Awkward Conversations We Have Had

by Belle Waring on August 9, 2013

My brother has had, really. I was going to put this in a comment but realized I couldn’t let it languish down there. I thought of this because it is such a piquant combination of ‘I’m laughing’ and ‘the blood is draining from my face as I contemplate the lived horrors of chattel slavery.’ There’s not so all-fired many anecdotes you can say that abou-naw, I can think of 6 or so right away and if I called my pops and my brother and sister I’m sure I’d get up to 30-odd. So, frex, my brother was really good friends with Charles Pinckney, who both had a summer house down the bluff from us on Pinckney Island and was a fellow boarder at St. Alban’s in D.C. One day—PSYCH different story!

When my brother got to USC (not that one. The other, less evil one) and he walked into his dorm room, his new roommate was shocked. (This was before there was Facebook.) “You’re white!” My brother had to concede that this was so. His roommate continued to be startled and amazed. “Sorry, I just assumed you were a brother. I mean, I have met a lot of people in South Carolina named Waring and they have all been black. I have never met anybody named Waring who was white till now.” I am unsure as to what, exactly, my brother said. I really wouldn’t have known how to get out of there gracefully. ‘Ah, yes, about that, well, you see. It used to be that… That is to say there were…we. Uh. Did you know that after the Civil War, freed slaves often…arrrglegggh [Belle pretends to be choking on a boiled peanut shell].’ I believe my brother actually re-directed the conversation with a well-timed, “hey, you want to fire this up?” in which no one was accused of depositing excess saliva on the cottonmouth killer. Gameslifemanship for the ages, people.

{ 201 comments }

1

Jay Livingston 08.09.13 at 12:30 pm

I once heard Julian Bond tell a similar story. On an airplane, he was talking with the White guy sitting next to him . Where you from, etc. At some point in the conversation, each silently came to the realization that they shared a common ancestor a few generations back. The rest of the flight was a bit awkward.

2

Belle Waring 08.09.13 at 12:54 pm

Yeah. It’s especially bad in SC because slaves outnumbered whites for a long time, and slave- owners doing large-scale cotton and rice planting were a small minority within that white minority. So apparently a lot of freed slaves took “Waring,” because it was their former owner’s last name, a common thing to do (which, I understand Malcolm X on this one. Slave name!). You end up with a bunch of black Warings and only a few white ones. Errrrrr.

3

Palindrome 08.09.13 at 12:56 pm

To the list of medicinal uses of marijuana, it appears we can add: eases the pains and social anxieties linked to uncomfortable history of enslavement and exploitation.

4

ajay 08.09.13 at 12:58 pm

2: similar position; there are a lot of Jamaicans who share my last name, and I happen to know that a distant ancestor inherited a plantation there through marriage and promptly freed all the slaves on it. So there’s a bit of ambiguity there: “My ancestor freed your ancestor! (after, you know, owning him slightly.)”

5

Main Street Muse 08.09.13 at 1:04 pm

My husband has a very common last name among black people – (he’s white.) He was TA in a class with a very talented African American student (an MD taking film classes!) who shared his last name – she informed him that this particular name was common among slave traders and hence became common among slaves, as the traders gave their name to “their people.”

And here’s Oprah, who learned that racism and negative perceptions of black people is not isolated to America http://ind.pn/14s582A

6

Anderson 08.09.13 at 2:37 pm

This is now making me feel uneasy about my wife’s notion that our cats take on our last name.

7

Mao Cheng Ji 08.09.13 at 3:05 pm

“And here’s Oprah, who learned that racism and negative perceptions of black people is not isolated to America http://ind.pn/14s582A

Judged by the color of her skin, and not by the content of her bank account. I’m practically bristling with indignation.

8

Anderson 08.09.13 at 3:48 pm

I don’t quite get the notion that racism becomes trivial if directed at the wealthy.

One of the coldest “Truly Tasteless Jokes” I saw in junior high, because it was so spot-on for the racist attitude:

“What do you call a black millionaire doctor who cures cancer?”
“Nigger.”

9

Mao Cheng Ji 08.09.13 at 4:10 pm

Mistaken identity. The store clerk look at her and, based on his experience, concluded that she is probably not well off enough to shop there. For this story to be about racism, the clerk would have to refuse to let her in because she is black. But there is no doubt that had she pulled out her platinum (or whatever metal billionaires get) amex card, he would’ve immediately kissed her ass.

The fact is that she can shop there. But most people indeed can’t. What about them?

10

Anderson 08.09.13 at 4:34 pm

I think a stereotype that black = poor is going on there.

11

js. 08.09.13 at 5:12 pm

The store clerk look at her and, based on his experience, concluded that she is probably not well off enough to shop there.

I realize that this probably won’t get through, but this actually means that this story is about racism. The clerk’s “experience”, in any plausible sense of the term, has shit-all to do with it; the clerk’s preconceptions and prejudices, on the other hand, are doing a whole lot of work. See also, Coates and his son, Gates, etc., etc.

12

Corey 08.09.13 at 5:13 pm

“Mistaken identity. The store clerk look at her and, based on his experience, concluded that she is probably not well off enough to shop there. For this story to be about racism, the clerk would have to refuse to let her in because she is black.”

@Mao Cheng Ji

Not at all. A billionare walks into a luxury handbag shop and is told she “can’t afford” these handbags. How does the clerk know? It’s not like Oprah showed up in sweat pants. It’s a good guess that the “sign” she couldn’t afford it was…that she’s black! (Surprise!)

And except for the most virulent racists, most people know that their racist attitudes cannot be expressed publicly and directly, and would rarely ever (even if they we deeply racist) say something as straightforward as “I’m sorry, you’re black, you can’t shop here.”

13

engels 08.09.13 at 5:19 pm

MCJ – I’m never sure whether you’re claiming that racism doesn’t exist, or that it does exist but doesn’t matter, because classism is just as bad anyway. (Not that the second position seems to make much more sense…)

14

engels 08.09.13 at 5:20 pm

But there is no doubt

You sure? You do know there have been studies about this sort of thing…

15

Anderson 08.09.13 at 5:32 pm

But there is no doubt that had she pulled out her platinum (or whatever metal billionaires get) amex card, he would’ve immediately kissed her ass.

One might also add that before the Civil Rights Act of 1965, white merchants, innkeepers, etc. routinely excluded blacks from many stores etc., despite the fact that the blacks were willing and able to pay. Only a jejeune Marxist, or a libertarian, would imagine that money is always the decisive factor.

16

Barry Freed 08.09.13 at 6:23 pm

So apparently a lot of freed slaves took “Waring,” because it was their former owner’s last name, a common thing to do (which, I understand Malcolm X on this one. Slave name!). You end up with a bunch of black Warings and only a few white ones.

With more contemporary sensibilities at work I suppose you could have had a bunch of black people walking around with the last name of Waring-Sucks.

17

Shelby 08.09.13 at 7:05 pm

before the Civil Rights Act of 1965, white merchants, innkeepers, etc. routinely excluded blacks from many stores etc.

It’s my understanding that this most often occurred because state laws forbade merchants and inkeepers to serve both black and white customers, not because the merchants were unwilling to sell to blacks. Is there any reliable evidence one way or the other? Say, a study that looked at exclusion by merchants in states that lack such laws but were neighbors of states that had them?

18

Anderson 08.09.13 at 7:34 pm

this most often occurred because state laws forbade merchants and inkeepers to serve both black and white customers, not because the merchants were unwilling to sell to blacks

And how much pressure were the merchants putting on the legislature? Any? Remember who was *making* the laws in the first place. If there is evidence of a Southern state where the commercial interests pushed for desegregation, I would be interested to learn of it.

19

yabonn 08.09.13 at 8:12 pm

How does the clerk know? It’s not like Oprah showed up in sweat pants.

I remember a few years ago O. Winfrey had Found Racism in a store in the Champs-Elysées. Same story, as far as I remember. I was surprised back then : luxury shops shops around there need, like, cater to, Africa’s One Percenters (and One Percenters from everywhere, yes).

I think – at least for the C-E episode – she showed up in sweat pants, and expected to be famous.

20

Bloix 08.09.13 at 8:14 pm

Re Oprah: Condoleezza Rice told the same story, about a clerk who steered her to the “fashion” (ie costume) jewelry counter because she wouldn’t be able to afford the “good” jewelry. And you could hear the suppressed fury in her voice when she told it. I wouldn’t be surprised if every upper middle class black woman has a version of this event in her life.

Not only the women – I recall the story of a black D.C. law firm partner who, on entering his own firm’s reception area after hours one evening, was confronted by a junior lawyer he didn’t know, who asked him aggressively, “May I help you?”

And every middle class black person, male or female, has had taxis drive on by.

21

Bruce Wilder 08.09.13 at 8:32 pm

Yes, it is terrible thing to have people confuse race for class.

22

Bruce Wilder 08.09.13 at 8:35 pm

If the confusion led Ms Rice to a social conscience instead of a taste for Ferragamo, we might admire her character, but, alas, . . .

23

js. 08.09.13 at 8:47 pm

I think – at least for the C-E episode – she showed up in sweat pants, and expected to be famous.

You know, if you read the damn article, you’d find out what she was wearing. Not that that is the least fucking bit relevant, I might add.

24

Zb 08.09.13 at 8:48 pm

25

Bruce Wilder 08.09.13 at 8:51 pm

Shelby @ 17

It’s my understanding that this most often occurred because state laws forbade merchants and inkeepers to serve both black and white customers, not because the merchants were unwilling to sell to blacks. Is there any reliable evidence one way or the other?

An elderly friend of mine, a privileged Jew, just a few days ago, told me a story about how he was stationed, for basic training, at Lackland AFB, in Mississippi during his brief time in the service. This would have been in the early 1960s or so, I guess; he told me, but the detail skipped out on me. He, and his best friend at the time, who was an African-American, stepped out the gate of the base, home to ~17,000 airmen, and walked into a pizza parlour — this, again within a block or two of an airbase with a population of 17,000! — and sat down. They were ignored, and my friend, finally asked for service. The apparent owner walked out from the counter or kitchen, came over to their table, looked my friend over, pausing for dramatic effect, and then, said, emphatically, gesturing to my friend’s black companion, “Him I have to serve; you, I don’t.”

They departed the restaurant, and never left the base, again.

26

lupita 08.09.13 at 9:00 pm

My great-great-grandfather killed Emiliano Zapata.

27

yabonn 08.09.13 at 9:10 pm

Hey js 23, nice to meet you.

As we are on the subject of reading, relevance, etc : the “C-E” in my comment stand for “Champs Elysées”.

28

Main Street Muse 08.09.13 at 9:14 pm

To assume one with black skin does not have sufficient money to even see an expensive item (let alone buy it) is racist. There is something invidious in believing that only white people can attain wealth.

But there are many many people who feel the Trayon Martin/George Zimmerman confrontation had nothing to do with race either. Zimmerman’s suspicions of the teenager could be defined as “hoodyism” I guess.

Oprah story linked above also has this interesting nugget:

“Oprah’s allegations come amid a political row over plans by some Swiss towns to ban asylum-seekers from frequenting public places such as school playgrounds, swimming pools and libraries. The draconian restrictions have been likened to Apartheid and angrily denounced by human rights groups as intolerable and racist.”

So this high-profile incident comes as the Swiss debate these “draconian restrictions” on outsiders.

29

Norwegian Guy 08.09.13 at 9:14 pm

“And every middle class black person, male or female, has had taxis drive on by.”

While that may well be true, it is also the case that taxi drivers are often immigrants, and in many cities more likely to be black than their passengers are.

Anarcissie’s comment at http://crookedtimber.org/2013/08/08/everybodys-racist/comment-page-2/#comment-477212 could have some relevance for this question. There is a difference between the attitudes “blacks are likely to be poor” and “black ought to be poor”, and while some people agree with both of them it is not obvious that the Zürich store clerk did. Institutional racism, perhaps, but not necessarily personal.

30

Main Street Muse 08.09.13 at 9:29 pm

“Institutional racism, perhaps, but not necessarily personal.”

And this makes it a better kind of racism?

31

js. 08.09.13 at 9:49 pm

the “C-E” in my comment stand for “Champs Elysées”.

Yeah, I got that. The relevance of this fact to anything beyond its own quiddity still escapes me, unfortunately.

32

Ronan(rf) 08.09.13 at 10:04 pm

I have to say I’m with Mao (without having read all the comments), add the ‘Swiss attitude’ to high end luxury retail and I’m sure a number of factors were at play. I (personally) am not exactly eaten up that the billionaire couldnt buy an expensive bag

33

yabonn 08.09.13 at 10:08 pm

js 31
The relevance of this fact to anything beyond its own quiddity still escapes me, unfortunately.

It escapes you! Damn!

Ah well. Thanks anyway for sharing what you got and what you didn’t, and all.

34

Ronan(rf) 08.09.13 at 10:13 pm

“I happen to know that a distant ancestor inherited a plantation there through marriage “

This, would be fascinating with context. Was it an act of astonishing humanity, or ‘we cant maintain this system, time to make a run for it’ ?

35

Chaz 08.09.13 at 10:25 pm

28: “So this high-profile incident comes as the Swiss debate these “draconian restrictions” on outsiders.”

Only outsiders from poor African and Asian countries. Oprah and Bill Gates and Robert Mugabe are still welcome to bring their lovely money.

In the Oprah handbag incident, I agree with the popular opinion that the Swiss person was racist*, and I also agree with MJC’s sentiment that Oprah sucks, and rich people suck, and expensive handbags suck.

