Oprah Winfrey Framed as Angry Black Woman
Ralina L. Joseph / University of Washington

Oprah Gets Framed

Oprah Gets Framed

A third trope in the newspapers’ coverage of this incident centers on Winfrey’s ostensible lies and anger.  Some headlines frame Winfrey’s verbal aggression through her alleged complaints: “Oprah accuses Swiss shop of racism” ((“Oprah accuses Swiss shop of racism,” Canberra Times, August 11, 2013. )) and “Winfrey claims racism in Swiss handbag shop.” (( Christopher McKinley, “Winfrey claims racism in Swiss handbag shop: TV host says assistant refused to get EUR 28,500 crocodile bag for her because of its cost,” Irish Times, August 10, 2013 http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1P2-34993658.html, viewed 2-4-14. )) Other headlines ramp up the rhetoric from the language of accusation to the articulation of rage: “Shop’s assistant big mistake earns ire of Oprah,” (( “Shop assistant’s big mistake earns ire of Oprah,” Cape Argus, August 10, 2013. )) and “Swiss racism upsets Oprah.” (( “Swiss racism upsets Oprah,” Evening Times, eveningtimes.co.uk August 10, 2013 http://www.eveningtimes.co.uk/entertainment/tv-radio/swiss-racism-upsets-oprah-132922n.21798749, viewed 2-4-14. )) If Winfrey’s tweets are any way to assess anger, she tweets about meditation during this time far more than the incident itself.  These racialized and gendered descriptions are coded not for a billionaire or a media mogul’s frustration, but for a Black woman’s anger.  And not just any Black woman, but the well-worn stereotype of the Angry Black Woman (ABW).

Who doesn't look 'angry' with closed eyes?

Who doesn’t look “angry” with closed eyes?

The ABW is portrayed beautifully in the image above, which accompanied an online magazine’s story on the incident.  The photograph represents an embodiment of Winfrey’s alleged accusation of racism, made manifest through a photograph.  While hundreds of images of Winfrey exist on line, this is the one that was chosen to illustrate the headline.  Both of the women’s eyes are closed.  The image is blurry and old: from Obama’s hairstyle one can date the picture to Obama’s first election campaign, but most likely before Obama’s makeover and coming out as glamour goddess in the Spring of 2008 on The View.  Perhaps most bizarrely, despite Winfrey’s being featured with Michelle Obama, the text of the article provides no mention of the First Lady.  What is clear is that the two Black women’s expressions aren’t polished, posed, or camera-ready.  Obama’s pairing with Winfrey activates old memories of the First Lady labeled as “angry.” (( I write about Obama’s so-called anger makeover in “‘Hope Is Finally Making a Comeback: First Lady Reframed,” Communication, Culture, and Critique 4 (2011) 56-77. )) Since both women have closed eyes, pursed (Obama) or agape (Winfrey) mouths, and no smile and sight, their looks juxtaposed with the text of the article’s title, “Oprah accuses Zurich shop of racist behaviour,” (( Mathilda Battersby, “Oprah accuses Zurich shop of racist behavior,” i-Independent Press Ltd., August 10, 2013. )) play upon a very particular stereotype: that of the Angry Black Woman.

What are the elements of the Angry Black Woman?  The controlling image of the ABW is described by Marcyliena Morgan and Dionne Bennett as the emasculating, irrational shrew who serves as convenient foil to the stereotype of the “No-Good Black Man” (she’s angry because he’s no good).  Kimberly Springer describes the angry black woman as a stock television character, the “mouthy harpy” who is a popular fixture on reality TV. (( Kimberly Springer, “Divas, evil black bitches, and bitter black women,” Interrogating Postfeminism: Gender and Politics of Popular Culture, Yvonne Tasker and Diane Negra eds., Duke University Press, 2007, pp. 258.  See also J. Celeste Walley-Jean, “Debunking the Myth of the ‘Angry Black Woman’: An Exploration of Anger in Young African American Women,” in Black Women, Gender & Families, 3:2 (2009), pp. 68-86; Rachel Alicia Griffin, “I AM an Angry Black Woman: Black Feminist Autoethnography, Voice, and Resistance,” Women’s Studies in Communication, 35: 138-157, 2012. )) Stereotypes, which portray a narrow, flattened, dehumanizing focus of singular, repeated, images, are dialectics activated by the portrayal of what they are not.  In the Oprah case the ABW stereotype holds weight against the foil of another ostensibly opposite group, not “the No-Good Black Man,” but the virtuous, innocent, and victimized White woman.  

