Sunday, August 11, 2013

Race and the two-fellowship purse

Already old news, but here goes: Oprah wanted to buy a bag the cost of approximately two years' worth of PhD student fellowship. (Something to think about, would-be graduate students.) Because the market values Oprah's contribution to the world more than that of those slogging away at dissertations, she could well afford that bag and then some. But Oprah was unable to buy the bag in question, because the woman assisting her in some Swiss shop decided that this woman surely couldn't afford it. "This woman" being, as we all (well, not all, it seems) know, among the few in the world who, no matter what it is, could well afford it.

And cue the obvious: $42,000 (I think? the figure seems to vary) is a lot of money for a handbag! (For one named after Jennifer friggin' Aniston, one might add.) And made out of crocodiles! Think of the crocodiles! (Are we supposed to think of the crocodiles? I hadn't been paying attention, given that I wasn't in the market for crocodile anything. I'm barely keeping up with which salmon is socially acceptable.) Such egotism mixed with U.S.-centrism - why must retail workers all the world over know who some American TV star is? And she's crying racism?

Yet I'd have to agree with her assessment of racism. In a sense, the fact that Oprah is so advantaged in every other way, the fact that this is such beyond-first-world-problems territory, allows us to isolate racism as the root of what's going on.

Let me explain: Being ignored in a snooty store isn't about racism - it's something all of us who don't come across as fabulously wealthy (a category that includes virtually all Americans abroad, including the very rich - our high-end-casual world of $90 yoga pants doesn't really translate) experience. It's likely that being overweight reads as being too poor to buy anything in the place, depending the locale, and that this impacts experiences even in accessories stores, i.e. where sizes stocked isn't applicable. But being thin and pale, while it might lead to never having a free seat next to you on public transportation, isn't enough to get attention in many stores. Trust me on this.

But being preemptively suspected of shoplifting, now that is absolutely racism. And that's what it sounds like happened here. Why wouldn't someone be shown a particular bag? Fear of theft. Upscale stores correctly assess that I won't buy anything, but don't trail me, either. If we're to frame this in privilege terms, white privilege isn't being fawned all over in Zurich handbag emporiums. It's not being presumed a thief.

It's not unlike the where-are-the-black-models question. One might well point to the complete unfairness inherent in who qualifies for the job of "high-fashion model" to begin with. Whereas in any other job, simply having certain physical attributes either wouldn't be enough or (far more often) would be something your employer shouldn't be considering in the first place, with modeling, that's the essential. There is no inalienable right to be a runway model, any more than to owning some kind of endangered-material handbag named after Rachel from "Friends." But what does it say if you have the bizarre and arbitrary qualifications, but can't get hired for one reason only, and that's because you're black?


Britta said...

I have to disagree that Oprah, by not looking like a model and being American wouldn't come across as rich. Stout middle aged ladies are more likely to be rich than young pretty women, something that is if anything more true in Switzerland than elsewhere.* Secondly, I doubt Oprah was shopping in Lulumon. It sounds like she was wearing high-end designer clothing, which any salesperson at an expensive store ought to be able to immediately recognize as such. If the woman couldn't recognize Oprah's clothing as expensive, than she is grossly incompetent and should be fired, and if she overlooked that because of Oprah's race, then she is racist and should be fired.

Also, Oprah isn't some random celebrity, but arguably the most influential woman in the US. Again, not that everyone else in the world has to know who she is, but she's not Kim Kardashian.

*Zurich isn't known for its high concentration of models and trophy wives or for having particularly lithe inhabitants.

Phoebe said...

Huh - I'm glad to at least see some agreement re: this encounter sounding all kinds of racist. I'd read however many Guardian comments saying that Oprah's a narcissist for thinking so.

Anyway, there's a photo floating around of Oprah on this very vacation, and she was indeed dressed down. If this is how she was dressed at ye handbagge shoppe, I could see problems. And while I haven't spent much time in Zurich (I was in its train station once, and paid the most I ever have for a bottle of water), if it's anything like the parts of Europe I'm more familiar with, "stout" does not read as wealth, at least not in women. (Middle-aged-ness, yes. I fully agree that young people almost always read as too poor to buy anything.) A casually dressed white woman Oprah's size would not read as rich in Belgium, I don't think, so my guess is, not in Switzerland, either.

But yes, Oprah is crazy famous. Still, are people outside the U.S. supposed to know who she is? (My students haven't recognized photos of Gerard Depardieu...) Aren't all celebrities known for their red-carpet selves, and thus potentially unrecognizable in ordinary dress? It seems a dangerous road to go down to suggest that what was racist about this encounter was that Oprah wasn't recognized. (If she'd been recognized, and treated well, the shop could have gone on having a racist policy/employee without anyone knowing, because it would be making an exception for black super-celebrities.)

Petey said...

"My students haven't recognized photos of Gerard Depardieu..."

Well, your students aren't studying Russian, are they?

Just Wondering ... said...

Good post. But I also wonder how much of this whole incident was due to just boring, garden-variety translation issues. I wouldn't be shocked if the store clerk spoke passable (but not flawless) English, which led to some mutual confusion.

In any event, Oprah seems to find herself in these situations a lot. I vaguely remember a few years ago Oprah crying "racism" after a Hermes store in Paris refused to let her walk in and buy something after the store closed.

Phoebe said...

Eh, it's possible Oprah was never even in the store in the first place. But from what it sounds like, even the sales assistant defending herself describes something fairly similar to what Oprah has, and it doesn't sound like a communication problem. (Nor is it likely someone would be charged with selling $40k handbags in a major and multilingual European city without speaking quite good English, whatever this woman is now claiming.)

Anyway: "I simply told her that it was like the one I held in my hand, only much more expensive, and that I could show her similar bags." This would suggest basically exactly the encounter Oprah described.

The story diverges here: "I even asked her if she wanted to look at the bag."

Presumably the store has cameras. Maybe video footage would clear this up. Otherwise, she said, she said. But the overall gist - Oprah wanted to see the bag, and the woman helping her didn't make it easy - seems consistent in both versions.

Britta said...

According to Oprah she was wearing DKNY when she went to the store? Anyways, being overweight of course is not an indication of wealth, but I don't think it's necessarily an indication of non-wealth, as long as it's accompanied by other markers of wealth. Looking at Forbes's top 20 wealthiest women list, almost all of them are built like Oprah, not Gisele. Also...anecdata, but the wealthy middle aged women I know of who lived in Switzerland were built like tanks. Obviously not recognizing Oprah is not racist, but it's not ridiculous of Oprah to think someone outside of the US might recognize her, and if she was surprised no one did it doesn't automatically make her a diva. My guess is if Ann Romney, wearing the exact same outfit as Oprah, had walked into that store, she would have been shown the handbag.

Phoebe said...


The essential to me seems not whether Oprah was thought incapable of affording the bag (which would be thought of most everyone, and that includes celebrities who are not recognized), but whether she was thought likely to steal the bag. My goal with this post was to convince the unconvinced that this was about racism. And I don't think it's as obviously/straightforwardly racist to assume a random person can't afford a $42k bag (which would be assumed of white people as well) than to assume said random person would abscond with it.