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Social Studies

Race and Rumors

Emily Flake

By Vincent Williams | Posted 3/5/2008

I think it's fair to say that I run a pretty egalitarian ship in this column. I try my best to be as inclusive as possible, even though I'm writing from my own uniquely African-American point of view. However, right now, I'm going to break that rule because I need something specifically from the white readers. I need y'all to get me on your e-mail lists because, obviously, some of you are getting e-mail that's not getting to any of the black folks I know, and I'm trying to stay in the loop. In exchange, I'll let you in on the e-mail that I get that, apparently, some of the white brethren and, uh, sisteren aren't getting. Hopefully, at the end of this experiment, we'll all be on the same electronic page.

This notion was prompted, much like everything has been prompted for the past few months, from some Barack Obama stuff. Every newspaper, politico, and talking head was buzzing around the picture, circulated by e-mail, of Sen. Obama in traditional Somali clothing from 2006. Everybody had their opinions about the implications and what the intent of the e-mail was, and I watched my little in box like Charlie Brown looking for valentines because I wanted to be part of the conversation. And I waited and waited, but I never got the e-mail.

It's not the first time it's happened either. I never got the e-mail about Obama being some type of Manchurian Candidate Muslim sleeper agent. I've never been sent a link showing him not pledging allegiance. And I never got anything questioning his early schooling. There's a whole plethora of urban legends and innuendo that I hear some of my white colleagues talking about that I've never seen in my in box.

This doesn't just go for Obama either. About a year ago, I was talking to someone, and he referred to all of the erroneous statistical information being circulated about people who had been relocated after Hurricane Katrina. Well, once again, this was the first I had even heard there was something circulating, but a couple of minutes at one of my favorite resources,, revealed, sure enough, there's a whole section of urban legends about "firsthand accounts" of Katrina evacuees and how they committed crimes, were mean to the people helping them, didn't use napkins, ate puppies, etc.

And this is not to say that we black folks don't engage in our own wacky e-mail hijinks. Why, just this week, while some of you were getting the Obama Is a Scary Man in Exotic Clothing e-mail, I was being regaled with yet another version of the [Fill in the Blank] Company Is so Racist That They Have Stuff Right on the Label e-mail. This time, the contestant was AriZona Southern Style Sweet Tea, which, according to the distraught e-mail, boasted slavery imagery (a plantation scene) right on the front! The issue got so out of control that the company responded to the furor and decided to change the label.

Now, see, my white friends? You didn't even know this was going on, did you? You probably missed it when the issue was with Snapple's labeling, too. And don't even get me started on the various hysterical e-mails that, I swear, show up in my in box every two weeks, warning that the U.S. Postal Service is going to cancel the Black Heritage Stamps line, or the solemn message that shows up every election cycle that warns that black people are going to lose their right to vote when the Voting Act of 1965 expires. Lawsy, Lawsy, they's gonna take our right to vote!

I'm joking, but I hope it's clear why I think these urban myths and 21st-century chain letters are important. Hopefully, anyone with even half a brain can see right through this stuff and there's no real danger of them causing any real confusion, but I believe that the tone and subtext behind many of these e-mails reveal truths about us that don't necessarily reveal themselves otherwise. Under the cover of internet anonymity, people expose their fears and prejudices in a manner that they never would in the light of day. When we think we're alone--and by "alone," I mean with "our own kind"--it's pretty fascinating what we say to each other and pass along. The great hope of the Information Age was that our physicality would stop meaning as much as it has, historically, but, in many ways, it's the same ol', same ol'. But we can change that, my white friends! The next time you get an e-mail talking about . . . well, whatever it is that these e-mails talk about, I promise I'll forward you one about how Ralph Lauren (or Tommy Hilfiger or Ann Taylor or Kate Spade--it all depends on the e-mail) was on Oprah and said he hated black people.

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