Oprah Winfrey showed her fabled wisdom in defusing the uproar this week over a Swiss store clerk who refused to show her a $38,000 handbag. With Swiss authorities expressing concern about the apparent racial slight, she quickly doused the flames. “That incident in Switzerland was just an incident in Switzerland,” Winfrey said. “I’m really sorry it got blown up.”
The billionaire entertainment icon didn’t back off her core point that people shouldn’t be judged by their looks, but added a necessary dose of perspective. “I’m in a store,” she said, “and the person doesn’t obviously know that I carry the black card” — an invitation-only American Express card for especially wealthy clients — “and so they made an assessment based upon the way I look and who I am.”
Successful people often feel an extra bolt of anger when they feel stereotyped. Boston-area residents remember Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates’s fiery confrontation with a Cambridge police officer, after a woman had reported seeing two black men — who turned out to be Gates and his cab driver — breaking into Gates’s house. (Gates’s front door had jammed.) Gates and the officer ended up having beers at the White House with President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. The conversation about race was useful, but the incident itself didn’t strike everyone as a world-class outrage.
In the case of the Swiss store clerk, Winfrey had a legitimate point about prejudice. Wisely, she also understood that few other people, of any race, have the luxury of being denied access to a $38,000 handbag that they can easily afford. As usual, Winfrey understood the feelings of her audience quite well.