When Oprah Winfrey was politely but firmly told by a shop assistant in Zurich that she wouldn’t be able to afford a handbag the media leapt on the story as evidence of racism in Switzerland. Many words have been spoken and written on the incident and I have added my penn’orth elsewhere, but I think I haven’t said quite everything I’d like to about this even though it has long been superseded on the front pages. Let me say from the start that I have great admiration and respect for Oprah Winfrey, and I think she handled the situation well from her perspective.
Oprah was in Zurich to attend the wedding of Tina Turner, and I would readily bet $1,000 that had Tina been with her that day, Oprah would have got her handbag. This wasn’t about race – it was about elitism. Tina is better known in Zurich than Oprah, simply because celebrity musicians are more recognisable than foreign chat-show hostesses. Perhaps it didn’t occur to Oprah that there may be places in the world where her face isn’t instantly recognised, and so she perceived the shop assistant’s reluctance to show her a £26,000 handbag as racist. I’m absolutely sure that the girl would have treated you or me in exactly the same manner, whatever colour we may be, unless we happen to look a million dollars, which Oprah obviously didn’t that day (sorry, Oprah – we all have our off days).
A post on Scriptonite Daily on 9 August linking the Oprah incident with the banning of asylum seekers from public places in a small Swiss town is still generating plenty of comments, and comments on comments on comments, as the matter touches a nerve in many readers. In many ways, the comments are more enlightening than the article.
Understandably, in a world where racism is rampant, many people of colour can become over-sensitive. An Indonesian friend of mine once mistook my granddaughter’s awkward behaviour – due to teenage shyness – for a rude reaction to her brown skin. I, my daughter and said granddaughter were mortified, and it wasn’t easy to soothe the hurt feelings on both sides.
Racism is a label that is easy to bandy about. It is an ugly thing, implying bigotry, disrespect and hatred. It has been the cause of immeasurable evil throughout history. Nobody wants to wear that label. But perhaps we need to look more closely at what we mean by racism.
An English friend who is a vociferous supporter of UKIP sent me this video, which for some reason I can’t embed here.
Strictly speaking, this isn’t racism because although most Muslims are not white, Islam is a religion and culture, even an ideology. My impression, however, is that this man expresses the sentiments of a lot of people both here in the UK and in Switzerland, France and Germany … possibly in other countries but I have no personal experience of them.
What is frightening to me is that this speech echoes so much of what fascist propaganda proclaimed with regard to the Jews in Nazi Germany, and the knowledge of what resulted from anti-Semitism in German-speaking countries. I am afraid of history repeating itself with a very nasty twist.
I have spent much of my life in international and multicultural environments, have friends of many different shades of skin and ethnicities, of different social class and different beliefs. I would always refute the accusation that I am a racist – yet I, too, don’t like what is happening to the country of my birth.
Whatever your views, this is worth watching simply as a thought-provoking basis for discussion. It is a very important issue and we should not play ostrich in the present circumstances. My fear is, though, that it is an issue that will be very hard to settle peacefully and fairly. It is an emotional matter and many people are firmly entrenched in their lines and prepared for attack as their only means of defence.
I do not wish to be classed as a rabble-rouser. I do not wish to incite hatred and I certainly do not endorse any anti-Islam action. But I do wish that people could feel free to speak honestly and sincerely about their views and feelings on this issue without being accused of racism.
Another British friend responded to this speech with the following comment:
“My views echoed, but I can’t call myself a racist. I understand totally where he is coming from. 60% of people living in London were not born in the UK – how can new immigrants be absorbed into a culture? Mr and Mrs Middle England are very placid and accommodating but they are being squeezed so tightly to pay the price for what our career politicians (never having worked in the real world), idealistic and publicly schooled, deem to be right, that when they do revolt against the system goodness knows what will happen. I don’t recognise the values of today’s politicians.
Everyday life in the UK is sinking to lower and lower depths. Integrity, honesty, duty are no longer seen as good attributes. Our society is eating itself alive and morphing into something horrendous. I am glad I am getting older. Don’t we feel guilty for having these thoughts!!”