Racism? No, It’s Just a ‘Misunderstanding’

We've all -- even Oprah -- heard this excuse for racist behavior. But in some ways, it's just as offensive.

Oprah Winfrey (Ben Gabbe/Getty Images)

After some closed-door meetings among supervisors, here is what I was told: The editor with whom I spoke never meant to say that a black person couldn’t write an objective book review (if such a thing exists). This was actually about an act of compassion: The editor wanted to spare a black reviewer the pain of reading a book that dealt with racism. Now, really, how can you argue with kindness like that?

In her seminal 1988 essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” race scholar Peggy McIntosh articulated one of the many unspoken privileges of living in her white skin this way: “If I declare there is a racial issue at hand, or there isn’t a racial issue at hand, my race will lend me more credibility for either position than a person of color will have.”

Anyone who has been on the receiving end of the “misunderstanding” response knows how true this is. And history tells us how deep and long that truth runs. In the 18th and 19th centuries, when the racial issue at hand was slavery, the white stamp of credibility was a requirement for slave narrative accounts to be taken seriously. Why? Because in the face of a system that involved owning and trading human beings, Americans willed themselves to believe that things didn’t go down the way slaves said they did. Is it really that brutal? Surely some slaves are content. Once a prominent white abolitionist confirmed that yes, it is, and no, they aren’t, a slave narrative was born.

Fast-forward a couple of centuries, and that card-carrying privilege still holds currency. At work, I knew in my bones that all the thoughtful, considered emails would mean nothing if I didn’t have a modern-day William Lloyd Garrison in my corner. Sometimes there is no fully unpacking white privilege — no piercing through that innocent joke or that unfortunate misinterpretation — without the privileged doing the unpacking.

Only in the last couple of days have I realized that in situations like the one I faced, there is something else that does help: being Oprah. Within a few news cycles, the Swiss moved from misunderstanding to open, unqualified apology. “This person acted terribly wrong,” the nation’s tourism office tweeted of the store clerk — letting the world know what Oprah knew the minute she turned and walked out the boutique door.

That slap of condescension masquerading as genuine concern that Oprah got the first time? Switzerland will take a mulligan on that.

Francie Latour writes about race, diversity and culture for the Boston Globe, Essence and other publications.