Oprah, the $20 lipstick and me


By Jae-Ha Kim
August 9, 2013

So, ya’ll have read about Oprah and the salesclerk at some chi-chi Swiss handbag boutique, right? Ms. Winfrey wanted to see a purse that retailed for just under $40,000. The clerk repeatedly told her it was very expensive and wouldn’t show it to her.

Have any of you had a similar thing happen, where you were mistaken for being a shoplifter or just too poor to buy the item in question?

I have, on a much smaller scale. My mother and I were at a department store looking at lipsticks a while back. She wanted to get a new shade. Nothing too fantabulous. Just something summery, for about $20. The store was not busy at all. There were no other customers. The two clerks continued to chat away with each other, never bothering to ask if we needed any help.

When I finally told them we’d like to see how one shade looked on my mom, one of the women rolled her eyes and said, “Well, that’s very expensive, you know.” She didn’t take one step to come over to us.

It didn’t really occur to me right then what was going on. Thinking that there could be a possibility that this particular lipstick might be $100 (which is just too much, no matter how pretty it is), I said, “Oh, how much does it cost?”


Yes, she thought we wouldn’t have $20 between us.

I know that people are often judged on how they’re dressed. We weren’t dressed poorly. But, what if we had been? So. What?

I told her how rude and presumptuous she was. She smiled smugly.

I also told her that I was meeting with the store’s executives in a few hours for a fashion layout I was coordinating. I would be telling them that the reason I’m selecting a competing store for the editorial spread is because of her laziness, prejudice and overall lack of customer service.

She blanched, offered to buy that $20 lipstick for my mother, but never apologized.

I said, “No, thank you. Why don’t you buy it for yourself to try to hide your true colors?”

I almost never come up with zingers when I’m in the moment. I think this one was one of my better ones, because it expressed how I felt. Minus the swearing.

© 2013 JAE-HA KIM | All Rights Reserved

(This post resonated with a lot of readers on Tumblr, where it received more than 900 notes and reblogs.)

Comments (53)

  1. funky-latte says:

    Perfect response. I’ve never been refused when it comes to products, but I had a salesclerk going after me looking at my hands, which made me leave the shop immediately. I know I should have said sth, but at least I looked at her with judgment ^^”.

  2. sequinedstrawberries says:

    Wow! good one!

  3. Lisa Holton says:

    There are a lot of good, decent people working in retail, which can be a pretty tough job. Then there are lazy and stupid people who might look good enough to play the part, but always reveal themselves. I do hope that wasn’t the end of the story.

  4. Stefficult says:

  5. Kasia says:

    I used to tell security guards in shops when I was at high school to stop following me around. We had to wear a uniform. It wasn’t a great school. They always presumed I was going to steal something. It drove me mad.

  6. Linda Baehr says:

    Wow! What is wrong with people? Good come back!

  7. Rich Frachey says:

    Absolutely freaking awesome. NOBODY absolutely NOBODY needs to be treated the way you were, or in the current new item Oprah was. People, no matter what, should be treated with respect while shopping in the context of both stories. Assume people are good until proven otherwise. Great story.

  8. Maria McLeese says:

    was it Barney’s? i’ll never set foot in one after the way they treated me in Vegas.

  9. Sue says:

    • Sue says:

      … looking for candles for my antique brass candlesticks that hub gave me. Wearing jeans, sneakers n Mizzou sweatshirt … Pretty standard clothes for casual shopping in Tiger Country. Walked into the shop glancing around for candles … Snooty sales clerk … A mere sales clerk … Didn’t ask what I needed. Just told me the sale table was in the back. Told her what I wanted. Paid cash. Took my overpriced candles home n never went back n told everyone what happened. The shop has since gone out of business. 😉 Guess I should have taken my Gucci purse.

