Oprah Winfrey lucked out this week. Just days before the release of her new movie The Butler, in which she plays the wife of a White House butler who watches the great civil rights battles from within 1600 Pennslyvania Avenue — and which features as its denoument the 2008 election of Barack Obama — Winfrey was involved in an international “racism” incident that she was forced to discuss while doing promotional work for the film. What are the chances of that!
As James Taranto noted drily in the Wall Street Journal, Winfrey “went all the way to Europe to discover that racism is alive in America.” While stopping in a handbag store in Switzerland, Winfrey claims that she was told that she couldn’t afford the item she was looking at.
“She says, ‘No, it’s too expensive,’” Winfrey, 59, recounted to Entertainment Tonight this week.
“She said, ‘No, no, no you want to see this one because that one will cost too much. You won’t be able to afford that one.’”
“She refused to get it … she said, ‘I don’t want to hurt your feelings,’ and I said, ‘Okay, thank you so much, you’re probably right I can’t afford it.’ Now why does she do that?”
Who knows why she did that? Although, according to the owner of the shop, she didn’t. Trudie Goetz told Reuters that she was mortified by the charge, contending that her shop assistant was only trying to give Winfrey multiple options and doesn’t speak good English. ”This is an absolute classic misunderstanding,” she said. ”Of course that’s not the case Who wouldn’t want to sell a purse for 35,000 francs?” Who indeed?
My issue is this: Even if the shop assistant was out of line, it’s something of a jump from “I was treated badly in a high-end store in Switzerland” to “I was treated badly in a high-end store in Switzerland because I am black.” Racism is one of those accusations that packs such a punch that it is tempting to deploy it lightly. But at no point in Winfrey’s description was race even mentioned. Why are we to assume, as Winfrey clearly did, that the assistant thought that the handbag would “cost too much” because the customer wasn’t white? People do this to me all the time when I am walking around stores in which I really can’t afford anything. Certainly, it’s not particularly nice, nor is it good business. But I’m not sure what explains the reflexive jump to bigotry, nor the certainty that Winfrey must have felt in order to raise the issue on national television. $38,000 is an awful lot of money for a handbag, after all — in fact, too much for Winfrey herself, who later tweeted, “Turns out that store clerk did me a favor. Just found out that bag was $38K!!! She was right I was NOT going to buy.”
Most of the news stories about the incident also note that, ”the incident comes eight years after Winfrey was turned away from a Hermes store in Paris a few minutes after closing.” Again, so? Are we to conclude that this was because Winfrey was black or because the store was closed? Are we to assume that because Winfrey is wealthy, the store slighted her by refusing to re-open?
Racism does exist in Europe — and generally it is much worse than in the United States and Commonwealth countries. I have seen it first hand:
About ten years ago, I went on holiday to the south of France with my family. One evening, we walked over to the neighboring village to try a restaurant that we had been told was good. My mother, who speaks French fluently, walked in first and announced that there were six of us. Waving at the thirty or so empty tables, the owner made a joke, along the lines of, “I’ll see if I can fit you in somewhere.” Then, his face fell and he stopped laughing. “Actually,” he announced, “we’re full.” My mother laughed, awkwardly. “No, really,” he said. “We’re full.”
By this point, my cousin, who is black, had walked in. The owner had tried not to make it obvious that he was looking at her when he explained his change of heart, but he clearly was, and my mother, who is mild mannered and will do almost anything to avoid a conflict, had noticed. “Why can we not eat here?” she asked, her tone shifting After a pause and a little dissembling, the owner puffed himself up and replied, brazenly: “parce-qu’elle est noire.” Because she is black.
But here, even without the astonishing “because she is black” line, it would have been obvious what had happened. The man was fine with us while we we all white, and immediately odd when my cousin turned up. From the story that Oprah told, race played no obvious part. To assume that it did is an odd response, made all the more peculiar by its happening so conveniently close to the release of a movie about racism.