While Winfrey’s careful negotiation on ET remains un-recounted in the mainstream media, the shop owner’s flat, un-nuanced denial is provided in detail.  The White, Swiss salesperson becomes the subject and the clear victim in order for the ABW to signify as villain.  As the story progresses over the course of a couple of days, the papers spin the tale into the media’s righting Winfrey’s wrong by giving the salesperson victim a voice.  The Swiss woman’s claims quickly become the headlines; her statements serve to invalidate Winfrey’s ostensible narration of the events as race-based.  In this reframe, two headlines shout, “Oprah Winfrey racism claims disputed” (( Allan Hall, “Oprah Winfrey racism claim disputed,” The Scotsman, scotsman.com,  August 13, 2013
http://www.scotsman.com/news/world/oprah-winfrey-racism-claims-disputed-1-3042175, viewed 2-4-14. )) and “Oprah handbag claim not true,” (( “Oprah handbag claim not true,” Daily Mail, August 13, 2013. )) as guilty perpetrator billionaire Winfrey attacks innocent victim Swiss employee.  Others headlines resuscitate the assistant’s version as the real “truth” of the incident, writing, “Oprah’s bag-seller hits back.” (( David Charter, “Oprah’s bag seller hits back at racism claims,” The Times, thetimes.co.uk, August 13, 2013
http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/news/world/europe/article3841038.ece, viewed 2-4-14. )) The papers offer supposedly direct quotes from the assistant, “‘Oprah’s lying…I never said anything racist,’” (( Mark Jefferies, “‘Oprah’s Lying…I never said anything racist’; Shop assistant hits back,” Daily Mirror, August 13, 2013. )) and “‘Why is Oprah lying? I’m just a shop girl.’” (( Anna Brain, “Why is Oprah Lying? I’m just a shop girl,’ bag to worse,” Sydney MX, August 13, 2013. )) As a result of the accusation, one headline states, “Oprah backtracks on racism allegations.” (( Tony Hicks, “Hicks: Oprah backtracks on racism allegations,” San Jose Mercury News, mercurynews.com August 13, 2013 http://www.mercurynews.com/celebrities/ci_23853387/hicks-oprah-backtracks-racism-allegations, viewed 2-4-14. ))

The framing of innocence

The framing of innocence

Mainstream media frames the case in accordance with not just race, but racialized gender.  While the press accounts describe the worker as a “shopgirl,” Winfrey simply describes her as “the woman working in the store”; “shopgirl” is the word that circulates in the popular press.  Winfrey is a woman; the store employee who refuses to show her the bag is a girl.  As woman Winfrey wields greater power.  The store employee is not just a “girl” but a “shopgirl”; this term frames her as put-upon, powerless, innocent, and the real victim, as opposed to rich, untouchable Winfrey.  The gendered language bolsters the racialized connotations.  The papers do not question who holds the power when a white, Swiss employee in a designer store refuses service to an unknown Black, American woman, but rather who holds the power when a rich American megastar dislikes the treatment she receives from a poor shopgirl.  Winfrey is framed as maintaining a power impenetrable to racism and sexism.  The shop assistant and owner’s denial of racism allows for media consumers to take on a similar positionality.  

