By Lauren | August 26, 2013
It’s been a couple of weeks now since Oprah Winfrey made headlines when a salesclerk in Switzerland reportedly refused to show her an uber-expensive handbag. The immediate supposition, widely reported in the press, was that the clerk didn’t recognize her famous customer and assumed that a woman of color couldn’t afford such a pricey accessory. The clerk’s gaffe sparked a media whirlwind, becoming such a ruckus that the government of Switzerland formally apologized to Ms. Winfrey. Never one to pass up a teachable moment (one of her best qualities, in my opinion), Ms. Winfrey used the incident to speak publicly about how hurtful racism has always been to her. She also graciously went on record saying that she hadn’t wanted the incident to become such a fuss and that no apology was really necessary.
It’s taken me this long to write about the handbag debacle because the whole situation strikes me as more complicated than it initially seemed. For one thing, the salesclerk asserts that she didn’t actually refuse to show Ms. Winfrey the bag, nor was she motivated by racism. The clerk says she simply thought the bag was ridiculously expensive (and at $38,000, I’m inclined to agree with her) and that some of the shop’s other merchandise was a better deal. English not being her first language, she says she didn’t explain herself well, and she might just be telling the truth. Then, there’s the public apology from the Swiss government. Nothing is more vile than racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the government would have scrambled so fast to apologize to a non-celebrity who’d suffered a similar insult. I’d love to believe otherwise, but experience suggests that Ms. Winfrey received the apology not because the Swiss government was mortified so much as because she’s one of the biggest names on the planet and someone that even national governments fear to offend.
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s historic march on Washington, I think there is, indeed an apology owed, but not by the Swiss government. Had Oprah Winfrey not grown up in a nation with a shameful history of racism, she wouldn’t have been predisposed to wonder if the salesclerk was a bigot, and neither would we. It’s been four years since the U.S. Congress passed a resolution apologizing for slavery (one that disclaimed liability for damages, so just how sincere was it?), but no one in the U.S. government has ever apologized, to my knowledge, for the institutional discrimination that black Americans have suffered for centuries and continue to suffer today. Yes, we’ve made progress in some respects, but we still have a long way to go. When that apology issues, it’ll truly be time to rejoice.