It’s Personal: Race and Oprah

Tammy Johnson takes on the Queen of All Media.

By Tammy Johnson Dec 15, 2001

Tammy Johnson takes on the Queen of All Media.

Every true Oprah Winfrey fan knows the Diana Ross story. Glued to the family television set, a young Oprah marvels at the sight of a self-assured, brown-faced sister on the Ed Sullivan Show. "Look! There are colored people on the black and white! Maybe I too can work a microphone some day?"

Well, Oprah was the Diana of my childhood. She looked like the women in my family with her broad smile and bold brown presence. I recognized some of myself in her penchant for asking questions, stating her opinion, and needling the big shots with sharp one-liners. Donahue move over, there’s a new sister in town!

More than 15 years later I’m still perched in front of the television watching Oprah. And I am not alone. Her 7 million daily viewers are also reading O Magazine, starting Oprah book clubs, watching the latest movie from Oprah Winfrey Presents, surfing her Oxygen website, and attending her sold-out seminars. Tagged "Queen of All Media," Winfrey’s "crossover" appeal to the white public is matched by only a handful of celebrities of color, like Tiger Woods and Colin Powell.

So why do I have an uneasy feeling about this "little brown girl from Mississippi makes good" story?

Winfrey is acutely conscious of her career and image. She has parlayed her intelligence and acumen to become one of the most influential people in the country. But even Oprah cannot transcend the boundaries of race and power in America.

Oprah skillfully markets herself as the griot figure–one of the few legitimate roles Hollywood has for black people. Like Whoopie Goldberg, she plays the wise black matriarch who redeems white people from their misdeeds and foibles by helping them embrace love and realize their true, good selves. Oprah seems to take on the role of new-age mammy for suburban soccer moms. In the process, she safely reduces all things racial to the personal, sidestepping the hard questions of institutionalized racial oppression and white privilege.

The First of Many Questions

A moment of clarity struck me during her tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. "If you could heal racism, where would you start?" The stories had a recurring theme. During jury duty, a black woman confronts her mistrust of white people and befriends a white juror. A former neo-Nazi sees the error of his ways through the patience of caring foster parents–"they loved the hate right out of me." A white English teacher starts a Freedom Writers club in response to students’ racial stereotyping. "A teacher, a mother, and even a stranger, these are the people who are living Dr. King’s dream. This is how change happens, one moment, one person at a time."

Many of Oprah’s shows follow the mainstream spin: that racism is mainly an issue between black and white people who just don’t understand each other, a personal problem that must be addressed through the self-empowerment of people of color and white compassion.

Take her show, "Thomas Jefferson’s Black and White Relatives Meet Each Other." The questions raised would have fit right in on a 60 Minutes or Primetime Live segment. Could such a power imbalance between Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemings, yield real love? Why does the Monticello Association refuse to accept Jefferson’s black descendants into the family gravesite? Note the brave solidarity between some of the modern-day descendants of Jefferson and Hemings. The show concludes with a lesson on reconciliation: descendants of slave and master in one family coming together on "I’m Sorry Day" in South Carolina.

Surely there is value in personal redemption. But why not discuss the broader institutional implications of Jefferson’s actions? Why not ask how Jefferson could father children with his slave, then turn around and deny their personhood in the country’s constitution? And how is this power dynamic replayed by modern-day white leaders who claim to have affinity for people of color yet deny their basic human rights? Aren’t these questions worth investigating with a national audience?

A Voice in Politics

The Oprah factor loomed large during the 2000 presidential elections. With Gore and Bush polling at a statistical dead heat, appealing to Oprah’s soccer-mom demographic became the priority of both campaigns. Oprah’s interviews could either seal the deal or alienate candidates from key voters. Instead, she confined herself to softball questions–what is your all-time favorite song or childhood memory?–and missed the opportunity to delve into the hard issues affecting people of color.

Few would disagree with Gore’s proposal to expand preschool. But why didn’t Oprah challenge Clinton and Gore’s eight-year failure to address rampant racial disparities in public education? "Mr. Gore, what will you do about the unacceptable dropout rates of young black and Latino students?" Instead Oprah suggests a system to teach parenting. Say what? We want a system–one that would rather imprison our children than educate them–to teach us how to be parents?

And just when I thought things could not get worse, Bush took center stage. Oprah began the Q&A by repeating Bush’s tepid rendition of problems in education. There was no discussion about the unequal access to quality education in Texas, or how race plays into issues such as the death penalty or taxes. Bush was free to advance his message. "I’ve got an agenda that says we’re going to elevate the individual in America, not empower the government." Decoded: I will protect the privileges of affluent America and to hell with the rest of you. Oprah seemed satisfied with the response.

An Interesting Contrast

Oprah is no stranger to activism. She was a vocal proponent of the National Child Protection Act, giving testimony before Congress and attending its signing in 1993. Whether it is the bucketfuls of cash that viewers pour into the Angel Network, or building houses across the country for Habitat for Humanity, we know that Oprah can make change happen.

Recently, she has joined the growing international movement against government-sanctioned violence against women. Oprah has promoted a number of women’s rights organizations and causes and raised awareness about the struggles of women of color around the world. But her activism on these issues has translated into an all-too-familiar clash between race and gender. When it comes to issues that disproportionately affect women of color, white women are needed to legitimize it, while we are forced to take a secondary role in our own struggle.