*She’s racist for assuming black=poor. She did still try to serve Oprah (with a cheaper bag) and there’s no reason to think she dislikes black people (depends what she thinks of poor people I guess). Refusing to show the handbag was rude because you should show your customer whatever fucking handbag they want to see no matter how poor they are. I think the woman would have been happy to show Oprah or Tiger Woods or Robert Mugabe the handbag once they explained how fabulously wealthy they were.

36

Ronan(rf) 08.09.13 at 10:30 pm

I don’t see why a high end Swiss bag shop would assume Oprah was poor, this isn’t Forest Whitaker being searched in his corner deli. Its more than likely this is a shop committed to serving the rich (white or not) I’m pretty sure they know the rich come in all shapes and sizes

37

Chaz 08.09.13 at 10:34 pm

Ronan, never underestimate stupidity.

38

Mao Cheng Ji 08.09.13 at 10:37 pm

Yes, sometimes it’s hard to guess your net worth/status from the way you look. Happened to me a few times too, because of the clothes I like to wear. Shit happens. When this happens to me, it makes me feel happy that I’m in fact much better off than most. There are plenty of actual homeless people around, you know, without a gold mastercard in the wallet. And I am not even a billionaire.

39

Ronan(rf) 08.09.13 at 10:40 pm

Personal stupidity perhaps, not systemic racism though? Once you earn your first billion you’re on your own, surely?

40

JW Mason 08.09.13 at 10:43 pm

The Mao /Ronan two step works like this:

Step 1 is where you say race doesn’t matter any more, just class. If black people are worse off than whites today, that’s just because they’re poorer. Race itself doesn’t come into it.

Step 2 comes when someone offers, as a counter example to your claim in step 1, an example of a rich black person being mistreated in some way because of their race. Now you start huffing and puffing about why should we sympathize with this privileged rich person. Of course the reason we are talking about a rich person is to show that race continues to affect people independent of class, but you pretend to miss the point.

It’s pretty slick.

41

Ronan(rf) 08.09.13 at 10:47 pm

I never said race doesnt come into it. I think it does, all the time.* Im saying *this time* it probably doesnt/or why should I care?

*Equally in leftist circles

42

Ronan(rf) 08.09.13 at 10:52 pm

Show me a middle class African American harrassed in a NY coffee shop, fine I’ll agree. Show me a working class African immigrant bullied out of a small union, fine I’ll agree. Show me Oprah Winfrey not able to buy an expensive purse in f**king Switzeland? I’m not buying sytemic racims, tbh

43

Mao Cheng Ji 08.09.13 at 10:52 pm

Race itself does come into this, as a consequence of black people being on average much poorer. That is why poor Oprah has to suffer: because she looks just like poor people look. So, what do you want: to force everybody not to notice that she looks like one of the poor people? Good luck.

44

Bruce Wilder 08.09.13 at 10:56 pm

I’ve seen Oprah in person, and I think I might understand the shop clerk’s revulsion, if she showed up without makeup and in sweats, was it?

This desire to use the awkward experiences of very wealthy people to lecture on the evils of racism strikes me as fundamentally off.

Sure, I’d like to think a clerk in a high-end store, like some latter-day Baucis or Philemon, would be gracious to a bag lady walking in, off the street, on the off-chance this person turned out to be an Olympian god or 21st century celebrity. But, shouldn’t the moral concern be how real bag ladies, not the celebrities, who look a lot like bag ladies, and want over-priced handbags as status enhancements, are treated? And, not just on the odd occasions when they wander onto high street.

45

engels 08.09.13 at 11:04 pm

Gonna regret this but: MCJ would you similarly argue that it’s not a problem if blacks get stopped and searched 10 times more often than whites because they ‘look like criminals’ or lose jobs to less qualified white applicants for this reason? It’s not racism, just heuristics I assume?

46

Paul 08.09.13 at 11:22 pm

Hmm, there are lots of melanin-rich folks with my surname though my immediate family didn’t come to America til 1970 or so. So some of my kinfolks who came earlier were slaveowners. Between that and a son of an old Virginia family suggesting my tanning ability was due to some long ago miscegenation (“you sure you ain’t got a nigger in the woodpile?”), race is as American as violence and cherry pie, to update H Rap Brown’s quote.

47

Mao Cheng Ji 08.09.13 at 11:25 pm

It was $38,000 bag, she wanted to buy.
“A few people took the part of the crocodile, whose skin had been used to make the bag in question.”
http://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/swiss_news/Oprah_Winfrey_accuses_Zurich_boutique_of_racism.html?rss=true&cid=36643840

engels, for the searches: I can’t vouch for all 100% of the cases, but yes, it has to be a big part of it. I’m sure men are are also stopped much more often than women, and 25 year olds much more often than 65 year olds.

For losing jobs, I don’t know. Post a link.

What is your explanation for the searches, and for the Oprah story, by the way? What had happen to the store clerk in Zurich; how did he become an evil person? And how did you manage to avoid becoming one?

48

Belle Waring 08.09.13 at 11:59 pm

You know what’s funny e’erybody? This is still about 1000X more pleasant than when I either a) post about feminism or b) post about some other shit but get threadjacked. That’s because none of us is black in America so we don’t really have to care all the time every day, right? We can just care sometimes, when we feel interested. OTOH if I say Sady Doyle’s review of GoT seems like a reasonable one (granting that opinions differ) and that it may well be that a fantasy book you male commenters read is sexist as fuck (like oh so, so so, many of the other ones that I love), but nonetheless enjoyable and a cracking good read, well Katie bar the door because 200 comments on what a bitch she is and how you’re mad that I unfairly said you were sexist [READING FAIL] are headed my way.

OK one of our commenters is black, but Canadian, and since Canada is mysterious I don’t know how that works (I can’t remember if he identifies on this board so I’ll leave it). Truly, I would be interested to know what the race relations are like in the place that was the ultimate destination for the underground railroad. Even in the North you were never safe. You could be a free-born citizen of America and get kidnapped into slavery by some…fuck, human poachers or something, I don’t think we have a word for how horrible this occupation is. Canada was like: Ultima Thule of Freedom. That was why you had to be prevented by law from teaching people to read; they’d find out about escaping, they’d find out about Canada. Nobody can reach you up there. Lots of escaped slaves who made it to Philadelphia or New York with the help of the Underground Railroad were invited to stay and be part of that community and were like, noooo, thank you. We are moving the hell out of the USA.

49

JW Mason 08.10.13 at 12:08 am

Speaking of awkward conversations, I spent a night in jail recently. (Nothing serious, just an unfortunate intersection of my own stupidity with the stupidity of the NYC police.) So I got driven in a squad car from the station to the little court in Red Hook, and on the way the two cops up front were discussing politics. One of them, I guess, had been watching some video about “the Obama Conspiracy,” and they were discussing the various forces he was supposed to answer to. Sure, Obama was bad, one of them said, but he was nothing next to Lincoln. Lincoln was the worst president ever. The slaves never had the right to become citizens, Lincoln just worked it that way “to create more votes for the liberals.” It was the biggest fraud in history.

Now, it may be that when these cops stop a black man, they have only a heuristic interest in his race. But it also may be that they don’t entirely forget that he’s a fake citizen, who only has rights because of a liberal trick.

50

jb 08.10.13 at 12:12 am

“What is your explanation for the searches, and for the Oprah story, by the way? What had happen to the store clerk in Zurich; how did he become an evil person? And how did you manage to avoid becoming one?”

Oh, for goodness’ sake.

“Racist” does not automatically equal “evil”. It is very possible for some one who is overall a decent and kind person to have quite prejudiced attitudes, and to occasionally act badly based on them. Almost everybody is probably prejudiced to some degree, even if unconsciously so. The storekeeper might well be a decent person, he just showed some prejudice here.

This does not mean that prejudice is a good thing, or that it shouldn’t be fought.

As for the other comments, am I to gather that discrimination must happen to a sympathetic figure in order to count?

51

Ronan(rf) 08.10.13 at 12:18 am

Sure, I’ve been in all white unions (on the fringes) when the word n****r has been used freely. Or spent time with friends on the dole who have talked about ‘Nigerians’ getting all sorts of (non quantified) benefits. Got into taxis where they have told me to ‘keep it in the country’ etc
I agree racism exists, but not in high end Swiss boutique fashion shops..I dont think you could find a store which caters for the rich that holds explicitly racist policies in western Europe

52

jb 08.10.13 at 12:20 am

Mason@49

I suspect that it differs from cop to cop. I don’t think the views of those cops were representative of most NYC policemen. (The majority of them may be anti-Obama, but I doubt that most of them think the abolition of slavery was a BAD thing. At least, I HOPE not.)

This is not to say that things like “stop-and-frisk”, or the disproportionate imprisonment of blacks aren’t clear examples of institutional racism. It is possible that most of the people involved in imposing these aren’t personally prejudiced, but that doesn’t mean that these practices aren’t institutionally racist.

53

jb 08.10.13 at 12:24 am

“I agree racism exists, but not in high end Swiss boutique fashion shops.”

So you don’t think racism exists among the rich as well as the poor?

54

Ronan(rf) 08.10.13 at 12:27 am

Of course not.
I dont think high end Swiss boutique fashion shops (systemicatically and specifically) discriminate against non whites, b/c they’re selling shit, and they know their customers are generally quite diverse

55

Ronan(rf) 08.10.13 at 12:28 am

I think Western societies do in a whole lot of ways that affect people who arent Oprah Winfrey

56

john c. halasz 08.10.13 at 12:33 am

@48:

Africville, Halifax, Nova Scotia. It’s like a skin rash, eh? Follows with you, wherever you go.

57

Mao Cheng Ji 08.10.13 at 12:52 am

“The storekeeper might well be a decent person, he just showed some prejudice here. “

Where did he get that prejudice? And, if I’m not wrong to assume that you would never refuse to show the $38,000 purse to a black person, how did you manage to avoid getting this prejudice?

58

Belle Waring 08.10.13 at 12:58 am

Now to respond (since I’ve been happily asleep for a while):
Shelby, don’t even with this tired libertarian bullshit about how the magic of the marketplace would have solved segregation and it was all s33kritly the fault of white, Democratic-run government. (To be sure, it was a very huge part the fault of the white Democratic-run government! They were all horrible, horrible creatures.) There are a few small towns outside Savannah that had public pools before the Civil Rights Act. I’m pretty sure Statesboro had one, but I would have to ask somebody. Do you know what they did when they were legally obliged to allow black citizens in? They drained and filled and shut down the pools. They all would rather have no pool at all for their own selves than let “them” be sharing the pool. See: nose, the cutting off of in order to spite one’s face. Really, think about it! It’s so hot! And nobody could afford any air-conditioning then, such as was available. Imagine the children who had spent all summer the year before in the pool with their friends. What did their parents say to them?

Mao: your radical views on class warfare are well-known from your previous, widely-published writings. There’s really no need to go on here.

Bruce Wilder: that is some sexist bullshit. She didn’t do her foundation and concealer how you like? Maybe she curled her lashes but she didn’t put on a few falsies at the outer edge to really bring her eyes out? She should have at least used some lip gloss? Or if you’re telling me that every black woman in her 50s who’s wearing sweatpants looks like ‘a bag lady’ then you just hit the racism/sexism exacta! You may collect your winnings in comments at Steve Sailer’s blog.

59

Rich Puchalsky 08.10.13 at 1:17 am

I was actually annoyed enough by the sweat pants thing to try to figure out how it got introduced. I googled around for both stories of Oprah confronting shopping racism in Europe, and the sweatpants thing just wasn’t there. For the incident in a Hermes shop, some people said that she tried to get in after it was closed (but still open for a private event) but no versions of either story say that she was plainly dressed.

As far as I can tell, it became a trope in this thread with Corey @ 12 writing “It’s not like Oprah showed up in sweat pants” and then yabonn @ 19 writing “I think – at least for the C-E episode – she showed up in sweat pants, and expected to be famous.” Which is a classic reversal that happens in stories involving black people. One of the famous psychology experiments I remember reading about is that if you show people a picture of a white man on a subway holding a knife and threatening a black man, then ask people to redraw the picture from memory, a large percentage of them will redraw it with the knife in the black man’s hand.

60

js. 08.10.13 at 1:35 am

So…, what I’m getting is: if a black person happens to be rich/a celebrity, then it’s open season on her*. This is the position you want to defend? Are you fucking kidding me? Also, what’s with the Oprah hate?

*Or him I guess, though I somehow suspect that at least some of the reactions would be at least somewhat different in that case.

61

Main Street Muse 08.10.13 at 1:42 am

To JS – I think that if a really rich black man (say Michael Jordan) went public with the diss he got for being considered too poor to look at a particular product in a Swiss store, we’d be livid with the Swiss – the entire nation. Oprah ignites different passions, it seems.

[All I can say – the near west side of Chicago was transformed by Harpo Studios – and I’m sure they’re really missing Oprah in the ‘hood. She has an economic impact that one cannot underestimate. Swiss were stupid to do so.]

62

lupita 08.10.13 at 1:48 am

Maybe the store employee meant that the world cannot afford ladies who can afford $38000 handbags?

63

Witt 08.10.13 at 1:49 am

You know what’s funny e’erybody? This is still about 1000X more pleasant than when I either a) post about feminism or b) post about some other shit but get threadjacked. That’s because none of us is black in America so we don’t really have to care all the time every day, right? We can just care sometimes, when we feel interested.

