Thursday, August 15, 2013

Oprah and Race

Oprah Winfrey is one of the world's richest and most successful women. Despite this, she sees herself as a victim of racism. The most recent example involved a shopping trip in Switzerland. She went into a high-end store and asked to see a purse. According to Oprah, the clerk didn't want to get down the expensive bag that Oprah asked for and instead kept showing her cheaper ones. Oprah is sure that this was because of international racism.

Let's look a little more closely at this story.

First, Oprah says she was shopping alone but that she had dressed up first because she knows that these stores get snobby. Now, the handbag in question (which is rather ugly) cost $38,000. The poverty level in the US is defined to be $23,000 so that bag cost enough to lift one and a half people above the poverty level. This is not a bag aimed at the 1% or even the 0.1%. It is aimed at the .00001%. As it happens, Oprah happens to be in that group but without recognizing her and without a retinue to signal that she is rich and important, the clerk can be forgiven for thinking that the purse was out of Oprah's price range. In fact, even Oprah admits that she would not have spent that much on a handbag. I suspect that the purse was never even meant to be sold. It was there as a status item to impress customers and make the rest of the over-priced merchandise seem inexpensive.

But Oprah doesn't see it that way. In her mind, the only reason a clerk would ever be reluctant to show an insanely over-priced bag to someone is because of race.

I should note that the clerk insists that she did not refuse to show the bag and that Oprah had someone - either a friend or bodyguard - with her. The clerk is at a loss for why one of the richest and most powerful women in the world attacked her like that. Some suspect that Oprah was trying to get publicity for her new movie about race in America. Being able to point to an example of racism affecting her helps Oprah sell the movie.

I have never paid much attention to Oprah (or any other talk show hosts) but this does remind me about the one episode of her show that I watched.

Around 10 years ago PBS had a reality show called Colonial House in which a group of people were trying to live as 17th century, New England colonists. Oprah was a fan of the series and decided to make an appearance. She had a brief orientation during which she asked if there were any blacks among the colonists. She was told that there had been two but they left for personal reasons. Oprah then suggested that the group didn't like black people and wondered if she would be safe among them.

In fact, the cast was huge fans and she was more than welcome.

This whole bit was important in showing Oprah's world view and the image she projects. She never asked what the personal reasons were for the black members leaving. As I remember, one had other commitments and only signed on for half the show and the other left because she felt guilty about the subjugation of the Indians by the colonists she was portraying. Neither left because of race but that was Oprah's assumption.

Oprah's speculation about her safety was worse because she knew perfectly well that she would be accompanied by a production crew. Her worries about being alone (with her friend) among whites who had reverted to their racist roots simply were not based on reality.

Finally, this speculation was left in the clip even though she knew when it was edited that she had been welcomed. There was never a clip where she admitted that she had been wrong to worry. This tells us that Oprah is quick to see things in the worst possible light and slow to admit mistakes.

She also recently compared the death of Travon Martin to the murder of Emmett Till and again, used the incident to promote her movie.

No comments: