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Swiss Mess – Oprah Winfrey’s Incident Indicative of Bigger World Problems

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Imagine if you go into a store on vacation with money to spend, you see the item of your dreams, and you want to look at it with every intention of purchasing the thing. Add to the scenario a store clerk who decides – based on your appearance or ethnicity – that you do not have the required funds to make the purchase, so he/she tells you that it is too expensive for you and to think about something else.

switzerland-bag epaWell, this has happened to Oprah Winfrey (net worth around $2 billion) on her vacation in Switzerland. Wanting to look at a Tom Ford bag (that runs $38000), Oprah was told by the clerk at the Trois Pommes boutique in Zurich that the item behind the glass was too much money for her. She qualified the matter when she told Oprah, “I don’t want to hurt your feelings.”

Of course, Oprah acted with expected grace under pressure, telling the clerk, “You are probably right.” She left the store without causing a scene, but obviously the situation upset her as well it should. Here we are in 2013, and racism keeps rearing its ugly head.

All I could think about was that recently we have had the incident with Riley Cooper’s racist slur in Philadelphia, the vandalism involving Jackie Robinson’s statue in Brooklyn, and now this situation in Switzerland with Oprah. They say things happen in threes, and perhaps that is true here, but I am starting to feel they are a microcosm of a much greater problem worldwide.

While it is extremely possible that a store clerk in Switzerland had no idea who Oprah Winfrey is, common decency should come into play here. The clerk should allow a customer – any customer – to view any item available for sale in the store. This shouldn’t even be debatable.

Years ago I worked in retail, and I recall a huge sign on the wall in the workroom that read, “The customer is always right!” Notice the sign didn’t say “some customers” or “white customers,” it just makes clear “customer.” Now, I know from experience that customers can be wrong, but we went out of our way to appease them, to please them, and in the end that creates good feelings that should lead to more sales, yet there were always aberrations, deviations from the statement I took to heart as scripture for my daily work routine.

During that time in retail I wore many hats, one of which was security. I was asked to pretend to clean the floor, but instead keep an eye on customers. I recall a number of times when a salesperson would tell me I was wasting my time watching a customer (usually white) when I should be looking at another person (usually of color).

My manager also insinuated that I should follow “certain people who look suspicious.” When I asked for clarification, he pointed to an old black woman in the lingerie aisle. This lady, perhaps someone’s grandmother, seemed like no threat to me, but three teenage white girls in the coat department seemed much more likely to “grab and run.” Grab and run was when someone would take a handful of clothing and race out the door. I chased many shoplifters over the years, and I can honestly say most of them were young white people.

oprahGetting back to Oprah, I have never met anyone who doesn’t like her. In my mind she is a legend, a television icon, and an extremely powerful role model, especially for young girls. I recall my daughter getting an assignment to write about an important woman, and she immediately chose Oprah Winfrey. She wrote a wonderful report about how she looked up to Oprah and wanted to follow her example, as I would expect so many girls would. My daughter was impressed not just by Oprah’s financial success, but also her desire to help those less fortunate, as when she opened the school in South Africa for less fortunate girls. My daughter got an A+ on that report, but what it did also was to leave an impression on her that continues to affect her during her scholastic journey.

switzerland-trois-pommes-oprah-winfrey EPATrudie Goetz, owner of Trois Pommes, says that it was all a “misunderstanding” in regards to what happened to Oprah. I suppose we can accept that, as Oprah appears to have moved on from the matter, but it leaves a lasting impression as to how the Swiss may not be such nice, neutral people after all.

We also have to have a deeper concern – about justice and tolerance around the world. We know there are many places where intolerance and racism exists. Sometimes this causes violence, genocide, and war. We look at places in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, and we know that people are being judged not by the content of their character but by their race, their religion, and ethnicity. This incident opens our eyes that Europe has issues as well, and we Americans well know of racist incidents happening here that should never be happening in 2013.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Injustice includes intolerance and racism, and what happened to Oprah – misunderstandings notwithstanding – seems an awful lot like a racism. We have Riley Cooper saying a word that never should be said, some thugs defacing Jackie Robinson’s statue, and no matter what anyone says these are not just “misunderstandings.”

It is very kind of Oprah to forgive the boutique and the Swiss people, but there is an undercurrent here that needs more thought and examination. People don’t like talking about race and exploring the issues that divide them, but unless a real conversation begins and we explore what creates these situations, they are likely to keep repeating themselves. A deep, meaningful discourse about race has to begin in this country in order for us to understand that anything that divides us not only makes us weaker but threatens to destroy the essence of what America should aspire to be.

Communication is the key to bring people together. We will likely never know what that clerk in Trois Pommes was really thinking, though we can suspect she may have been told as I was long ago that certain customers need to be treated differently. We have to believe that this kind of thing is at the core of what’s wrong with the world and, until we right the little things, the big things like political unrest and war will never stop.

St. Francis of Assisi wrote, “No one is to be called an enemy, all are your benefactors, and no one does you harm. You have no enemy except yourselves.” I kind of think that clerk in Switzerland, the guys who messed up Robinson’s statue, and Riley Cooper need to think about that carefully. We all need to think of that everyday of our lives.

We are our own worst enemies and we must face reality – each and every person in this world deserves the same opportunities and to be treated respectfully. So, each morning look in the mirror and think you are not seeing an enemy; you are seeing your best and beloved friend, a microcosm of the world outside that room. Then it is up to us to go out and treat everyone we meet like that person in the mirror. I believe we will be better people for it, and the world will be a better place too. There’s no day like today to get started. We owe it to ourselves and, more importantly, to our children. Now let’s get to it!

Photo Credits: Oprah, store, handbag – EPA

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About Victor Lana

Victor Lana has published numerous stories, articles, and poems in literary magazines and online. His books In a Dark Time (1994), A Death in Prague (2002), Move (2003), The Savage Quiet September Sun: A Collection of 9/11 Stories (2005) and Like a Passing Shadow (2009) are available online and as e-books. He has won the National Arts Club Award for Poetry, but has concentrated mostly on fiction and non-fiction prose in recent years. He has worked as faculty advisor to school literary magazines and enjoys the creative process as a writer, editor, and collaborator. He has been with Blogcritics since July 2005, has edited many articles, was co-head sports editor with Charley Doherty, and now is a Culture and Society editor. He views Blogcritics as one of most exciting, fresh, and meaningful opportunities in his writing life.
  • http://psycho-drama.com/ j3dmed

    Did you ever wonder how much the bag is? There are millions of people out there who could not even afford to have 3 meals a day, and what we have here is a famous woman who is supposed to be a role model and spending that much money. Yes, she has a lot of humanitarian projects, but that is not an excuse. If she REALLY wanted to just let go of this incident, she should just ignore it, and not discuss this on television. I though the store will not be mentioned but now everyone knows where it is and its name. As she cry for justice, should we boycott Switzerland and throw stones at the store’s window?

    Perhaps looking at the other side, what would now happen to the girl who did this to Oprah? She has no idea who she is, and the Winfrey show was not broadcast in that country. She may sounded rude, but did we hear her side of the story?

    You have mentioned a saint, and the importance of communication, how about the benefit of the doubt and the chance to hear the other side if that would ever happen?

  • JMG

    Clarification, Oprahs net worth $2,800,000,000.00 net salary for 2012 $77,000,000.00

  • Victor Lana

    Thanks for the comments (and JMG for clarification on Oprah’s fortune).