The Herald Bulletin

August 14, 2013

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

By Primus Mootry
For The Herald Bulletin

— 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.”

Bell and Perakh’s book, “Overcome Prejudice at Work,” is focused on racism in America’s workplaces. The lessons from the book, however, apply to all areas of American life. Bell argues that America and the rest of the world will never get to the point where people are judged, ˜not by the color of their skin, but the content of their character” until we have a deeper understanding of racism and how it expresses itself in everyday life.

According to Dr. Bell, “an example of a micro-insult occurs when a white person (who is innocently operating under the stereotype that any African-American in a hotel must be a bellhop) asks a well-dressed African-American to carry his luggage.” I know. That very thing has happened to me on a number of occasions.

In Oprah’s case, what most African Americans understand is that they have experienced, and do experience, similar slights every day, countless times a day. It doesn’t matter how much money they have or what kind of clothes they wear or where they happen to be. All that matters is the color of their skin.

As I have said so often in these columns, this is not about “God-ain’t-it-awful,” shame and blame, or our shameful history of race relations. No. It is about the future. It is about vision. It is about understanding how racism is a destructive force -- a cancer -- in the body politic of the greatest nation on earth. The entire world is looking to the United States for the cure to this deadly social disease.

Yet, I know this subject is one most Americans, black and white, would rather avoid. Both groups, for different reasons, would prefer pretending the problem does not exist. But if Oprah isn’t good enough to buy a purse in Zurich, and if I am likely to be handed someone’s luggage to carry in a hotel lobby, what’s the point of ignoring the problem?

They say that all that is necessary for the forces of evil to win in this world is for enough good people to do nothing. They also say that silence means consent.

Who cares if a rich African-American woman can’t buy a purse somewhere overseas? The President of the United States is black, isn’t he? Oh, by the way, I’m selling the Eisenhower Bridge. Any buyers out there?

Have a nice day.