Oprah Winfrey: Cultural Icon of Mainstream (White) America

Winfrey has embraced this notion of essential sameness as she worked to project a racially non-threatening image.

Oprah Winfrey arrives at a premiere at Regal Cinemas L.A. Live on August 12, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. Winfrey says an alleged racist incident she suffered at a luxury boutique in Switzerland does not warrant an apology from the country.

The following is an excerpt from The Colorblind Screen: Television in Post-Racial America, edited by Sarah Nilsen and Sarah E. Turner (NYU Press, 2014).

On May 4, 1992, as the rioting that swept through South Central Los Angeles after the Rodney King trial was winding down, Oprah Winfrey took her show to LA, where she taped a session with a diverse audience discussing the verdict, the riots, the judicial system, and race relations. Aired in two installments, “The Rodney King Verdict: The Aftermath and the Anger” was intended to “confront the controversial issues” and “give people who rarely get heard a chance to speak.” At one point in the sometimes heated conversation, a young white woman stated, “I don’t really see color. . . . I try not to because everybody’s an individual. People are so different. Some of them are terrible and then some of them are really nice, of all colors” (“Rodney King Verdict”). This remark— hailed by Winfrey and many in the audience as a move toward racial “healing” and reconciliation—is a testament to the rise and naturalization of colorblind ideology in late twentieth-century America.

Perhaps  no  other  celebrity is more  emblematic of the  power of that ideology than Oprah Winfrey, who shortly after her show’s 1986 national premiere confidently asserted in a Spy magazine profile, “I transcend  race” (Zehme 32). By 1991,  when she had become undisputed queen of daytime talk, Ebony declared that Winfrey, along with Bill Cosby and Arsenio Hall, brought “an authoritative presence and an ability to transcend race to television” (“Television”). Two decades later, worth billions and sitting atop a multimedia empire, she was credited with aiding the election of the nation’s first black president—himself deemed a “post-racial” candidate who defies “racial stereotypes” and “transcends the racial divide” (e.g., Klein; Will; Schorr). Reflecting on Winfrey’s decision to end her talk show in 2011 after a quarter-century run, New York Times media columnist David Carr wrote, “It could be argued—well, I’ll just say it—without Oprah Winfrey, there would be no Barack Obama. Not because she endorsed him, but with her message of bootstrap accountability, she not only empowered black people, she empowered white people.”

To understand Winfrey’s metamorphosis since the 1980s, when she was casually described by Time magazine as “a black female of ample bulk” whose show exposed the “often bizarre nooks and crannies of human misfortune” (Zoglin), to the late 1990s, when Time included her on its list of the 100 most influential Americans of the twentieth century, it is necessary to place her journey in a broader historical context. In particular, Winfrey’s ascent from mere TV talk show host to “cultural icon of mainstream America” (Brown 242) must be situated in relation to the neoliberal political-economic project, which got its start with Ronald Reagan, became fully bipartisan with the rightward shift of the Democratic Party and the election of Bill Clinton, and has indelibly shaped the contemporary U.S. political economy.

It is no coincidence that this political-economic sea change over the final quarter of the twentieth century witnessed a major reconfiguration of the problem of race founded on the conviction that since the 1960s civil rights movement, racism has receded and lingers mainly as isolated individual attitudes, rather than in institutionalized practices. In that reformulation, political scientist Claire Kim argues, “The American race problem no longer consists of White racism, which is steadily declining, but rather of racialism, defined as the misguided tendency of minorities (especially Blacks) to cry racism and/or emphasize their racial identity as a strategy for getting ahead” (“Managing the Racial Breach” 62). It thus followed that the source of America’s “race problem” was no longer the white majority, which was being penalized for long-past transgressions, but racial minorities who clung to a “‘cult of victimization’” to “leverage white guilt” (62). The ideology of “colorblindness” found a receptive political environment alongside this new definition of racism. If in the early twentieth century, the notion of colorblindness expressed desires for racial emancipation and an end to white supremacy, those aspirations were never fully actualized in law or policy (Haney Lopez). Instead, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva argues, in the wake of the civil rights movement a revised conception of colorblindness “emerged as part of the great racial transformation  that occurred in the late sixties and early seventies,” eventually becoming “the central racial ideology of the post–civil rights era” (42). In the process, the “overt bigotry,” “strict segregation,” “governmentally enforced discrimination” (Bobo and Smith 185; also Bobo and Charles), and assumptions about black intellectual inferiority that had characterized the Jim Crow era were replaced by a more subtle ideology based on “the assertion of essential sameness between racial and ethnic groups despite unequal social locations and distinctive histories” (Rodriquez 645).

