Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Oprah and the Sales Clerk

By now you've probably read three versions of the story. It is, after all, buzzing through the internets. As the story is related by The Independent:
The US talk show host, 59, says she was the victim of racism during a visit to Switzerland where she was attending Tina Turner’s wedding last month.

Winfrey said a shop assistant refused to serve her in an upmarket Zurich handbag shop, having said the bags on offer were “too expensive” for her.

The TV star said she left the shop without contesting the shop assistant’s behaviour but contributed her experience to a debate about the continued existence of racism on a US television show.
The discussion is hot, heavy, subtle, and extensive over at Crooked Timber, one of the best group blogs in Websville. It started with comment five a Belle Waring post, Awkward Conversations We Have Had and dominates the discussion from that point on. Waring then puts that incident, burning up the internets as it is, front and center, The Cronut of The Summer of The August. Of Racism ("cronut"?). The sales clerk, after all, had a different version of the story; she's not racist.

Peter T (comment 5): "Could it be possible that both Oprah and the sales assistant are right?"

Is it possible? On the evidence I've seen, which isn't very much at all, sure it's possible. But that's by no means a slam dunk.

Belle Waring (comment 9): "I don’t direct this only at you, Peter T.; rather, this is a larger frustration. Why is this so hard? Why do we have to make up a story in which the black woman is totally incapable of discerning when someone is treating her poorly because that person is racist? Why is every white man on the internet the Mycroft Fucking Holmes of Race Studies all of a sudden, and you just need poor Oprah to narrate the events briefly and–presto! You extract the details she herself, not being a genius, was unable to weight properly, and you immediately know how both she and the saleswoman are telling the truth despite what seem–to the layperson–radical inconsistencies! Are women really so often hysterical liars who make up stories about oppression just to gain attention? Is it just when they pretend to be discriminated against on the basis of race, or does it happen often when they claim to have been raped, too? Hey–don’t get touchy! I’m just askin’ questions."

Reasonable response. Good questions.

For what it's worth, I posted the following as comment #16 (though the number might change if a currently hidden comment shows up when a moderator lets it thru):

It's a mystery. But probably not a deep one. We just don't know.

Some three decades ago I consulted a book, Dress for Success. For what it was, and still is, I presume, it was pretty good. If you want to get ahead in bizness, this is how to dress for New York investment bankers, this is how to dress for Houston oil executives, etc. Somewhere in the book Molloy said  that an astute executive had once told him that the basic hire/no-hire decision happens within 30 seconds after the candidate walks through the door and into the interview. Everything after that serves to confirm whatever that initial gut reaction was.

Is that the kind of thing that happened in that store?

Years ago I was living in Baltimore, where I went to school at Johns Hopkins. Baltimore more was then, as it is today, a majority black city. But of course, it was also racially segregated. The arts & sciences campus (but not the hospital & medical school) was in a mostly white area, comfortable and wealthy whites to the north, otherwise middle and working class.

Sunday afternoons I'd go listen to jazz at the Left Bank Jazz Society. Concerts were held three floors up in the Famous Ballroom. One of the best venues for live jazz I've ever experienced. The audiences was mostly black, say a 2/3rds majority. It was a very comfortable and copacetic situation.

Then I went to an outdoor jazz concert (Dizzy Gillespie). That was my first time in a situation where I was  totally surrounded by black people. Overwhelmingly. This wasn't the 2/3rds situation in the Famous Ballroom. Here there were 10,000 people gathered for the concert. 9,990 of them were black. Three of the ten white people were up on the stage. Three of the others were with me.

When me and my friends turned the corner and walked into the park my lizard brain went into overdrive and I felt the fear. It took me a minute or so to get the old lizard calmed down. I don't know what kind of vibe I was giving off in that minute or so. But I'll bet my pupils dilated.

I don't know what happened in that shop. At this point no one does, not even Oprah and the clerk. At this point post facto reconstructions and rationalizations have totally swamped residual memory traces.


  1. Enough money to purchase the store won't buy the purse if the customer perhaps never intended to make a purchase in the first place.

  2. "Is that the kind of thing that happened in that store?"

    Some studies on this form of aversive racism that makes interesting reading. Wiki is good here.


    Something short and sweet on the definition of a racial incident which I think is interesting in contrast to a number of the comments made in the posts.