Oprah and the Apology Heard ‘Round the World

Oprah Winfrey has got to be the foremost Made Woman in the world. With her OWN network, instant name recognition and billionaire status (reportedly raking in $77 million from June 2012 to June 2013), one would think that she could literally buy anything. But while Winfrey was in Switzerland to attend Tina Turner’s wedding this summer, a saleswoman at a posh Zurich boutique refused to show her a handbag reportedly worth 35,000 Swiss francs (or $38,000). When Winfrey requested to see the bag several times, the clerk went on to explain to the megastar that she would “not be able to afford that.” Needless to say, Ms. Oprah took her $40,000 and left the store. The Swiss Tourism Office swiftly issued an apology for the run-in.

Once the issue hit the mainstream media, it was revealed that the store was the chic Trois Pommes, located on the Rodeo Drive of Zurich, called “Bahnhofstrasse.” While Winfrey made it clear that she was there alone with neither her entourage nor her eyelashes, she still says she was very clearly being “Oprah.” And yet, the saleswoman went so far as to tell Winfrey that she didn’t “want to hurt her feelings” while basically telling her she was too poor to shop there.

The store owner — obviously embarrassed by the negative press — called it a “misunderstanding” and claimed that the clerk didn’t immediately recognize Winfrey. A similar issue arose in 2005 when Winfrey went to a Paris Hermes store fifteen minutes after it had closed. She was refused service at the high-end retailer who also later issued an apology.

Winfrey has attributed this particular rebuke to what she identified as racism. In a candid conversation about her upcoming movie, “The Butler,” with Nancy O’Dell of Entertainment Tonight, she openly discussed her issues with discrimination. She joked about wanting to “throw down the black card” when the woman refused to accommodate her requests but instead chose not to give the rude woman the commission on the sale. It seems fitting that someone of her stature would handle this issue with such poise and grace. But the fact that she continues to encounter this treatment is a bit disheartening.

What this ordeal truly says is that no one is fully insulated from discrimination, racism or other mistreatment at the hands of others — no matter how high their stature. If someone of Winfrey’s status can experience such marginalization abroad, anyone can be susceptible to this type of behavior. Why would the store person have had to “recognize” Oprah in the first place? That implies that if the next patron of color walks in the store requesting to see a similarly priced item but isn’t big enough star, she will be shunned too. Not only that, the staff may feel validated in doing so since the owner endorses “shopper profiling.”

Kudos to Oprah for leaving her black card placed snugly in her very expensive wallet. Hopefully, the world got the message that Oprah Winfrey’s buying power is unstoppable.

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Jenn M. Jackson

Jenn M. Jackson, PhD is a co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Water Cooler Convos. She is a native of Oakland, CA. Jenn is a radical Black feminist scholar who believes none of us are free until all of us are free.