As I’ve shown in these columns, commonalities exist across all three tropes Winfrey was scripted into as the media spun the incident.  The papers use certain loaded and racialized words, like “racism” and “victim,” that Winfrey never uttered.  Winfrey is mocked.  There’s no understanding of context, structure, or power, much less intersectionality.  The media’s focus remains on the bizarreness of this individual incident (a superstar of Winfrey’s stature being denied anything) as opposed to a larger critique that illustrates that despite her celebrity, Winfrey’s experience is neither an aberration nor an isolated incident.  In other words, because Oprah Winfrey, the ultimate postracial and postfeminist subject, has transcended her race and gender, the papers are free to ignore how such an incident is part and parcel of a larger structural, social and historical experience that still racializes African Americans and other people of color as criminal.  The importance of the papers’ reporting is not about if Winfrey received “fair” or “unfair” treatment, but instead how this incident’s framing plays upon the new millennium tropes of post-identity in its efforts to denies very old school forms of racism and sexism.  

This is the third and final part of a series on Oprah Winfrey’s so-called handbag scandal of 2013.  You can read the first part here and the second part here.

Image Credits:

1. Oprah Gets Framed
2. Who doesn’t look angry with closed eyes?
3. The framing of innocence

Please feel free to comment.

No Woman, No Racism Cry: Media Spins on “the Incident”
Ralina L. Joseph / University of Washington

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How the story circulates

After appearing on the ET website the story lay dormant in the news cycle for four days, an eternity in the warp-speed of infotainment news, until The London Evening Standard covered the story in an article entitled, “‘That bag is too expensive for you’: Oprah Winfrey says ‘racist’ assistant refused to serve her in Zurich.” (( Kirin Randhawa, “‘That bag is too expensive for you’: Oprah Winfrey says ‘racist’ assistant refused to serve her in Zurich,” London Evening Standard, standard.co.uk, August 9, 2013 http://www.standard.co.uk/news/world/that-bag-is-too-expensive-for-you-oprah-winfrey-says-racist-assistant-refused-to-serve-her-in-zurich-8753639.html, viewed 1-27-14. )) Notably, Winfrey never utters “racist” in her ET interview or her short-winded response, the two tweets she releases soon after the first story breaks and her few answers to reporters’ questions at The Butler premiere. By putting racist in quotes the journalist infers Winfrey used the word and thus directs media spin towards a particular message: a Black American woman’s hypersensitivity about race. In our re-tweeting world today, hot-button stories such as these seldom remain within a single screen and the speaker pointing out the existence of discrimination, even in as innocuous and coded a manner as Winfrey did, rarely have the first word. The 21st century filter comes through the new version of so many Americans’ front-page news, 140 character spins and Facebook-posted headlines. Newspapers, television news, websites, and blogs circulated their versions of the story so that Winfrey’s actual remarks take a backseat to the considerable spin. How did the mainstream media warp Winfrey’s story from her nuanced, intersectional analysis to the dismissal of a Black woman’s illegitimate “racism cry”? (( This sentiment was expressed in either inferential ways in newspapers or more explicitly in blogs. For example, the Mr. Conservative blog titles its story on the topic, “Oprah Says ‘Sorry’ for Crying Racism After Receiving Bad Customer Service at Botique,” http://www.mrconservative.com/2013/08/22766-oprah-says-sorry-for-crying-racism-after-receiving-bad-customer-service-at-boutique/, viewed 2-4-13. )) In order to scrutinize each layer of the media screen I examined newspaper articles and blog posts where the incident circulated most prominently at the height of the incident. (( I examined over 100 newspaper articles and an equivalent number of blog posts on the incident from that time. The story circulated most frequently in the U.S., Canada, Western Europe, South Africa, New Zealand, Singapore, and Australia on the dates of August 9-August 18, 2013. A big thank you to my research assistant Samuel Wooley for compiling all of the texts for this column. )) I honed in on the newspaper headings to suss out the three dominant tropes, two of which I will examine in this column.

