Oprah on Black Economic Progress

Oprah Winfrey speaking at Howard University while receiving an honorary degree:

“[My grandmother] was a maid and worked for white folks her whole life….She used to say I hope you get some good white folks that are kind to you. I regret that she didn’t live past 1963 to see that I did grow up and get some really good white folks — working for me.”


InvisibleJ

I think the specific context of the quote is important -- at first blush it seems almost divisive. She seems to be phrasing her uphill battle as a "us-vs-them" "black-vs-white" struggle with Oprah's ensuing victory capped by her "I win/you lose" comment above. It's not exactly flattering to publicly take pleasure in becoming the monster you just killed.

Remember this speech took place at a predominantly black college and the speech's main thrust is Oprah's characteristically trite quasi-self-help "you can do it, don't give up" fare.

Although, in my opinion, the comment poorly phrased and reeks of an understated hostility, I don't believe Oprah means it to be taken in such a way. I believe her aim here is to encourage students to realize they aren't "below" anyone else, rather than disparaging whites in particular. But who knows, maybe this is a rare glimpse into Oprah's true, politically incorrect, feelings (though Oprah doesn't seem the type to censor herself much).

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egretman

Huh?

slow_day

I think she is just trying to tell the students to aspire higher than ever...to that place where the tables are turned. I don't have problem with that. However, while her glass is overflowing, there are still many who cannot even say the glass is half-empty. (though presumably not her audience at Howard...they are now college graduates) She is proud of her accomplishments, and should be...especially when she took the bold step of walking away from trash talk tv that still holds a broad market share. Hopefully those graduates will recognize that major accomplishment and continue in a positive arena as well.

spencer

She is talking about the change in our society. Prior to 1963 the idea of a black woman achieving what she has achieved was unthinkable-- in every sense of the word. She is saying that because of the changes over the past 40 years every Howard graduate has the opportunity to achieve what she has but in mother's era that was not possible.

I think it is a great comment on the changes we have achieved in our country over the past 50 years.

DBruno

While she may not have intended this to be a racist comment, it still comes off as one. This is especially bad with an impresionable audience of college graduates listening to her speak.

Simply changing "white people working for me" to "people working for me" would have made the difference.

This gets the point across that strides have been made - we all now she is vastly more powerful than any of the people her grandmother worked for. No reason to make it a racist comment.

You may wonder why I attack this so vehemently - or society has a double standard that encourages blacks to be racist. If a white stood up and said almost anything and uses the word blacks, it is viewed as racist.

BRKelley

The Big O frequently raps her guests' knuckles whenever they utter the words "black folk," "black people," or "black teenagers." Now she's seen belittling her employees as "white folks." Shows her hypocrisy has no bounds.

gpburdell

Maybe she could have said, "And what if my grandmother could see me now... with white people, black people and all sorts of people part of the team we've built at Harpo" or whatever. The audience would have gotten the point, it wouldn't have seemed racist at all, and it wouldn't have been hypocritical.

The statement sounds bad, but I'm willing to give Oprah a little slack.

pkimelma

That last line was played for laughs and enough surprise to get their attention. I do not think she meant it to be disparaging. Instead, it was to show how much things have changed where it may have been unthinkable to have whites working for a black woman. Inverting the statement from her grandmother was crucial to it working (vs. the bland "people" or long inclusive list of possible races working for her).
The problem is that in cold print, it comes across as racism, which is a shame. We have become very sensitive as a society (including Oprah) with our "radar" on full gain looking for any hint of racial innuendo. This would have triggered that radar in a big way - imagine if a white person said this (roles reversed)?

LogicGuru

Not racist as I read it. I assume she means white people (and others) working for her as in various professional capacities--not as domestic servants. This isn't turnabout is fair play.

kdmick

I have had a long-time frustration with Oprah, precisely because of comments such as this. I think that her propensity to make issues more race-relavent than is necessary reflects a regressive attitude as well as a 'grudge,' so to speak. I wish she, and others, would give the color thing a rest.

Therese

Hardly racist. She's using her grandmother's terminology -- racist in both directions to those of us in 2007 -- to make a point. Things have changed. People -- blacks, whites, and everyone else -- in the US no longer work for one single race, and that's due to the great changes we've had over these past years.

prosa

Oprah may have based her comment on a scene in the movie Forrest Gump.