This times 100. Belle, I am grateful for nearly every word you write, but especially for these.

64

Ronan(rf) 08.10.13 at 1:59 am

‘Europe’ has real problem trying to find a way to deal with racism/immigration/’asylum seeking’/nativism in a humane and sensible manner. This has nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing to do with Oprah Winfreys ability to buy 25 grand bags in Switzerland
European racism is a real phenomenon, EurOpracism is not

65

Lee A. Arnold 08.10.13 at 2:24 am

Belle #48 — I have not read any fiction in 30 years and I don’t have a TV but thanks for referring me to Sady Doyle because I watched a short clip of GoT on YouTube and I imagine she’s got it right. The only awkward conversation I had with a black person was awkward for him not me, because he thought I had to be a privileged prejudiced white kid but I never was. But he was a very cool guy who’d read Malcolm X and quickly recovered his cool. Consequently we got stoned on the rooftop of an old Bell Telephone building in Camden N.J. in the humid late summer evening sun, ignoring our swingshift janitorial duties (he had been hired under what was called in those days “reverse discrimination” policy) and discussing how fucked up the world is, getting totally wasted while overlooking the skyline of what was and still is one of the most horrifying urban wastelands.

66

js. 08.10.13 at 2:27 am

‘Europe’ has real problem trying to find a way to deal with racism/immigration/’asylum seeking’/nativism in a humane and sensible manner. This has nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing to do with Oprah Winfreys ability to buy 25 grand bags in Switzerland
European racism is a real phenomenon, EurOpracism is not

I wanted to write a slightly longer response, and this is a good enough foil.

First of all, what JW Mason said @40; see also Bloix @20. And I take it that it’s at least somewhat implicit when Main Street Muse first brought the case up @5 (if that’s not true, apologies.)

And the response to this on several people’s part—several people who generally have very smart things to say on these threads—was… Well I can’t possibly sympathize with some billionaire wanting to buy a bag worth thousands of dollars.

Which, fine. No one’s asking for your sympathy really. But what one might sorta kinda expect on a CT thread is some understanding of how race perception and racism works, and why (again) it’s utterly irrelevant what WO’s net worth is, whether she was wearing sweat pants or Donna Karan, or whatever else. The point, relatively obvious one would have thought, is that the default assumptions work entirely differently depending on whether you’re white or black.*

And sure, let’s all hate on WO and her billions or whatever, but at the same time, let’s also note that it’s the very same default assumptions that lead to a black teenager in a hoodie getting shot and killed where a white teenager in a hoodie would not have been shot and killed. That’s the whole point: the assumptions and the mechanisms are exactly the same, it’s just that the consequences that are different depending on whether you’re in Zurich boutique, a Florida subdivision, a Manhattan deli, or a Cambridge doorstep.

*Or brown or whatever, and the assumptions are going to be quite distinct again, and they’re not terribly relevant here.

67

Meredith 08.10.13 at 2:32 am

This whole sweatpants business (however apocryphal) got me thinking (not for the first time) about the profound advantages of my own WASP background. No real wealth in my family history, mostly farmers and teachers and social workers and the occasional mid-level business person or doctor. But deeply engrained in my sensibilities: I can walk into any store I like, dressed in jeans and t-shirt with my hair dirty, examine the goods and expect to be treated respectfully (assuming I treat others respectfully). And I have done just that, visited very expensive stores the way I visit museums, just to look. (Or, in the case of clothing stores, to feel. I love to feel fine fabrics and examine well-made clothes.) No clerk has ever treated me with anything but the respect due any customer, and not just because I was always polite and carried myself with a certain self-assurance (which I am sure Oprah also did), but because I did so while being white.

68

Ronan(rf) 08.10.13 at 2:34 am

But Oprah not getting a bag in a Swiss boutique is more than likely a perceived class issue, not race. European millionaire boutiques are cosmopolitan Utopias. This isnt disingenuous, afaics

69

Ronan(rf) 08.10.13 at 2:38 am

That was towards js’ comment, and I’m not trying to be ‘smart’.

70

Witt 08.10.13 at 2:38 am

Okay, just for the heck of it I did a back-of-the-envelope tally on this thread. Out of 64 comments:

6 Relevant anecdotes
3 Responses from the OP
4 On-topic quips
16 Dismissive remarks (probably should be more, I was being kind in my grading here)
7 On-topic remarks or questions
6 Explanatory notes
12 Arguing with the troll
7 Disputing the troll’s contentions
9 [including my own] unclassified

Bottom line: 28/64 comments taken up with trolling or arguing with the troll. Not bad for a race thread.

71

js. 08.10.13 at 2:41 am

But Oprah not getting a bag in a Swiss boutique is more than likely a perceived class issue, not race.

And on what basis is her class being inferred, do you think?

72

Ronan(rf) 08.10.13 at 2:46 am

Until we see the specifics we’re speculating. There are *very wealthy* non whites who shop in top end European shops. Its not a rare phenomenon. If this was Sainsburys I *might* agree. But (imo) perspective is important

73

Ronan(rf) 08.10.13 at 3:33 am

If Oprah’s intention was to show that there is still racism in Europe she could have done it in a way that made sense. She could have pointed to the immigrant camps in Greece, the militarised Med, the ‘Burqa Ban’ in France, the murder of Marioara Rostas (and the lack of public outcry) in Ireland, the rise of the far right in England..there are any number of examples, continent wide, but recognising them would have involved putting herself outside of the context of US racial politics, and making it *not* about her
If her intention was to highlight that she was offered a less expensive bag in a millionaires boutique, well that’s kind of ridiculous. Millionaire boutiques have any number of reasons for offering you a less expensive bag, and really, so what..?
Oprah wasnt profiled and shot because of her race in Florida, she was offered a less expensive bag after Tina Turners wedding in Switzerland for reasons we cant ever really know..and..eh

74

nick 08.10.13 at 3:53 am

is the point that a rich black person being unable to shop for Gucci is probably, dunno, “less bad” than a middle-class black person being unable to hail a cab? if so, sure, maybe I’d even agree…. but that’s not the point. the point is for a bunch of trolls to hate on an uppity black woman. so let’s all not play.

75

Ronan(rf) 08.10.13 at 3:59 am

“the point is for a bunch of trolls to hate on an uppity black woman. so let’s all not play.”

Okay I’m done. I won’t comment on it again. Fwiw, imo, the point is that race is not the best explanation for staff attitudes in European boutiques. Maybe a bit of an explanation. Mybe none at all. Who knows.

76

Dr. Hilarius 08.10.13 at 4:47 am

Racism does go hand-in-hand with economic perceptions. One of my former supervisors is now a judge on the Court of Appeals. He is black. He told me how he is careful to always dress well if he leaves home, less apt to be seen as just another shiftless black male. One of my co-workers, a black woman attorney, went to the county jail to visit a client. She also was very careful about her appearance (much more so than many of the white attorneys). Despite having photo ID and a state bar card, she was not allowed to enter the jail until a corrections officer called the office to confirm she was really an attorney. The officers assumed she was some inmate’s girlfriend trying to evade visiting limitations.

As for the name issue, my father was career Air Force and we were transferred to lovely Smyrna, Tennessee in 1965. The house we rented had a broken oven. When the repair man heard our last name, it’s Irish, he refused to come out to service the oven. Turns out that everyone of that name in the area was black. My father was so angry he didn’t even try to explain the we all were white folks and hung up.

77

Fu Ko 08.10.13 at 5:03 am

Clicking through on the Oprah link, it says the clerk told her that that bag was too expensive, so she should get this other one.

It’s not at all clear that this had anything to do with race. She might well say that to everyone who asks about the $38k bag, or about similarly priced items. It might have been a sales tactic: try to goad the person into buying the bag just to prove they can afford it.

78

Meredith 08.10.13 at 5:33 am

Ronan(rf) and a few others, I could elaborate on my shopping-as-museum experiences, for instance, in Italy, in some very amazing shops. A particularly wonderful experience in Como stands out (go there in January, when few tourists are about, to view the amazing silk and woolen textiles), and I can assure you that, much as I love Italians (I’m a more than a little crazy that way), if my skin had been dark and even if I had been clearly rich rather than unable to afford anything in this shop, I would not have been treated to a display of the textiles kept under lock and key in the back room (the small shop being a retail outlet for a small, hundreds years’ old textile manufacturer). I rather suspect the same would be true in Switzerland. Shopping while white is very different from shopping while dark, no matter your class.

Which is not to say any of us knows anything about this specific Swiss shop clerk, who may well be blameless. Just saying that class and race intersect in complicated ways — and that’s part of what Belle’s post is about, I think, and many comments here have been threading that implication of her post.

Witt @70 has a point, though. When I first read Belle’s post and before I’d read the comments, this is the story I thought of. Involves my older brother (Belle’s post could also get us all riffing on sisters and brothers — actually, that’s something we should all maybe talk about more), who had a girlfriend who was freshly here from Germany. This in the early-mid 1960’s. Over dinner one night (actually, a Sunday afternoon, I think — those were the days), in response to something or other in the mayhem of conversation, she caught the whole table’s gasping attention with her perplexed observation, “I never knew any Jews in Germany.” My parents may have poured her some more wine, but they didn’t hesitate also to explain to her why she did not know any Jews in Germany between 1945 and 1963 (or whatever exactly the dates were).
(Footnote: that German girlfriend and I, a million years later, have ended up living in the same county in a different state, and she owns an amazing clothing store, full of curious and wonderful textiles….)

79

Collin Street 08.10.13 at 5:46 am

she could have done it in a way that made sense.

Ain’t possible. Remember: racists are racist, thus prejudiced, thus ipso facto irrational. To a racist, no demonstration of the problems with racism will “make sense”.

80

Ronan(rf) 08.10.13 at 5:50 am

I’m sorry to break my self imposed banishment so quickly (and honestly, this is it!) but to my mind Meredith’s comments are generally one of the best things on this site.. just to reply quickly, I’m really not trying to argue that race isnt important in Europe, or that it wouldnt be easier to be ‘white’/native in Como or any number of other places..just that (i think) at Oprah Winfreys level in the context of where she was shopping, it makes no difference. Elite shops (afaics) arent that discriminating, and it really does seem to be a problem in her situation. Although it undoubtedly is in a number of other circumstances
I’m sorry I got involved in the sidetracking here, and personally I agree with the post, but the Oprah W moment is to tone deaf (imo) to the very real problems Europe has

81

bad Jim 08.10.13 at 5:50 am

Let’s not be ridiculous. It’s a matter of race. Like Meredith, I’m a scruffy middle-aged white male and I’m accustomed to deference from sales personnel. No one would ever try to talk me out of a purchase from a presumption that I couldn’t afford it, and why should they? They can assess my ability to pay before I walk out of the store with the goods.

Nothing but prejudice could lead a salesperson to prevent a sale. It’s not out of the question that the clerk thought the firm would not want its wares associated with someone so obviously undesirable.

82

Ronan(rf) 08.10.13 at 5:54 am

“I’m a scruffy middle-aged white male and I’m accustomed to deference from sales personnel. No one would ever try to talk me out of a purchase from a presumption that I couldn’t afford it”

They probably would, if it cost 25 grand, in fairness!

83

Meredith 08.10.13 at 6:08 am

Ronan(rf), she replies blushing (and I am old to be blushing): I took all your comments about the Swiss clerk and so forth as insistence that people understand the sophistication, and the economic realities, of high-end European shops. And felt free to respond to them with quick building on rather than needing to reassure. Just as I think bad Jim knows I am female, so his “like Meredith” clause is askew — but not. I enjoy so when as male and female we really are one!

84

bad Jim 08.10.13 at 7:04 am

Ronan, that’s never been my experience. I actually am pretty well-to-do, so perhaps I project an affluence field which elite sales folk can detect. More likely, as a white male of a certain age, I’m given the benefit of the doubt, and why not?

The risk is slight; extremely expensive retailers are seldom overcome by the volume of customers. Sales folk may reasonably fear wasting their time, but their alternative is typically idleness. When it comes to a sale, the customer’s ability to pay is easily and reliably ascertained.

Meredith, I had in mind your response at 67, and thought you male (although “dirty hair” should have been a clue, in retrospect; though guys have similar issues, they tend to phrase them differently). Your 78 is awesome; similar experiences I’ve had were due to being with friends more engaging than I am.

85

Mao Cheng Ji 08.10.13 at 7:11 am

You can’t be serious, bad Jim. How many $38,000 purses have they let you handle recently?

Tell you what: go walk into a Ferrari dealership, and demand a test-drive of their $500,000 model. They are just going to hand you the key because you’re white, I’m sure. And a 500K car to the average car is still nowhere near to 38K purse to the average purse.

86

bad Jim 08.10.13 at 7:48 am

This is an awkward thing to ask, but: don’t you know the difference between a bag and a car?

87

Nine 08.10.13 at 8:02 am

“Sure, I’d like to think a clerk in a high-end store, like some latter-day Baucis or Philemon, would be gracious to a bag lady walking in”

This scenario is not nearly as absurd as Bruce Wilder seems to beleive it is. Several years ago, I did booth duty at an industry expo demoing a high end enterprise solution – $ 1M for four CPU’s kind of deal – & prior to the expo had to attend training on booth etiquette . We were told in no uncertain terms to never jump to any conclusions based on the appearance of a prospective customer – the training even had a skit with one actor-as-customer in business casuals and another in full debauched Axl Rose costumery the point of which was to demonstrate that the pair might well be a bedraggled silicon valley billionaire with his hired hand neat-freak CTO in tow. I imagine this sort of thing is even more common in high end swiss boutiques where french techno-folk rock millionaires & balkan warlords & turkish drug dealers etc buy expensive shit for their big haired girlfriends who probably don’t look like commentator Meredith .