1. Winfrey reluctantly admits fault.

TMZ's Take

TMZ’s take on the apology

Media outlets spin the story into Winfrey’s reluctant admission of her fault. She is “sorry,” (( For example, “Oprah sorry for blown up racism row”, Irish Independent, independent.ie, August 14, 2013
http://www.independent.ie/woman/celeb-news/oprah-sorry-for-blown-up-racism-row-29497336.html, viewed 2-4-14.
Laura Smith-Spark and KJ Matthews, “Oprah Winfrey: I’m sorry Switzerland racism incident got blown up,” CNN, cnn.com, August 14, 2013. http://www.cnn.com/2013/08/13/showbiz/oprah-winfrey-racism-switzerland/, viewed 2-4-14 )) “apologizes” (( “Oprah Winfrey apologises for Swiss handbag-gate,” Euronews, euronews.com, August 13, 2013
http://www.euronews.com/2013/08/13/oprah-winfrey-apologises-for-swiss-handbag-gate/, viewed on 2-4-14. )) and has “regrets.” (( For example, Nicole Evatt, “Oprah Winfrey expresses regret over media storm surrounding Swiss flap,” Associated Press, The Star, thestar.com, August 13, 2013
http://www.thestar.com/entertainment/television/2013/08/13/oprah_winfrey_expresses_regret_over_media_storm_surrounding_swiss_flap.html, viewed 2-4-14. )) In these stories, Winfrey performs contrition, grudgingly exhibits remorse; the media titan is put in her place. But about what, precisely, is she sorry? While some headlines stop with “Oprah says sorry,” (( For example, Allan Hall, “Now Oprah says sorry,” Daily Mail, dailymail.co.uk, August 13, 2013
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2391313/Oprah-Winfrey-says-regrets-mentioning-handbag-racism-incident-Zurich.html, viewed 2-4-14. Nicole Evatt, “Oprah says sorry for Switzerland racism brouhaha,” Mail and Guardian, mg.co.za, August 14, 2013.
http://mg.co.za/article/2013-08-14-oprah-says-sorry-after-accusing-swiss-shop-of-racism, viewed 2-4-14. )) others insert various objects of her regret, many of which change with the stories, and only a handful of which use Winfrey’s actual words. Some articles report she regrets the “incident.” (( “Oprah regrets Swiss racism incident,” ABC News Radio, August 14, 2013. http://www.classichitsandoldies.com/v2/2013/08/14/oprah-regrets-swiss-racism-incident/, viewed 2-4-12 )) Other headlines claim Winfrey feels sorry about the “media storm,” (( “Oprah says ‘sorry’ for media storm linked to Swiss shopping story,” CTV News, ctvnews.ca, August 13, 2013
http://www.ctvnews.ca/entertainment/oprah-says-sorry-for-media-storm-linked-to-swiss-shopping-story-1.1408583, viewed 2-4-14 )) the “Switzerland racism broohaha,” (( Nicole Evatt, “Oprah says sorry for Switzerland racism brouhaha,” Mail and Guardian, mg.co.za, August 14, 2013.
