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Outrage for Oprah: Racism or Classism?

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Most people are shocked by recent reports that Oprah was denied taking a closer look at a $38,000 handbag in a store in Switzerland because the clerk thought it too expensive for her to consider. On the surface this is comically outrageous considering Oprah could buy the entire store, let alone one of its purses. Digging deeper, something is fundamentally fetid and familiar.

In the shallow, some would ascribe the incident as ridiculous, mistaken classism. The thought is to accept the salesclerk's prejudice to be solely based upon economics. To exemplify the universality of this form of prejudice, Oprah cites the movie Pretty Woman with Julia Roberts being thwarted from making purchases in a high end retail store based simply on her streetwalker appearance. People are quick to share their own personal stories of having been looked down upon for their dress or lower class mannerism. All of this argument is made as if money made people color blind, as if classism trumped racism, and the question of "Did color have anything to do with it?" need not be plumbed.

At the root, racism must be considered. Knee jerk denial is defensive ignoring of the insidious nature of racism. I don't care if Oprah wore no false eyelashes and her most casual clothes, I am confident her clothes were of far greater quality than even the above average citizen. Further, though I have never met Oprah, persons of her caliber of accomplishment carry themselves with a confidence that bespeaks their individual worth. Even if Oprah were wearing average clothing and suffering from a bad case of low self-esteem that day, psychological studies reveal that self-proclaimed non-biased individuals are infected with a near subconscious racism. Harvard University continues to explore this insidious implicit association in its many forms.

Oprah has said "true racism is about being able to have power over somebody else." She rejected the example of the Pretty Woman movie's retort in revealing her true purchasing power to the store clerk. This is not about classism. Oprah has reacted in a thoughtful manner and, as usual, challenges us to confront the global problem of racism.