  10. Tom Meyer says:

    Heard and interview on NPR this afternoon about this. The Swiss reporter first talked about the problems with Swiss immigration right now. Then when asked about the incident she slipped, or just didn’t get it, and said, “Very few Swiss know who Oprah is, we don’t sit around and watch talk shows like Americans.” The NPR reporter paused for a moment and then asked, “Why does that make a difference on how she was treated?” The Swiss reporter immediately tried to backtrack, but she had shown her true colors as well!

  11. Lois Ingersoll says:

    I don’t think what happened to you is less than what happened to Oprah. It’s essentially the same thing, just in a fancier, more expensive setting for Oprah. There are so many things going on. Racism, classism, and just pure stupidity. Thank you for sharing.

  12. Lynn Ogdon-Perrine says:

    I have had the exact opposite reaction. My friend and I were walking past Tiffany’s in NY and two people working the front door shouted arigatou & pulled us in. I am Korean and my girlfriend is Chinese… They brought us over to a crazy priced case and demanded we buy. When I got over my shock and looked around, the entire store was FULL of Japanese in their strategically ripped denims purchasing gobs of stuff. People with presumptions are hard to deal with. Both of these stories probably have to do with white clerks… but I see prejudice come from all colors. I have listen to Oprah say on her show “us blacks need to stick together” with a laugh and a wink – why didn’t anyone scream about that?

    • Jae-Ha Kim says:

      Wow. So many things wrong with what happened to you: Supposedly sophisticated American Tiffany’s employees greeting Asian-Americans with “arigato,” just assuming that you were Japanese and physically pulling you into their store to buy their merchandise. Ugh.

      When I was traveling in Sweden with a friend, a tour operator kept trying to get me onto a bus filled with Japanese tourists.He assumed I belonged with the tour group he was handling. I just told him I wasn’t part of that group and he went merrily on his way. At least he didn’t try to pull me onto the bus.

  13. Lynette Wilkos-Prostran says:

    Love the way you handled it! I think it is ironic how clerks making minimum wage or maybe a few bucks over are judging the customer as to what they can afford, truly rude and ignorant!

  14. arari says:

    You are awesome! And really.. Fuck her.

  15. monster-hugs says:

    Good for you!

  16. Sally Ashton says:


  17. Heidi says:

    That happened to my husband and I when we were car shopping as a young married couple. Two dealerships would not let us test drive new vehicles even though we were very clear on what we wanted. We paid cash for that car when we found a dealer to sell it to us. All the rest made an assumption about us based on age and continuously directed us to the used car lot. Their loss. We still do business with the first dealer, for nearly 20 years now.

  18. Awesome response. Go Jae! I have had a few experiences in various countries where store assistants have done their best to ignore me utterly even when I am trying to get their attention. I guess I can’t really complain too much about that, because 90% of the time I want them to ignore me.

    However, one time I had a store assistant in Japan get right up in my face violently making a big cross with her arms when I went to touch something at the SKII counter in a shop in Japan. The shop I was in is always chock-full of tourists. In her mind, maybe that meant I was probably a tourist who wouldn’t understand Japanese and was probably going to ignore her polite Japanese instructions not to touch. In my mind, that means that even if she thought I couldn’t understand Japanese, she ought to have been a little more prepared to deal with a foreigner than using a wordless, rude, hand gesture. What exactly did she think I was about to do to her precious product anyway?? Whatever, I was fucking fuming. All the more so because I was mad at my own inability, in the moment, to drag the words from my memory to ask her in Japanese whether she was using hand gestures because she wasn’t capable of using Japanese. I am not sure I have ever regretted a lack of language skills more than that moment.

  19. Jimin Han says:

  20. This reminds me of a story. (I wrote this on a long subway ride yesterday, but it wouldn’t post for some reason.) I was thirteen years old, and had gone to the mall with four friends. This wasn’t a normal activity for me because my mom was always afraid that “hanging out” without a structured activity would somehow get me in trouble. We were all dressed in standard midwestern kid attire, jeans and a t-shirt. We went to the cheap jewelry store, Claire’s. It was my first time there because I was rather tomboyish at the time and didn’t really wear jewelry. After looking around for 20 minutes or so, I bought a necklace and a couple of my friends bought things, too. As we were leaving the store, but before we had exited, the store manager stopped me and told all of us to come to the back of the store.

