Fast Company

Racism is Alive and Well and Its Home is in Retail

Oprah Winfrey not being allowed into an Hermes boutique in Paris is by no means the worst thing that has happened to a black person. But it is typical.

They didn't recognize the most powerful person in television so they treated her the way they probably normally treat their minority customers. These boutiques have an etiquette all their own and usually includes complete indifference if not outright rudeness by the sales people.

Driving while black and shopping while black can be frustrating and rage inducing experiences if you've ever had to do it. My experiences have ranged from being followed around a store so closely I could feel the security guards breath on my neck to having merchandise ripped out of my hands. It seems that being one of the richest women in the world cannot cure these ills. Oprah's friend Gayle King who accompanied her on the shopping trip told Entertainment Tonight that "it was one of the most humiliating experiences of her life".

African Americans spend an average of $300 billion on goods and services every year. This fact has yet to be reflected in the way we are treated when shopping for those goods. Thankfully there has been some progress, advertisers have tried to tap into that market. Its just so sad that we still have such a long way to go.

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47 Comments

  • Sarah

    One of Oprahs entourage approached the store and told them that "Oprah was coming" Oprah was clear down the street shopping at another outdoor store when this happened. While in the store one of the workers had told the other manager that Oprah was an American talk show host and that she was coming up to shop in the store. RIght away when she found this out she had told the other lady to hurry and go put the closed sign on the door. When they returned to the store Oprah was told that they had closed it when it wasn't suppored to be closed. So its clear that this was not about race because the lady did not know who Oprah was or the color of hre skin. I know this because I am close to the people who run this store.

  • Sarah

    There were rumors in France that one of Oprahs entourage approached the store and told them that "Oprah was coming" Oprah was clear down the street shopping at another outdoor store when this happened. While in the store one of the ladies had told the other ladies that Oprah was an American talk show host and that she was coming up to shop in the store. RIght away when she found this out she had told the other lady to hurry and go put the closed sign on the door. When they returned to the store Oprah was told that they had closed it when it wasn't suppored to be closed. So its clear that this was not about race because the lady did not know who Oprah was or the color of hre skin. I know this because I am close to the people who run this store.

  • Jeff

    Racisim In the USA ....we have a long way to go....guess what!!! it will never happen..as long as the White Media stays in power and whites stay in Power they don't have to budge for you!!! Black People quit giving these Haughty race of people your hard earn money ....don't give white's no more of your money!!!! that's how you fight back!!!and win !!!

    Man_Creative!!!

  • Diana

    I could never respond to everything that's been said here but one comment struck a cord with me. Carol wrote that people who "...are sick of people using the race card are obviously white folks that will never understand whats like being a minority." What makes you think that 'white folks' are in no other a minority? What about micks (like myself)? What about females? what about the poor? Obviously you don't live in a predominantly white, farming community in this country because you'd see the kind of people who are actually ignored, verbally accosted, or literally TOLD TO LEAVE stores because they cannot afford to take proper care of themselves or because no one has taught them to. You see what it's like to be a young, white man who has to shower in your high school gym in the morning because you dumb hick parents don't HAVE a shower for you to use.
    Tell me about the damn race card. Look around yourselves. There's more to this life than pointing fingers. You want to make a change?! Then the way you think needs to change to. Stop blaming and finger pointing for no reason. I've never met you, I don't know you, I can't judge you.

    Maybe Oprah did get a taste of reality...
    but 'black folks' aren't the only people who have to deal with people who treat them like assholes. So do the rest of us, for a variety of reasons - so ignore, change it or just deal with it.

  • wayne smart

    I am a south african and am white . Why am I not
    surprised that Mrs Winfrey was treated in such a
    deplorable and shocking manner ? I , being white
    and having lived in a country where the shameful
    brutality of black people went unhindered for over three centuries , and having been conscripted by the south african apartheid army
    to fight for white supremacy , and there having seen the brutality meted out to innocent people
    I understood that white people are an abhorrence
    on the face of the planet . A hateful race by
    whatever language .I do not know if the white race will ever understand their shameful behaviour , I hope they will one day . Maybe then
    black people will be treated with the dignity and respect they have been denied for so long .
    God alone knows how long it has already been .
    Thank you for this opportunity to voice my thinking on this matter . Yours sincerely , Wayne Smart from sunny South Africa

  • Charlie

    In reading the above comments, one thing is clear: most people of color won't even entertain the possibility that what happened to Oprah at Hermes was motivated by anything but racism - while most white people are more than ready to make excuses for Hermes, and discount even the POSSIBILITY that this was an instance of racial bias.

    Of course, none of us knows all the facts. We know that Oprah appeared at the store after it was closed. We know that other shoppers were apparently inside the store. We know that the salespeople apparently did not recognize her, and we know that she was turned away. Does any of us have enough information to conclude that this was or was not motivated by racism? It doesn't seem so.

    Many have argued that this type of bias happens every day to people of color, and that somehow this proves that Oprah was discriminated against. There is no arguing with the first half of this sentence. This type of bias DOES occur innumerable times per day in countries throughout the world. Unfortunately, this fact alone does not prove that what happened to Oprah was due to racism.

    Most "average" folks cannot relate to the etiquette observed by the obscenely rich. It may be true that it is standard practice to open a closed establishment after hours for customers who are recognized as wealthy. If this is the case, then Oprah may not have been provided the same privileges afforded to other filthy-rich individuals, and technically, she was discriminated against. However, it should be pointed out that the existence of a standard practice of re-opening stores for the wealthy represents yet another type of discrimination – CLASSISM.

    The presence of other customers in the store does not prove discrimination. I worked retail for over a decade before finally getting out of that thankless industry altogether, and there were always those inconsiderate customers who showed up one minute before the store closed and overstayed their welcomes even after multiple announcements that "the store is now closing." Standard policy dictated that we allow shoppers who were already present to finish shopping, but bar new customers from entering the store. Because of my experience in retail, out of consideration to the salespeople, I will never enter a store if it is even 20 minutes before their closing time. Of course, I never worked in a hoity-toity store like Hermes.

    It's interesting that no consideration is apparently given to the employees of the store, none of whom are as well-off as even their most penurious customer. Retail salespeople work a long day, and are tired and ready to go home to their families after the store closes. When I worked retail, I tried very hard to refuse entry to ANYONE after the store was closed. Of course, there were those who begged and pleaded, saying things like, "Please, please, I know exactly what I want!" or "I promise to be quick." Yes, a few were allowed in after hours, but not because they were rich or famous, and certainly not because of their race.

    The most that can be said by any fair-minded individual is that it is POSSIBLE Oprah was discriminated against. It is also possible that the store was simply trying to enforce its hours of operation. Oprah Winfrey does not appear to be the type who would toss out such an accusation without first taking into account the repercussions, which leads me to believe there were other considerations, such as perhaps the salesperson’s attitude, tone of voice, or mannerisms that contributed to her feeling that she was discriminated against. But even this is speculation, since I don’t personally know Ms. Winfrey.

  • Michael in Phoenix

    As a general rule, most people of color living in the USA are sensitive, maybe overly so, to any type of racism, real or perceived. History and continued bad experiences keep them on guard. You can't erase 500 years of tragedy overnight and expect people of color to just "get over it". That's intellectual dishonesty at best and stupidity at worst.

    I live in the Southwest, where Latinos and Native Americans struggle daily with many of the same issues Blacks deal with elsewhere (along with Blacks, of course). Not being able to shop after closing time in a high-end boutique is the LEAST of the problems. Most people of color in Arizona will never see the inside of a Hermes shop.

    I've never been to Europe but I have heard from countless other sources of the time-honored lack of tolerance that exists in France and elsewhere in Europe. I've seen the pictures of the anti-racism marches and rallies. I'm not a fan of Oprah, and maybe she is being a whiny overpaid superstar, but incidents like this one ALWAYS make me question the true motive and lean towards support of the oppressed individual - even if she does have a net worth higher than 500, no, 5000 working-class minority workers in Phoenix put together.

  • retail worker

    If she came to the store after the doors were locked at closing time, then she should stop whining. There may have been customers shopping inside the store, and more likely than not those customers entered before the doors were locked. She needs better time management skills. If a racist comment was said to her, then yes, that associate should be fired. Everyone deserves the same treatment, and even though I know the world is an unfair place for many reasons, that "same treatment" should include a store's ability to lock its doors at closing without being persecuted. She is really doing a disservice to people of color and celebrities, that because of that fact, she feels she should get special treatment. She may stop shopping and Hermes, but I vote with my money too, and I for one, will stop my subscription to O, stop watching her show, and let everyone I know about this incident and what a petty person she really is.

  • michael

    "This "Hermes" experience shouldn't happen to anyone."

    Hermes should never be allowed to close as long as anyone shows up whenever they want?

  • Mademoiselle Bates

    I think the other issue is that many are applying their American perspective on this issue. We're not talking about this incident happening to Oprah in America, but in France.

    For those who are not familiar with race relations in Paris or France, allow me to clue you in on a fact that some of you may be oblivious to: racial profiling and discrimination based on race happens EVERY DAY in Paris and other cities througout France.

    There is a long and documented history of discrimination against Africans of both Arab and Black African decent. If you know anyone from North or West Africa living in France, ask them about their experiences; they will tell you that yes, they've frequently and repeatedly been denied services, jobs and housing based solely on their last names, their accents, skin tone and/or country of origin, which in this day and age in ANY part of the world is absolutely ridiculous.

    From a "race relations in France" perspective, it is entirely possible that Oprah was denied entrance to the Hermes boutique based on her race.

    If any of you have experienced discrimination of any kind, first hand and on a reoccuring basis, then you know that it is a negative experience that no one - regardless of color, race, gender, s*xual orientation, religion, SOCIAL/ECONOMIC status - should be expected to endure. Not even Oprah.

    This "Hermes" experience shouldn't happen to anyone. The difference is that unlike most, Oprah is in a position to possibly change (or at least shed light on) the way the we deal with one another, on a GLOBAL front. Why not use your status to make the world a better place for EVERYONE?

    The other side of this reality coin is: if it can happen to Oprah, it can happen to you. In fact, it probably has already.

  • KT

    I think to put this whole incident into prospective it should be brought closed to home.

    Look, if I shop at the corner store and give them my business on a regular basis, recommend them to friends, then I would would expect them to let me in a little past closing to get a quart of milk.

    It seems Oprah has spent tens of thousand of dollars with Hermes, as well as recommended their wares at times on her web site. So for her to feel that she should have been accommodated is not a person looking for "star treatment" just common courtesy and acknowledgment of her being one of their best customers.

    Any very good customer of almost any business would expect the same in my opinion.

  • Bruce Less

    France is one of the most racist countries in europe coming in a close second after Germany. I have seen black people being refused entry from nightclubs in Marseille even though they were dressed properly. Its to do with their misguided belief that they are culturally superior to the world, though how eating frog's legs and horses = superior is anyone's guess. Go back to your smelly nob cheese you racist frogs.

  • FORREAL

    Amazing! The ignorance and naivety of some bloggers on here. When folks advocate so much nonsense, you need someone to provide a factual perspective.

    The Race Card!
    Academic research has shown that African Americans give people the benefit of the doubt when in fact they were discriminated against.

    Race Relations in France.
    There is a serious discrimination problem against North African citizens/residents in France.

    After Hours for the Rich and Famous.
    It is almost standard policy for luxe retailers to open their stores for the priveliged after closing. Celebs do not want to be hackled by fans or paparazzi while shopping and spending big $$$ (Oprah spent almost $100,000 on handbags at Hermes). Oprah is not like you and me, so standard operating hours do not apply to her.

    Knowledge is power!

  • susan

    It is totally irresponsible of Oprah to play the race card, I thought she knew better - the store was closed, she made no arrangements with them, she is wrong and she needs to face that. This is not about racism, convenient fallback - perhaps France has the right idea - just because you are rich and famous doesn't mean rules (or store hours) doesn't apply to you! I think it was refreshing, I'm only sorry they apologized - but they will certainly NOT be losing any customers

  • eric jason

    You make an excellent point Mademoiselle Bates - it could happen to anyone at the foot of snooby Parisians.

