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The Handbags of the Power Elite

The Shopkeeper’s Tale

by FRED BAUMGARTEN

No one—certainly not readers of CounterPunch—would argue that racism does not exist; deep, pervasive, institutional racism as well as casual or systematic bigotry, the kind that is exposed every time some celebrity or sports commentator lets slip an offensive comment, for example. The requisite expressions of shock and outrage ensue, even though we all know that that the racism is there, like magma from a volcano (which we all hope is mostly extinct) that bursts forth on occasion.

Nor would anyone doubt that racism exists outside America, too—in Europe, for instance, where xenophobia against Muslim immigrants is at least as virulent as in this country. In a fascinating CounterPunch article about the now notorious Oprah handbag fiasco, Cecil Brown discusses a particularly European species of racism. Using a James Baldwin essay as a backdrop, he argues that Europeans on the whole have yet to accept the presence of African Americans in their midst, as full human beings. Theirs remains an overwhelmingly white society.

So what are we to make of the Oprah incident? Did Oprah feel slighted by the Italian-born Swiss shopkeeper when, she claimed, she was told a $38,000 handbag was “too expensive” for her? Undoubtedly. Was the shopkeeper’s slight motivated, consciously or unconsciously, by Oprah’s race? Quite possibly. But is it also possible that there was a misunderstanding, that the shopkeeper did not refuse to show Oprah the bag in question, and that Oprah was quick to judge the shopkeeper harshly? I’m afraid I believe it to be so.

Apropos, I find it curious that in the news story from which I quote “’too expensive’ for her,” the words “too expensive” are in quotation marks, but the words “for her” are not, which raises the question of what, exactly, the shopkeeper said to Oprah. There is a big difference between saying “It’s too expensive” and “It’s too expensive for you.”

It makes sense to entertain the notion that race entered into the equation of this high-powered transaction. But what is missing from many discussions about this celebrity flap is a nuanced consideration of the dynamics of power and wealth. For starters, the transaction took place in a rarefied setting of wealth and luxury unimaginable to most of us ordinary blokes. There are protocols and behaviors governing how wealth should be served that must be hewed to. The slightest infraction can land one in hot water.

I have precious little experience of this myself, but my grandfather, a self-made millionaire in his later years, could, and did, rip the heart out of anyone who served him a slightly overdone dish of escargot. As for me, if I go shopping for a new suit, say, I’m only too happy to have the sales clerk offer me something for a thousand or two less (and which still looks good).

Oprah Winfrey has built an extraordinarily powerful media empire. She is an empire, a singular “brand” of enormous wealth and power. Let us recognize and celebrate the fact that she is both black and a woman who has accomplished this against enormous odds in a white man’s world. Let us not forget that she is also a person who wields enormous power and wealth, likely has the vast appetites and expectations attendant on one in her position, and probably is someone you’d never want to cross, especially if you are a lowly shopkeeper.

I find myself perhaps uncharacteristically sympathetic to the plight of shopkeeper, despite the underlying generalizable truth of the racist narrative. “I have not been able to sleep for days,” she reportedly told a Swiss newspaper. “I feel as if I was in the middle of a hurricane. Totally powerless, also helpless. What is happening is horror.”

The woman, “Adriana N.,” continued, “I even asked her if she wanted to take a closer look at the bag. Mrs. Winfrey looked around in the store again, but did not say anything further.”

“We try really hard to meet all people with the same respect and to treat everybody equal,” the shopkeeper said, even though it was reported she did not recognize Oprah. “If somebody asks me to show an item, I always present it.”

Of the comment that the handbag was “too expensive” for Oprah, the shopkeeper said, “That’s not true. That is absurd. I would never say anything like that to a customer.”

So what we have here boils down to a case of she said/she said. Did the shopkeeper really stop short of showing Oprah the $38,000 handbag? Did she perhaps point out that “we also have some less expensive bags, if you are interested”? Or politely ask, “Would you like to see some in a less expensive line first?” Would that have implied a racial motivation? Is trying to save a billionaire money verboten in the world of high-end shopping? Was the shopkeeper insufficiently deferential and lavishing of attention on Oprah? Could, or should, she have said, “Oh, no, my dear, I see you with this $100,000 diamond-encrusted handbag over here!”

Whatever the case—and we’ll never know for sure—my gut tells me she would not suddenly have stepped out of professional character and violated long-held protocols to slight Oprah. But I could be entirely wrong. It is equally plausible that Oprah was the victim of racist attitudes, as she certainly has been more than once in her life. Our (Western) society’s slowness to accept women and African Americans in positions of power is well known and deplorable.

One thing the shopkeeper said, more than any other, really rings true, however. “She is so powerful and I am only a salesperson. I did not harm anyone. I also don’t understand why she has to exploit this so broadly on TV.” Apologies aside, Oprah did “inadvertently” identify the store, made a cause célèbre out of an incident of questionable veracity, and, in the process, damaged the self-esteem and possibly the career of a faceless shopkeeper of Zurich.

Postscript: “Which leads back to Hillary, looming and powerful, tweeting her way to hipness, out there, working on working us over,” writes Missy Beattie in the same issue of CounterPunch that has Mr. Brown’s article. “Just as Barack Obama, the black candidate with a promise of hope, did—his race as compelling as his message, for liberals and progressives.” At the risk of treading in boiling oil here: We forget, at our own peril, that Oprah is part of this selfsame elite of power, wealth, and privilege, her interests unlikely to be aligned, as we might fantasize, with the sales clerks of the world.

Fred Baumgarten lives in Sharon, Connecticut.
© Fred Baumgarten 2013