The Herald Bulletin

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August 14, 2013

Primus Mootry: Oprah's purse episode points to racist micro-insults

Last Sunday’s Herald Bulletin carried an AP article about a supposedly Italian store clerk in Zurich who refused to allow Oprah Winfrey to see a $38,000 purse. The AP writer, Jill Lawless, wrote an excellent article that totally missed the point.

Ms. Lawless went on and on about luxury purses, their designers, the boutiques that sell them, the exorbitant costs of such handbags, and the fact that purchasing one is “for the richest sliver of the global population.” Her article closed with the fact that one of these handbags, “studded with 2,000 diamonds, (was) valued at almost $2 million.”

So what point did she miss? Although in other news reports Oprah was very diplomatic about the incident, what she suggested was that the clerk simply could not believe a black woman had enough money to buy a ridiculously expensive purse.

Once the store owners learned they had turned away one of the richest women in the world, they profusely apologized. In a televised interview, Oprah (who probably could afford to have bought the entire store) said she was grateful to the clerk. She later tweeted, “just found out that bag was $38,000. (The clerk) was right. I was NOT going to buy it!”

So the story is really not about high-end handbags and how much they might cost. It’s about something far more serious here and around the world. It is something Dr. Carl Bell calls a “micro-insult.” Dr. Bell is a professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois in Chicago. He and like-minded colleagues have for decades studied racism in all its varieties, including the micro-insult.

In a recent book co-authored with Dr. Ranna Parekh of Massachusetts General Hospital, Bell writes: “Because we understand America’s effort to embrace diversity makes us strong, we thought it important to give people an understanding of how to address these subtle, verbal and non-verbal micro prejudices so the victims of such behavior could better defend themselves in a manner to create peace.”

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