"I could've had the whole blow-up thing and thrown down the black card, but why do that?"
Oprah Winfrey (Entertainment Tonight, August, 2013)
Silence is a luxury that no one can afford when confronted with racism. Silence fuels the ignorance that opinion cures and so we all have a duty to speak out against attempts of racists to marginalise us.
A couple of months back I ventured into Sainsbury's on Borough High Street, London. I walked to, what I like to call, the express fridge. You know the one with salads, sandwiches, meal deals and the like. Since nothing tickled my tits, I walked to the hot meals section. After browsing for less than a minute I opted for a small Vegetable Jalfrezi (£3.00). I'll need a drink with this, I thought, so I returned to the express fridge. It was at this point I noticed the female member of staff intently tracking my every move. She had left her post and was literally stood off my shoulder watching me shop. I quickly plumped for an Orange Lucozade (£1.35) and made my way to the self-service checkout.
My shopping experience became acutely uncomfortable when the female member of staff approached the goods I was about to purchase and, without prompting, begun to pass them through the self-service herself. When I objected to her help, her voice rose as she suggested she was required by management to do as she was doing and continued to do so. When I asked her to stop handling the shopping she again ignored my request, at this point I became austere and insisted she "put my shopping down immediately".
Finally, she complied!
I am aware that I was racially profiled because, sadly, I am used to being followed through stores by ignorant members of staff. I have been called back into stores upon leaving. My bags have been searched. I have refused to have my bags searched; I have been detained in store. I have had the police called on me for refusing to comply only to have them apologise to me when my words "I am no thief" turn out to be truth, not alibi because I am a citizen of good character not a petty thief.
I have been racially profiled on countless occasions throughout my 33 years as a black man in several European countries and will, likely, be profiled many more times. The fact is, this is an inescapable part of the black experience. This is, as Barack Obama said recently on the subject, "a history that doesn't go away."
I had a close friend. We fell out because, in his own words, " I hate that you are so black". He used to tell me to keep calm because "if you are innocent there is nothing to shout about".
He was, is and always will be wrong! There is always something to shout about.
Every time someone suggests I am a thief, I stand my ground because I am the one who is robbed of my right to enter a place of business and not be profiled because of the colour of my skin.
There is an importance to outrage.
My experience in Sainsbury's ended with me discretely asking to speak with the duty manager who, mid-explanation, held my elbow and ushered me out of the store. Make no mistake about it, this entire experience, which lasted less than 10 minutes, happened not because I am black but because I was profiled by racists.
Blackness is not what fuels racism, ignorance is.
Oprah Winfrey, the media mogul, recently shared an experience of personal shopping in Zurich, Switzerland at Trois Pommes, a boutique that 'offers a selection of fashion pieces from a dozen or so exquisite brands'.
"I go into a store and I say to the woman, 'Excuse me, may I see the bag right above your head?' Winfrey goes on, "and she says, to me: 'No. It's too expensive.'"
The bag is $38,000. The price is insignificant and is only reported because Oprah Winfrey currently heads the Forbes list of 100 most powerful celebrities with an estimated $1.8bn fortune. The real cost is to Switzerland . The real price is already the price of Oprah's magnificent media influence,
Switzerland's local authorities have recently introduced restrictions that ban asylum-seekers from visiting public places, playgrounds, swimming pools and libraries. For Winfrey, born in 1954 in Mississippi into rural poverty, the current social climate in Switzerland is a stark reminder of Jim Crow laws that once legalised racial segregation in America's south.
The incident is a reminder that, in spite of her fortune, Winfrey will always suffer the misfortune of racial discrimination. Like the rest of us billion-less blacks, Winfrey will never be able to escape the circumstances of her birth and will always be profiled as the poor black girl from rural Mississippi just as I will ever be the poor black boy from Peckham.
Much of Winfrey's quiet rage seems to be aimed at having had her status and wealth undermined, leaving me to ask: Is she alarmed that racism still happens or is she alarmed that racism still happens to her?
I am more troubled by the insinuation that Oprah Winfrey thought she had somehow bought her way out of the Maafa.
Let us make it clear - Oprah's global celebrity is what garnered the apology that came from the store's owner Trudie Goetz. Most billion-less blacks would be met by privilege, taken by the elbow, led out of the priggish store onto the pavement and, like I was, pacified.
Wealth cannot buy blacks a pass out of prejudice. Fame cannot shield blacks from the social sin of being considered racially inferior and the observations from Oprah that racism "still exists" because it happened to her are the most alarming part for me.
Why? Is a question of affluence!
It took 44 days for George Zimmerman to be charged with second-degree-murder in Trayvon Martin's death. Oprah received exposure, Twitter trend status, debate, apology, attempts at justice and reason, the moment she charged an unknown clerk with racism. Proving that racism is still crippling, it was her fame, not her blackness, that bought Oprah those privileges.
Oprah's experience is proof that you can work your way out of poverty but you cannot work your way out of your skin.