Oprah, one of the richest women in the world, was in Zurich, Switzerland, when an assistant at an upscale handbag shop told her the purse she was looking at (worth over $35,000) was “too expensive” for her. [Globe and Mail]
Winfrey - and just about every single media outlet in North America - interpreted the incident as evidence that racism exists:
“I could’ve had the whole blow-up thing and thrown down the black card, but why do that? But that clearly is, you know ... it [racism] still exists. Of course it does,” she said.
It seems unbelievable. Would a shop assistant really be so rude? Be so oblivious that she failed to notice the fact that Winfrey's "little Donna Karan skirt" and "little sandals" proclaimed serious money?
But there is another explanation. On Facebook, Margaret Shenton - a friend of a friend - offered a Zambian perspective. I don't know Margaret, but she allowed me to share her reactions:
It is a con.... They play this trick all the time hoping that you are a purse-proud Arab, Congolese, Nigerian, Rwandese with largesse who will throw up a tantrum saying, "Do you know who I am and how much money I have, I can buy you and your entire shop." Good that Oprah didn't rise to the bait.
Racism? Maybe. Profiling? Definitely. I would guess that, statistically speaking, a very well-dressed black woman coming into an exclusive Zurich shop is not unlikely to be a wealthy African.
From a game theoretic point of view, then, the shop assistant's strategy is not stupid. If the customer is, in fact, too poor to afford the purse, then she has lost nothing. If the customer is rich enough to afford the purse, and insists upon buying it to demonstrate that fact - well, the assistant might have offended someone, but she's still sold a purse worth tens of thousands of dollars.
I don't know what the right explanation is. But as an economist, I always prefer explanations that don't come down to "people are stupid."
And telling Oprah Winfrey she's too poor to afford anything is just plain stupid.