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An Old Concept for a New World

Prejudice & Purses

ImageThe current news story regarding Oprah, the $38,000 purse and the prejudicial ignorance of a young salesgirl is a telling editorial on the human condition. Oprah Winfrey has been a voice of reason for generations and relates to people on a deeply personal, almost familial, level. That is rare gift among the rich and famous.  There have been only a handful of celebrities that can make each member of an audience feel like they are a personal friend. Carol Burnett and Walter Cronkite come to mind. Famous people who invite us into their lives in personal ways help us forget the differences we have, allow us to feel less alone, and make us feel special with their rare and broad-reaching touch

This news story will trigger a range of responses from those who hear it. Some will focus on the trivial aspects—“Really, a $38,000 purse? That’s obscene!”—while others will express rage or disappointment—“See, prejudice is alive and well. That girl should be ashamed or (fill in the blank)!” And, all the while, the narrow-minded will chant: “I understand. If I didn’t know who Oprah was, I would have done the same thing.” It is hard to say whether Oprah intended to purchase that item or not. But even if Oprah was simply “window shopping” the prejudice shown by the salesgirl is inexcusable, whether it was driven by her beliefs about blacks, economics, or fear. It is quite possible that Oprah felt the sting more acutely because she has done so much to dispel and beat down prejudice. Her followers are as varied in color as the rainbow. To most minds, she has proven that her love for humanity trumps any color, challenge, or prejudice.

In the end, the price of the purse is irrelevant. Oprah’s abundance and her life style are hers to enjoy. Even though there are plenty of people whose yearly salary would not cover the cost of the purse, it should not become the focus of this story. There is a much bigger perspective that needs to be examined and addressed.

Let it be acknowledged that people of color and different religious beliefs have received less than their share of equality, not only in the United States but in other countries as well. Many have suffered and died from the blind prejudice and cruelty of others whose belief is driven by hate and a false sense of superiority. At the same time, let us acknowledge those who have fought the long hard battle and sacrificed a great deal in an attempt to erase the unspeakable horrors of prejudice.  

Prejudice is not just black or white. It is not just religious or preferential. It is all these things and more. It is a disease. It has splintered humanity and has transmuted the world into defensive pockets of “us against them.” Prejudicial thinking mentally justifies actions and/or reactions that bring harm to others, regardless of the consequences. If you don’t think you are prejudiced or have never experienced prejudice then you are simply lucky or unaware. It exists everywhere.

It begins innocuously when we are children as we are slowly exposed to a belief held by people of influence. Then it expands and morphs, depending upon the company we keep. It is transplanted and grafted, like a branch of a tree by someone(s) we love and trust. Worst of all, prejudice always paints with a broad brush:

  • All people of color (black, white, red, yellow) are bad
  • Men cannot be trusted
  • Women cannot be trusted
  • One religion is right while everyone else is wrong
  • One political party is right while the other party is wrong

Instead of shaping adults, we raise our children to follow our prejudices without question. Sadly, we teach them to falsely rely on their economic status, social placement, or cultural identity as a measure of worth and personal power.

Prejudice has existed for as long as humankind and will only become extinct when we acknowledge that our perceptions and beliefs are the root of our bigotry, not the outer world. One cannot help being born into their circumstances. But everyone can master their thinking, their beliefs, and throw away their prejudices. Holding onto our beliefs with an iron fist does not keep us safe, or powerful, or superior; it falsely abates our fears and separates us from life itself.

Prejudice’s underlying theme begins with the belief that “my right” gives me “the right” to minimize and destroy what is “unlike” me in any way. For example,

  • fear driven prejudice becomes the justification for firing a weapon instead of asking questions when questions can be asked;
  • self-righteous prejudice is used by religious zealots who feel justified in eliminating  entire societies because they look and believe differently;
  • superior based prejudice tolerates the abuse, rape and harassment of women, children and those less powerful
  • silent prejudice minimizes or judges another’s  narrow-mindedness  while desperately holding  to a belief that is equally misguided but emotionally justified

 If we continue to allow instances like these to occur we will forever be pointing our fingers “out there” and doing nothing about the root of the disease that always begins in the hidden recesses of thoughts and beliefs. This becomes a personal, inside job for each one of us.

Oprah’s exposure to this young clerk’s behavior can be a springboard that creates a bridge of understanding. It is time we had a serious conversation about the underlying cause of the prejudicial unrest that keeps us isolated, or worse, makes us kill and destroy each other.

It would be curious to know how the salesgirl reacted when she realized it was THE Oprah. However, it would be of even greater interest to know if Oprah’s celebrity status and ability to pay for the item changed the clerk’s behavior. Regardless, her prejudice would still exist in the hidden recesses of her beliefs and would have been expressed in some other way at some other time toward someone less powerful.

Wouldn’t it be nice if a $38,000 handbag became the shift we all need to let go of what doesn’t work? There is a danger that this story will become lost in the minutia of its details. But, if examined carefully/if given the attention it deserves, this story’s power to change how we see our own prejudice will be incredibly profound. That purse, then, will be worth the experience and the investment. 

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