From the beginning of her TV career, Winfrey has embraced this notion of essential sameness as she worked to project a racially non-threatening image. In January 1987, six months after the national premiere of The Oprah Winfrey Show, she received her first magazine cover story in People Weekly. Recounting her time at historically black Tenessee State University, Winfrey stressed her differences with classmates who were “into black power and anger.” As she asserted, “Race is not an issue. It has never been an issue with me. . . . Truth is, I’ve never felt prevented from doing anything because I was either black or a woman” (Richman 58). In making clear that she was free of racial resentment and had not been personally harmed  by racism—while distinguishing herself from black Americans who felt otherwise—Winfrey proved early on to be a model of racial reassurance for the white audience she hoped to attract. Claire Kim argues that the “black-white divide on racial matters is one of the most profound and enduring in American society.” In particular, black and white Americans “differ fundamentally as to what constitutes the race problem, how severe it is, and what to do about it” (“Managing the Racial Breach” 57). Given this divide, it is not surprising that a black entertainer hoping to attract a mass audience might adopt a public persona that Newsday described as “a comfortable and unthreatening bridge between the white and black cultures” (Firstman 4). In this way, the queen of talk set out to forge a relationship with her predominantly white, female, middle-class followers whose legendary devotion to her would come to stand as proof that racism was being eclipsed (Mediamark; “”).

The ability to evoke a “para-social relationship” and its “intimacy at a distance” (Horton and Wohl) with a majority white audience reflects Winfrey’s skill at simultaneously embracing her black heritage and staying at arm’s length from aspects of the black historical experience that might alienate white fans. As a Newsday article stated early in her career, “Though she makes race an undercurrent  of her message, and it is part of her bearing, it does not define her following. She has what the business calls broad appeal” (Firstman 4). Winfrey’s appeal rests on a careful balancing act whereby her proclaimed mission of “empowerment” emphasizes individual aspirations rather than collective political goals. As Quentin Fottrell has observed, “While embracing the philosophies of Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Luther King,” Winfrey “subtly distances herself from feminist politics and the radicalism of the Civil Rights movement” (Fottrell). Such strategies reflect an important change in the meaning of colorblindness that occurred in the aftermath of the civil rights movement when political progressives began rejecting the idea, calling instead for explicitly race-conscious political remedies such as affirmative action, while conservatives took up the cause of colorblind racial policy. As Ian Haney Lopez notes, “In that new context, colorblindness appealed to those opposing racial integration” and “provided cover for opposition to racial reform” (see also Kim “Racial Triangulation”; Bracey).

The new iteration  of colorblind ideology found fertile ground  in the 1980s as Ronald Reagan and the New Right backlash politics that buoyed him sought to “realign the electorate along racial, rather than class, lines” (Reeves and Campbell 157; also Macek). It played a central role in the Democratic Party’s  rightward reconfiguration in the late 1980s, which involved exorcising its historical identification with black voters and black issues. It figured in the emergence of the theory of the “underclass” that  achieved bipartisan  hegemony by the early 1990s. And it is deeply implicated in Oprah Winfrey’s purported  “transcendence of race” and appeal to a majority white audience, which rest on the seductions of “virtual integration” made possible by TV (Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown) and her own rejection of black political stances that might put off white followers. This chapter will consider these interlocking developments with the goal of demonstrating the complex political-economic and cultural foundations—and limits—of the ideology of colorblindness and of Winfrey’s cross-racial appeal.

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