Why Oprah Winfrey was denied a chance to examine a $38,000 handbag for sale in a Zurich luxury shop, has been predictably (and wearily) much chewed over in media in recent days. One example was CNN’s Erin Burnett being assailed on the Atlantic Wire by a Philip Bump. Here is an excerpt from his “Erin Burnett’s Cringe-Inducing Discussion of Oprah Winfrey’s Brush with Racism”:
Yes, Burnett says that it may not have been about race — it may instead have been like the scene in Pretty Woman, when a prostitute is turned away from a high-end store. “It’s sort of like that moment,” Burnett says. She continues:
They didn’t want a hooker in their store, and they knew she was a hooker. But you look now, and they say, well, was it just that they thought she couldn’t afford it. And if so, even if it wasn’t overt racism, did they say, well, because this woman’s black, she can’t afford it.
This is literally what Burnett says. The most generous assessment of that statement is that perhaps the store wasn’t being racist, they simply thought that because Winfrey’s a woman who’s black, she can’t afford it.
Which is the definition of racism.
It’s easy to see how race played a role in Winfrey’s experience. Burnett tries twice to suggest it’s not, first by implying Winfrey threatened to play the race card (which she didn’t), and second by saying that it may have just been because they assumed Winfrey was poor because she was black (which is racist).
However, today the AP reports Ms. Winfrey says she was not really dressed particularly sharply for a shop like that. Evidently, then, it may not be so “easy to see how race played a role” in whatever happened. We will come back to that below.
Media positioning of Ms. Winfrey’s “treatment” immediately in racism terms also shows us something about apparent U.S. media ignorance. Some actually seem unaware designer shops in Europe get much of their trade from “non-whites,” and Muslims, and have for decades. And well-to-do black patrons in European high-end boutiques is not nearly as rare an occurrence as many also appear to believe it is.
Given who she is, it is little surprise Ms. Winfrey’s reflections were taken at essentially face value by most media. We were even told what happened to her may have been related to Switzerland’s immigration and asylum policy. Seriously. The BBC:
Winfrey’s claims come amid a political row over plans by some Swiss towns to ban asylum-seekers from some public places.
To return to earth — and the reasonably demonstrable — at the outset, Ms. Winfrey herself stated:
I didn’t have my eyelashes on, but I was in full Oprah Winfrey gear. I had a little Donna Karan skirt, and little sandals, but obviously the Oprah Winfrey show is not shown in Zurich. So this doesn’t happen to me, unless someone obviously doesn’t know it’s me.
“I say to the woman: ‘Excuse me, may I see that bag right above your head?’ And she says to me: ‘No. It’s too expensive’. And I said: ‘No, you see the black one, the one that’s folded over’.
“And she said: ‘No, no, no, you don’t want to see that one, you want to see this one, because that one will cost too much, you will not be able to afford that one.
Sans eyelashes? Donna Karan? Little sandals? From the beginning, Ms. Winfrey’s admitted shopping attire, in a shop like that, demonstrates how super-wealthy Americans — regardless of race — do tend to dress more casually than monied others globally.
“Pretty Woman” aside (it is, let us remember, fictive; it is not a documentary), in the U.S. appearance doesn’t automatically immediately signify great wealth. Most high-end retailers know that. The richest woman in the county is as likely as not to pull up to the expensive dress shop in a ten year old car. The guy wearing a battered sport coat might be worth millions.
A U.S. national trait, we recall, is also informality. “If I’m doing the buying,” Americans are apt to think, “why do I need to get dressed up? It’s the staff that needs to look good for me.” Ms. Winfrey, here, seems to buy full on into that view.
But in more formal, stratified Europe, personal attire is often worn as a badge of, and taken as an indicator of, wealth. It is perhaps even more so among elites in Asia and in Africa. The über-rich tend to look, and play, the part. As a consequence, in exclusive European stores, stratospheric-level client wealth is often judged by staff initially on client dress, deportment, sense of superiority over the staff, and even outright arrogance towards them. As the shop owner noted:
My salesperson wanted to give her the handbag in her hand. But she didn’t want to take the bag,” [Trudie] Gotz said. She said the employee had worked in the Trois Pommes store “for a few years and takes care of the most spoilt customers from all over the world”. Gotz added: “She is really a correct sales person.