http://mg.co.za/article/2013-08-14-oprah-says-sorry-after-accusing-swiss-shop-of-racism, viewed 2-4-14. )) and that the “handbag clash was ‘blown up.’” (( James Legge, “Oprah Winfrey: I’m really sorry that Swiss racism story got ‘blown up’,” The Independent, independent.co.uk, August 13, 2013.
http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/news/oprah-winfrey-im-really-sorry-that-swiss-racism-story-got-blown-up-8759698.html, viewed 2-4-14. )) Some state that Winfrey regrets “Swiss frenzy” (( “Oprah regrets Swiss frenzy,” Cape Times, August 14, 2014
http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-345965278.html, viewed 2-4-14. )) and “Switzerland’s flap.” (( For example, Nicole Evatt, “Oprah Winfrey expresses regret over media storm surrounding Swiss flap,” Associated Press, The Star, thestar.com, August 13, 2013
http://www.thestar.com/entertainment/television/2013/08/13/oprah_winfrey_expresses_regret_over_media_storm_surrounding_swiss_flap.html, viewed 2-4-14. )) Winfrey was sorry for not just the incident/frenzy/hooha, but “the storm stirred by racism story.” (( “Winfrey regrets storm stirred by racism story,” Pretoria News, August 15, 2013. )) Here Winfrey regrets “racism flap” (( “Oprah says sorry over Swiss racism flap,” Fox News, foxnews.com, August 13, 2013, http://www.foxnews.com/entertainment/2013/08/13/oprah-winfrey-says-sorry-over-switzerland-racism-flap/, viewed 2-4-14. )) and “racism uproar.” (( “Oprah sorry over uproar over racism scandal,” The Hype: Yahoo Entertainment, au.thehype.yahoo.com, August 14, 2013
http://au.thehype.yahoo.com/blog/post/-/18493849/oprah-sorry-for-racism-uproar/, viewed 2-4-14. )) Winfrey is at fault for having “cried racism”; she has erroneously read an event through the prism of race when race was simply not a factor. In headlines in which Winfrey is posited as remorseful, she doesn’t regret racism, she regrets racism. (( “Winfrey sorry for ‘racism’ furore; Panorama around the world in 10 stories Switzerland,” i-Independent Print Ltd., August 14, 2013. )) The reporters’ insertion of scare quotes plays further on the “crying racism” trope, and erases any racialized read of the incident. Similarly, one paper reports, “Oprah ‘racism’ just lost in translation,” (( “Oprah ‘racism’ just lost in translation,” The Sunday-Star Times, August 11, 2013. )) attributing language differences as culprit for an innocent misunderstanding. Other stories produce a similar effect by using racism as a descriptor for a made-up or exaggerated incident, as in, “She’s sorry for racism flap.” (( “She’s sorry for racism flap,” Newsday, August 14, 2013. )) Winfrey should feel remorse that her Black American hypersensitivity, the audacity of reading race into a raceless situation, victimized the innocent, colorblind Swiss.

