Race Card: 25 Years of Race on “Oprah”
How did you celebrate the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday—sleeping in, cruising sales at the mall or maybe even working because you didn’t have the day off? Of course, you may have actually spent the day attending a Martin Luther King Day parade or engaging in civil rights activism—for which you deserve to be commended because so few people observe the holiday by recognizing King and his work. I, for one, spent MLK Day watching the Oprah Winfrey Show* to check out her roundup of programs she’s done on race over the past 25 years. So, what were Oprah’s most memorable shows on the subject?
She kicked off her Jan. 17 program by revisiting Georgia’s Forsyth County, which was known in 1987 for having no African-American residents and for having white residents who used racial threats and intimidation to keep things that way. So, 24 years later, is Forsyth County still all white? It’s now about 9 percent Latino, 5 percent Asian and 4 percent African American, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And with a median household income of $88,626, it’s one of the richest counties in the nation.
Many of Oprah’s shows on race featured tearful reunions and apologies. For instance, in 1996, she reunited the Little Rock Nine, the black schoolchildren who integrated an Arkansas school 39 years before, with the white students who’d tormented them. It was reminiscent of a show in which Oprah reunited the descendants of slaves with the descendant of their former owners. In both cases, the whites featured used Oprah’s show to apologize to their black victims.
While these shows may have initiated some viewers to dialogue about race and racism, they seem somewhat contrived and gimmicky in retrospect. It’s fine to have the descendant of a slave owner apologize for his family’s part in African-American suffering. However, such a discussion reveals little about the repercussions of slavery today. The same goes for the show on the Little Rock Nine. These brave young people made history for being the first to integrate an Arkansas school, but more than 50 years later, America’s schools remain racially divided. Rather than an offer of an apology and an offer of forgiveness, it would have been enlightening to see a discussion on the ways that segregation remains with us, and what we can do about it.
Another show Oprah featured in her 25-year race roundup that felt gimmicky involved a young white man who lived as a black man for a week. Surprise, surprise, he experienced fierce discrimination while in blackface. Um, didn’t this happen in Soul Man, not to mention Black Like Me?
So far, I’ve been critical of Oprah’s shows on race over the years, but some of her programs were true gems. There was the episode featuring schoolteacher Jane Elliott, known for teaching her students about discrimination by treating them differently on the basis of eye color. In 1992, Oprah allowed Elliott to perform the same experiment on her audience members, unbeknownst to them. It was amazing to see the brown-eyed audience members—who’d been treated better than their light-eyed counterparts and told that they were superior to them—quickly internalize that message. They soon began to profess their superiority over blue-eyed people and ignore the blue-eyed people’s complaints about being mistreated. It was amazing to see the white audience members actually began to understand what racism feels like.
Yet another memorable show dealt with one man’s transformation out of bigotry. He went from harassing and tormenting African Americans to adopting two black boys. What brought on the transformation? His daughter gave birth to a biracial son. The love he had for his innocent grandchild motivated him to eschew racism. Sure, this story’s a bit sappy, but we’re talking about Oprah here. It’s almost obligatory for her to do episodes on the transformative power of love.
To her credit, Oprah’s views on race relations weren’t totally saccharine. During her recap of her 25 years covering race, she made a point that many of us race writers contemplate daily when trolls comment on our blogs that racism doesn’t exist or black people really are inferior or that this country’s borders should be closed to immigrants of color. She said that discussing race doesn’t always lead to progress, a revelation she had while doing a program on skinheads who weren’t interested in dialogue, but using her show as a platform to spew hatred.
“Sometimes the conversation does not help,” she noted. Instead, it “gives voice to that which should not be heard.”
*For more feminist responses to Oprah Winfrey, check out JD Tress' Long Goodbye series on Oprah's final season. Jen will be writing a follow-up post on Oprah's episodes dealing with race later this week.
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