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Oprah Winfrey: plight of the ‘every woman’

The recent unsavoury incident at a Zurich shop is a shocking reminder, in our age of a black American president, that fame and fortune are no protection against racism

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Who’s to argue with the big O? As one of the world’s most influential women, she is not only powerful, she is rich.

She is also black. And has turned her self-empowerment zeal into a billion dollar empire, $3 billion (Dh11 billion) at last count, spanning television networks and shows, publishing, websites and philanthropy.

She’s your every woman: The favourite aunt, the empathising friend, the generous neighbour and the one from the broken home who turned her heartbreaking childhood filled with abuse into a positive force to become one of the most successful and inspiring women in the world.

So when someone like Oprah Winfrey cries racism, who’s to argue, really?

No one.

We cry foul, get our hearts into a right little twist and moan at the state of the world: “If someone as untouchable as Oprah is a victim of racism, where does that leave us mere mortals?” we sigh.

We forget, meanwhile, that Oprah is also a marketing genius. And she’s so good that when she exploits a situation, it all seems so genuine that we can’t but believe her.

We clenched our fists at the indignity she suffered at the hands of that snooty shop assistant in Zurich who, Shock! Horror!, had never seen the Oprah Winfrey Show during its 25-year run. We smiled when Oprah said she almost had a Pretty Woman moment — the one where she’d buy out the entire store — and demanded an apology on her behalf.

We forget, meanwhile, that Oprah brought up this incident while promoting her first film in 15 years, The Butler, based on the true story of Eugene Allen who served eight American presidents in the White House (Oprah plays Allen’s wife).

She later apologised, not for the incident, but for the outcry against Switzerland the incident had generated.

“Please understand that [the incident] does not speak of the whole of Switzerland. It was one woman who did this. It would be no different than if you had an incident [in the United States] and somebody was rude and disrespectful to you. It doesn’t mean every American is that way,” she said after her account of the incident went viral.

We nodded again, in agreement.

Meanwhile, The Butler, is already on its way to the top of the US box office. Oprah’s performance has been praised by critics and the film is already getting Oscar buzz.

To be fair though, the race issue she has raised is a reality Americans and many people around the world still face. And Oprah’s incident is a shocking reminder, in our age of black American presidents, that fame and fortune are no protection against racism.

She has since recounted various other incidents when she’s been a victim. There was an incident at a Hermes boutique in Paris in 2005 when the salesmen refused to let her in because, they said, they were preparing the store for a private presentation. There was also another incident in New York when a store refused to open the door to her and a friend.

“We had seen these two white women go in the store. Suddenly it dawns on both of us: Oh my God, I think we’re having a racist moment! And it was,” she recently told Larry King.

That American TV networks are split down the middle of the political sphere in their support of Oprah in either empathising or accusing her of making a mountain of a mole hill, is a reflection of the state of the world today.

Racism is a reality. And the world needs someone like Oprah, the every woman, with all her fame and money and power, to remind the rest of the world that is alive and well. Because no one’s going to argue with the big O.