2. Winfrey and the whole incident are mocked.

Winfrey is ridiculed

Winfrey is ridiculed

While a good number of the “Oprah admits fault” headlines overlay their articles with mocking, another set of articles unsparingly deride “the incident” and Winfrey herself. These articles foreground what they posit as the ridiculousness of the situation: one of the world’s wealthiest women being treated as any (Black American woman) tourist and not as a (raceless/genderless, read: white male) billionaire. Issues of race and gender are cast aside as irrelevant in lieu of the sentiment of one headline, “Oprah’s just a picky shopper.” (( “Could it be Oprah’s just a picky shopper?,” The Philadelphia Daily News, philly.com, August 15, 2013. )) By foregrounding Winfrey’s conspicuous consumption, the logic proceeds that as the luxury handbag is frivolous, so is the idea of the incident being racialized. (( “Storm in a handbag: Oprah Winfrey accuses Zurich boutique of racism,” Swiss Info, swissinfo.ch, August 9, 2013
http://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/swiss_news/Oprah_Winfrey_accuses_Zurich_boutique_of_racism.html?cid=36643840, viewed 2-4-14. )) It is framed as a “Storm in a handbag” and “A bagful of racism” (( “A bagful of racism for Oprah in Zurich,” The Independent on Saturday, August 10, 2013
http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-345964654.html, viewed 2-4-14. )) as “Oprah loses out in handbags at dawn.” (( Brenda Power, “Oprah loses out on handbags at dawn,” Irish Daily Mail, August 17, 2013
http://connection.ebscohost.com/c/articles/89756871/oprah-loses-out-handbags-dawn, viewed 2-4-14. )) Some papers label the incident a petty fight: Winfrey is responsible for a “‘racism’ row,” (( “Swiss sorry after Oprah snubbed in shop ‘racism’ row,” Belfest Telegraph, belfesttelegraph.co.uk. August 10, 2013
http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/world-news/swiss-sorry-after-oprah-winfrey-snubbed-in-shop-racism-row-29487635.html, viewed 2-4-14. )) a “posh shop race row” (( Nicola Methven, “TV legend Oprah in ‘posh shop race row,” The Mirror, August 10, 2013
http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-339224174.html, viewed 2-4-14. )) or a “bag shop race row.” (( “Oprah in bag shop race row: Outrage over ‘cheap’ insult,” Daily Star, August 10, 2013 )) One paper puns, “Shop says nope-rah to Oprah ‘Racist’ purse di$$,” (( David Li, “Shop says nope-rah to Oprah ‘racist’ purse di$$,” The New York Post, August 10, 2013.
http://www.newshour24.com/US/74vysxolu/Shop-Says-Noperah-Oprah.htm )) and another headline proclaims, “Cheesed-off Oprah bags the ‘racist’ Swiss.” (( “Cheesed off Oprah bags the ‘racist’ Swiss,” Sunday Telegraph (Australia), August 11, 2013. )) Another headline uses quotes around “racist” once again, reporting, “Oprah gets Swiss apologies after ‘racist’ encounter.” (( Randee Dawn, “Oprah gets Swiss apologies after ‘racist’ encounter,” Today Entertainment, today.com, August 9, 2013
http://www.today.com/entertainment/oprah-gets-swiss-apologies-after-racist-encounter-6C10883523, viewed 2-4-14. )) With “racist” in quotes, the papers efficiently scorn Winfrey’s so-called racial sensitivity. Some of the papers also mock the Swiss apology, framing Winfrey as the villain who strong-arms the Swiss into apologizing for her own racial sensitivities. One writes, “Swiss apologize for encounter Oprah calls racist” (( John Heilpren, “Swiss apologize for encounter Oprah calls racist,” Associated Press, August 9, 2013
http://bigstory.ap.org/article/oprah-gets-swiss-apology-racist-encounter, viewed 2-4-14 )) [my emphasis]. Summing up the sentiment of many papers, one headline states, “Apology to Oprah over bags of money.” (( “Apology to Oprah over bags of money,” Cape Times, August 12, 2013 http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-345967237.html, viewed 2-4-14. )) By shifting focus to Winfrey’s extraordinary wealth, race and gender are dismissed as irrelevant.

This is the second part of a three-part series on Oprah Winfrey’s so-called handbag scandal of 2013. You can read the first part here. In the third column I will examine the third dominant trope of the media coverage: Winfrey as Angry Black Woman.

Image Credits:

1. How the story circulates
2. TMZ’s take on the apology
3. Winfrey is ridiculed

Please feel free to comment.

Oprah Winfrey, Television Culture, and the Postidentity Dance
Ralina L. Joseph / University of Washington

Oprah at the Interview

Oprah During the Nancy O’Dell Interview

Midway into the second decade of the twenty-first century, signs of racial and gender
progress abound – at least when it comes to celebrity culture. However, ascending to such heights does not insulate even Oprah Winfrey from having to publicly negotiate race and gender-based discrimination. What can her negotiations tell minoritized audiences about how we, too, can speak back?