88

Daniel 08.10.13 at 8:13 am

What’s the point of these two minute hates directed against southern white proles?

Oh, I get it, they are their own point.

89

bad Jim 08.10.13 at 8:32 am

We have so many Tesla sedans running around town that they may not even qualify as status symbols for long.

Truth to tell, I’m roughly the kind of guy who could be in the market for a Ferrari. Oprah, likewise, is roughly the kind of gal who would be in the market for an insanely expensive purse. Our outward signifiers differ most signally in terms of race and sex, and it’s left as an exercise to the student to determine which is the likeliest explanation for disparate treatment.

Nobody’s ever tried to stop me from buying something because they didn’t think I could afford the purchase. I’m physically unprepossessing, stooped, scraggly and snaggle-toothed, perhaps respectable since spectacled, not much to look at. Oprah’s fat and black. I’m confident that the difference in our respective treatment owes more to the color of our skin than our wealth.

90

Mao Cheng Ji 08.10.13 at 9:08 am

Fair enough, bad Jim. I have my doubts, but perhaps you’re right and the Zurich clerk would’ve just handed that 38K purse to you. But what are the mechanics of it? I’m sure it’s not something they teach you at a Zurich public school.

“What’s the point of these two minute hates directed against southern white proles?”

High annoyance at the shortcomings of one’s native parochial culture is not uncommon. Especially among expats and cosmopolitan types in general. If you’re one of those it’s not difficult to understand: just examine what you feel about your own.

91

Fu Ko 08.10.13 at 9:18 am

The assumption that a person could not afford a $38k purse, even if they’re shopping at that kind of store, is pretty reasonable just on a probabilistic basis without regard to who the person is. Most of the clients would not be billionaires; there just aren’t that many billionaires. For someone who is on the edge of being able to afford it (a group who would massively outnumber the billionaires who could easily afford it), telling them “no” is good sales tactics.

92

Fu Ko 08.10.13 at 9:21 am

…I’m reminded of something I read in Stigma — that those who are stigmatized are hyper-sensitive to subtle signs of exclusion, since they have to be (since the signs often are quite subtle). But naturally sometimes they’ll be wrong.

93

yabonn 08.10.13 at 11:00 am

Rich Puchalsky 59

For the incident in a Hermes shop, some people said that she tried to get in after it was closed

So you find O. Winfrey has stamped her feet and yelled racism because another luxury shop didn’t behave Winfrey enough …

no versions of either story say that she was plainly dressed

… but that doesn’t matter, because sweatpants! On a trope!

As far as I can tell, it became a trope in this thread […] Which is a classic reversal that happens in stories involving black people.

And we all know sweatpants are the tool of the racist.

Well damn. Busted.

But, Mr Puchalsky, I don’t care about the sweatpants. No one cares about the sweatpants – except you. And even then, I suspect it’s not true love. I suspect (with no psychology experiment to back this feeling, I admit) that you only care about sweatpants because the enable you to find all the racists in the comments. Actually, I don’t think you really love the sweatpants. You are _using_ the sweatpants, Mr Puchalsky.

And it’s not very nice.

94

chris y 08.10.13 at 11:04 am

I am egregiously white and middle class, yet I have been challenged on my ability to stay in a €150 hotel because I wasn’t (to say the least) smartly turned out. But I think the assistant in the handbag shop was acting in a racist manner.

95

Belle Waring 08.10.13 at 12:17 pm

“What’s the point of these two minute hates directed against southern white proles?
Oh, I get it, they are their own point.”

Daniel, I think you might need to read the OP and thread just a tiiiiiny bit more closely. No, wait, lemme recap. Southern white proles barely even get a look in. Swiss luxury store staff get hit pretty hard, and labor unions, traditionally strongholds of support for Democratic politicians, are revealed to have tolerated racism at the margins. A pair of New York City cops turn out to be, as in the Strokes song “not too smart” and to still strongly oppose the abolition of slavery (!??). People up North think Obama’s their waiter, black law firm partners are shiftless hooligans who need to get checked and wrecked at the door, and a female attorney cannot by any means convince jailers that she is herself. I and one other commenter throw some shade on white Southerners with the “let’s fill our own pool with rocks” routine and the “we won’t let you eat here if a black man eats with you.” Again, mere reportage. I really think you need to start bringing in some evidence to support your whole “Southern white people are not racist, you vile calumniatrix” thing. Or even anecdotes? Bring the motherfu$&king ruckus.

96

jdkbrown 08.10.13 at 1:53 pm

Back in college, about fifteen years ago, I found myself with time to kill in downtown Minneapolis. I like shiny things, and I like watches, and as does Meredith, I occasionally treat shops like museums; so I wandered into the jewelry shop at Dayton’s flagship store. (This wasn’t just the jewelry counter at Macy’s; this was it’s own little shop, with vault doors into Dayton’s and to the outside.) As I’m drooling over the watches, locked away in their cases, just like museum pieces, a salesman walks over and asks if he can help me–not in the “you don’t belong here” way, but in the “welcome” way. I explain that I’m just looking and that I can’t afford a single thing in the shop. But I’m sure he could tell before I even opened my mouth: I looked just like what I was–a scruffy college student with long hair, in ratty jeans and a worn-out t-shirt. Instead of walking away or asking me to leave, the salesman starts to take these beautiful, impossibly thin time-pieces out of the case and proceeds to let me try on $10,000 watches for half an hour, till I had to go meet up with some friends.

Somehow, I don’t think I’d have this story to tell if I were black.

97

Sebastian H 08.10.13 at 2:53 pm

I went to UCSD with a white red head named Tyrone Jackson and a black guy named Patrick Mahoney who were in the same social circle. The number of times those two names got mixed up was amazing (and often repeatedly by the same people).

98

seth edenbaum 08.10.13 at 3:09 pm

“Prole” is a not a term used by the people to whom it refers. More specifically it’s an informal term used by those who consider themselves their superiors. It’s a term of condescension. For condescescion and race google belle waring woorking on a groovy thing, and then DD on the same riots. Truly pathetic. The post above, ditto. To white liberals with little intimate experience of them, negroes are forever strange and other. Perhaps you should sleep with a few. It might help.
Same with others as well: maybe you’ll accept that Zionism is racism after shring a bed with an arab.

As usual, a few of the comments are worth reading.

99

Chris E 08.10.13 at 3:26 pm

“That’s because none of us is black in America”

and you make that assumption based on .. ?

100

CJColucci 08.10.13 at 3:31 pm

Writer Roy Blount, Jr. tells a story from his days at Sports Illustrated. He had been assigned to interview the famously vicious Pittsburgh Steeler defensive back Mel Blount, who, like Roy, came from Georgia, and it occurred to him that they might have shared a last name because of some potentially embarrassing ante-bellum relationship. When Roy raised his concern with his grandfather, the old man reassured him: “Roy, your great-grandpappy didn’t own Mel’s great-grandpappy because your great grand-pappy didn’t own shit.”

101

Mandos 08.10.13 at 3:49 pm

Being a brown person with a funny name in non-English-speaking continental Europe I do have to wonder some of the time how I would be treated if I didn’t speak with an obvious North American English accent. I know I am recognizable by how fast store clerks switch to English (if they know it) when they hear my accent in the local language. And also, the fact that I speak textbook-with-mistakes local language, instead of any kind of “learned on the job” language.

102

djw 08.10.13 at 3:59 pm

Is “Mao Cheng Li” the latest incarnation of Abb1/Henri Vieuxtemps/Data Tutushka? It sure seems like it. (I’d suspect Ronan, too, but s/he’s too stylistically different).

103

js. 08.10.13 at 4:14 pm

Is “Mao Cheng Li” the latest incarnation of Abb1/Henri Vieuxtemps/Data Tutushka?

I’ve assumed so for a bit. Ronan isn’t though, I don’t think.

104

JW Mason 08.10.13 at 4:36 pm

Is “Mao Cheng Li” the latest incarnation of Abb1/Henri Vieuxtemps/Data Tutushka?

Yes, I’m sure he is. I was going to mention this yesterday, and went looking for your description of his persona as a mix of dime-store Marxism and racial know-nothingism. But I couldn’t find it…

105

Daniel 08.10.13 at 4:58 pm

@95

>>I really think you need to start bringing in some evidence to support your whole “Southern white people are not racist, you vile calumniatrix” thing. Or even anecdotes?

Guilty to proven innocent.

Anecdotes? Rarely met one that hasn’t been somewhat fabricated. How about looking for useful data. There is plenty to examine. At the end of the long day, as I see it, one’s racist posture can be measured by ones proximity to the despised. Proximity in habitation, in the schools, at the workplace, in blood, in the heart. Hey, for a start, examine your own Facebook friends roster

106

Mandos 08.10.13 at 5:03 pm

At the end of the long day, as I see it, one’s racist posture can be measured by ones proximity to the despised. Proximity in habitation, in the schools, at the workplace, in blood, in the heart. Hey, for a start, examine your own Facebook friends roster

Translation: some of my best friends are black.

Alternate translation: the real racists are white hermits who live on Antarctica.

107

Mandos 08.10.13 at 5:06 pm

I mean, seriously, only the best oppressors live in proximity to the “despised.”

108

Graydog 08.10.13 at 5:28 pm

Conversation somewhere in Europe with a really nice Ukrainian dude:
‘Where are you from?’
‘South Africa’
‘But where are your [white] parents from?’
‘South Africa’
[Looking confused] ‘And your parents’ parents?’
‘Lithuania’
‘Lithuania! We’re basically family. You must come visit your homeland. You can stay at my place.’

At which point I tactfully neglected to mention that my grandparents only left the motherland because his grandparents pillaged their shtetl.

109

Substance McGravitas 08.10.13 at 5:42 pm

The formula’s mighty convenient for slavers.

110

Mandos 08.10.13 at 5:58 pm

Well, not only that, it’s a fancier way of staking the claim that Southern whites love blacks more than the North does, because they love real black people while The North only loves Abstract Black Person As Rights-Bearing Entity.

111

Mao Cheng Ji 08.10.13 at 6:15 pm

” as a mix of dime-store Marxism and racial know-nothingism”

Is this a reply to me, perchance? Sorry, it’s getting hard to follow. I don’t know what any of this has to do with Marxism, but I did ask, repeatedly, to explain what people mean when they accuse that clerk of racism, thinking that perhaps we are talking about the same thing using different words.

PS. Racial know-nothingism? Heh. I like it. It’s me alright.

112

phosphorious 08.10.13 at 6:17 pm

“Proximity in the heart!”

Where only God can see!

Fan-fucking-tastic!

113

Daniel 08.10.13 at 6:32 pm

@107

>>Well, not only that, it’s a fancier way of staking the claim that Southern whites love blacks more than the North does, because they love real black people while The North only loves Abstract Black Person As Rights-Bearing Entity

No, it is an oblique way of saying that, in my estimation, all commentators here are racist to the core. Deal with it.

114

phosphorious 08.10.13 at 6:41 pm

“all commentators here are THE REAL RACISTS.”

FTFY.

115

engels 08.10.13 at 6:52 pm

I did ask, repeatedly, to explain what people mean when they accuse that clerk of racism

That she discrimated against a woman (decided not to sell her something) because of her race?

I may be wrong but I think you’re agreeing this happened, but you’re also claiming it wasn’t racism because the underlying reason was that she associated being black with being poor. Supposing that to be true, for most people it doesn’t change the fact that it is racism.

116

Witt 08.10.13 at 7:01 pm

1. Know-Nothings.

2. Thirty percent of Americans <a href="http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/08/08/us-usa-poll-race-idUSBRE97704320130808"polled by Reuters do not even have an acquaintance (eg coworker) of a different race or ethnicity.

117

Witt 08.10.13 at 7:02 pm

Argh. Let’s try that again.

Thirty percent (30%) of Americans polled by Reuters do not even have an acquaintance (e.g., a co-worker) of a different race or ethnicity.

118

Katherine 08.10.13 at 7:04 pm

To the people uming and ahing over the apparenrly mysterious motivations of the Swiss shop assistant – maybe, just maybe, Oprah Winfrey is a better judge of her own lived experience than you, random white blog commenter.

119

lupita 08.10.13 at 7:09 pm

It may be prejudice on my part, but I would not blame the sales clerks of boutiques and the bouncers of nightclubs for the snobbishness of the 1%. Those who serve the rich know who to exclude if they do not want their clientele to move on to Dubai, London, New York, or wherever to do their partying and shopping. After all, how can the elite feel exclusive if not by excluding, better still, have others do their excluding for them?

120

Substance McGravitas 08.10.13 at 7:18 pm

It may only be my fractured brain but I believe at least one of the Mao personas was Swiss.

121

Tom West 08.10.13 at 7:27 pm

Ain’t possible. Remember: racists are racist, thus prejudiced, thus ipso facto irrational.

I disagree. There is “statistically rational” racism. If I’m going to interview a number of candidates for a job that requires good facilities with English and I have a large number of applications, I’m going to be picking 1 in 10 to interview anyway. By systematically excluding non-whites (in a high immigration community), I’ve increased the the chance that a random candidate has good facilities with English.

