A few weeks ago, I was listening to a segment on NPR’s TELL ME MORE called Snooty Swiss Saleswoman Equals Racism? The segment was in reference to the recent media hoopla about Oprah Winfrey’s shopping experience in Switzerland. During an interview with Entertainment Tonight, Oprah was discussing her sentiments about the use of the N-word. She stated, “Racism for me doesn’t show itself that way. It still exists…” She went further to provide an example of a recent incident in which she went to a high end shop to purchase a purse. She requested to see a certain purse and the sales associate did not show it to her, but provided other ‘similar’ options that were more affordable. During her interview, Oprah talks about how she made sure to look appropriate when going into the store because she knows how she would get treated if she wasn’t dressed the right way. Now, many things struck me about her comments.
First, why is it that a woman of Oprah’s stature has to ‘dress’ the right way in order to not be stereotyped while shopping. I mean…SHE IS OPRAH! One of the most famous, successful, and richest Black woman in the world. Who cares if she wants to see a $38,000 purse! If she is willing to patron your store, you should let her decide what she can or cannot spend. Also, who cares if she does it wearing sweatpants or high-end designer clothing?
Second, this incident re-confirms that your class and position in society doesn’t diminish the fact that you will be judged based upon the color of your skin. Ms. Danielle Belton said it best, “You can work your way out of poverty. You can fight your way out of despair. You can own homes in multiple cities and be one of the richest women in the United States of America, but gosh darn it, you can’t buy your way out of being black.” I guess money truly can’t buy you everything…
Third, the Swiss tourism board apologized to Oprah and issued a statement assuring the world that all people are welcome to Switzerland. The sales associate has since tried to defend herself and of course claim no racism was at play. However, the most surprising apology came from Ms. Oprah Winfrey herself. She recently apologized stating, “I think that incident in Switzerland was just an incident in Switzerland. I’m really sorry that it got blown up. I purposefully did not mention the name of the store. I’m sorry that I said it was Switzerland.” She went on to explain the context surrounding why she mentioned the incident. “I was just referencing it as an example of being in a place where people don’t expect that you would be able to be there. Nobody’s gonna call me the N-word to my face unless they’re a thug on Twitter or Facebook. It doesn’t show up that way. It shows up for me differently: I’m in a store…and they make an assessment based upon the way I look and who I am.” Exactly! This is the point! Why do you feel the need to apologize Ms. Winfrey? They clearly didn’t know who were, but assumed based upon the color of your skin that you didn’t belong. That is not okay. That does not deserve a public apology.
I understand the need to diffuse the situation, but why not use this as a learning lesson for the world. This was not an isolated incident. This certainly was not Oprah’s first ‘incident’ at a high end store mistaking her identity. African-Americans from all walks of life have all experienced it…from the President of the United States to some of the readers of this blog. Not just in the United States, but around the world.
In 2013, no matter your class or position in society, it seems as though African-Americans must still justify why they belong. Even at a deli. Oprah’s co-star Forest Whitaker was recently frisked and mistakenly accused of shoplifting at a NY deli. At the end of the day it is not about who you are. What people see is the color of your skin. When will society truly get to a place where the color of our skin doesn’t matter?
by Bai Kamara