(The Root) — The instructions, relayed by an editor on a Friday afternoon, detonated like a bomb over the telephone: "I don't think a black person should write the review for this book." The book in question looked at legal cases during the civil rights era; the black person being considered to review it was a highly regarded judge.
"I'm sorry," I stammered, absorbing the flat voice on the other end of the line. "Can you say that again?"
As a longtime writer and editor, I had witnessed my fair share of isms in the workplace: male colleagues sexually rating the new crop of female interns, white staffers who mistook me for the other black woman in the newsroom and so on. Never had I heard an editor explicitly deny someone an opportunity because he or she was black. But there it was. The editor on the call — who worked remotely and did not know that I was black — maintained that the assignment would not be offered to this judge, or to any black person, because they could not be objective.
Now, I am no world-famous media mogul. And this particular encounter with racism did not unfold in the rarefied air of a luxury boutique in Switzerland, where, apparently, talk-show queen Oprah Winfrey, one of the richest people on earth, was also denied — in this case, denied a closer look at a $38,000 handbag when a store clerk refused to show it to her during a shopping trip in July. Oprah described the incident, in which she said she was repeatedly steered toward cheaper bags, during an interview promoting her new film, The Butler, which opens this week.
Different continents. Different income brackets. Vastly different power relationships. And yet the response I received from higher-ups in the office and the response Oprah received from across the Atlantic, via the BBC, were one and the same. It's a response that many a black person has met in the face of open prejudice. And that response is: Racism? No, no, no, you've got it all wrong. This was really — really and truly — just a big misunderstanding.
"I didn't take care of [Winfrey]," the high-end shop's owner, Trudie Goetz, told the BBC. "I'm sure she felt like this — but my salesgirl promised me she took care of [her] really the best she could. So it must have been a misunderstanding … She tried to show Mrs. Oprah the same style in other qualities, because maybe she didn't understand what she wanted."
In the index of rationales for racist behavior, the "misunderstanding" holds a particular fascination. It is not a take-a-mulligan-and-ride-out-the-storm admission. It's not a doubling-down, those-blacks-probably-deserve-it rant. It isn't a huffy denial (although, according to reports, Oprah's salesclerk has issued a blanket denial).
In some ways, the "misunderstanding" response is more offensive than all of those: It is a claim of total innocence that some bad actors will reach for no matter what behavior has transpired. Celebrity chef Paula Deen lobbing racial slurs and entertaining fantasies of plantation-themed weddings? Retired Montana federal judge Richard Cebull sending a blast email about President Barack Obama being born after his mother had sex with a dog? Gatekeepers at the posh Valley Swim Club in Pennsylvania revoking pool privileges to black and Latino children as members whispered racial epithets?
If people would just take a moment and listen, all of these sorely misunderstood individuals have a really good explanation. Deen didn't mean it the way it sounded. Cebull meant it as a joke among friends. There was a safety issue at the pool. The Swiss store clerk didn't know what Oprah wanted when she pointed at the crocodile bag and said, "That one." See? It was all just a big, crazy mix-up.
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.