I’ve also done evil.

If we are going to tackle racism, pretending there’s never gain for the individual simply makes us look silly. We need to acknowledge that personally rational action can absolutely be socially damaging.

122

Lee A. Arnold 08.10.13 at 7:40 pm

@116: “I do not like the propinquity of the hoi polloi” — Elliot Templeton (played by Clifton Webb) in The Razor’s Edge (1946).

123

jb 08.10.13 at 7:43 pm

West@111

On the one hand, you are clearly correct. Certain actions can be rational, yet have racist or racially disparate effects. And these actions are often taken because they benefit those doing them.

On the other hand, prejudice, whether in greater or lesser amounts, is not really a rational thing. It comes more from the “gut” than anything else, and as such is more often “rationalized” rather than “adopted rationally” (if that makes any sense). It is seldom possible to persuade someone to abandon their prejudice by rational arguments. People can and do change, but prejudice is usually something that diminishes gradually over time, and is lessened more by experience than rational argument.

124

bjk 08.10.13 at 7:47 pm

Somebody help me out here – is the OP bragging? I mean, if you’re ashamed of something, like a communicable disease or a felony conviction, it’s not something you put out there on the internet. But if you’re proud of it, then you might.

125

Mao Cheng Ji 08.10.13 at 7:49 pm

“I may be wrong but I think you’re agreeing this happened, but you’re also claiming it wasn’t racism because the underlying reason was that she associated being black with being poor.”

You are not terribly wrong. “Poor” is “not super-rich” in this case. And “a combination of characteristics, one of them her skin color” instead of “being black”.

“Supposing that to be true, for most people it doesn’t change the fact that it is racism.”

Fine. A gross trivialization of the concept IMO, but if this is indeed how most people feel, they should have it. I hope it’s still more controversial than you think.

126

Lee A. Arnold 08.10.13 at 8:07 pm

Never mind the poor crocodile that got its skin ripped off so Tom Ford could make a $38,000 handbag to sell to complete assholes no matter what color they are.

127

Lee A. Arnold 08.10.13 at 8:26 pm

A short PETA film hosted by Joaquin Phoenix:

128

common reader 08.10.13 at 8:32 pm

It’s awkward to bring up Robert Bellah again, but for those with more frequent flyer miles than they can use or residents of north-central California, there will be a memorial service on August 20 at 2 pm at All Souls Episcopal Parish Center in Berkeley CA.

129

Tom West 08.10.13 at 8:41 pm

It comes more from the “gut” than anything else, and as such is more often “rationalized” rather than “adopted rationally” (if that makes any sense).

It absolutely makes sense. My response was a reaction to the “I’m not irrationally prejudiced, therefor I can’t be racist” attitude that is very common. It’s also why I’m not part of the “free-market will solve racism” Libertarian crowd.

130

Salient 08.10.13 at 8:50 pm

They probably would, if it cost 25 grand, in fairness!

No.

A place where I used to work summers regularly turns away hundreds of thousands of dollars in business because they don’t like the person or persons they would have to do business with, and they get by just fine without the extra business, even though they complained on a near-daily basis about the lack of money-making opportunities. I think the owners there are more motivated by power/agency than by profit — granted that profit makes power, which makes profit very desirable in a vaccuum, but sometimes profit would come only through forfeiting some power of agency, and it’s kind of remarkable just how consistently retaining agency wins.

Money doesn’t motivate entrepreneurship; power does. If you’re not in a situation where you truly need that extra sale, and it’s emotionally satisfying to decline it, you’ll be very very tempted to decline it. Those owners weren’t irrational — they complained on a near-daily basis about the lack of money-making opportunities that didn’t require them to cater to people they thought were assholes, and they were near-mortally offended when I suggested hey maybe we should woo that client back that left in a huff last summer. They’d never admit to a less sympathetic selective process than non-assholes, but notably, only a few women ever worked for them and all their ongoing clients were men, even though the occasional women were on balance not especially assholish. The owners just got along better doing work for a certain type of man, is all.

131

Belle Waring 08.10.13 at 8:55 pm

If any of our commenters is african-american and I just didn’t know that, then obviously I am wrong, and also I’m very glad to hear it for a change. But this was probably an excessively broad claim on my part, and wasn’t meant to be exclusionary, just diagnostic.

Obviously the post isn’t bragging. It’s just that if you spend a lot of time in, and/or are from the South you will have different experiences than if you live elsewhere. I have never been convicted of a felony, but I have had HPV. See? I’m admitting to having contracted a sexually transmitted disease, right on the internet. People often relate personal stories and commit somewhat half-formed thoughts to words while making “the blogs.”

132

Tom West 08.10.13 at 9:00 pm

Mao Cheng Ji #125
Fine. A gross trivialization of the concept IMO, but if this is indeed how most people feel, they should have it.

Why gross trivialization? The harm that can result of statistically rational racism is huge and can have large social effects to say nothing of the fact that humans, being over-generalizers, tend to take a statistical correlation, and make them into iron-clad “laws” that are impervious to actual observation.

In my personal area (computer science education), I became amazed how often “more boys are keen on computer science than girls” (an observation made by many high school teachers) became “girls can’t do computer science” (which was incorrect by simple observation!)

We don’t have to pretend that the tendency to generalize based on race in unnatural or irrational (in the short term). Indeed, *because* of that, we need to push hard against it using all the tools in our social arsenal.

133

Adrian Kelleher 08.10.13 at 9:04 pm

There was intense debate of racial issues in the decades either side of WWII which culminated in a decisive victory for the anti-racist side. Overt racism became taboo thereafter. Now the great benefit of a taboo is that it enables the winners of a morally loaded argument to sit back, put their feet up by the fire, and enjoy the fruits of their labours without further disturbance. The great problem of a taboo is the same: it causes those victors to immediately cast aside all the reasoning and argumentation that brought about their success in the first place. Some of the posts on this thread make this problem manifest.

Serious problems may result from this, in particular as a new form of racism is slowly taking shape that is highly resilient in the face of moral condemnation alone. It results from population genetics directly instead of from political wish fulfilment couched in terms of pseudo-genetics. Its resistance stems from the fact that, when subject to criticism, proponents can figuratively speaking point to a slide rule and say “it’s not me saying it, it’s this”.

These two examples (1, 2) are to be found on the PBS website. They concern Sickle-Cell Anaemia, a severe condition reducing sufferers’ Darwinian fitness to zero but one that confers upon carriers (non-symptomatic people having one copy of the Sickle-Cell allele) strong resistance against Malarial infection. The gene responsible is common where ever malaria was historically prevalent; for the purposes of this argument, it may be considered a racial trait.

The authors of the PBS pages would probably be appalled at the idea that they’ve advanced racist claims but this is indeed what they have done. It should be pointed out, however, that rather than constructing a racist position without valid scientific, social or medical motivation they have instead arbitrated between two arguments each of which is racist in one form or another.

The first argument is that populations with elevated levels of the sickle cell gene are somehow diseased: that the elevated prevalence of the gene is a form of sickness in the population. The counter-argument, outlined above and known as heterozygote advantage, counters this by pointing out that the population is healthy and that sickle-cell anaemia sufferers simply drew an unlucky ticket: their tragic loss is the gain of the population at large. The benefit of malaria resistance (accruing to the 12-14% of the population that are carriers in some malaria zones) counter-balances deaths due to unlucky inheritance of copies of the gene from both parents (resulting in death of around 1 in 200 people born in some localities).

The stock response to such claims is that race is a political invention rather than a scientific idea. This is correct on a technical level but its political relevance is to be doubted. Those who attempt to employ racist arguments for nationalistic or tribal advantage are naturally already comfortable with the idea of race as a political idea. Their interest in the debate is not primarily scientific. The ‘race as a political construct’ objection is therefore politically fruitless. To the racist agitator, the question of whether the target of his attacks is defined by the geography of his African roots or the resultant skin tone is immaterial: he only cares that his gun is pointing at his chosen target.

The wider implications of Sickle Cell Anaemia as an example (like many of the other examples mentioned on the PBS website, e.g. PKE prevalence in Ireland and Scotland) are limited but this won’t always be true in practice. To take a particular example, a 2006 paper by Cochran, Hardy and Harpenden (Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence, Journal of Biosocial Science 38 (5), pp. 659–693) made claims with potentially explosive implications for modern manners with regard to race issues. Their views have not gained widespread acceptance among specialists and it is the nature of the dispute and the reasons relevant experts have failed to make certain relevant observations that are obvious and incontestable that are of interest to me here.
The empirical basis for the claims of Cochran et al is uncontroversial, whatever its scientific merit. Ashkenazi Jews score higher on IQ tests than other populations and carriers of genes associated with certain disorders (including Tay-Sachs disease, Niemann-Pick syndrome, Gaucher’s disease) common in among Ashkenazim score higher again.
So much for the empirical foundation; on the other hand IQ test performance is admittedly scientifically questionable. To take the stock objection once again, it’s not clear what it might mean seeing as IQ tests are not a natural phenomenon. Also once again, this is correct in a narrow sense but irrelevant. The objectivity of the tests is not in doubt: contestants all take the same test and endeavour to score as highly as possible. Though qualitative interpretation of the results is impossible because the standard is arbitrary (i.e. the IQ test is essentially arbitrary), this doesn’t alter the objective fact that carriers of, for example, Tay-Sachs disease score more highly. The standard is arbitrary but the result is not. In other words, problems in translating the results into real-world implications shouldn’t be confused with an absence of real-world data.
Eliminating that objection opens the way to the issue of substance: are Cochran et al right or are their adversaries? Cochran etc claim the prevalence of these genes in the Ashkenazi gene pool results from natural selection and speculate as to the reasons. Their adversaries (from what I’ve gathered, most or all specialists in the field) claim to have proven this claim incorrect, putting forward other causal explanations (e.g. genetic drift or founder effect).
Luckily, this dispute can be arbitrated without any specialist knowledge.
An anomaly exists: the three named conditions (Tay-Sachs disease, Niemann-Pick syndrome, and Gaucher’s disease) are all lipid storage disorders. Though each results from a different gene (they’re causally unrelated from the point of view of individual medicine), they’re symptomatically very similar; each relates to lipid storage in the brain.
Cochran etc attempt to explain this anomaly and they may be correct or incorrect. On the other hand, their detractors’ arguments cannot explain the symptomatic relationship between causally unrelated conditions each of which confers an IQ boost. Genetic drift cannot explain it. Founder effect, i.e. particularities in the very small Ashkenazi survivor population after the medieval purges can, but only pushes the question of causation backwards in time rather than resolving it; what is it that caused this improbable anomaly among the medieval survivors?
Analogously to the sickle-cell anaemia argument above, it’s also worth pointing out that the choice here is not between racist and non-racist arguments but of which racist argument to accept. Cochran’s argument is in essence that Jews are more particularly (to choose a value-neutral adverb) evolved. His opponents conversely claim that the Ashkenazi Jews carry more genetic defects than other populations. Barring refuge in semantics, each argument is somehow racist. The horns of this dilemma are only two among many that lie ahead in the coming years and decades.
When the political right recovered its balance after losing the race argument both scientifically and socially, one of the first angles it chose for renewed attacks was the straw man argument that ‘it was society’s fault’. Starting in the 1980s, this travesty of the nurture side of the nature-nurture debate came to be relentlessly lampooned in the right-wing press. The taboo surrounding genetically deterministic argumentation then caused a peculiar turn of events: left wingers got baited into defending a straw man invented specifically in order to discredit them by their political opponents.
The debate had moved from disputing racist assertions to disputing the existence of any genetically determined differences whatsoever between individuals. It’s not necessary to enter into this argument to observe that a) it’s a tactical error to get involved in an argument on terms of your adversaries’ choosing and b) whatever its scientific merits, denial of the existence of all genetically-determined individual differences is a very broad claim, a claim unnecessarily broad to counter the specific and rather shallow brickbats being thrown by the right.
Though the idea that this self-inflicted wound results from the existence of a taboo against racism (albeit one that has righted at least some wrongs and opened opportunities for people previously unjustly denied them) is contestable, the need to retain in the coming years a capacity for sharp and detailed analysis of questions like these is not. It is unreasonable to hope that continuing developments in genetics will be wholly without political meaning. For example a structuralist would point out that an argument that might, like Cochran’s, be called pro-Semitic is likely to re-emerge later in an anti-Semitic form. To be pro-Semitic is furthermore to be anti-everyone else.
The political right accepts by its very nature the idea that some people are better than others. They have always been and will remain comfortable, obliquely if not directly, with racist claims. It is of great importance that the left exhibit sufficient moral courage to tackle such morally loaded questions with equal equanimity.
The politics of tribe and nation are making an unforeseen comeback. Common today are uncivil and brazen attacks on, for example, Muslims, Roma and Southern- and Central-Americans that were unthinkable twenty years ago. More importantly, the demographics of the reactionary element have been transformed. By the early 90s they were a dwindling and elderly band. Nowadays, they are youthful and growing. Do not rely on hope alone or on unsupported moral condemnation to ensure that the political exploitation of national and racial ideas, or any resulting horrors, is a thing of the past.

134

Tom West 08.10.13 at 9:16 pm

IQ – the phlogiston of the 21st century.

Infinitely malleable and useful when you know the result you want and need to manufacture some science-y (as related to science as chocolatey is to chocolate) explanation.

135

Adrian Kelleher 08.10.13 at 9:25 pm

@Tom West

I agree. I pretty much acknowledged that already.

