Oprah traveled to Zurich, Switzerland, recently to attend the wedding of Tina Turner who has lived in the tony Zurich suburb of Küsnacht since 1995. Earlier this year, Turner made the headlines for accepting Swiss citizenship while simultaneously renouncing her US citizenship, presumably for tax reasons. The US has the questionable distinction of being the only industrialized country that taxes its citizens who reside abroad. (One would wish that the US would apply similar standards to US corporations, but that is a different matter.) Taxes aside, Turner seems to be genuinely at ease in Switzerland: “I’m very happy in Switzerland and I feel at home here. […] I cannot imagine a better place to live,” Turner reportedly told the Swiss tabloid Blick.
Oprah, her wedding guest, had a different story to tell to Entertainment Tonight. Oprah apparently entered the exclusive boutique Trois Pommes (which Oprah refused to identify) in downtown Zurich by herself, without any of her handlers. She asked to see a handbag with a SFr. 35,000 ($38,000) price tag. According to Oprah, the sales person replied, “No, it’s too expensive!” When Oprah further insisted on seeing that bag, the woman at the store replied, “No, no, you don’t want to see that one, you want to see this one, because that one would cost too much and you would not be able to afford that.” The employee then proceeded to show Oprah other, less expensive handbags. After three unsuccessful attempts, Oprah apparently left the store without making a scene and without pulling “the black card,” as she put it.
In the interview, Oprah was clearly annoyed because her star power apparently has not reached tiny Switzerland yet: “I didn’t have my eyelashes on, but I was in full Oprah Winfrey gear. I had my little Donna Karan skirt and my little sandals. But obviously The Oprah Winfrey Show is not shown in Zurich. So this does not happen to me unless somebody obviously does not know it is me.”
It is unfortunate that this narcissistic display of injured vanity obfuscates the matter. It has allowed commentators in Switzerland to focus on the hissy fit by a narcissistic international entertainer–as a commentary entitled “Die verletzte Narzisstin” (the injured narcissist) in the respected Zurich daily Tages-Anzeiger did. This line of argumentation enables commentators to deny that there is any racism at issue in this scandal that now is referred to as “Täschligate” (handbag-gate) in Switzerland. As in the cases of the Nazi Gold and the bank secret, Switzerland again sees itself exposed to a barrage of international accusations, and the gut reaction is to circle the wagons–a posture that is common when small states see themselves exposed to massive criticism and pressure from abroad. And Oprah delivered all the arguments for this defensive posture.
This also is unfortunate because Oprah clearly has had a positive impact on young black women around the world. In a visit to South Africa some years ago, a group of young women from Limpopo province glowingly told us how Oprah is a role model for them who as a person of color and as a woman made it in a world dominated by white men.
But Oprah is right that this incident would not have happened if the sales clerk had recognized her as a celebrity. Which brings up the question why it did happen. Trudie Götz, the owner of the boutique, in an interview with the Swiss tabloid Blick framed this as a “misunderstanding” due to the imperfect command of English of her employee and claimed that her employee meant well, acted correctly and in no way displayed racial prejudices. She further stated that she sees no reason to fire her sales person. Ironically, Ms. Götz was an invited guest at the Turner wedding as well.
If the sales clerk acted correctly by not showing a handbag to a customer deemed undeserving, business policies and practices come into focus. It is obvious that the profiling of customers in this boutique is standard procedure and that sales people are trained to profile customers–a practice that was confirmed by other upscale Zurich retailers. But what are the criteria for this profile? Obviously, the perceived ability to pay is key, and race factors into that in a major way. Furthermore, the rabid denials of racism by so many Swiss commentators imply that race indeed is a major underlying issue. Switzerland just in recent years has been forced to deal with a multi-racial society. Switzerland still lacks any authoritative mainstream voices–like Oprah–who can talk about race from a minority viewpoint. As the clumsy and insensitive commentaries in the Swiss press indicate, the Swiss have a long way to go to develop an understanding of the subtle ways of racism in our globalized world.
In the meantime, Switzerland Tourism, Switzerland’s official tourism office, showed outrage over the scandal, apparently fearing damage to its brand. International tourism in Switzerland has been in decline over the past few years, and the perception is that this scandal is not helpful. Daniela Bär, the spokesperson for Switzerland Tourism, offered a speedy apology to Oprah, reducing the issue to a clumsy salesperson who acted inappropriately. This also seems to be the view of other retailers in Zurich–again denying any systemic issues this scandal seems to have revealed. It is evident that Switzerland Tourism and other commercial interests would like the world to see Switzerland through Tina Turner’s eyes rather than Oprah Winfrey’s.
Note: see my later post, published on August 13, 2013, entitled Oprah Creates a Stir: Switzerland’s Small-State Response