly supporting it. Race is a social construct. A construct that emerged out of a class society. A construct just like religion, became instrumental in helping the wealth usurper class to subjugate people throughout the ages. India’s Hindu kings, Mughal rulers, Brahmin Prime Ministers—all used the same class/caste dynamic to continue the rule to their favor. They integrated in us a need to adhere to their laws, which were based on dominant religion of the time which were in turn, founded on clear superstitions aimed at keeping the mass helpless/predestined/oppressed.

Today’s universal companion to all religious power is capitalism. Just like it was feudalism or monarchism in the past. It was easy to revolt against the kings and the landlords because their exploitations were so obviously apparent. Very shocking. But the bourgeois capitalist ruling class partners which actually led many of such anti-feudal and anti-colonial and anti-monarchy battles (by claiming leadership and sacrificing poor peasants in the struggles) emerged as the power holder this time in the most sophisticated fashion. Indian mainstream (and thus the power hungry) freedom struggle shows the clear direction too. It was led by industrialists (like Birla’s money), Hindu supremacists (like Patel’s crusades) and Hindi Aryans (like Rajendra Prasad). Of course they were all so well mannered that we engage in a north Indian dominant culture without even questioning it (the respect for capital, power and fame in line with Mumbai and Delhi, as opposed to respect for communities, matriarchy and indigenous cultures of Orissa and Kerala).

The progress of humankind has always been in this direction. From crude to sophistication (not uncivilized to civilized). For another example, the ruling class had women in harems, then in brothels and now they have them objectified on peep shows and webcams. And this has a lot to do with the calm, compassionate, sympathetic approach that we have been imbibed to learn through religious discourses of the ruling agents. Because of which we clearly overlook the negativities of Oprah’s billion plus undeserved wealth, and pick on an uneducated poor street youth who robs a wallet for survival, and send him/her to jail and subsequently for ‘spiritual rehabilitation’. Because the white privilege structure has put a “model minority” section to legitimize its supremacy by claiming that everyone can become like Oprah if they went to church and believed in the power of religion (and hence the God blesses America, just like in the east the politicians have godmen frauds like Sai Baba and Chandraswami, if not a thousand other symbols of faith systems).

Clearly, we know that not everyone can become a billionaire. We don’t even have that kind of wealth in the world! And this elite club hardly changes much over the period to let others have a share. They control more than 95% of world’s resources…and they are a club of less than 200 people.

It’s a shame that we have to cheer for Oprah instead of questioning her for the privileges she enjoys by towing the white power line which has just succeeded in making her loyal to the free market economic structure, maybe to oppose it at times so that democracy can contain with a proxy pepsi vs coke war. But never to challenge its orders, for if she did that she would have had to let go of her expensive wardrobes and tickets to the elite fame.

This is a just crash course on racism. For more, we should question our own privileges and check if we were having more in life (and hence can check out internet deals), not because some God gifted us the favors, not because we are inherently superior, or “more intelligent” (sic), but because we supported our families in everything they did to convince us that there is nothing wrong with the privileges we had. The privileges we enjoyed while walking the streets when no one judged us because we were Brahmins, but definitely a “lower caste”(sic) person was judged because she or he was one.

The first step is then, to educate our own families to get rid of their “holier than thou” beliefs. If the basic units of our everyday interactions such as families do not recognize their unjustified privileges, we need to get rid of them from our worldviews; instead of passing those racist heritages to subsequent generations to perpetuate racism for longer periods.
Yes, what appears to be a political decision is actually always result of a personal struggle.


Author: Saswat Pattanayak

Journalist, Generalist, Atheist, Poet, Lover, Photographer, Communist, Third wave Feminist, LGBT ally, Black power comrade, Peacenik, Anti-capitalist, Critical media theorist, Radical film critic, Academic non-elite…

5 thoughts on “Oprah Winfrey, Tommy Hilfiger and Subtle Racism

  1. Interesting observations. Do you really believe Oprah is doing a disservice? You should look into her biography to see what all she has gone through.

  2. Johnetta:
    Thanks for responding.
    I have already answered to your concern: “They even offer personal examples of their past lives and how gloriously they have left them behind (in other words, left behind the poverty and the poor people).”

    If you would have cited what was done by Oprah to actually cause a systematic shift in other poor people who share her past, then that would have been really helpful.

  3. Hi Saswat,

    I got the same mail today. I just wanted to check what the truth was and luckily found out. I really don’t know why such things are always sent and why people forward things without checking out the truth. I got this from a friend of mine now reciding in US. Of course, we don’t know the origins of that letter.

    I agree with your understanding of racism. I am a Telugu brahmin and agree that we still follow the same practices. It hurts, but truth is always true. We don’t invite any non-brahmins to organize our festivals and functions. But I also ask you how many such people are capable of doing that? If we come to know about a non-brahmin doing great work at temples, we would be happy to invite him rather than a stupid brahmin who doesn’t even know how to properly utter words. The reason these practices were and are still being done by brahmins is the belief that they do things well, not just becuase they are brahmins. This, at least is my knowledge of religion and religious practices. There is a very think line between tradition and practices. To change things, you need to change religion.

    However, I disagree with one thing that you say about reservations. You say that we brahmins ourselves define the word ‘merit’ and demand that reservations be cut. I suggest you rethink on this. i wonder what you say to the proposed reservations in IITs and IIMs. Resrvation is never a solution. What you’ll be getting from the elite is scum. Think about it.


  4. Hi
    Couple of remarks to the opinions of Mr. Sid. First off, the fact is not that there are no non-brahmins who could perform the religious rituals appropriately or chant the Sanskrit shlokas, the fact rather is that non-brahmins are NOT allowed to do so. Please check which Hindu temple or ceremony can be presided by a non-brahmin, NON. There have been some reformations in the Hindu system over the time never eliminating the vices inherent in the religion, e.g. caste system. Since the last couple of years in some places (in South India) Brahmin women are allowed to perform rituals in public. And it is fallacious to assume someone to be incapable of doing something if the person or ‘a section people’ have never been given a chance to do the task. And even if a Brahmin, supposedly specialized in performing rituals and chanting shlokas is ‘stupid’ and has no clue what he is uttering, the very fact that he bears a Brahmin last name absolves him of all stupidity and the ceremonies become ‘auspicious’ simply by the presence of his grace.
    A similar argument can be placed in favor of reservations. Reservations are necessary for the underprivileged section of the society; especially that section which has been underprivileged for generations owing to the wretched caste discrimination; & unfortunately still continues in all sectors of the Indian society. The moment someone identifies with a caste as per the family name, we know that caste system exists and is flourishing. For the so called SCST and Other Backward Castes, they should not only be entitled to reservations but they should snatch their rights from the ruling class (formed mostly by upper castes) and from the society that has rendered them disadvantaged for centuries. They are entitled because they require the time and platform to stand at par with the rest of us (the so called pathetic upper castes). We should not expect them to perform at par with us, until they have had their share of opportunities & privileges as a ‘people’ at least for next couple of centuries to compensate for the abject discrimination and disadvantages they have been relegated to by the upper castes. If the upper castes are not happy with the products of reservations they should only curse themselves and their ancestors who have instilled such ridiculous system, the patriarchal & caste system, which has created such an imbalanced society. And they have the audacity to complain about reservations on matter of biased meritocracy?
    As per the requirement for ‘changing the religion’, there is no such thing….in name of reforms people just try to become little humane than they were before, which is good in a way. The nature of organized religion is to separate, discriminate, and maintain the hierarchy in order for the privileged to keep enjoying the benefits of such a system.

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