Oprah’s Racism Incident in Switzerland Shows European-American Cultural DividesAugust 19th, 2013 by Dean Foster | Discuss This »
The blogosphere is abuzz with Oprah Winfrey’s recent claim of racism while traveling in Switzerland. Oprah was shopping in Zurich and asked to see a $38,000 bag when, by Oprah’s account, the store clerk did not show her the bag and instead said, “that one will cost too much, you won’t be able to afford that.” From the shop clerk’s perspective, she merely suggested a cheaper bag for her customer to buy. Whatever really happened, Oprah interpreted the moment as an act of racism, saying the incident was similar to moments that “people with black or brown skin experience every day.” Looking at the situation through a cultural lens, what it actually shows is a misunderstanding of Swiss culture and a projection of American race issues onto European custom.
The “coolness” of continental European culture is often perceived by Americans as hostility or aloofness, when in reality all it represents is a cultural dissimilarity. Often this coolness is very evident in professional relationships; like a relationship between a store clerk and a customer. Instead of the warm welcome that Americans expect, the behavior of a store clerk in Europe is more that of a detached professional, providing matter-of-fact advice. This is exactly how the store clerk acted, and Oprah’s reaction was very much in keeping with American cultural expectation.
The American need for warmth or friendliness between strangers is a U.S. cultural trait that dates back to the nation’s inception. The United States was founded as a country of immigrants where strangers needed to find a way to cooperate and collaborate even if they didn’t know anything about each other. Because of this cultural history, the American way is still to welcome in strangers and treat them as friends; the European way is to keep that stranger at arm’s length – at least until you get to know them a little better. This reality is particularly true the further east one goes in Europe. A country like Switzerland adds another unique cultural aspect which is that of geography, and the fact that the Alps further cut communities off from one another, enhancing this air of coolness. For this reason, European and American interactions can often lead to a little friction, with Americans interpreting European cultural custom as a lack of friendliness. Americans then take this perceived lack of friendliness personally.
Oprah’s interpretation of the moment in the Swiss store shows a lack of cultural understanding on her part. She misinterpreted the Swiss coolness as an unwillingness to serve her. Since the incident, Swiss tourism officials have apologized publicly. Oprah for her part said, “It’s not an indictment against the country or even that store. It was just one person who didn’t want to offer me the opportunity to see the bag.” What seemed to Oprah like racism was just a normal, and intended to be helpful, interaction between a European professional and a customer.
Cindy, August 23rd, 2013 on 8:26 am
What I find interesting is, IF I was correct, the Oprah incident came right after the Swiss decisions of areas where they think they asylum-seeks should go or not go etc. (even this incidents, I think only people who understand the situations can decide what is right, what is wrong. Personally I think racism cannot turned up without good reasons, and most time is because the host country have had enough of what has been done to their country).
My impression of this incident of Oprah is … was she just trying to blow something completely out of propotion just to show racism in Europe? Or rather the Swiss?
There are many issues I can see here regarding the reactions of an American, whether this person is high profile American or not. These days American is on the decline. That can influenced how one feels, intentionally or unintentionally, IMHO.
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