LOS ANGELES—“Please understand that [the incident] does not speak of the whole of Switzerland,” Oprah Winfrey said of the most widely reported shopping experience ever. Oprah, in Zurich to attend Tina Turner’s wedding, went shopping for a handbag in a boutique. The billionaire media mogul asked twice to see a $38,000 Tom Ford bag. She said the salesclerk refused, said she (Oprah) could not afford it, and offered less expensive ones. Later, in an interview on “Entertainment Tonight,” the talk show queen recounted the incident as a racist experience.
In this LA interview, Oprah, who is earning acclaim for her performance in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” was careful not to involve all of Switzerland. “It was one woman who did this,” she stressed. “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.”
Told that her director, Lee Daniels, had said he dealt with racism every day in the United States, Oprah said, “My experience is very different from Lee’s. First of all, I am a woman and I have, for most of my career, had audiences both white and black from different walks of life so all ages, races and denominations were part of ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show.’ I don’t know an African-American man who has not experienced what President Barack Obama talked about—being stopped, followed or pulled over. It happened to my partner (Stedman) Graham, particularly when he was younger. It doesn’t happen to women that way. Because I have always been part of the corporate world, and owning and developing my business, my experiences are very different.”
Oprah asked aloud, in that confident manner that made her famous: “But do I recognize that racism still exists for so many people? Yes. What happened to me in that store, happens to people all the time.”
Asked if people were born racists, Oprah replied emphatically: “Absolutely not! You have to be taught to be a racist. If you put children together in a room, unless they are influenced by what their parents think about the color of someone’s skin, they play together and get along beautifully. I did an experiment years ago on the ‘Oprah’ show. It was called ‘The Brown-Eyed, Blue-Eyed Experiment.’ We had a teacher from Iowa, a white woman who… was trying to explain racism to her class.
“She divided the third-grade class into brown-eyed and blue-eyed children. She told them that the brown-eyed children were more special. She started talking about how brown-eyed children knew more and were testing better. She gave the brown-eyed children more time at recess, more treats.
“After a week, she noticed that the blue-eyed children started to act out based upon what they have been told. The brown-eyed children started feeling better about themselves and making fun of the blue-eyed children.
“Here’s the good part. We brought this woman to the show. This was back when were still live on the ‘Oprah’ show. It might have even been called ‘AM Chicago’ at the time. We said, ‘Here is a woman who is an expert on racism. Based on her scientific studies, she has discovered that brown-eyed people are smarter, generally more beautiful, more disciplined and have more perseverance, blah, blah… than blue-eyed people. Before we brought the audience in, we separated them according to their eye color. We gave the brown-eyed people coffee. We let them stay in the green room. The blue-eyed people were made to sit outside.
“Within an hour, some of the brown-eyed people were convinced [that blue-eyed people were inferior]. One actually said, ‘Yes, I have a blue-eyed friend and she is lazy.’ People started calling in and… within an hour, we were able to show that… you could train the way somebody thought about another by saying, ‘The experts have proven [this and that]. So I am convinced that you are taught [racism]; that if we all lived in a world where everybody was of a different color, and nobody had any kind of negative feelings about it and never told you, you would never know.”
This early, Oprah, who plays Gloria Gaines, wife of the title character who serves eight United States presidents (played by Forest Whitaker) in “The Butler,” is being buzzed as a contender in the coming awards season. “I wasn’t sure I still had it,” Oprah admitted. “Lee said I should call Susan Batson (acting coach).’ She took my call and came to see me and sat with me for 20 minutes—I was bawling on the sofa at the end of that first meeting. I said to her, ‘I am going to need a confidentiality agreement for everything I just told you.’ She said, ‘Oprah, I am so surprised that you are still so vulnerable and open. You can go inside those spaces and you will find Gloria.’”
Asked why she wasn’t acting more often, Oprah pointed out, “Since ‘Precious,’ Lee has been sending me various scripts, some of which I didn’t like—they weren’t worth my energy.”
She explained that, given her various commitments, she couldn’t accept more roles. “When Lee asked me to do this, there could not have been a worse time,” she related. “I was going through all the mishigas of creating a network (OWN), being flamed in the press and trying to pull a team together. So I would go shoot a scene, then go do an interview, shoot a scene and get on the phone with my team about the network.
“When I choose to do something, I have to see that it’s going to fill me up to do it and not drain me. It has to have an impact on culture… and meaningful for the African-American experience.”
Asked to look back on her 25 seasons as host of what remains the highest-rated talk show in US TV history, and what the most cringe-inducing moment was for her, Oprah was quick to point out that it wasn’t Tom Cruise jumping on the couch. “That wasn’t embarrassing at all,” she said. “I will tell you what my breakdown moment was: I was surprised on the air by Mary Tyler Moore. Now, I love surprising people. I made a career out of surprising people sometimes but I don’t like surprises of any kind, happy or unhappy.
“My team surprised me with Mary Tyler Moore on the air. I grew up wanting to be like Mary Tyler Moore. I wanted to have my own company because at the end of her show, it said ‘MTM.’ I have OWN because she had MTM, okay? Mary came out and I didn’t know she was going to be [there]. I was talking about her and she walked in. I went into this absolutely full-blown ugly cry—that which happens when you can’t control yourself, your nose is running, you are crying and you can’t speak. I said, ‘Never again.’ That was in the 1990s. Not until the very second to the last show did I allow them to surprise me again.”
(E-mail the columnist at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at http://twitter.com/nepalesruben.)