Retired pop legend Tina Turner, a long-time resident of Zürich’s ‘Goldküste’ (Gold Coast)–the coveted area of marvelous villas on the lake of Zürich–had much to celebrate this year: she got married to her long-time companion Erwin Bach, a former music label executive, during a lavish ceremony at her lake-side villa ‘Algonquin.’ Most of the local ‘Cervalat Prominenz’ (Swiss celebrities) attended the wedding, but more important, perhaps, the billionaire American media titan Oprah Winfrey was also among the guests. And her stay in Switzerland was not without consequences.
A few days after the wedding, Winfrey was interviewed–to promote the new film “The Butler” in which she plays a leading role–on the US television show Entertainment Tonight, a channel not known for generating hard news.
When asked about her experience of racism (had she ever been called the “N-word”), Winfrey referred to a recent incident in Zürich during which she was racially discriminated against by a shop assistant in an upscale fashion boutique. Winfrey told how the shop assistant, presumably white, refused to show her an expensive handbag that she could afford, most likely because she was black and the woman did not recognize her. Winfrey said she did not want to pull out her “black card”–in reference to a credit card–but wanted the assistant to treat her as any other rich shopper. Her comments, especially regarding racism in Zürich, went viral, and seemed to have taken everyone, the Swiss, the global media audience, and even Winfrey herself, by surprise.
It took a while for the shop assistant and the boutique owner to respond to Winfrey’s allegations. They eventually stated that it was a “misunderstanding.” The shop owner, who was also invited to Tina Turner’s wedding, apologized half-heartedly to Winfrey. So did the Swiss Tourism board, with more vigor though, well aware of the looming public relations disaster for the country.
Some bloggers even related the incident back to the refusal of Swiss banks to return deposits to Jewish victims of the holocaust and their descendants. Others wrote that Winfrey was not only discriminated against by the fashion milieu, including the boutique assistant, because she was black but also because she did not have the slim body that went with money, fame, and being fashionable.
The shop assistant said that she could no longer sleep ever since the incident hit the internet and gave an interview to the biggest Swiss Sunday paper, to tell her “side of the story.”
I am still trying to makes sense of all the hype. The media certainly has pretended, but made things only worse in the process. Some commentators misread “black card” as “race card.” One CNN presenter, Erin Burnett, accused Winfrey of playing the very race card and compared her to the prostitute that Julia Roberts played in “Pretty Woman”. (Work that one out for yourself.) Right-wing US media sites made “sense” of the incident and predictably repeated that Winfrey used the ‘racism card’ whenever she needed media coverage. Conveniently forgotten here is that Winfrey was responding to a question by King, and that she was also referring to another racist incident that does not suit the right-wing conspiracy argument.
In light of the George Zimmerman trial, I think it is impossible to understand this ‘media event’ without having in mind the attention his murder of young black teenager Trayvon Martin received and the suspicious attention that follows black people in public, and white, spaces.
Maurice McLeod, a London-based journalist, summarized this best in an insightful comment on The Guardian‘s Comment is Free site:
Oprah’s experience is no doubt unpleasant but her wealth and fame probably shield her from this most of the time. Being followed around expensive shops by over-keen security guards is nothing new to most black people.
But after all that–once we’ve condemned the racism–we still can’t work out why Winfrey needs a $38,000 handbag and why someone would sell her that? Here’s some suggestions what she could have bought with that money.
* ’Handbag-gate’ is how the Swiss German language media referred to the incident. Sean Jacobs contributed to this post.