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Oprah shopping incident a reminder of racial tension



Published: Wed, June 29, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



The event began when the media star was denied entrance to a store in Paris.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Whether Oprah Winfrey was turned away from a bit of after-hours shopping in Paris because of a racist employee or a special event, news of the confrontation outside a luxury store has evoked empathy and anger from many American minorities.

In living rooms and Internet chat rooms, the Winfrey case has sparked discussion of what many see as a chronic problem for minorities: poor treatment and sometimes outright suspicion of minority shoppers no matter how well-educated or rich they are -- particularly in high-end stores.

"The presumption in America is that if you have the wealth, you'll get equality -- but where's Oprah's equality?" asked Bruce D. Haynes, a sociologist at the University of California, Davis. "It picks up on every inkling of discrimination that a black person might experience in daily life."

He added: "Many people are saying, 'I don't have the money, but Oprah represents what I could be.' ... She's like the black Donald Trump. And if it can happen to Oprah, it could happen to anyone."

Access denied

The incident occurred when Winfrey stopped by Hermes on June 14 to buy a watch minutes after the boutique closed. Though she and three friends said they saw shoppers inside, neither a sales clerk nor manager would let them in.

Winfrey believes the store's staff had identified her, according to a spokeswoman from Harpo Production Inc., her company. Winfrey's friend, Gayle King, who was there, told Entertainment Tonight, "Oprah describes it as 'one of the most humiliating moments of her life.'" Harpo says Winfrey plans to discuss the incident in the context of race relations on her show this fall.

Hermes said in a statement it "regrets not having been able to welcome" Winfrey to the store, but that "a private public relations event was being prepared inside." The store did not respond to calls seeking comment.

"As retailers, we want to treat every customer well. So I tell retailers not to look at the customer for what they look like but to address the product they want and what service they're looking for," said Daniel Butler, vice president for merchandising and operations at the Washington-based National Retail Federation.

Even if a store is closed, Butler said, the staff should be empowered to "do as much as they can to accommodate a customer and hopefully use common sense."

Winfrey has often plugged Hermes products -- a $135 tea cup and saucer was featured in her magazine in 2001 and was still on her Web site Tuesday, along with the company's phone number. However, she has said she will no longer be shopping in its stores.




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