Whether Oprah Winfrey (search) 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 (search). And if it can happen to Oprah, it could happen to anyone."
The incident occurred when Winfrey stopped by Hermes (search) 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. But she has said she will no longer be shopping in its stores.
Many other minorities boycott stores where they receive poor service, according to Harriette Cole, author of "How To Be," a book on black etiquette that recommends this tactic to counter biased treatment. Cole also recommends dressing well and, if followed, asking for shopping assistance.
"Unfortunately, this proves how deeply ingrained in global culture racism is," Cole said. "There is the assumption that a black person will do you harm, and/or the assumption that a black person has no place in a luxury establishment, cannot afford to buy the luxury item."
Michael Leake, a black pharmaceutical salesman in Toledo, Ohio, knows this experience all too well. "It happens all the time," he said. "That's just life."
Once, at a high-end shopping center in Los Angeles, he said, a sales clerk referred to a white customer as "sir," but turned to Leake and greeted him with, "What's up, homes?" He confronted the clerk.
"I was like, 'How's he "sir" and I'm your homey? I'm interested in why you speak to him in a more respectful way than you speak to me. We've all got money to spend here,'" Leake said.
Indeed, many companies fail to grasp that big-spending customers now come from every background imaginable, said Luke Visconti, co-founder of DiversityInc, a New Jersey-based business that advises companies on diversity issues.
Hermes, in its treatment of Winfrey and its response, "blew it to a degree that's hard to imagine," he said. "It's clearly bigoted. ... Think about what this did to their business. Think about all those people who have been oppressed (by this kind of behavior) who are going to be sympathetic to Oprah and not go back there."
Winfrey's influence is enormous: She reportedly earned $225 million last year, her daily talk show is seen in 111 countries and Forbes magazine recently named her America's most powerful celebrity. Some commentators have suggested that her extraordinary wealth, usually a buffer from the everyday trials faced by most blacks, has fueled her outrage.
But Emil Wilbekin, former editor of Vibe magazine, said it's not uncommon for black celebrities to receive poor treatment at high-end stores, where there are virtually no minorities in top positions. Sean "P. Diddy" Combs has devised a tactic to avoid poor treatment, he said.
"Puffy sends his people ahead to stores and shuts them down so he can shop privately, so this kind of thing doesn't happen," Wilbekin said. "I've worked with young people who wanted to be stylists and work in fashion and they've never gone into a high-end boutique ... because they were afraid. They didn't think they were allowed. What flashes in my mind are images of water fountains that say 'whites only.'"