In August of 2013 the infotainment world briefly centered its short-attention span on a déjà vu story about media mogul Oprah Winfrey’s not being allowed to see a certain designer handbag at a high-end retailer in Europe, a twin incident to a 2005 one. This story, titled “Oprah on Being a Recent Victim of Racism” by the entertainment news show that broke the story, Entertainment Tonight (ET), came to me through social media headlines providing links to a segmented and highlighted story on ET’s website. (( Raphael Chestang, “ET First: Oprah on Being a Recent Victim of Racism,” 8-5-13, http://www.etonline.com/news/136849_Oprah_on_Being_a_Recent_Victim_of_Racism/index.html, accessed 10-31-13.
)) The website situates clips of the six-minute long story above the splashy headline and a teaser summary of the sit-down interview TV personality Nancy O’Dell conducted with Winfrey as part of a press junket for her 2013 film The Butler. As the film examines racial issues throughout the second half of the twentieth century, O’Dell and Winfrey’s interview centers on questions of race and discrimination. Winfrey, with her shoulder-length hair loose, curly, and full, wears bold gold hoops and a fiery red, notched collar tunic that matches her lipstick and sets off her smoky eye makeup. Foreboding music plays softly in the background, alerting the viewer to the fact that this is a serious conversation.

After breezing through what O’Dell names as the big race issue of the summer, Food
Network television star Paula Deen’s use of “the n-word” (but not about the summer’s bigger “race story” of George Zimmerman’s trial and subsequent acquittal for the murder of Trayvon Martin), O’Dell questions Winfrey not with an expansive inquiry into her own experiences of discrimination, but instead with what the media has posited as the ultimate litmus test to prove the continued existence of anti-Black racism, personal attribution of “the n word.” To O’Dell’s query as to if she had been called “the n word,” Winfrey responds, “I would have to say that racism for me doesn’t show itself that way.” Winfrey goes on to say that outside of “Twitter thugs” on anonymous social media sites, “nobody in their right mind is going to do that to my face or in that way.” Her celebrity is not the only thing that shields her from old-school racism in the form of racist epithets; 21st century mores dictate that the word itself is so verboten that it cannot even be iterated in polite multiracial company more than in the euphemism “the n word.” Winfrey caps this particular discussion by saying that she is immune to “true racism,” which she describes as “being able to have power over somebody else.” Winfrey implies that her celebrity and sheer economic power function as her shields.

It is here that Winfrey takes charge of the interview. Changing tact, Winfrey provides an addendum to her denial of facing “true racism” by seguing into a discussion of the ways in which race- and gender-based discrimination affects her life. She tells O’Dell,

It shows up for me this way. It shows up for me that sometimes I’m in a boardroom or I’m in situations where I’m the only woman, I’m the only African American person within a hundred mile radius, and I can see in the energy of the people there. They’re, they don’t sense that I should be holding one of those seats. I can sense that.

[O’Dell (incredulously): you?]

Yeah! Of course I can sense it. But I can never tell – is it racism; is it sexism? Because often it’s both.

Winfrey describes power-laden, interracial spaces of privilege as ones where the conjoined forces of racism and sexism can, and do, still penetrate her world. Although she denies being affected by “true racism,” she names the brand of discrimination she faces as “energy,” a more subtle, more ephemeral, and more nebulous brand of inequality befitting a woman who brought pop spirituality to the masses. She inserts gender into the space which O’Dell attempted to delimit as just race-specific, illustrating how power functions through multiple, intersecting prisms. Winfrey finishes this discussion of the ways in which discrimination functions in her life saying, “So I don’t have it the way some other people are used to having it.” But this statement, like her denial of suffering from “true racism” in lieu of an assertion of a racialized/gendered “energy,” is ambiguous. Are the “other people” here African Americans or other people of color who do not have the privilege of sitting in Winfrey’s boardrooms? Or are the “other people” privileged Whites who are not looked at askance as a Black woman occupying the most elite spaces of privilege would be? Winfrey’s strategic ambiguity allows her to critique even the most exclusive areas without, as she says later in the interview, “throw[ing] down the Black card,” or, in in John Jackson’s formulation, exhibiting “racial paranoia.” (( John L. Jackson, Jr., Racial Paranoia: The Unintended Consequences of Political Correctness, New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2008. ))