    She then accused all of us, and me in particular, of stealing items from the store. This was in full view of all customers in the store (and people were definitely staring). We all emptied our pockets to prove our innocence, but she still refused to let us go. I had never been in trouble before, and had never even thought about stealing something from a store, so I was terrified.

    She kept questioning me specifically, saying I had DEFINITELY, without a doubt, been stealing. I was in tears by this point from being so scared and humiliated. Sobbing, I emptied my pockets over and over and over, showing her the receipt from the necklace I’d bought. Mall security had arrived by this point, and they both questioned me over and over again, refusing to believe me, despite any evidence of my guilt. They kept us there for an HOUR AND A HALF after we had proved our innocence, in full view of all the customers. (I lived in a tiny town, so there’s a good chance someone who knew me or my family saw me.) They also refused to let me call my parents when I asked. And I was THIRTEEN.

    Now, why did she choose to accuse me specifically? I don’t know for sure, but I CAN say that I was the only non-white girl in the group. My town was predominantly white, with the largest poc population being Mexican/latin@ (and not looked upon very positively). I look fairly white these days (partly because I haven’t seen the sun in two years), but my dad’s family is Mexican. Summer had just ended, so my skin was much darker than it usually tends to be. (I tan very easily, and when I do, I get waaay more questions about my ethnicity. My tan does not look like white people’s tans.) Overall, people were much more likely to identify me as Mexican when I was a kid, for whatever reason. This was the only thing that distinguished me from my friends.

    My parents were obviously livid when they found out, and complained to the store and the company itself, but nothing happened, of course. I never went back to that store. I wore the necklace I’d bought once, but felt horribly uncomfortable and disgusting while wearing it, so I threw it away. Far worse things have happened to people in terms of racial profiling (including to my brothers), but it was things like this that made me completely reject the Mexican side of my heritage when I was younger and also refuse the few opportunities I had to learn Spanish, both of which I really regret now.

  21. This reminds me of one occasion where I went to Macy’s a couple of years ago. I just went into the store, looking for a deal with no particular item in mind, so I was basically just browsing. I walked up to this one rack and started looking through said rack when one of the salesmen walks up, nicely greets me and asks “Is there anything you need help looking for?” I tell him “No, I’m just browsing. Thanks for asking though!” and he responded by rolling his eyes and mumbling “go ahead and browse then, and see where that gets you” as he walks away. Yeah, that made me pretty damn uncomfortable and I darted like a bolt out of that store. It may not have even necessarily been racial profiling (I mean, not only is that particular Macy’s frequented by tourists but it was also kind of slow that day, so maybe he gets told that a lot seeing that tourists often wander aimlessly in stores and/or was just looking for something do since it was so slow? I don’t know), but it was still pretty damn rude and out of line. Though, seeing that that’s the story that sticks out in my mind at the moment, I guess I’m pretty lucky (especially when I compare this to some of the horror stories I’ve heard about shopping while black or non-white.

  22. Siochan-Leat says:

    I havent had this happen to me personally, but a friend of mine was told to leave a Banana Republic store for not looking like their demographic and for being under the age of 25. The saleswoman was very rude to her and assumed she couldnt possibly afford anything they had so she was asked to leave.

  23. in joy says:

    This reminds me of the Selena movie. My favorite part, tbh.

  24. once again, Don Lemon and other people who use that “classy” “respectability” bs arguement can stfu

  25. afrodynamic says:

    $77 million dollar net worth don’t make you no less black…
    Happens way too many times…

  26. omg this has happened to me at jcpenny.

  27. Aliyah says:

    Wow OP, you kicks ass. I bet she needed help picking her jaw up off of the floor.