In two shows highlighting these issues, Sanctioned Violence Against Women and Uniting Women of the World, who are the leading voices bringing the message about the plight of women from Africa and the Middle East? Jane Fonda, Calista Flockhart, and Madeleine Albright. Where are the women of color, like Alice Walker and Stormy Ogden, who have been working on these causes for years? Why aren’t the leaders of grassroots organizations that fight these battles on a daily basis front-and-center on the Oprah Winfrey Show?

Oprah’s challenge to her viewers is, "Now that you know, what will you do?" Stories of benevolent white women who raid brothels in Bombay, India, or support refugee women through charities, are interspersed with the shocked, tearful faces of audience members. She appeals to privileged white women to write a check, take in a child, or challenge the laws of a savage foreign country.

But what has Madeleine Albright done during her tenure as Secretary of State to stop U.S.-sanctioned violence against women? Why hasn’t she stopped the U.S. from manufacturing and distributing the experimental chemical, Quinacrine, which causes the nonconsensual sterilization of women in over a dozen countries including Chile, China, Costa Rica, Egypt, and Pakistan? What is our government’s role in endangering the lives of these women? Those questions don’t get asked on the Oprah Winfrey Show.

Winfrey also seems to have a racial blind spot when it comes to government’s impact on women of color in the U.S. "Making It On Minimum Wage" is a script in point. White women talk about their shock at finding themselves on welfare after a divorce. Barbara Ehrenreich and Katherine Newman give expert testimony about the inhumanity of trying to live on the minimum wage.

Once again, it is the questions that are not asked that leave me wondering. Race is a prominent factor in the welfare and wage debate. Why not expose that a drop in welfare rolls does not equate to a drop in poverty, especially for women of color? Why is it okay to discuss how public policy impacts class and gender issues, but not race?

Instead we get more pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps stories. We are told about the perseverance of a black woman, Elizabeth. "A single mother of three, she now lives in her own house, is off welfare and working two jobs–but barely has time to spend with her three children." The concluding feature story is about Cindy, a white woman on welfare who makes good. "I managed to get an interview at the local radio station and I was determined to get the job, and I did!" The only thing missing is the chorus of "We Shall Overcome" in the background.

Oprah, again, misses an opportunity to tell a broader story about racial bias in the job market and welfare policies. Viewers are not told that white women are leaving welfare rolls at much higher rates than black or Latina women, indicating that whites are making a more successful transition into the labor force. Or that black women are more likely to be required to take pre-employment tests and undergo background checks and drug tests than their white counterparts.

Mother To Us All

To her credit, Oprah did try to stretch the racial boundaries with what she saw as her gift to America, the movie Beloved. Despite a full-court press by her PR machine, the enlistment of Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme, and a talented cast, Beloved was greeted with mixed reviews and lackluster box office receipts. Longtime fans were not prepared for their daytime diva to confront them with slavery’s lingering residue.

In the New York Daily News, media analyst Ken Smikle was on point in his explanation of why the film failed to mimic Oprah’s television success. "Despite a relatively unknown cast and horrific subject matter, Schindler’s List became a box-office smash because the story is well-known and has empathy among the general population. The slavery story is also well-known, but you have to create empathy, and that’s tricky." The one time Oprah, the queen of empathy, waded into the waters of institutional racism, albeit wrapped in the personal story of one woman, she lost big time.

When Oprah speaks in the voice of concern and reconciliation, she is accepted. But when she depicts a woman so anguished by racism that she would rather kill her child than let slavery commodify her, Oprah crosses forbidden racial lines and her audience rejects the image outright.

In an attempt to turn a criticism of her maternal roles on its head, Oprah actually embraces the mammy image. In an interview with the online-zine Well Rounded Entertainment, she stated, "First of all, let me address the `mammy’ thing. We are all here because somebody was maternal. I think that’s about the best thing that we have going for ourselves." But in the American psyche, mothers, especially black mothers, have their place. White America wants its wounds cared for with a kiss of clemency, not the sterilizing truth of an institutional analysis of racism.

Oprah is surely mindful of what happens to black celebrities who transgress the racially-defined boundaries society creates for them. White America’s rabid attacks on Paul Robeson, Muhammad Ali, and Eartha Kitt, who criticized America’s involvement in wars and the treatment of people of color, no doubt loom large in the mind of Oprah and every other black public figure.

Final Questions

Oprah Winfrey acknowledges the dishonesty of colorblind theory: "You cannot live in this country and not see color. We all need to step out of the naiveté box and stop pretending it really doesn’t exist. We need to understand that we live in a world that gives certain people privileges because of the color of their skin."

So why can’t she acknowledge that white-skin privilege is linked to institutional racism? To receive Oprah’s absolution, white viewers need only show a little compassion, perform a few acts of kindness (if only in their own minds), and all is right.

By failing to address the systematic and institutional impacts of racism, Oprah helps disappear the harsh realities of millions of people of color who are denied quality education and health care, or are shut out of high-wage jobs by racist government policies and corporate practices. The beautiful black woman from Kosciusko, Mississippi–for years the highest earning entertainer in the world–has yet to find it in her heart to focus the cameras on the true dimensions of our plight and struggles.

Oprah, when you’re ready, I’ll be there. 

Tammy Johnson is national organizer for the ERASE (Expose Racism and Advance School Excellence) Initiative at the Applied Research Center in Oakland.