Venturing into continental designer shops with my wife (who knows “the rules” inside them), whenever she prices far less expensive gear than Ms. Winfrey’s desired handbag, I always feel intimidated wearing even smart casual. Women staffers are usually decked out as if they had just stepped off a catwalk, and many women customers’ glitzy outfits can put those staff in the shade. Yet maybe I have a few hundred million dollars lying around too? (Although I certainly don’t.)
Understandably, under media assault, the shop tried to defend itself, with the owner saying it was all a misunderstanding due to linguistic difficulties:
…it was a language barrier which caused the “misunderstanding”.
“There can be no question of that. I welcome every customer and every customer is viewed as a king.
That “king” comment may be more telling than Americans may believe at first. Clients who buy in shops like that one are often worth more than many kings. Or those clients are royalty and get a generous allowance from kings, which they choose to spend in those shops.
It has nothing to do with racism, I think it was rather a communications problem between the employee, who is actually Italian and speaks Italian and also English, but just not as well as Ms Oprah, ” said Ms Goets.
That seems plausible. As anyone ever faced with a linguistic barrier may attest, misunderstandings are easy. In any case, if — if — the saleswoman in that exclusive shop did honestly think the black woman standing before her couldn’t afford the monstrously pricey handbag the black woman asked to see, the saleswoman likely made that snap judgement because that black woman was not dressed stylishly and richly enough to indicate (to the saleswoman, by sight) that she could afford it. In the multiracial, multicultural retail environment in which shops like that exist, it was most probably not because she was black.
Ms. Winfrey was clearly unprepared for (and, as an American, unused to) such “appearance-ism.” In encountering a saleswoman who may not have spoken English perfectly and who did not know who Ms. Winfrey is, absent recognition of her as a celebrity of great wealth it would seem Ms. Winfrey’s attire and general attitude were hardly high-end enough to have impressed that saleswoman as to the size of Ms. Winfrey’s check book.
After all the hand-wringing on cable news, and the keyboards set alight over this in recent days, Ms. Winfrey appears willing to concede now that:
I didn’t have anything that said ‘I have money.’ I wasn’t wearing a diamond stud. I didn’t have a pocketbook. I didn’t wear Louboutin shoes. I didn’t have anything,” said Winfrey on the red carpet. “You should be able to go in a store looking like whatever you look like and say, ‘I’d like to see this.’ That didn’t happen.
And if she’d had sported some diamonds and Louboutins (and a pocketbook and eyelashes) in that shop that day, this likely would have been a non-story. That said, and how was Ms. Winfrey dressed on the “red carpet” last night? Far better than when she walked into that shop?
Oprah Winfrey has some $3 billion more than most of us in the bank. However, like other American rich, she is, underneath that bulging bank balance, apparently still largely “middle-class” American in her sensibilities and social outlook. Ms. Winfrey says if someone knows who she is, they don’t treat her that way, and that is doubtless true. In this instance, then, her appearance must have played a large role, and she seems now to accept that.
So where are we then? Think about it. Donna Karan may be bought off the rack by anyone of reasonable means who could also never hope to afford a $38,000 handbag. And surely no spectacularly affluent woman would dare enter a shop like that without her eyelashes on? Imagine a Qatari princess, a Nigerian oil magnate’s daughter, or an Indian heiress, wandering into that store dressed the way Ms. Winfrey says she was?
Which is why this “issue” sits oddly, as does her call for “informality” in such stores. Ms. Winfrey must be well-traveled, and well-shopped, enough on the continent to be familiar, by now, with what high-end retail Europe is all about. Those establishments make Neiman Marcus and Harrods look like flea markets. They are absolutely not, and never will be, Wal-Mart.