However dealing with, say, Tay-Sachs carriers is not the same as comparing separate populations, however selected. The former compares individuals within a population, the latter compares distinct population groups.

136

Dr. Hilarius 08.10.13 at 9:50 pm

I’ve read the Cochran paper. It’s interesting and worthy of serious consideration if only to provoke alternative explanations. When I was at the University of New Mexico, co-author Henry Harpending participated in a number of my graduate seminar classes. Henry loves to toss out a bomb to see how it will be handled. He thrives on controversy.

137

Witt 08.10.13 at 10:07 pm

If I’m understanding 133 correctly, the argument is: “Science! has identified some correlations between specific genes and diseases; therefore, people who think discrimination based on the social category of race is problematic should worry.”

I’m not worried. Not about that, anyway.

138

Fu Ko 08.10.13 at 11:00 pm

Oh, just to repeat some facts that probably everybody knows —

On a biological level, considering the extreme genetic diversity among native Africans, it would be scientifically absurd to categorize them as a single race.

“African Americans,” (i.e., the descendants of slaves in the USA), on the other hand, have so much European ancestry that they cannot possibly be the same race as any native African race. Genetically, they’re much closer to Europeans.

Well, probably you knew that, but I thought I’d repeat it anyway.

139

Mao Cheng Ji 08.10.13 at 11:13 pm

Tom West, I first decided against commenting on your 121, but since you replied to me here it is: IMO, you shouldn’t worry about the race of you applicants, and read their CVs instead.

A discussion of what you call “statistically rational racism”, aka ‘profiling’ would be interesting, but it’s too late here and I’m not quite sober.

In short: you can be against it, and you can forbid it in the official functions (probably a very good idea, in most cases), but I don’t think you can force private individuals to suspend their common sense where their personal interests are involved. For as long as there are identifiable characteristics that can be profiled, no one will be able to force you to, say, pick up a hitchhiker who looks dangerous to you. It’s a losing fight and not a smart one, to denounce people for following their rational impulses.

140

LFC 08.10.13 at 11:16 pm

seth edenbaum @98:
maybe you’ll accept that Zionism is racism after sharing a bed with an arab.
That remark is so profound that I’m going to have to think about it for a long time.

seth edenbaum @98
As usual, a few of the comments are worth reading.
Oh don’t stop there. Tell us why you think the vast majority of the comments aren’t worth reading.

141

engels 08.10.13 at 11:36 pm

To white liberals with little intimate experience of them, negroes are forever strange and other. Perhaps you s’hould sleep with a few. It might help.
Same with others as well: maybe you’ll accept that Zionism is racism after shring a bed with an arab.

The monumental ignorance of feminism contained in this argument is really something remarkable.

142

Hector_St_Clare 08.10.13 at 11:42 pm

Engels,

I’m not sure what you disagree with, the statement seems fairly obviously true to me.

143

engels 08.11.13 at 12:00 am

The assumption that fucking X precludes regarding X as strange and other perhaps…

144

LFC 08.11.13 at 12:13 am

(my comment in moderation is sarcastic, in case not obvs.)

145

chris 08.11.13 at 12:39 am

To the people uming and ahing over the apparenrly mysterious motivations of the Swiss shop assistant – maybe, just maybe, Oprah Winfrey is a better judge of her own lived experience than you, random white blog commenter.

I’m not quite sure what this is supposed to mean in this context. I’m perfectly willing to take Oprah’s word for it on what she said and did, how she was dressed (if you consider that relevant), and what the clerk said and did — at least, unless the clerk steps forward with a differing account, which seems unlikely in this case.

But because Oprah lived through the experience she has some special insight into what was going on in the clerk’s mind? Not unless she wants to come out as a telepath. She has to infer the clerk’s state of mind from her words and actions the same as anyone else, and if those words and actions are ambiguous, different people may come to different conclusions and the only one who can really *know* is the clerk herself. (But she might lie to make herself look better, so you can’t just take her word for it either. If she was even identified and willing to comment, which AFAIK she isn’t.)

I’m inclined to think the clerk probably did jump to a wrong conclusion based partly, or even chiefly, on Oprah’s race. Which would certainly involve some racist beliefs or attitudes. But if I drew a different conclusion from the same facts as Oprah, I don’t see why I shouldn’t be willing to state and defend it. Oprah has unique information (unless she shares it) on her OWN mental state at the time of the events. Not anyone else’s.

Unless you just mean “you can’t know as well as Oprah does how these events made Oprah feel”, which is certainly true, but not so relevant to the subthread.

146

Belle Waring 08.11.13 at 2:12 am

Yeah, I’m not 100% certain how my sexual experience needs to get drug into this either but: I’ve already had sex with a black man! [Fanfare in which pointless trumpet flourishes peter out half-heartedly.] I didn’t have to run out and find one over the course of the thread, either, nnnh, hmmm. Or does it only count if you’re a guy? And do you know what my dearest daddy down in South Carolina would have said if he’d have known? He’d have said, “from Mississippi, huh? Does he cook? What’s he studying in grad school?”

Also, now I’m sort of humming “I am a stranger/shrimping an Arab.” Since that’s what that looks like up there. Mmmm, shrimp.

147

godoggo 08.11.13 at 3:06 am

Shrimp? Really?

148

godoggo 08.11.13 at 3:12 am

I mean, this is the awkward conversations thread.

149

godoggo 08.11.13 at 3:42 am

Hey, you want to fire this up?

150

Alan 08.11.13 at 3:55 am

Belle–as an older Southerner-from-white-trash-stock cum now academic male displaced to the North for decades I hear–I say HEAR in Foghorn Leghorn echo–where you are from. Your posts have an authenticity that is a bracing relief from posts with a more guarded pose that mark less concern with real life than some idealized norms, even if those norms are worthy of pursuit. Your words just ring of the truth of your experience, and inform the dialogue of what’s worthy. Please keep talking.

151

Belle Waring 08.11.13 at 10:51 am

godoggo: why don’t we step right’chere out on to the front porch, where I have a couple of rocking chairs lined up! Can I get you a ball canning jar full of sweet tea, maybe? No, I just thought this: “shring a bed with an arab” looked more like “shrimping” than sharing somehow. Probably I just am hungry for shrimp. We get very good shrimp in the May River, the water’s really clean. We have a ton of oysters too, but of course this isn’t the time to eat them. My girls went out crabbing with my dad and step-mom (and our blind pit-bull, who has her own personal life jacket, it is so cute. She can swim all right but she gets scared and of course she can’t see where she’s going.) Normally at the mouth of the creek where they were, at low tide, you just vaguely wave your chicken neck on a string over the side of the boat and then start pulling up crabs as fast as you can net them, but they didn’t catch any except a juvenile female, which they threw back. And a stingray. My girls were scared by the stingray (they didn’t get it up into the boat, obviously). It was distinctly odd, really.

The climate has changed so much there from when I was a girl. My dad used to tell me that while our tea olive would never be bigger than a camellia bush, in New Orleans they had tea olives that grew up as high as a tree! He said the houses had brick walls around the gardens like in Savannah, and sometimes at the back there were three or four tea olive trees that size. I could only imagine how good that would smell, especially at night if it were still, and was always really captivated by the idea–I wanted to go to N.O. just for that reason only! (for those who don’t know, which is all of you, to your great misfortune, they have shiny leaves much like a lime tree and tiny, tiny flowers that begin white and turn ivory. You can scarcely find them on the plant, they are so small. It smells like jasmine, and lemon and cold, unsalted butter, and wisteria, but cleaner and altogether more wonderful.) Ours is up as high as the flooring of the second story of our house now, and it doesn’t seem to be planning to stop.

152

Belle Waring 08.11.13 at 11:28 am

Thank you Alan, you are a sweetheart!

153

Ronan(rf) 08.11.13 at 12:52 pm

“(I’d suspect Ronan, too, but s/he’s too stylistically different).”

Ehh, na.
I am a little embarrassed, however, at having tried to sell myself as some class of authority on sales practices in Swiss boutiques, or more generally on racism in Europe. I’ve never even been to Switzerland, afaicr
Still think the Oprah situation is some weak tea though.

154

Random Lurker 08.11.13 at 3:03 pm

@Oprah Winfrey subtread
” at least, unless the clerk steps forward with a differing account, which seems unlikely in this case.” [chris 143]

According to italian newspaper La Repubblica (article in italian:
http://www.repubblica.it/esteri/2013/08/11/news/winfrey_parla_la_commessa_verso_oprah_nessun_razzismo-64624627/
)
the clerk (who is not swiss but an italian woman working in Switzerland, “Adriana N.”) released an interview to the “SonntagsBlick” (I suppose this is a swiss newspaper in german).
The story according to the clerk according to La Repubblica:

– O.W. entered the shop with a man, either a friend or a bodyguard, and said that she had never been in a swiss shop before, and that she wanted to have look around;
– The clerk didn’t really know what to do, and opted to show some “Jennifer Aniston” style bags, that are apparently fashionable today.
– When O.W. asked for the more expensive bag on the higest shelf, the clerk said that that was basically the same of the bag she was already looking at, and that she (the clerk) could show also different models to O.W.; at this point O.W. didn’t say anything and, a few minutes later, walked away from the shop.
– the clerk absolutely negates that she refused to show the bag to O.W., and says that she would never refuse to show anything to any client;
– the clerk says that while her english “is okay, it’s not excellent”. She thinks that there could have been a misunderstanding between her and O.W.
– apparently the clerk makes a point that she is italian and so, why should she be a racist? This is a bit strange since here in Italy we have a lot of racism (see Cecile Kyenge), but I think she means that, as an italian immigrant in Switzerland, she is also mildly discriminated against, so she has no reason to discriminate others. [I live in Italy at 30km from the swiss border, and I have some friends who commute daily to Switzerland (so called “frontalieri”). They all say that italians in Switzerland are not perceived positively; recently the Swiss chose to limit the number of italian workers admitted in Switzerland. I’ve been many times in Lugano for leisure and I’ve neven been treated less than politely. IMHO it is the usual “lazy neighbours from the southern border who steal our jobs” story].

155

Cahokia 08.11.13 at 3:18 pm

To further on Fu Ko @77:

“But there is another explanation. On Facebook, Margaret Shenton – a friend of a friend – offered a Zambian perspective. I don’t know Margaret, but she allowed me to share her reactions:

It is a con…. They play this trick all the time hoping that you are a purse-proud Arab, Congolese, Nigerian, Rwandese with largesse who will throw up a tantrum saying, “Do you know who I am and how much money I have, I can buy you and your entire shop.” Good that Oprah didn’t rise to the bait.

Racism? Maybe. Profiling? Definitely. I would guess that, statistically speaking, a very well-dressed black woman coming into an exclusive Zurich shop is not unlikely to be a wealthy African.

From a game theoretic point of view, then, the shop assistant’s strategy is not stupid. If the customer is, in fact, too poor to afford the purse, then she has lost nothing. If the customer is rich enough to afford the purse, and insists upon buying it to demonstrate that fact – well, the assistant might have offended someone, but she’s still sold a purse worth tens of thousands of dollars.

I don’t know what the right explanation is. But as an economist, I always prefer explanations that don’t come down to “people are stupid.” “

from: http://worthwhile.typepad.com/worthwhile_canadian_initi/2013/08/oprah-winfrey-victim-of-racism-or-marketing.html

156

Anderson 08.11.13 at 3:22 pm

“If the customer is rich enough to afford the purse, and insists upon buying it to demonstrate that fact – well, the assistant might have offended someone, but she’s still sold a purse worth tens of thousands of dollars.”

So your economics training doesn’t extend to “offended rich person shops elsewhere after doing her best to get clerk fired”?

Economics that treats people as tools is scarcely smart.

157

Ronan(rf) 08.11.13 at 3:46 pm

“From a game theoretic point of view, then, the shop assistant’s strategy is not stupid. If the customer is, in fact, too poor to afford the purse, then she has lost nothing. If the customer is rich enough to afford the purse, and insists upon buying it to demonstrate that fact – well, the assistant might have offended someone, but she’s still sold a purse worth tens of thousands of dollars.”

But she also (in the way the scenario actually plays out) misses out on the commission involved in selling a 31 grand ? This is obviously someone who put a lot of time and effort into building a career in high end retail, who has dealt with rich people from all walks of life throughout her career. Not sure why she would put her career under threat just for the larf
Winfrey clearly used her immense wealth and privilege to attack a shop assistant on spurious grounds (linking it to a racist incident in a NY shop but without explicitly saying it was racist)

158

Rmj 08.11.13 at 4:13 pm

The stock response to such claims is that race is a political invention rather than a scientific idea. This is correct on a technical level but its political relevance is to be doubted. Those who attempt to employ racist arguments for nationalistic or tribal advantage are naturally already comfortable with the idea of race as a political idea. Their interest in the debate is not primarily scientific. The ‘race as a political construct’ objection is therefore politically fruitless. To the racist agitator, the question of whether the target of his attacks is defined by the geography of his African roots or the resultant skin tone is immaterial: he only cares that his gun is pointing at his chosen target.

Well, maybe to the “racist agitator,” but then this hypothetical person is a racist already. Why should their particular view destroy the argument that “race is a political construct”? Since it is, as the racist agitator who doesn’t want to let go of race, for political purposes, proves.

In other words, problems in translating the results into real-world implications shouldn’t be confused with an absence of real-world data.

