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Books: Whispers on the Color Line

I first heard tell of Whispers on the Color Line in a Slate article entitled Consumer Rumors which discussed how unsubstanciated alligations about companies spread differently in different communities. As a case in point, the Slate author discusses the long-standing rumor that Snapple (the beverage that was such a rage ten years ago) is owned or at least funded by nefarious groups. Oddly, in white communities the belief was that Snapple was affiliated with anti-abortion groups while in black communities the story insisted that Snapple was owned or funded by the Ku Klux Klan. (You can read the snopes.com report on this urban legend here.) This is what the book's authors call a "Topsy/Eva Rumor' -- a myth that has different antagonists depending on the race of the community in which is spreads.

I picked up "Whispers on the Color Line" beecause I have long been fascinated by the origin and dissemination of urban legends. The text is a very interesting read, if a bit dry at times and occasionally guilty of straying from it's premise. It begins with an overview of how rumors get started, how they are propagated, and how they get modified with transmission. Now, everyone thinks they know how rumors get started, because everyone has played the old game telephone: person A says something to person B, person B repeats it to person C but -- due to a misunderstanding or a misremembered word -- alters it a tiny bit, person C tells a very slightly modified version to person D, and by the time person Z hears it it's an entirely different phrase. The authors concede that misunderstanding is one way that rumors begin, but the focus of the book is more on intentional (if subconscience) transformation. When repeating something that they've heard, a person will often (perhaps unwittingly) embellish and change facts to fit their preconceived notions. For example, person A tells B that someone in town was shot by some people in a car; person B tells C that someone in town was shot by some gang members in a car (because this person assumes that anyone conducting a "drive-by shooting" must be in a gang); person C tells D that someone was shot by some black gang members in a car (because D believes that all members of a gang must be black) and so on. Pretty soon you have an urban legend urging you never to flash your headlights at someone driving with their lights out.

Injecting racism into stories as we retell them serves two functions, claim the authors. First, it allows us to express our racism in a socially acceptable way: after all, you're telling an absolutely true story rather than expressing an opinion, so no one can call you to the carpet. Secondly, these stories reinforce our own comfortable (if incorrect) stereotypes: if you can convince yourself that the story is true, it will serve as further "proof" that your deeply held convictions are well-founded.

Say that you are a black man, and you strongly suspect the powerful factions in the "white-run US" are plotting to eradicate African Americans. Then someone points out to you that the popular beverage Tropical Fantasy is only being sold in black neighborhoods. You combine this curious fact with your own suspicions to come up with the idea that the KKK is putting a drug in this drink to sterilize black men. Now you can tell this to other people without sounding paranoid because it's "true." And, knowing that it's true, you can feel justified in your own paranoia. Likewise, whites who warn others about black gang-members gunning down innocents feel justified in their beliefs that blacks are inherently violent, because they have "first-hand" knowledge of this "true" event.

Whispers on the Color Line studies racial rumors about consumer products, morality, violence, crime and genocidal conspiracies. The book ends with some "Tips on Coping With Rumor," although anyone interested enough in either urban legends or race relations to read this book probably doesn't need the advice. (On the other hand, you can probably never be told not to believe everything you hear too many times.)

I got my copy of Whispers on the Color Line from the Seattle Public Library.

Posted on April 08, 2002 to Books