  28. this has happened to me while I was in my work cloths (i work in construction). I was in a shoe store looking for shoes for not work hours and got looked down upon for being in carhearts and having a farmer’s tan. I went to that store because I had the money to shell out of nice looking comfortable casual shoes. When I asked if they had anything in my size they said ‘we don’t carry service shoes’. I walked out.

  29. maskwamomma says:

    This always happens to me at the Mac store. I have stopped going. Sephora however I always receive help.

  30. prettipetite says:

    welcome to life as a black person in the world.

  31. Samara says:

    I was shopping for perfume at Nordstrom and I was at the Chanel section and the lady literally rolled her eyes and was like “that’s expensive you know…” and I was looking with my friend (blonde/blue eyed) who was at the other end of the perfume area and the lady didn’t even blink and gave her samples.
    I didn’t buy anything because I thought the setup looked cheap as fuck -it’s the TO Mall, duh- but it was really obnoxious.

  32. This happened to me in John Lewis even though I’m in the partnership…

  33. This same shit has happen to me a couple of times when I go shopping. Especially in Macy’s but I find really funny is how their always trailing someone they deem suspicious but never the actual person stealing.

  34. I did a kinda casual experiment about this back in high school. I grew up near a mall that had a Macy’s in it. I’ve never been much of a girlie type of person, but I do wear dresses, etc on occasion.

    One day, I got all dolled up, nice dress, nice shoes, I did my hair, put on some jewelry and slapped some makeup on, and went to the store. I looked around, got courteous service and all you’d expect from a department store.

    The next week, I put on my most comfortable pair of jeans (which were faded and had holes in the knees), a pair of hiking boots and a t-shirt and did the same thing. Everything I was wearing was clean, but it was obviously old and well worn. So much for courtesy. I got quite a few glares, and a few suspicious “May I help you”s from a few workers.

    Those two experiences decided me against shopping at Macy’s, and after working in retail for as long as I had (something like 6 different stores), I’m still rather disgusted at that type of behavior.

  35. I said “burn” out loud as I read that. Bravo~

  36. Been there in a Sephora—and not from a store employee, but some random tourist bitch, quote: “I don’t know why she’s in here. Everything is to expensive for her.” You should’ve seen the look on her face when I dropped $140 on products with ease when she only bought ONE STICK OF LIPSTICK FOR $16. And exactly who is Sephora “too expensive” for? FUCK OUTTA HERE.

  37. Tamara says:

    yeah this happened to my and my mum a while back when I was shopping for a prom dress, the lady who owned the kept saying: ‘that’s really expensive…are you sure you can afford that?’ whenever we looked at the more pricey dresses…as you can tell, my mum was pissed off, but i was too oblivious to catch what she was saying at the time

  38. Yes! I was trying to buy a charm for a bracelet, it was about $30 dollars and the sales lady kept telling me how expensive it was even thought I kept telling her I knew exactly how much it cost and she was weary to let me get too close to it. I assume it was because I was young and in shorts and a t-shirt, but I knew what was happening in the moment and it pissed me off to no end.

  39. Kim M. says:

    read it, loved it but didn’t share it…..but will now.

  40. aktf94 says:


  41. Siobhan Murphy-Elias says:

    Funny how stupid, lazy, and imbecilic people can find and keep a job and here I sit, still looking??

  42. iamababs says:

    I’ve had a gas pump shut off on me at $5 because “you don’t look like you can afford any more”. I was in a business suit.

    Mulatto ain’t white enough.

  43. This literally happened to me all the time as a kid. My dad is pretty wealthy and would always buy me the craziest jewelry and shit when I was like 5. But he is the kind of person who is more happy in jeans and a t shirt. And a big bushy beard. So he doesn’t look all that wealthy at first glance. But god damn would he get pissed when people wouldn’t take our order.

  44. This happened to me at an aquarium with my students. The old white sales lady at the gift shop told the 1st graders “do you even have money to buy anything, or are you just playing”. I worked with migrant worker students in South Central and I was in complete shock that someone would still have this kind of disgusting mentality.

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