Ah, but what does the data mean? If it is not interpreted, it is merely “data,” rather like saying “This stone is heavy.” Okay, so what do I do with that information? Nothing? Then who cares if it’s heavy? If I don’t interpret IQ data as meaning something, it may be data, but about what, and for what?

IQ, by the way, is a curious thing. What is intelligence, and how do we measure it? I can measure weight, I can measure length, I can measure temperature (the presence or absence of heat) (and to some degree each system of measurement is arbitrary). But what is intelligence, and what is its “measure”?

IQ is “data”? Data of what?

159

Rmj 08.11.13 at 4:45 pm

Indeed, to carry it a bit further, temperature scales are “data.” If you tell me it’s 10 degrees Celsius outside, I don’t know what that means. I’m used to the Fahrenheit scale. I know ’86’ is warm, 100 is hot, 32 is cold, 10 is very cold (well, to me). Does 10 Celsius mean hot, cold, warm, very cold, cool? I don’t know, because I can’t interpret it. It’s meaningless to me without interpretation.

So with “intelligence.” What does it mean? The insight of Aquinas? The wisdom of Augustine? The logic of Godel? What is it, and how is it measured? When you tell me a certain identifiable class of people (Ashkenazi Jews) score better than almost any other group on an IQ test, what you’ve told me is that Ashkenazi Jews are very good at discerning the correct answers to an entirely arbitrary set of questions. You haven’t tole me that they are quantitatively smarter than anyone else, because I don’t know how you quantify “smarter” (i.e., intelligent). It is date “from the real world” that they answer the questions more accurately on the whole than other groups; but how do I interpret that data?

Interpretation is the inescapable issue. Data without interpretation is meaningless.

160

yabonn 08.11.13 at 6:11 pm

Random Lurker @ 151

At the end of the article, the employee has support if her employer, doesn’t know what she did wrong, nevertheless apologizes. Same as last time at Hermes then – but what a grand old time was had. Headlines for the bully, and a certain part of the north american internet has triumphantly concluded that Zurich (after Paris) is a Sundown town (and that USA! USA!).

… I think it the “it’s Oprah! Shut up and grovel!” part of it that gets on my nerves.

161

christian_h 08.11.13 at 8:25 pm

First, thanks Belle for your posts – they are brilliantly written and a great expression of lived experience (isn’t that something we on the left are supposed to take seriously?).

Since the thread already has been derailed, my two cents on the Oprah issue:

1. cent, regarding “yes there is racism, but not in this case”: So why waste so much time speculating about what that sales person was thinking? I can see why Rush Limbaugh does it – b/c he wants to distract the conversation from what is important about it, which isn’t a billionaire’s feelings, but – racism. But all the commenters here who I completely believe when they say racism is a very serious issue, why would you analyze this single case to death, instead of just saying “yes, whatever the case in this single instance, this is the kind of expression of racism that is just depressingly common (believe me, it is), so what do we do about it?”

2. cent: relatedly, this whole speculating about an individual incident also does a real disservice to the sales person in question who may well have been a victim of a misunderstanding based on language issues, not being a native (American) English speaker.

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godoggo 08.11.13 at 8:52 pm

OK, here’s my awkward conversation from college:

Black chick I don’t know comes up to me and asks if I’m in so-and-so’s Black History class. I laugh and say no. Her response: eyes open wide, mouth forms a shit-eatin’ grin, hand forms an “OK” sign (leastwise that’s what it means in this country), and she walks away. I dunno, it seemed like an odd question.

Fortunately I’m pretty sure my only family connections to slave-owners would be via the crazy Louisiana Creole my dad’s crazy stepsister met in the mental institution. Good people though.

I personally have no fascination with the Oprah thing.

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yabonn 08.11.13 at 9:09 pm

godoggo @ 159
That’s the way to do it, I think, but the “big bazillionnaire taking a dump on clerk, thunderous applause” angle of the thing makes me bite the walls. Some people are Wrong on the Internet.

christian_h @ 158
what is important about it, which isn’t a billionaire’s feelings, but – racism.

I’ve… seen things you people wouldn’t believe… [laughs] I have seen the Not-Oprah saying in a link above that she, in fact, didn’t behave as Oprah does. I have seen the Out-Oprah, and guessed all the laws that such discrimination would break in Switzerland, but won’t be applied, because of course the Bully shall be paid in humiliation and publicity. I have seen all the anti-racism associations in Switzerland, not-waiting for O.W. support, because they are not as dumb as the average internet poster. I have seen the huddled masses of the black millionnaires, free at last of the tyranny of racism in 1%er shops. All those… moments… will be lost in the stupid….like [coughs] tears… in… rain. Time… to sleep…

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bob mcmanus 08.11.13 at 9:14 pm

157:… I think it the “it’s Oprah! Shut up and grovel!” part of it that gets on my nerves.

There is a new hegemony being built before our eyes. Inside of us. Pretty interesting, really.

You didn’t think the upcoming majority-minority feminist oligarchy was going to be egalitarian, did you? But how are they going to justify their privilege?

First, discredit all that Marxist socialist stuff.

Second, I guess deflect the questions. I am not sure.

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godoggo 08.11.13 at 9:33 pm

currently sitting atop paynic’s twitter account:

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godoggo 08.11.13 at 9:34 pm

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bob mcmanus 08.11.13 at 9:39 pm

I mean, the tricky part isn’t the existing wealth and privilege, but justifying the nepotism and hereditary aristocracy the next hegemony desires as always. Jaden and Willow Smith, Kennedy to Japan, Chelsea Clinton, Obama daughters.

The Waring posts are worth studying. Just folks folks, oh great-grandaddy used to have his railroad car, but nobody knows the troubles I’ve seen. Cause misogyny and racism. Don’t ask about my island.

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bob mcmanus 08.11.13 at 10:02 pm

Warren Breckman

Social agents do not discover their common interests in an underlying shared essence, but forge them through “articulatory practices” that construct discourses operating within a political space that is itself not determined by the logic of anything
exterior to it. “The relation of articulation is not a relation of necessity,”
wrote Laclau and Mouffe. “What the discourse of ‘historical interests’ does
is to hegemonize certain demands. . . . Political practice constructs the
interests it represents.”

Hegemony is not “an irradiation of effects from a privileged point,” but
“basically metonymical*: its effects always emerge from a surplus of meaning.”
Hegemony combines elements around a core, what Mouffe and
Laclau named a point de capiton , borrowing Lacan’s term for the
“privileged signifiers that fix the meaning of a signifying chain” and
thereby establish the positions that make predication possible.

In a key statement, Mouffe and Laclau wrote: “The practice of
articulation, therefore, consists in the construction of nodal points* which
partially fix meaning; and the partial character of this fixation proceeds
from the openness of the social, a result, in its turn, of the constant over-
flowing of every discourse by the infinitude of the field of discursivity.”

*they love anecdata, see Witt at 70.

Personal experience is irrefutable as argument

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godoggo 08.11.13 at 10:04 pm

Well, yikes, I think the Jaden Smith thing above is an example of the limitations of these sort of conversations among white people about racism. I’d speculate that people who support Black autonomy would feel different about Smith’s wealth, but that’s all I can do.

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godoggo 08.11.13 at 10:43 pm

Personally, I tell anecdotes to amuse myself. None them has a moral. It’s just a bunch of stuff.

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godoggo 08.11.13 at 11:47 pm

OK, I apologize for offensive comment above.

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js. 08.12.13 at 1:47 am

the upcoming majority-minority feminist oligarchy

Where do I sign up for this? Because I am totally in!

And sorry for my part in derailing the thread. (Haven’t really looked in for a couple of days, and, umm, yikes!). Don’t have any appropriate anecdotes, not being white (or black) after all.* Did though think that this post, and even more so the last one (“Everybody’s A Racist”), were both really brilliant—if also a tad horrifying, frankly.

*Though if you ever do an annoying conversations thread, I promise to go on for hours! (The many iterations of “Where are you from?” topping the list of course—as a PSA, I suggest seriously avoiding asking that next time you meet a brown person.)

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shah8 08.12.13 at 2:20 am

White people don’t go out of their way to have awkward conversations with me. In the past, my most interesting conversations tends to be with Asians who think I’m part East Asian. Hardly awkward, though.

I’m a little amused by the Oprah thing. As someone who’s into tea, particularly puerh tea, I know that I will not ever have regular access to the best tea, even if I had the megabucks. You have to know someone, and be friendly with them to get such things. And I think that’s true of most categories of the best things. The idea of some fancy schmancy bag with the designer’s name all over it repulses me. Any product that has to be tattooed with marketing, by definition, cannot be among the best, or even a good value.

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LFC 08.12.13 at 2:44 am

mcmanus @168

What the fu*k does all this stuff about privileged signifiers and the overflowing of every discourse by the infinitude of the field of discursivity have to do w the thread? On second thought, don’t bother explaining. I’m too stupid to get it.

(Btw and not sure exactly why this occurs to me, but do you know the line in Naipaul’s Guerrillas where one character says to another: “You have the whole world in front of you and your mind prints out comic strips all day long”?)

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yabonn 08.12.13 at 8:09 am

shah8 173

A _little_ amused? Come on, the thing is irksome, but apart of that, hilarious. It’s The Onion in the news. There :


Racism rises its ugly head in Switzerland! Black billionnaire shown mere millionnaire bag in boutique!
Totally not southern redneck US people on the internet deplore the sad state of the conversation on race in Switzerland : “Because of the country history, they never had a real desegregation”. Clerk apologizes for her lack of sensitivity, says she just hadn’t realized that her grand grand father might have owned Oprah’s grand grand father, hadn’t recognized Oprah, me speak no good English, stop hurting me please please.

Filthy rich black people over the world extend thanks and support to Oprah Winfrey, regain hope, wonder if maybe the stuff at Petrossian last time was maybe a bit stale, hhhm.

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Ronan(rf) 08.12.13 at 8:19 am

“The many iterations of “Where are you from?” topping the list of course—as a PSA, I suggest seriously avoiding asking that next time you meet a brown person.”

Then I wouldn’t recommend ever visiting Ireland, b/c you’ll get that in many different forms*.. ‘and who would your mother be?’..’are you anything to the js’ from Ballybricken?’
*I’m only kidding, well not really but I know what you’re saying.

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Ronan(rf) 08.12.13 at 8:47 am

Although I tend to acquire from accents, I always get it, so why not everyone else?

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Ronan(rf) 08.12.13 at 8:53 am

..inquire..ok, Ill go

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ajay 08.12.13 at 9:38 am

34: This, would be fascinating with context. Was it an act of astonishing humanity, or ‘we cant maintain this system, time to make a run for it’ ?

I’m not sure of his motives, but from context I think it was the humanity thing, because surely if he’d just wanted to make a run for it he would have sold them off rather than freeing them?
Or maybe he just hated his in-laws, and this was his way of spiting them.

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Norwegian Guy 08.12.13 at 6:21 pm

Whenever some American celebrity goes shopping in Oslo, it makes national headlines and gives the shop a lot of free PR. This is the case regardless of the skin colour of the celebrity in question. Perhaps it’s different in Switzerland.

Europeans have hated and killed each other because of ethnicity and religion for centuries, and still does with some regularity, but we usually consider “race” to be an obsolete, unscientific term that was discarded ca. 1945. And I do think this is to some extent the case, at least in Western Europe. When people complain about immigration, immigrants and minorities, they complain about their culture, customs, and religion, not the darkness of their skin.

That’s why clothing is probably a more salient feature than skin colour, at least for women, though it’s not as if Oprah Winfrey was wearing a hijab, or looked like a Roma street beggar. And her American accent should have indicated that she was unlikely to be an asylum seeker. So I don’t have a good explanation for the incident in the bag shop – it could be prejudice, a misunderstanding, or a combination.

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chris 08.12.13 at 6:58 pm

When people complain about immigration, immigrants and minorities, they complain about their culture, customs, and religion, not the darkness of their skin.

But *which* immigrants and minorities are they complaining about? Is there just as much complaint about French or English immigrants? (Swedes and Danes, maybe, if there’s rivalries going back centuries…)

People can say that they acknowledge that race is unscientific, and still freak out *more* about immigrants that look different than themselves and perhaps not even notice the ones that are so similar you don’t recognize them at a glance when you pass them on the street.

182

yabonn 08.12.13 at 9:19 pm

So I don’t have a good explanation for the incident in the bag shop

Which one is the most economic scenario :

– OW enters a shop looking like an affluent person. Clerk follows the standard procedure, and guides Her Radiance to the bags appealing to affluent persons. Incident : how dare she ignore the wealth of OW? She must be racist!

– racist shop employs racist person, for years, to cater to the cosmopolitan, multicolor customers : the rich. These don’t protest at being discriminated against, don’t sue, no nothing. It’s because they are not Oprah. Enters Her Prominence, who promptly slays the beast, makes some headlines, then tweets the equivalent of “nevermind, then” three days later – no charges pressed against the shop, as she could (I think?) and should.

For most people, apparently, it’s scenario 2. Because, more or less, racism in the south, sweatpants, agency, and because Her Luminescence can do no wrong, how dare you, only racists think like that is all I’m saying.

It’s amazing.

183

hix 08.12.13 at 9:38 pm

“. They all say that italians in Switzerland are not perceived positively; recently the Swiss chose to limit the number of italian workers admitted in Switzerland. “

And which nations workers pray tell are perceived so much more positive that their number has been limited more than the Italian number. Ah right none, since Italian worker have the same preferential threatment as all other EU workers.