Oprah Leans In

Oprah Lets Nancy In

Immediately after Winfrey’s statements about what are admittedly harder-to-nail down and often intuited experiences of racialized sexism, a particular “energy,” she segues to a story intended to more concretely prove her experience of discrimination, and not just in the bad “energy” circulating in a board meeting. Leaning forward conspiratorially and smiling slightly, Winfrey then tells O’Dell, “but I will tell you this.” She proceeds to narrate her experience at a high-end store in Zurich in which she was not allowed to see a certain handbag because the woman working in the store says, in Winfrey’s recounting, “no, it is too expensive.” Refusing to name the store, Winfrey continues, saying that she insists three more times that she did indeed want to see the bag, and was rebuffed each time. After the beginning of the interview in which Winfrey shuts down facile questions about discrimination functioning exclusively through “the n word,” and the middle of the interview in which she points to more ephemeral experiences of racialized sexism, Winfrey moves the discussion to a more explicit, concrete, and perhaps persuasive form of discrimination, an incident in which Winfrey implies or suggests – but does not explicitly state – that she has been denied access on the basis of race. In this incident, unlike the one in the boardroom, Winfrey is not recognized as her media mogul self; she is read by the person working in the shop as any Black American woman insistent on perusing an exclusive shop’s most expensive merchandise.

Although O’Dell cannot find “true racism” footing in Winfrey’s discussions of “the n word” or racialized sexism as “energy,” this incident registers as a real, tangible example, prompting O’Dell to state, “it still exists,” and Winfrey to echo, “it still exists.” The “it” clearly means racism or sexism, or in Winfrey’s words, both, but is not specified by either woman. Immediately after Winfrey tells this story, O’Dell, without segue, asks Winfrey again if she was ever called “the n word,” and Winfrey again deflects that question from her own personal experience. She wordlessly extricates herself from O’Dell’s implication that “true racism” simply means that word, and instead connects “true racism” to history. Winfrey states,

I do not run in the circle of people who use the word loosely or use the word. Because for me it’s out of respect for people for whom that’s the last word they heard while they were being hung. It’s last word they heard when they were being fired. It’s the last word they heard when their house was being burned. It’s the last word they – it’s the word they heard every day when they had to step off the sidewalk and let other people pass. I just, I, I have had a sense of not just being, living this life for myself but having this life created by other people. Maya Angelou says, “I come as one but I stand as ten thousand,” from that poem. I have had that sense for as long as I can remember.

Winfrey’s eloquent conjuring of the historical violence and daily aggressions of anti-Black racism connects her own experiences to those of her ancestors. As this statement comes directly after Winfrey’s two personal examples of racialized sexism – in the boardroom and in the shop – it serves the purpose of proving that discrimination functions through a historical trajectory that continues into our present moment.

Oprah Steers the Discussion

Oprah Reshapes the Conversation

While O’Dell appears to have her mandate to nail Winfrey down to a simplistic “yes” or “no” about being called “the n word” (perhaps because such an admission would result in a splashy headline, or perhaps because there are no other scripts with which to signal racism to viewers), seasoned interviewer Winfrey doesn’t take the bait and deftly negotiates around O’Dell’s questions. She refuses to let an interview on race and racism devolve into a discussion of the politics of “the n word,” and reshapes the agenda into a discussion of the realities of identity-based discrimination and racialized violence. She introduces race and gender as inextricable and conjoined processes for which discrimination occurs for women of color. Winfrey’s masterful steering of the interview from dismissing “the n word” to intersectional “energy” to racial profiling and finally to anti-Black racism of the past illustrates a form of strategic ambiguity that allows her to critique discrimination in a mainstream media world dismissive of non-“n word” discrimination ever being acknowledged. The lesson for audiences is clear: those of us pointing out identity-based discrimination in so-called egalitarian, meritocratic spaces must master the tricky dance of postidentity resistance, using the very tools of postidentity in order to resist its tenets.

Image Credits:

1. Oprah During the Nancy O’Dell Interview
2. Oprah Lets Nancy In
3. Oprah Reshapes the Conversation

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