A Meditation on Racism

I’ve realized in listening to people’s reaction to the flap Oprah Winfrey kicked up over getting locked out of a Hermes store just how big of a job we progressives have in front of us.

Winfrey charges that Hermes (or at least, their staff on the spot at that store) are racist because they wouldn’t let her in to shop after normal business hours.

A friend of Winfrey, who was recently named the most powerful celebrity in the US by Forbes magazine, tells the New York Daily News, “If it had been CELINE DION or BRITNEY SPEARS or BARBRA STREISAND, there is no way they would not be let in that store.”

Winfrey’s spokeswoman rather dramatically refers to the incident as Oprah’s “‘Crash’ moment.”

Harpo Productions spokeswoman Michelle McIntyre said Winfrey “will discuss her ‘crash moment’ when her show returns from hiatus in September.”
“Crash” is a film dealing with race relations. The phrase “crash moment” refers to situations where a party feels discriminated against on the basis of skin color.

Other members of minority communities are sympathetic:

“The presumption in America is that if you have the wealth, you’ll get equality — but where’s Oprah’s equality?” asked Bruce D. Haynes, a sociologist at the University of California, Davis. “It picks up on every inkling of discrimination that a black person might experience in daily life.”

(Emphasis mine)

Now, here’s the thing. All of this outrage is based on a premise that I have not heard a single person challenge yet — that is, that a celebrity is entitled to expect people to fawn and toady for them at their whim. All the discussions, all the stories, all the hubbub starts from this idea that if Oprah Winfrey — or Celine Dion, or Britney Spears, etc. — shows up at your door after you’ve closed, then dammit, you open those doors and let them in! They should get to shop whenever they want to — they’re rich, they’re famous, they’re celebrities.

When I first heard this story, my reaction was different. I was — to be frank — appalled at Ms. Winfrey’s towering sense of entitlement. Hermes extends her a favor of letting her shop after hours, they fail to let her in one time, and this provokes a crisis of identity? Because she doesn’t have enough clout this one time to bully her way around all us regular schlubs, for whom store hours are what they are?

Now, I don’t blame Ms. Winfrey for holding such a high opinion of herself that she believes normal rules do not apply to her. She’s rich and famous, and those types generally do think they walk on cushions of air. What I do blame is the rest of us — all those people who are rallying to her defense, and crying for her plight.

Because if you are black and you think that Oprah’s fight means she has something in common with you — something beyond a certain level of skin pigmentation — you need to think again. Don’t believe me? Why don’t you go to any store in this country and tell them that it would fit your schedule better if you could shop after hours.

Oprah gets that privilege everywhere she goes — so much so that it galls her to lose it. Do you think anyone is going to extend you the same privilege?

Of course not — because you’re not a celebrity, and she is. And that’s what I’m getting at; implicit in Ms. Winfrey’s complaint is the notion that because she is rich, because she is famous, she has a right to better treatment than you do — that, in short, that she is better than you are. And nobody finds this even worthy of note! We are unified in our agreement that celebrities have a right (“Where’s Oprah’s equality?”) to expect to be coddled and pampered by we little people.

Is it good business for Hermes to let Oprah shop after hours? Of course; she probably spends a ton of money there. But are they obligated to open after hours just for her? Just so Her Majesty can sweep in and buy some handbags? If they decided they didn’t need the money, would they be in the wrong to simply point at the posted store hours and invite her to come back tomorrow?

And this is why progressives (like me) have so much work to do. Americans, famous for centuries for their intolerance of social stratification, have come to the point where they happily accept the notion of a privileged class. Indeed, they reinforce the power of this class by accepting its claims to entitlement.

This is poison to a (small-R) republican society. No free people will stay that way for long if they accept the notion of the inherent superiority of any group within them.

Racism is real, and terrible. You want to fight it? Help schoolkids in the city get what they need to break free from poverty. Support groups fighting to beat racists in court. Reach out to other communities of minorities under attack and offer to help them too.

Just don’t waste that noble energy fighting for someone for whom “victory” would still mean inequality — only with them at the top and you at the bottom.

(Note: some early reports of the story indicated that a Hermes attendant had made a slur about “North Africans” upon turning away Ms. Winfrey. If that were true, it would lend her charges of racism more weight. However, Hermes denies the charge and claims to have surveillance videotape of the incident which proves that no such comment was made, and the “North Africans” charge has been played down in subsequent stories, so I’m assuming that it’s false until Ms. Winfrey herself alleges that she was insulted in such a way (rather than it coming from “unnamed sources” or “friends”), or until Hermes produces the tape and settles the question.)


Sandy Smith

July 1, 2005
8:51 am

Good post. It spurred a couple of thoughts:
1) It’s tough to claim racism on one data point. As you note, it would be different if racial epithets were used. But apart from overt displays, modern racism is almost by definition a pattern.
2) Oprah is fabulously wealthy and has access to parts of our society I will never even be a guest to. So I think her “crash moment” will make somebody in a poor black neighborhood–say a small town in North Carolina, perhaps?–scoff and wonder if she forgot her childhood. If not letting black celebs shop late were the worst of racism in America, Jesse Jackson would have to look for another job.
3) Whether or not this was racism, a government investigation would do much less than the negative press Oprah can bring to bear. She commands legions of people who will boycott the store and certainly cause anybody who doesn’t want to be seen as a gigantic racist from going there–this may not be a crisis for progressives, but I can assure you there are board meetings going on over this incident in the retailer’s offices.