Off The Cuff: In A World Where Not Even Oprah Can Look At An Expensive Purse…

There are still many news stories of great importance to report. There is still unrest in the Middle East; there are violations of human rights in Russia; people are still hungry and homeless, and black men are still getting killed at an alarming rate. 

Yet, one of the most reported news stories of the past summer was this one. The world’s first black billionairess left a Zurich shop after a salesclerk told her that she could not look at a $38000 purse (ouch) because she would not be able to afford it.

Well, Dang.

This used to happen to me often, particularly when my hairdresser worked from a shop in a snooty retail district. (Thank God she opened her own shop! I couldn’t stand the pretentious neighbourhood she worked in.) I would walk into stores and browse, only to be told by the salesclerk that the item I was looking at was “too expensive” for me. I understand why it happened. I am a young black woman who dresses like a high school student. (Jeans. T-shirt. Hoodie. Sneakers.) I will cop to the fact that I appear as frugal as I am. (My favourite stores: The Salvation Army Thrift Store and Forever 21)

I do not understand why it happened to one of the richest women in the world. I guess it is true what they say about assumptions (keeping the “ass” in ‘assume’ since 10 B.C!). To alienate a woman who could purchase both the purse, and the whole boutique was an asinine mistake. I hope the staff of that store will learn from all the poor publicity they receive from this. In the future, it may serve them well not to prejudge a person based upon his or her appearance.

Every time I want to believe that I am living in a post-racial society, I get an ugly reminder. Race still matters. The degree in which it matters depends on how directly a person feels the impact of it in his or her daily life. In other words: If you don’t have to think about how your behaviour will shape other people’s view of your race or ethnic group, then race is not an issue for you.

That does not mean that it isn’t an issue for other people. To compare the two would discount the experiences of those of us who have had to get used to living with other people’s prejudices. It would be like telling a man with one leg that I know how he feels because I broke my toe once. It is not the same thing. It will never be the same thing.

It is not the same because I cannot (safely) change the colour of my skin. While I give people the benefit of the doubt, I also realize that there will be assumptions about me based solely on the fact that I am brown-skinned. I’m used to it, and it is sadder to me than it is infuriating because it is a reminder that racism still exists, albeit, in a less-overt, more passive-aggressive way. (At least, that’s how it is here in Canada, I cannot speak for any other country)

I have hope because the younger generation is not as race-obsessed as their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were. I may not live in a society in which most people judge me by the content of my character (yet). I will admit that society is more accepting of other races than it has been in the past.

That said, there is still a long way to go, and change begins in the heart and mind of each person. Every person has prejudices, including me, but racism is a learned behaviour. We will only un-learn damaging behaviours when we confront them. We will not confront what we do not believe is there.

In the future, I pray that all of us, regardless ethnicity, of can accept people as they are without attaching any personal baggage. I gauge people on a case-by-case basis because I know what it is like to be prejudged without any facts. I do not want anyone else to experience life the way I have.

The content of a person’s character is the most important thing about them. It does not matter what they have, or do not have. It does not matter which title they hold. It does not matter where they live, whom their friends are, or how many degrees they earn. If a person cannot show a modicum of genuine respect to the people he shares space with, he is fundamentally weak.

I don’t want to be deprived of any opportunities to learn because I don’t like the look of the person who delivers the message. We all can learn from one another if we’re open to it. If our biases hold us back, that’s just sad.

As a Christian, there is an expectation for me to treat others the way that I would like to be treated. (Most of the time that means I want people to leave me alone, and stay out of my business) However, I’m also human, which means that I often revert to treating people they way they treat me. For the most part, it means that I’m kind to people. If I’m not, the person did something to earn it.

Poet, Maya Angelou once said, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” I know better than to disrespect the people who disrespect me, but at the same time I refuse to allow anyone to dishonor me, so I may strike back. Others may be easily impressed by titles, status, and wealth, but I am not. What impresses me is when a person shows respect to everyone–without anything to gain by it.

If one of the richest women in the world is affected by subtle racism, than what hope is there for the rest of us?

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