Oprah Winfrey experiences discrimination in Switzerland boutique

August 11, 2013 at 1:12 pm | Posted in African American, blacks, discrimination, Disrespect, equality, ethnic stereotypes, Ethnicity in America, European American, Media and Race, Prejudice, tourism, whites | 2 Comments
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Oprah Winfrey recently reported that she experienced discrimination while shopping for a purse in Switzerland. The event occurred according to Winfrey when “a clerk at Trois Pommes, a pricey Zurich boutique, refused to show her a $38,000 handbag, telling one of the world’s richest women that she wouldn’t be able to afford it.” Apparently, the clerk did not recognize Winfrey or she would not have refused to show her the purse. The more important question relative to this experience is why was Winfrey’s request to see the purse rejected. Winfrey called the incident an act of racism, but there is more to this incident than meets the eye.
In the aftermath of the incident, we are told that “Swiss tourism officials and the boutique owner were quick to offer apologies Friday. ‘We are very sorry for what happened to her, of course, because we think all of our guest and clients should be treated respectfully, in a professional way,’” The boutique owner, Trudie Goetz, tried to make excuses for the clerk by claiming that because the clerk is mainly an Italian speaker she lacked the proper communication skills and “I believe she [the clerk] rather said something like ‘we have some less expensive—we also have some less expensive bags’ and not ‘it’s too expensive for you.’”
Of course, Goetz’s offering in defense of her clerk makes little sense because how would the clerk know what is and what is not in a customer’s price range? Also, why would she assume that Winfrey could not afford the purse simply by looking at her? The fact is that she could not know whether Winfrey could afford the purse, but assumed simply by looking at her that she could not afford it. Why? Stereotypes. African Americans as well as other people of color are generally the recipients of negative stereotypes. Why? The negative stereotypes are the product of American and Western propaganda that presents and portrays African Americans as not worthy of significant social value or respect.
For many years the images of the African American sent out of America showed him to be poor, ignorant, literate, simple, lazy, dishonest, a lier, a thief, a clown, and generally lacking morals or decency along with a host of other negative stereotypes. Few if any of the pictures of African Americans were complimentary. So, naturally people of color from other countries did not want to be viewed in that negative light; therefore, in spite of all the positive contributions African Americans have made to America and the world, being an American of color was not viewed positively. Today, when people of color come to America, they deliberately retain their cultural and geographical identity for fear of being mistaken as an African American because of the stereotypes. If Winfrey had gotten someone to announce her arrival at the boutique, she would have received VIP treatment because wealthy African Americans who travel outside the U.S.A. are generally well-received if their presence is made known. The average African American, however, falls into the category composed of negative stereotypes.
To be sure, the image of the European American is equally composed of stereotypes, but they are generally the opposite from those of the African Americans. The images in question come from movies, news stories, magazines and books. For years, many people in foreign countries thought that European Americans did not work, but simply went shopping, golfing, or to the beach every day, always having fun and enjoying life. When images of African Americans were presented, the context was usually in a 2nd-class role or some other negative stereotype, usually involving protest or violence crimes. Rarely was an African American pictured as wealthy, educated, and non-threatening.
So, once we understand the history of the African American experience relative to the negative stereotyped images of them outside of America, we can begin to understand that the discrimination Winfrey experienced was not necessarily based on her personally, but on the image held by the clerk relative to people of color or African Americans in general. We know for certain that Winfrey experienced discrimination, but we cannot say that it was based on ethnicity or race. People can be discriminated against for a plethora of reasons, so race does not have to be the primary or only reason. Many people in America are profiled and discriminated against every day, not simply because of their skin color, but also because they are assumed to be in a particular socio-economic class.
Whether in America or some other country, stereotypes of people exists and those stereotypes serve as the bases for discrimination. Winfrey’s experience should serve as a lesson for business owners that serve the public—never judge a book by its cover, or a customer on how he or she looks. What was the worst thing that could have happened had the clerk showed Winfrey the purse? No sale. The best thing would have been a large commission for a sale. No individual is guilty of racism because racism is a group identity; bigotry is the choice of the individual. To say the clerk was guilty of racism would indict a so-called race of people of which he or she is only a representative; however, to refer to him or her as a bigot places the responsibility for discrimination squarely on his or her shoulders. That being said does not excuse or forgive what Winfrey experienced.
For certain Switzerland’s tourism officials and the boutique owner offered apologies for Winfrey’s treatment, but Winfrey, on the other hand, might be correct is her assessment of her experience as racist, because the first paragraph of the Associate Press story (8-10-13)provides this food for thought: “Switzerland is a glamorous playground of the rich and famous, filled with glitterati from princes to movie stars. It’s a land with a sometimes uneasy relationship with foreigners—especially when they aren’t white.” For people of color knowing that piece of information before making the trip could be helpful. After all, for one to be fore-warned also means to be fore-armed.

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2 Comments »

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  1. This form of quiet racial bigotry or racism in some cases is not an uncommon experience for I too have experienced this issue, and I remember how angry I had gotten once until I approached this store employee and stood face to face and he backed off.

    Most white people tend to think its all in our heads and accuse us being too sensitive. This is is nearly an every day issue no matter which financial strata African-Americans may exist.

  2. One wonders if a European woman clad in Wal-Mart jeans and t-shirt would have been treated the same way. I’m really not so sure.


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