184

geo 08.12.13 at 9:39 pm

Having just gotten to this thread and perused all the comments, my two cents:

Best thing I’ve read is:

Bruce @44: shouldn’t the moral concern be how real bag ladies, not the celebrities, who look a lot like bag ladies, and want over-priced handbags as status enhancements, are treated? And, not just on the odd occasions when they wander onto high street.

followed closely by

Lee Arnold @126:Never mind the poor crocodile that got its skin ripped off so Tom Ford could make a $38,000 handbag to sell to complete assholes no matter what color they are.

My power of sympathy is, alas, so pinched and paltry that I can rarely spare even a little for rich assholes, of whatever complexion.

185

geo 08.12.13 at 9:41 pm

PS – … of whatever complexion

… and, I guess it follows, of whatever gender.

186

JW Mason 08.12.13 at 11:04 pm

Wow, geo, I just lost a lot of respect for you.

187

Adrian Kelleher 08.12.13 at 11:19 pm

@rmj, 159

I think that in mentioning IQ I obscured the core idea more than I revealed it. It’s not a necessary component of the argument.

Certain autosomal recessive disorders exist at elevated rates in certain populations, e.g. Phenylketonuria (e.g. Irish), Sickle Cell Anaemia (e.g. West Africans), Tay-Sachs disease (Ashkenazi Jews). The choice is between A) these populations being diseased or B) homozygote advantage implying that the population has adapted to some stress. Each explanation is can be fairly characterised in common English as racist, regardless of the scientific worth of the term because .

But in the particular case of Ashkenazi Jews — leaving aside all questions of IQ — there exists another piece of microbiological evidence: the existence at much elevated frequencies of genes associated with symptomatically related but causally independent conditions in one population. It’s not necessary to accept the explanation of Cochran et al for this phenomenon to observe that this anomaly demands an explanation. Several of these conditions are moreover associated with brain chemistry.

I should mention that these genes possess no fixed or objective fitness on their own. At low frequencies, their impact on health will be statistically negligible. Only as the frequency of occurrence increases does the impact grow (S=1/(4f^2), S=fraction of sufferers; f=fraction of carriers; that’ for the population in question, but for a confirmed carrier, S=1/4f).

But I’m going to get off the fence. According to Steven Pinker, “Though never exceeding 3 percent of the American population, Jews account for 37 percent of the winners of the U.S. National Medal of Science, 25 percent of the American Nobel Prize winners in literature, 40 percent of the American Nobel Prize winners in science and economics, and so on. On the world stage, we find that 54 percent of the world chess champions have had one or two Jewish parents.”

These are likewise all arbitrary standards, but then any test of human achievement is ultimately arbitrary — the olympic games, accountancy examinations, musical ability. There’s very little subjective about the results of any of these tests, however. In fact it’s difficult to imagine a standard more objective than a scientific award. I already acknowledged the difficulty in interpreting any of these observations in a materialist way; this problem does not render such tests meaningless, however.

I’m not nearly so enthusiastic about IQ as Pinker; the field is seriously tainted by dishonest studies funded by openly racist groups. J Philippe Rushton lead one such group and was quoted on Cochran here by National Geographic. Rushton and his cronies have a standard MO: insert raw racism in non peer-reviewed journals, then cite themselves and each other in less disreputable venues and obscure the origins of their data with a view to laundering it. The likes of Rushton were pariahs just a couple of decades ago. Not so today, it seems.

188

engels 08.12.13 at 11:28 pm

Is it logically possible to (a) believe that assuming that black people are poor is racist and (b) not give a flying fuck about Oprah Winfrey’s hurt feelings (or sweatpants)?

Because I think that’s the position I’d like to hold but it seems from the battle lines that are being drawn ont this thread that I can’t…

189

Ronan(rf) 08.12.13 at 11:49 pm

There was no assumption that Winfrey was poor, *at most* just that she wasnt rich enough to buy the most expensive bag in the shop – this might be store policy, a general prejudice with the shop assistant, racism, the handbag makers policy (who only want to see a specific ‘type’ of person wear the bag) etc
In only one of those scenarios is it the shop assistants moral failings that prevented Winfrey getting the bag
On the other hand it could have just played out like the shop assistant said..a misunderstanding? Winfrey looking for a fight? Who knows..
Any normal reaction would be to say it to the person serving you, at most to their manager, but taking it directly to the media, with no clarrifications, no warnings, and putting her job in jeopardy? I cant see how thats justified
Winfrey could have taken it up with high end retail or high end fashion in general, but she didnt, she took it up with a specific person and decided to use all of her resources to paint the woman who served her as a racist, so why should we automatically believe her interpretation? Her issue wasnt with the shop or the industry but with an individual and she offerred that individual no opportunity to defend herself so, personally, I call bulls**t

190

geo 08.13.13 at 12:12 am

Why is that, JW?

191

engels 08.13.13 at 12:24 am

There was no assumption that Winfrey was poor,

Not sure how you know this, Ronan, but to be clear I haven’t expressed an opinion on Oprah v. the Swiss clerk, only on Mao Cheng Ji’s view that ‘statistically rational racism’ isn’t racism.

192

Ronan(rf) 08.13.13 at 12:28 am

Ah, my apologies then. I agree with you on that
I’m saying there’s no assumption she was *poor* because even Winfrey admits she was offered a number of other expensive bags, just not that specific, exceptionally expensive one

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engels 08.13.13 at 12:41 am

If that’s the case it would be still be an assumption about socioeconomic status based on race so still racial prejudice but as I said I don’t personally know or care about the details of the incident (far less want to defend OW against your moral critique of her subsequent behaviour in 188…)

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js. 08.13.13 at 1:07 am

Is it logically possible to (a) believe that assuming that black people are poor is racist and (b) not give a flying fuck about Oprah Winfrey’s hurt feelings (or sweatpants)?

Because I think that’s the position I’d like to hold but it seems from the battle lines that are being drawn ont this thread that I can’t…

This entirely. I’d only add that it’s not about the sales clerk in question either—that s/he was especially prejudiced or evil or whatever. It’s about the assumptions that all too often follow merely from the perception of dark skin. Assumptions like: he or she must be poor; does not “belong here”; etc. How is this so impossibly hard that otherwise very smart people start spouting nonsense?

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Random Lurker 08.13.13 at 1:39 am

@hix 143
I never said that the Swiss have a worse opinion of Italians than of other europeans, as I said I (italian) never felt discriminated in Switzerland.
I only reported the summary of the interview as reported by the italian newspaper. According to that summary , the clerk stressed the fact that she is italian, as if that was a proof that she couldn’t be racist. Since that is quite weird (a lot of italians are racist), I tried to work out what was the logical connection, and the only explanation I can think of is that many italians believe they suffer from some ( very mild) discrimination in Switzerland.

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Rich Puchalsky 08.13.13 at 2:10 am

I’ll tell an anecdote too. I used to be a lot more active in Unitarian Universalism, a denomination that’s strongest in New England. But in this case, the church that I was in was in the city center of a decidedly non-New-England major city. And we had a coffee pot out for the social time before and after services.

Now this coffee pot had a donation jar next to it that members of the congregation were supposed to put 50 cents into when they got coffee. Visitors and new people weren’t supposed to have to put in 50 cents. If you’re black in America, you may be able to see where this story is going already. Yes, we had at least one black person checking out the congregation finally ask why people were watching him so hard when he got near the coffee pot. Were they watching to see that the stereotypically shiftless black person wasn’t trying to take coffee without paying 50 cents? Or, on the other hand, were they falling all over themselves trying to keep him from paying 50 cents that he owed and could well afford to pay, because of white liberal guilt? He saw it as racist stereotyping either way.

It didn’t matter what the explanation was, really. People in the congregation always watched new people near the coffee pot, because they were trying to be welcoming — or maybe even for one of the other reasons, though this seems to me less likely because we were already a good deal more high-percentage-minority than most UU congregations. There’s even an alternative classism explanation; a good number of the people in the congregation were very poor, and may indeed have been concerned about whether everyone was putting in 50 cents. But this encounter was scripted by American racism. There are any number of social anxiety situations in which people don’t know what to do for one reason or another that become racism because the people involved always have to consider it as a primary explanation, because they’ve encountered it so often.

So having this person say that they interpreted it as racist doesn’t necessarily mean that the particular people near the coffee pot were acting in a racist way. It doesn’t mean that we’re condemning people as racists. But it doesn’t mean that this person was wrong either. That was the conclusion that his lived experience led him to.

Similarly, Oprah wasn’t born rich. She was the child of an single, teenage mother, who worked as a maid, and had what sounds like a pretty bad childhood. Of course she’s going to interpret these kinds of incidents as racism. She has very good reasons to, based on her early lived experience. That doesn’t mean that Oprah is always right, or that we worship Oprah, or that we really care about the feelings of the 1% or any of that other nonsense. It just means that people who don’t understand this are clueless.

197

Fu Ko 08.13.13 at 2:48 am

Ronan: “But she also (in the way the scenario actually plays out) misses out on the commission involved in selling a 31 grand ?”

Maybe she did miss out on _this_ commission (which can be known only after the fact). But that does not imply that it is not a good way to get the commission on average.

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bitpiece 08.13.13 at 8:05 am

‘m in exalted company, it seems. The exact thing happened to me in a big departmental store in Europe. Well, not exactly the same. She was in Zurich, I was in Hamburg. She must have been dressed to kill, while I was in my usual rags, jeans and t-shirt. She must have had flawless makeup on, I was bare faced. She requested to be shown an uber-expensive item, I was asking to be shown something regular even by ‘third-world middle class’ standards. She was snubbed with a ‘too expensive for the likes of you’ line, I was just ignored by the store attendant, pointedly and repeatedly, as if she was deaf. Oprah walked out calmly, I stormed up to the manager’s office an complained. I got my apology, from the manager, swallowed my humiliation, wiped the angry tears, and walked out. She went to the press, I went to another store and bought what I wanted . I wonder if the attendant who played deaf would have branded me a liar when asked about it. I doubt she ever was. It was a busy time for them after all, the spirit of Christmas not withstanding.

199

dbk 08.13.13 at 9:54 am

Wow, it so’s great to see that Belle is Back, and that in response the entire CT commentariat has turned out to greet her.

As an American who’s lived her entire adult life in a European country famed for its hospitality to strangers but which actually practices strong stereotyping of strangers, I had pretty much the same experience (mutatis mutandis) as OW about twenty years ago. Searching for a chest of drawers for Child #2’s bedroom, I entered a store in the furniture district. The owner saw me looking at a white laminate piece and helpfully remarked, “This piece is too expensive for you.” Why? I was dressed in blue jeans and had a foreign accent – he just assumed (i.e. took a mental shortcut, which is basically what stereotyping is) that (a) I was an economic immigrant from the former USSR (the furniture district was home to thousands of them) and (b) I was too poor to buy a laminate chest of drawers, given the blue jeans attire.

Point being, Europe is not the USA, and negotiating the particular class/racial stereotypes of European countries (individually – they each have different ones) isn’t as easy as it seems from the outside. I am still caught off guard by local prejudices.

OTOH, I have a positive anecdote to relate. Child #1 has been working for a NYC agency for several years, and has been taken under the wing of his supervisor. He’d been working there two years before I realized (via a particular event the boss attended) that the boss was black. The boss had overcome his prejudice against having a white male under his wing, and the child himself didn’t think his boss’s race was even worth a mention. Child #2 is having similar experiences in Baltimore.

Point being, they grew up in a country that doesn’t display the specific form of racism-cum-classism that characterizes the US (though their native country displays plenty of other prejudices, including open sexism), so they simply don’t have it, and their black colleagues and bosses sense this. You really have to grow up in the US (Illinois for me, grandparents from NC/WV replete with all the relevant prejudices) and then live somewhere very different to appreciate how profoundly racism is embedded in the fabric of American thinking.

P.S. Belle: Hmm, I see you still recall that GoT thread (as do I), and yep, this one has been way pleasanter, at least so far. Kind of reminds me of one of my favorite stories about the late Shirley Chisholm, who once noted that she had faced far more discrimination because she was a woman than because she was black.

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Hector_St_Clare 08.13.13 at 1:34 pm

Re: On a biological level, considering the extreme genetic diversity among native Africans, it would be scientifically absurd to categorize them as a single race.

Not necessarily. Polyphyletic categories can be useful in terms of looking at particular physiological or behavioural traits, even though they’re not useful taxonomically. Biologists still talk about fish and reptiles, and find those categories highly useful, even though we all know they’re not actually *taxonomically* valid. If we wanted to study adaptations to high altitude, for example, it would make sense to treat Tibetans, Amhara and Quechuas as separate racial groups from their nearest related groups.

Re: “African Americans,” (i.e., the descendants of slaves in the USA), on the other hand, have so much European ancestry that they cannot possibly be the same race as any native African race. Genetically, they’re much closer to Europeans.

African Americans, like most of us, are a mixture of different racial groups. About 20% of European descent, and about 80% of various West and Central African ancestries.

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ajay 08.13.13 at 3:10 pm

People can say that they acknowledge that race is unscientific, and still freak out *more* about immigrants that look different than themselves and perhaps not even notice the ones that are so similar you don’t recognize them at a glance when you pass them on the street.

There’s a fair amount of freaking out in this country at the moment about eastern European immigrants, who don’t look that different from the natives except for having much shorter hair and being surrounded by a +3 Aura of Plumbing Excellence.

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