galen86

Unfortunately, Oprah's comments, which are certainly tailored to a specific audience, don't reflect reality for most blacks. While the social progress of blacks has been immense since 1963, we should not measure progress by individual examples of success, but rather in a more meaningful and scientific (perhaps freakonomic) way. I think that acadamia presents an interesting way to view the social progress of racial groups. Top universities, one could argue, are such open environments that there are no racial barriers preventing talented individuals from becoming professors. Still, there are so few black professors, and there are so many non-white foreigners (and Americans) who work their way up the academic ladder (just look at the science departments at any major university). While common wisdom holds that the poor educational system in the US is to blame for the achievement gap, that would not necessarily hold true in academia. I believe that people who possess unusually high intellects manifest their abilities despite a 'bad' education (Roland Fryer, if you believe individual examples prove a point). Of course, the socio-economic status of blacks will correlate to the number of successful blacks. That is a tautological observation. However, socio-economic realities wouldn't account for why so many immigrant children and immigrants, who have a similarly low position relative to white Americans, are so much more heavily represented at universities than blacks. Therefore, if it's not just because inner-city black schools are bad, if it's not just socio-economic status, and if we assume it's not discrimination at universities, I believe the low number of black professors must boil down to the social. In my opinion, the reason that there are so few black professors is because the African-American community does not value education enough. If it did, I believe that these professors-to-be would emerge from failing schools more proportionately to other racial groups. This is not a justification for the current state of affairs, but I don't think that we cannot rely exclusively on the educational system to foster education. Certainly, many professors have gotten their positions through sheer brilliance, self-motivation, and hard work, but odds are that they also received some encouragement from someone outside of the public education system. Part of encouragement is pointing to good examples (role models like Oprah, I suppose), but another part of encouragement is adjusting social values to reflect the change you hope to effectuate. For example, in the Asian-American immigrant community, there is immense social pressure on children to do well in school and achieve greater success than their parents. That education is not as highly esteemed in the African-American community is, in my opinion, evidenced by the fact that many (not all) blacks react defensively towards statements like Bill Cosby's, which suggest responsibility for the current state of affairs lies, in part, with the black community. The 'defensive' person insinuates to his community that education is to be received, a damaging idea to condition into children. Even smart children don't become professors if they believe that their potential is both endowed and restricted by society. Oprah's point to the students at Howard is that the doors are now open for them to pursue success. But Oprah also laces this seemingly innocuous, but heavily contested assertion with the more popular imagery of white people working for black people. This seems calculated to obscure what Oprah is really saying in order to make it palatable to a potentially 'defensive' audience. Oprah is really saying that there are no more limits on black individuals achieving success. However, I think this sort of rhetoric will have a somewhat neutral effect in achieving social change, because the open-door metaphor won't be understood by the black community to mean that it should better itself or value education more. I wish Oprah would say what she really thinks. Her opening of a school in Africa was somewhat symbolic, but still a vague gesture along those lines.

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Nathaniel

Yeah, I think this is just a matter of showing how quickly the world can change when people want it to. Inverting his grandmothers phraseology to demonstrate something that would have seemed impossible only a few decades ago makes the point succinctly.

I would assume she said the last part with a bit of a humorous tone and expression to show that it was not meant to be taken seriously and that even her employees would understand she's joking.

jyb

Frankly, I don't think she was hostile enough. We as a people aren't mad enough about the racial inequalities we have in the US.

pparkman

Why is it racist that she has white people working for her? It would be racist if she didn't.

egretman

Why is it racist that she has white people working for her?

The thought that black people could gloat over having white people work for them is so abhorrent to decent people everywhere that it turns upside down the notion that equality can truly be achieved in a mixed society where some people provide the ladder for other's social climbing. Clearly from this point forward the world as we knew it has changed. Oprah and her kind are now the dominant race in America and so, it is to be presumed, also on the face of the earth.

Henceforth, you will gladly submit and buy for your children every book recommended by her book club. Otherwise, you will be mocked and humiliated as useless examples of the white welfare dependent underclasses that you have now become.

Or it could mean that she was just trying to inspire the students at Howard College.

NeoteriX

Long time lurker, first time poster...

It's hard to understand Oprah's comment taken outside it's context, and we don't have the full facts in the post. It could have been satire, a joke, a reference to something earlier in the day/speech, or a variety of things. It would be unfair to judge her without the proper facts.

Second, to those who have mentioned "racist" and "racism" with respect to Oprah or other Blacks or minorities, I would just point out that there are, unfortunately a lot of different meanings and nuances to what is *one* very emotionally charged, powerful word.

To me, one generally cannot equate the "racism" of a White with that of a minority (in the same way I don't think sexism perpetrated by females is anywhere near the same as that by males). Words and actions might be rooted in a similar ignorance, spite, or hate, but behind the two people or groups involved in an incidence of racism, is a larger backdrop of "institutionalized racism" where one group still has institutionalized power and benefits. While that doesn't mean incidents of hate and "racism" perpetrated by minorities should not be ignored and should certainly not be condoned, the acts cannot be compared to White racism.

Like the saying about Eskimos and their expansive vocabulary for ice, the term "racism" or "racist" woefully under performs for the kind of specificity we need in discourse on race.

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InvisibleJ

@NeoteriX

Just google around, that's what I did to gain context of her comment.

Bottom line: It was a joke. We can dissect it now, but the fact is she made a joke pandering to a black audience. Her hope was to inspire them, not to kindle contempt (though she may do both).

As for the last part, you don't seem to have made a point, you just kinda trailed on about racism being vaguely "different" depending on context. You also provide no justification or even clear description of what you're talking about -- leaving the reader in a fog of grandiloquent braggadocio.

What I think you're trying to say in a tangle of mealy-mouthed meandering is that a white hating a black is significant because the black is poor and worthy of pity, not hatred. A black hating a white is partially justified since whites have more power/financial security.

I do hope I've misunderstood; such a view is patently untenable.

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unroyal

What's wrong with her statement? She said the truth without trying to hurt anyone.

Back in the 1960s a black woman being the queen bee of television and sitting on 1.5 bil was impossible.