Rod Liddle

The sad story of Oprah, the handbag and the shop assistant

The sad story of Oprah, the handbag  and the shop assistant
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Listen, this story is moving so quickly stuff will almost certainly have happened in between me writing it and you reading it. I hate the idea that you might be left behind the curve, but I just don’t know how to get around that. An outrage occurs and of course we try faithfully to report it, so that you can be outraged vicariously, but time moves on; the outrage spreads out, like a fast-moving conflagration, and begins to affects us all and we all of us feel unclean and traduced. Already, with the outrage I’m about to describe, the Guardian has decided it was not one outrage but two conjoined outrages, Siamese-twin outrages if you like. By the time you read this we could be in United Nations territory. We could. Nobody, but nobody, subjects the US chatshow host Oprah Winfrey to a hideous act of racism and gets away with it.

What happened was this. Oprah was in Zurich for some reason and decided to do a spot of shopping, for accessories and the like. She went into the expensive Trois Pommes boutique and started browsing the handbags. According to Oprah, she saw a nice handbag behind the shop assistant’s head and asked to look it. ‘No, you don’t want that one,’ the shop girl allegedly replied, ‘you want this one, because that one will cost too much.’ And she showed her a cheaper handbag than the one above her head, the one that cost 22,000 quid. According to Oprah.

Oprah was wounded. She caught the scent of magnolia and heard the ghostly clanking of leg irons from long, long ago. So she left the shop and went straight onto Twitter, and then the Larry King show, and then an interview outside some Hollywood bash, and then some more Twitter, to rail against this act of blatant racism and to castigate the shop girl. Racists these days don’t come right up and call you something horrible to your face, she explained, it doesn’t happen like that any more. Instead, you get the kind of thing I suffered in that Swiss shop. White people like that shop assistant — ‘They make an assessment based upon my appearance.’ The assistant didn’t know Oprah makes 50 million quid a year; she just saw a black lady and thought she couldn’t afford the handbag as a consequence. It’s exactly what the KKK would do if they became involved in selling accessories. Racism.

But maybe worse than racism, according to some woman called Heidi Moore writing in the Guardian. As the world’s press got itself indignant and outraged on behalf of Oprah, the Guardian, to its enormous credit, became doubly outraged and indignant. Quite rightly, Heidi maintained, Oprah had focused on the obvious racism inherent in the behaviour of this sick and twisted shop assistant. But it’s worse than that. ‘The struggle for respect faced by women of colour is shared at times with another group — women of size,’ Heidi explained. Now, before we worry ourselves stupid about the lack of respect shown to women of size, perhaps we should digress a little and worry ourselves even more stupid about women of no size, sizeless women. How on earth do they cope, these ectoplasmic and formless creatures, in this viciously three-dimensional world of ours? Unheard, unrepresented. One assumes that if there are women of colour then there must be women of no colour, too. And probably women of no colour who are also, at the same time, women of no size. Utterly, totally, invisible women, not even ethereal wisps. Why has nobody raised their plight before now?

Heidi was referring to the fact that Oprah is not merely black, but also a bit of a moose, a porker, a gannet. According to Heidi, shop assistants sometimes discriminate against porkers, too. They won’t show porkers the really good stuff because they think they’re too fat to wear them, or carry them, or whatever. The porkers leave the shops feeling hurt and slighted, all the more so if they happen to be black, like Oprah, and may feel that they have been doubly discriminated against.

Oprah Winfrey has since said, with great grace, that she regrets that this incident has been turned into such a furious media storm. In other words, she regrets complaining about it on Twitter and to Larry King and to the rest of the world’s media when its representatives made their inevitable inquiries. She is sticking to her story, though: she was the subject of racial discrimination. And it is something which should worry you if you are a) a woman of colour and b) exist in three dimensions the next time you try to buy a £22,000 handbag.

And what of the racist shop assistant? She says it didn’t happen like that at all. She says Oprah inquired about the expensive bag and she showed her the cheaper ones which looked the same, just to be kind. She also claims that she offered to get the expensive bag down for Oprah but that the star did not want to see it. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, the racist shop assistant pleaded, it must have been a misunderstanding, I would never wish to offend Oprah Winfrey in any way. And why, she asked, would a woman so rich and powerful and famous as Oprah persecute a simple shop assistant through the world’s media? Ah, shut up, racist — we know who the real victim is here.