Racism, elitism, or just a good story

By now we’ve probably all heard the story how Oprah Winfrey was in Switzerland, shopping in an elite shop, and wanted to see an expensive purse only to be told by the clerk that she couldn’t afford it. Yet another sign that there is rampant racism in the world. But one can’t help but wonder if there’s more to this story.

Does it have to be racism? Couldn’t it simply by elitism? Assuming the story is true, do we know that I would have been treated any differently had I been in that shop? I don’t exactly look like I could afford a $38,000 purse. I suspect the odds are good they would have treated me the same.

But is the story even true? The clerk in the incident claims it’s not. As someone who has worked in retail and is part owner of a store, you don’t make a living by making assumptions about who can afford what. And anyone who has worked in retail for very long knows you really can’t tell who is going to buy what based on appearance.

That’s not to say the clerk isn’t lying to save her butt, either. But her boss, Trudi Goetz, is calling the incident a misunderstand due to language, and I’m as inclined to believe that as anything. I’ve shopped overseas, and no matter how good a person’s English is, there’s plenty of room for misinterpretation. Body language also changes from country to country, so it’s as likely as anything that Winfrey was wrong in her assessment of the situation, too.

Since then Winfrey has tried to calm the furor herself, indicating that it might have been something less than racism. She admits that she deals with snooty store clerks regularly and tries not to dress down when going places like that, though she also doesn’t attempt to dress rich, either.

Which brings us back where I started. Was Winfrey profiled? Possibly. Was it for being black? No way to know for sure, but it seems just as likely that anyone else might have had the same experience, regardless of race or gender. It’s also possible that Winfrey is also guilty of bias, and assumed that the clerk’s response was one thing when it may have been something else.

We should all be less quick to judgment. It could have been something as simple as the purse being on a high shelf, the clerk’s feet were tired after a long day, and she was reluctant to climb up to get it if the customer wasn’t at least somewhat serious. You just never know.

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2 Responses to Racism, elitism, or just a good story

  1. In Switzerland, no clerk would get down a $38,000 purse for ANYBODY off the street. You do not get to paw and smudge beautiful goods for your entertainment. That purse would only be brought down for known clients who have a relationship with the store. Any European shoppers with any social grace would never ask. This was not a story about racism, this was a story about European shopping culture vs. American egalitarianism.

    • Thom says:

      I hadn’t considered that angle at all. It makes sense, though. Just like haggling is such an alien concept here, too, and yet is the standard in much of the world.

      I also find it interesting how the store’s owner, while not exactly jumping to battle to defend her clerk, is also not throwing her under the bus. I’m sure they have some interesting official and unofficial policies in a store that deals in that level of merchandise. When $40,000 can walk out under a customer’s arm (and people like Lindsay Lohan regularly prove celebrity/wealth does not equate to trustworthiness) they have to do some careful dancing, and you don’t just hire any old clerk off the street.

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