When I first read about Oprah Winfrey’s recent experience in Zürich I was infuriated. Really? In this day and age? In Europe of all places? I was quick to judge. I was ready to get on a train and go down and give that sales clerk a piece of my mind.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that there was much more to this situation than simply racism. Living in a foreign country, it is easy to misunderstand salespeople’s intentions. It is often hard to read your waitress or waiter. In Germany, a waiter leaves you alone. They don’t bug you, ask if it tastes good, do you want more water, a refill on your coke. And a salesperson in a department store is only as helpful as you want him/her to be. Some are very attentive, they know Americans have a certain standard for customer service. Others seem aloof until you ask for their expertise then they won’t leave you alone. In my experiences here in Germany, I have been treated equally as good or equally as bad as the rest of the clientele around me.
This morning I read an interview with the evil salesperson that Oprah accused of racism. I have to say, I believe that the salesperson did not think she was being racist. Knowing the typical personality of a German, can’t speak for the Swiss, the clerk clearly thought she was doing her job correctly. Here is what I assume she must have been thinking: I am showing you a bag. It is exactly like that super expensive bag you want to look at. The only difference is that this one is leather, and that one is Alligator. I’m not going to get that one down, because it is the same one that I am showing you. And in my experience, most people just want to look at the bag because it is 35,000 euros, not because they actually want to buy it.
In the salesperson’s mind, she was being efficient. Why should she waste time getting down that bag? They are the same bag. But in Oprah’s mind, the sales girl was being racist because she refused her service. Here is where things get complicated.
This moment is fueled by all the other complicated moments these two people have experienced previously in their lives. Oprah has experienced numerous negative situations where people treated her in a disparaging way due to the color of her skin. So when she isn’t getting what she asks for she assumes the clerk is being racist. Why else would she not be allowed to look at the bag? The salesperson has experienced numerous customers who want her to show the billion dollar bag with no intention of ever buying it. When the cheaper bag is identical, why spend the energy getting the other one down off the shelf. She assumes that this customer (Oprah) just wants to look at it because its expensive.
Both people reacted based on their experiences. Both people interpreted the others actions and reactions in their own way. Their words and actions could be interpreted differently, but it was their individual past experiences that told them how to read the situation.
Now imagine you are teaching in a multicultural classroom. I said “If you don’t stop doing that I’m going to have Sally hold you down while I break your legs.” The American and German kids laughed. They know I am kidding. They love my silly sense of humor. The Japanese kids were clearly upset by this. They think I am actually going to break their legs. Why would their teacher lie? Why would she threaten them in such a way? All of their experiences say “When person threatens them with harm, they could be harmed.”
Each group of children are playing off of their own past experiences. They try to use their own cultural cues, their own background, to tell them what they think the teacher means. Unfortunately my joking is being read in two ways. I can do nothing to change how they read me. Am I a masochistic crazy or super hilarious teacher?
So my verdict? Oprah needs to let it go. And I think she is. She is realizing that although she felt like the salesperson was being racist, she may have misinterpreted the situation. The Salesperson needs to think about how she reacted to the request. Oprah may have bought 4 of those bags, one for her, and the other three for her friends. And we all need to think, when I do X, Y, or Z, how do people interpret my actions? When I say this or that, am I triggering a negative experience in that child’s life because I joked in a certain way or used certain words?
Be yourself, but know that others may see you differently based on their own past experiences. Have you ever experienced a situation like this? Have you assumed something you shouldn’t have about another person’s words or actions? Or have you caused harm because your seemingly meaningless action or words were misinterpreted?