August 13, 2013

Oprah & Me: I Belong Here, Really, I Do.

Oprah Winfrey’s claims that she was discriminated against at an upscale shop in Switzerland have drawn a lot of commentary ranging from disbelief to those who feel that this is some kind of PR ploy to get more attention for her up-coming movie, The Butler.

However, I noticed that, anecdotally speaking, minorities seem to be more likely to believe that this happened and/or are saying, “Been there done that.”

I happen to be one of them.

As an Asian woman and a member of one of those “good” minority groups who don’t experience the same levels of racism as other racial minority groups, I remember years ago when I was a student in Winston-Salem, NC and went out to eat alone at an upscale Italian restaurant. The waitress who greeted me first claimed there were no seats. When a waiter said there were seats available, she said something about how she was “sick of this s***t” and went on to mutter about “those foreigners not even speaking English” to which I said loudly but politely, “Excuse me, ma’ am? What did you say?” She called for the owner who was across the room, and he physically put his hand on my arm and shoved me outside. It was truly one of the most humiliating experiences of my life.

I thought about the incident for several hours after it occurred. First of all, as someone born and raised in the US in a white household of native English speakers, I was floored that anyone would make a comment to me about not speaking English. Even if I was a non-native speaker, I certainly didn’t deserve to be treated the way I did.

Also, I felt I had a duty to inform the owner about the behavior of one of his employees. I thought he would especially like to know what this woman had said to me considering his own situation as an Italian immigrant. I waited a day or so in order to process what had happened.

I politely called and told him what had happened.

It did not go well.

Simply put, he refused to believe me. There was a lot of yelling and profanity, all from his end I should note, and it seemed the more I tried to calmly tell him my concerns, the angrier he became. At one point, he said he was so sick of “these people” playing the race card. I was the one making trouble-not his employees. He then told me never to come to his “damn restaurant again.” Before he ended the conversation by slamming the phone down, I remember asking, “Don’t you care about losing my business?” I never got an answer, but I assume the answer was a resounding, “No.”

Fifteen years later, thinking about this episode still makes me upset.

I have had several people of all racial backgrounds empathize me with me and while I hate to say this because I don’t want to sound like I am ungrateful for their support, I believe it is very hard to know what that situation is like until you have been in it.

For many minorities, there is a sense of frustration that even after one has “made it” they still have to prove they belong or have the right to set foot in certain places of business like the place I described or the up-scale boutique where Oprah claims this incident occurred.

In Oprah’s case, few people—black or white, male or female—can claim they have made it like she has.

While some claimed that perhaps it wasn’t race, but maybe her appearance that day, that made the assistant think she might not be able to afford the $38K bag she requested to look at, I question that.

First of all, Oprah claims that while she was not dressed to the nines, she was presentable. Secondly, I question why anyone who has worked in those shops would assume someone can afford something or not based on grooming alone? Back in my London days, I knew people who worked in upscale shops like Burberry, Gucci, etc. and per them, some of the scruffiest people were the ones with the most money. Look how scruffy some European royals and celebrities look at times. Even if scruffy isn’t the right word, many certainly don’t look how you would envision millionaires or billionaires to look like. (And in this day and age where everyone is in sweats or jeans, it’s even harder and harder to go by clothing.)

In the case of my own family, my husband, who is white, grew up in well-off family and would often show up at his father’s yacht club in his rugby gear. When I asked if anyone ever made a comment about him or questioned if his family were members, the answer was no.

Contrast that to an experience of my sister-in-law’s, who is married to his brother and, like me, is also Asian—she was mistaken for the help at one of these very same places. Despite the fact that she tends to always be well-dressed and looks far-more polished than my brother-in-law, he has never had that happen.

On a similar note, an African-American education professor I had last fall shared a story about the time she and her now-ex-husband, who is also black, were invited to an exclusive country club in my town. Both of them were mistaken for the help even though the latter is a highly-regarded scientist.

While this may seem like first world problems of one percenters—and full disclosure, I do not even run in the perimeters of these circles—it is still frustrating that despite the fact my sister-in-law and former professor are both accomplished and have as much of a right to be at these places as anyone else, they still have to “prove” that they belong there.

Likewise, while many said they could not feel sorry for someone who could actually purchase a $38K handbag, the point was not about how Oprah chooses to spend her money. Rather, it’s about how these things continue to happen even to those who are rich and powerful. W.E.B. DuBois and other civil rights pioneers believed that education and money were the great equalizer. Sadly, this is not the case over a 100 years later.

I don’t know Oprah, nor do I claim to be her shrink, but perhaps she was thinking: if I am one of the wealthiest and most accomplished people, period, and I am still subject to this, then what must it be like for people who don’t have one percent of my wealth and power? Is there ever a time when minorities fully belong to the club and don’t have to show IDs or credentials,proving they should be there?

In any case, despite Oprah now saying she regrets sharing this experience, I am glad she did.

As I mused previously, I think many people are still uncomfortable talking about race. Many people would like to believe we live in a post-racial society when the truth is we do not.

The episode I described which happened to me occurred in the late 1990s. Oprah’s occurred a few months ago. This is hardly “back in the day.” Unless we start to talk about how things actually are, as opposed to how we would like them to be, I can’t see much progress being made.

I look forward to a time when all people—regardless of race or wealth—are meant to feel welcome. I look forward to a time when someone doesn’t assume that I cannot speak English or that Oprah cannot afford a luxury handbag just on the basis of race alone. I don’t long to live in a truly color-blind society. I notice if people are black, white, etc., if they have blue or brown eyes, but I try not assume that they must come from a certain class or determine if they truly belong to be at a certain place because of that.

Looking back at my own encounter all those years ago, I do have one regret and that is not having spoken up more forcefully at the time when the waitress made those comments and the owner put his hands on me. I don’t wish that I had exploded or started throwing the f-bomb, but I do wish I had asked what in the world they thought they were doing, and more importantly, why they thought it was okay to treat me like this? Was it because of my race?

Even if they had chosen to ignore it, perhaps someone else who was there would have heard it and if not gotten upset, would have pondered what was going on.

In any case, I never went back to that place. Last I heard, it’s still in business, but the menu supposedly has changed to keep up with the dietary needs of the customers.

I just hope the attitudes have changed as well. Honestly, that is far more important than whether or not the customers are eating less carbs or gluten than they used to.

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Ed: Sara Crolick

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