Racism in America, land of the free and home of the intransigent. Every word, every action– no matter the subject or size — brings a great gnashing of the national dentures. Understanding, compassion, or any emotion other than hate is not just difficult to find, it is extinct.
The latest weirdness is Oprah Winfrey’s $38,000 purse. Considering 98% of the world can’t imagine $38,000 for food and the remaining 2% have skewed priorities, a fight between a Swiss clerk and a woman with more money and power than God hardly qualifies as a realistic stand-in for international racism.
Was the clerk a racist? Quite possibly. She might be a stone cold neo-nazi, but there isn’t a shred of evidence to suggest or disprove it. There is only “she said, she said.” Should she have politely gotten the purse for Oprah? Undoubtedly. That is what good customer service is about. But being an asscake about it doesn’t prove racism either.
If I walked into a tony Beverley Hills shop and asked for a diamond pinky ring from the top shelf a clerk tutored in keeping out the riff raff might well refuse. And my heritage is destitute Irish/German from several centuries back. Not a slave owner among them. They scratched for food.
In fact, the world-famous Le Chateau Frontenac hotel once refused me because my truck didn’t fit their profile of a vehicle fit for their underground garage. They denied me a room until I exchanged money and the desk manager discovered that, yes, the poorly dressed American did indeed have the money to stay where Winston Churchill, several U.S. Presidents, and two British monarchs had gone before. There was a sudden cancellation five minutes after I tried to get a room. Fortuitous indeed. The bellhop was thrilled to grab a handful of Loonies after my good fortune.
Was the Frontenac’s treatment racism? Well, even though the French and Germans have never been BFFs, clearly not. They were displaying incredibly bad customer service, insulting treatment, and a shocking inability to understand that even poor people’s money spends exactly the same as money from a $38,000 purse. In other words, exactly the treatment Oprah got.
But my experience proves nothing other than shit sometimes happens to people who don’t look like they can pay a bill. I don’t have statistics, but I’d wager that the higher the shopping scale the more likely someone will discriminate against you regardless of your race. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen more often to black people.
After Oprah rocked the international boat, the Swiss government and purse store apologized, possibly not out of a sense of obligation so much as because rich tourists bring in the Schinkenspeck. In the aftermath O! magnanimously said no apologies necessary demonstrably racist country and purse store with Walmart customer service manners, possibly not out of a sense of moral obligation either. Oprah’s new movie about racism is coming out.
The clerk, who believed she’d done nothing wrong, got internationally pounded for giving her side of the story. The facts of the stories are very similar except for the allegations of racism. One could make a reasoned argument that either was right, either was wrong, or both had some misunderstanding. They key is having and open discussion and that did not happen.
Several screeching heads featured opposing screeds, one of which called Oprah “courageous” to speak up. No, courageous is throwing yourself on a hand grenade. A woman with more influence in her pinky than all the clerks in all the stores in all the world pounding an anonymous clerk without hearing her explanation is bullying. Oprah knows her words carry weight far beyond the clerk’s. There’s nothing wrong with throwing the weighty words around when the situation calls for it. This wasn’t one of them.
Racism is an Ugly and Awful Thing
Racism is an ugly and awful thing. It is unequivocally wrong and anyone of good moral character should fight it. To claim racism is over or that someone else is stirring the racial pot while you pull out the industrial racial Mixmaster is absurd.
It is also absurd to believe every disagreement involving two races is racist. Defaulting to one position is as damaging as defaulting to the other. There are so many things to discuss in our dysfunctionally racist country we couldn’t correct them all if we managed to right 10 wrongs a day. Wasting time casting all disagreements in terms of racism ensures that important problems not only don’t get fixed, but aren’t even discussed.
Oprah has gravitas in ways few people of any race enjoy. I’m sure she’s experienced racism and there is nothing wrong with calling it out. But she should also consider the weight and delivery of her words, simply because they ARE her words. Like it or not, her gravitas carries a responsibility to be decerning about the charges she makes. Unfortunately, and probably unfairly, she is a club and clubs wielded unwisely only create more injuries on both sides.
Next time she loses a movie role for being black, or someone climbs on her stage and hurls epithets, or she’s arrested for shopping while black I’ll stand up for her. I’ll picket and boycott with her. All I ask is that she choose and resolve arguments wisely.
I’d really like to make things better for everyone and not waste any more time on smarmy purse pushers.