Whether Oprah Winfrey was turned away from a bit of after-hours shopping in Paris because of a racist employee or a special event, news of the confrontation outside a luxury store has evoked empathy and anger from many American minorities.
In living rooms and Internet chat rooms, the Winfrey case has sparked discussion of what many see as a chronic problem for minorities: poor treatment and sometimes outright suspicion of minority shoppers no matter how well-educated or rich they are—particularly in high-end stores.
The incident occurred when Winfrey stopped by Hermes on June 14 to buy a watch minutes after the boutique closed. Though she and three friends said they saw shoppers inside, neither a sales clerk nor manager would let them in.
Winfrey believes the store’s staff had identified her, according to a spokeswoman from Harpo Production Inc., her company. Winfrey’s friend, Gayle King, who was there, told Entertainment Tonight, “Oprah describes it as ‘one of the most humiliating moments of her life.”’ Harpo says Winfrey plans to discuss the incident in the context of race relations on her show this fall.
Hermes said in a statement it “regrets not having been able to welcome” Winfrey to the store, but that “a private public relations event was being prepared inside.” The store did not respond to calls seeking comment.
Michael Leake, a black pharmaceutical salesman in Toledo, Ohio, knows this experience all too well. “It happens all the time,” he said. “That’s just life.”
Once, at a high-end shopping center in Los Angeles, he said, a sales clerk referred to a white customer as “sir,” but turned to Leake and greeted him with, “What’s up, homes?” He confronted the clerk.
“I was like, ‘How’s he “sir” and I’m your homey? I’m interested in why you speak to him in a more respectful way than you speak to me. We’ve all got money to spend here,”’ Leake said.
Indeed, many companies fail to grasp that big-spending customers now come from every background imaginable, said Luke Visconti, co-founder of DiversityInc, a New Jersey-based business that advises companies on diversity issues.
Hermes, in its treatment of Winfrey and its response, “blew it to a degree that’s hard to imagine,” he said. “It’s clearly bigoted. . . Think about what this did to their business. Think about all those people who have been oppressed (by this kind of behavior) who are going to be sympathetic to Oprah and not go back there.”