How very interesting that über-celeb (and possibly former über-celeb) Oprah Winfrey has now tried to walk back a very publically-made accusation of being treated with racial bias in an expensive Swiss handbag shop in Zurich with one of those lame apologies which aren’t really apologies, more of that sniveling, ‘I’m sorry that you were offended,’ statements which are framed so as to throw blame on the offended party merely for being offended. At least, she has skipped over the second part of the pro-forma excuse and non-apology, which is usually some variant of, ‘gosh, don’t you have a sense of humor?’ Both statements of which, I am obliged to confirm, do not remove the sting that a party thus abused takes away from the experience. Or even that that such an apology has been honestly and fully rendered to the aggrieved party.
I have to say, though – that the handbag alleged to be in question is butt-ugly. My own reaction at being told the price of it was $38,000 would have been to walk away, laughing. That Ms Winfrey reportedly didn’t want to buy it at that price is about the only believable statement that I take away from her version of events. I am not particularly well-versed in the protocols of very-high-end retail establishments in Zurich, Switzerland – but I have had a brief but intense experience in high-end retail in San Antonio, during the year after I retired from the Air Force. One of those places – a fur salon in the Marshall Field store which was closing the San Antonio location – paid a small salary and a commission on sales, which had the effect of concentrating one’s attention on service and attentiveness to the customers who walked through the door.
One of the first lessons learned in those venues was that you could size up customers swiftly and often with considerable accuracy, regarding their background, real income and ability to pay for what the place was selling and if they were the ‘right sort’.
The second lesson was that such a judgement was not anything like 100% accurate; being dismissively rude a customer on that basis – yes, failing to be attentive to any customer, even the ones who at first glance looked like they had wandered in from the nearest trailer court (or from under the nearest highway bridge) – was a bad call and liable to rebound disastrously. Anyone in retail for any length of time has stories about the surprise customer and oftentimes many of them. Mine was of the girl who looked about the age of my then-high-school-aged daughter, who wandered into the fur salon on a mid-afternoon weekday, and began asking about the coats. There were no other customers and I was bored out of my mind. To pass the time, I gave the apparent-high-school girl a thorough tour through the racks, the usual informative lecture about furs and the quality thereof, unlocked a couple of nice coats and let her try on a couple in front of the triple mirror … and then she utterly floored me by selecting the nicest of them and getting out her credit card. She told me that she had just passed the Bar, had a nice job lined up with a prestigious firm – and had promised herself that she would buy herself a nice fur coat to celebrate. Well, color me all over astounded – she didn’t look to me as if she was old enough to drive alone, let alone go to law school.
And she bought the coat, of her choice and thanked me very graciously. Chalk that sale up to the principle of making an initial assumption and being polite and helpful anyway. The ones who can’t really afford the stuff in the shop will go away, with all the speed they can muster. The others will perhaps purchase something. 2% off a $38,000 price tag would be a nice chunk o’change. Snub a likely customer – even a badly-dressed one – and forfeit that commission? Pull the other leg, sweet-cheeks – that one has jingly bells on it.
So, the takeaway for Oprah’s ‘bag-gate’, as it has been dubbed – is that it was most likely – because of the convenience of the timing – an effort to gin up publicity for the movie The Butler, in which she has a part. Sigh. This whole thing is becoming just too transparent. And sad, and pathetic – as well as rather unthinking as to other results on Ms Winfrey’s part; yes, spin a tale of Swiss retail racism, just as your movie is about to open, get a whole-lotta-media coverage for your tale of woe by one of America’s most well-compensated celebrities=mysterious transmission=profit! I really don’t have any particular insight into the workings publicity for this particular movie, but it strikes me that this is really the case – it is pathetic on so many levels. Sure, one of the wealthiest and most well-known American television personalities deliberately accusing a woman working in a high-end shop with an accusation of racism, just to gin up some interest in a movie … which, curiously, touches on racial matters. What a coincidence.
But Oprah’s big problem, and possibly the one she didn’t see coming was the fact that the national race card is about tapped out, along with the several former industrial cities, the job market, and your favorite charitable food pantry. Ms Winfrey’s little buddy from Chicago has been elected to the highest office in the land – twice! Really – and take it from me – in the wake of that event, white people who don’t harbor any particular racial animosity are getting damned tired of being accused of it … especially if the person whipping out the race card gets some material advantage from doing so. Since the director of The Butler also saw fit to stunt-cast Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan, this attempt at promotion may all have been all for naught anyway; conservatives and military veterans will give a miss to it on those grounds alone.
(Crossposted at www.ncobrief.com)