By Chris Hoenig
Oprah Winfrey is taking on a media balancing act: trying to downplay her recent experience as a victim of racism at a store in Switzerland while simultaneously making it clear that incidents like it are far too common.
During an interview with Entertainment Tonight, the media mogul recounted a recent trip to Switzerland for Tina Turner’s wedding. While in Zurich, Winfrey stopped in a shop to look at purses. When she asked to see a more-than-$37,000 bag, the clerk refused to get it down for her. “That one will cost too much, you won’t be able to afford that,” Winfrey says the woman told her.
What was her initial reaction “The woman at the shop said that it was the Jennifer Aniston bag that Tom Ford had created especially for Jennifer,” Winfrey told a Swiss newspaper. “It crossed my mind that maybe I should give Jennifer or Tom a call. I know both of them very well.” Ultimately, Winfrey—and her considerable spending power—left the store empty-handed, having decided against giving the saleswoman the opportunity to make a commission.
Despite her treatment at the Swiss boutique, Winfrey was apologetic about the media reaction her story has received. “I’m really sorry that it got blown up,” she said at the premier of her new film, Lee Daniels’ The Butler. “I purposefully did not mention the name of the store. I was just referencing it as an example of being in a place that people wouldn’t expect that you would be there.”
Winfrey added she doesn’t know for sure that the snub was racially motivated. “Maybe she actually just didn’t want to reach for the bag because it was up too high. Who knows” Winfrey said. “What I experienced in Switzerland has only happened to me once before in life. I didn’t want to attack Switzerland. It was an isolated incident.”
Swiss officials apologized for the incident, with a spokesperson for the country’s tourism office releasing a statement that reads: “We are very sorry for what happened to her, of course, because we think all of our guests and clients should be treated respectfully, and in a professional way.” The contrite tone carried over to the bureau’s Twitter feed as well.
— Schweiz Tourismus (@MySwitzerland_d) August 8, 2013
In some of her most recent interviews, Winfrey has avoided talking about the experience altogether. On Jimmy Kimmel Live on Wednesday night, she spoke not a single word about her trip to Switzerland—although she did surprise one lucky audience member by giving away a car. The Ford Fusion hybrid she gifted, perhaps coincidentally, has an MSRP starting at $38,700 … right around the cost of the purse.
Just One Example of Racism
While she has tried to downplay the incident, Winfrey has also been quick to point out in other interviews that the discrimination she experienced is common for many Black Americans. “I don’t know any Black man who hasn’t been stopped or followed by the police at some point because of his skin color, but for women, it’s different,” she said, calling her experience “the kind of incident that people with black or brown skin have to experience every day.”
“For me, racism doesn’t show up. Nobody is going to come and call me the N-word to my face, unless they are a thug on Twitter or Facebook,” Winfrey added. “For me, it shows up differently. I’m in a store and the person doesn’t know that I carry the [American Express] Black Card, and so they make an assessment based on upon the way I look. I guess I didn’t dress up enough.”