    Nevertheless, that point fails the logic test for your implicit conclusion.

    Yes, it could happen to anyone. But that does not conflict with the possiblity that it could also still be blatant racism.

    On the other point, the store closing, you're giving credit not based on fact. We should neither believe Oprah nor Hermes base on the information available to all of us - hearsay.

    Thus the difficulty that you came close to stating but didn't hold your ground on is not "was this racism or standard business practice?" but rather a question of plausibility of the accounts per speculation on our part, the folks here talking about it.

    On those grounds the facts and reality lean toward the possibility of both racist treatment and snobby Parisianism but don't rule out one or the other and certainly don't rule out (as you have done here) the harmonious intersection between snobby Parisians and racism. I've experienced that.

    So, would you really be shocked at that intersection?

    If we take out the emotion and recognize the fact of racism and it's probable expressions then these things would not be so complicated...until we got around to figuring out how to cure the situation.

    Many of my friends in business and otherwise are racists by their actions, but I won't spend time addressing every affront. Perhaps Oprah shouldn't here - there being much more pressing problems than failed Hermes adventures.

    But what makes Oprah's situation valid to discuss is that she should be the very wake up call to the world based on the fact that class and money do not erase color. Pigmentocracy reigns. There are close cousins of this race phenomenon, too - e.g. dye my hair blonde to make my life easier.

    Some blacks have spent their money on trying to erase blackness from the eyes of peers (not referring to Oprah) only to find out that there is not enough money when dealing with the folks who would even dream of holding it against you.

    So you make friends with unwitting racists and let them move in their comfortable sphere, e.g. feel enlightened because they have a good friend who is black, knowing that trying to address the fundamentals would be hopeless, but also that a reasonable existence is possible and that over time we may actually get to know each other as simply people.

    Back to business? This is business because business is people.

  • Mademoiselle Bates

    I happened across this blog online and felt compelled to post my comments...

    This unfortunate incident could, in fact, happen to anyone. Having lived, worked and studied in Paris, I've witnessed high-end (and low-end) stores turn people away DURING store hours. Each person snubbed had one thing in common: in the eyes of the retail staff, the person did not "look" as though they could afford to shop there.

    French retail staff in high-end stores can often be very snobby, applying a "no-soup-for-you" attitude towards anyone who does not "match" their image of what the "target market" should look like. It doesn't make it right, nor does it feel good when it happens (I've been a victim too, sigh). One lesson learned: Black or white, rich or poor, celebrity or average Joe: if you're in Paris and you plan on shopping at Dior or Louis Vuitton, you would do well to dress the part!

    The other issue in Oprah's case is that the store was closing. In France, it is not standard practice to open the doors to customers past established business hours.

    This is not to say that in France discrimination based on race does not exist, because it does just as it does in the US. In fact, it could very well be possible that, in addition to the obvious lack of customer service exhibited by the Hermes retail staff person, race played a factor in Oprah's experience. What if it were Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes? Would they have been let in? Possibly, but we'll never know.

    The difficulty this case, as in many cases, is in being able to accurately define, identify and label actions, decisions and/or comments of an individual, company or organization as being racist. Was this racism or standard business practice?

    Lastly, a general statement to everyone: if we could all base our interactions with each other on mutual respect, discussion threads of this sort would not even be necessary. The truth is, on a human level, we are the same. It is what we EXPERIENCE as human beings that is different. I may not have the same life experiences as you, but that does not make your life's experience any less realistic or true as my own. Think about that.

  • Kelly

    If one is going to be pedantic, one should be careful about the knowledge they choose to impart.Apostrophes have nothing to do with "spelling". They have to do with "punctuation". I also don't care for the bossy, schoolmarmish, rude comment, "Learn to spell," as a way to begin a post.

  • Sande

    Just like my MAMA always said...
    They ain't NO better than we are in the eyes of GOD...
    and
    they take off their pants to pee just like we do..One leg at a time.
    WHO cares? Hollywood is so faux...
    Tell her to shop online.Nobody closes, nobody cares what color you are, or if anyone ever knew ya!