How Oprah Was Wrong – and Right – About Protests

Oprah’s recent comments about modern era protests are both valid and reductive, but then most things concerning Oprah are.

The comments in question (as told to People magazine):

“I think it’s wonderful to march and to protest and it’s wonderful to see all across the country, people doing it… What I’m looking for is some kind of leadership to come out of this to say, ‘This is what we want. This is what has to change, and these are the steps that we need to take to make these changes, and this is what we’re willing to do to get it.’ “

Dissection 1: Oprah is seeking leadership on the issues that have come to the fore after Ferguson.
Result: Not too much to ask, on the surface. We all know someone who’s said the same thing over the last year.

Dissection 2: Oprah wants to see specific goals.
Result: No one should be debating that. Again, another seemingly reasonable request.

In fact, none of what she says here is a problem, save that it’s coming from someone who’s perfectly capable of flipping a switch and generating the kind of attention, support and resources that generates leadership.

Ironies abound, of course. There’s nothing stopping her from sitting down with people who are smarter on these issues than she is and getting hip to the issues directly and empirically. There is nothing preventing her from underwriting aspects of this movement that, with a little push, could become the kind of leadership she would recognize. There is nothing stopping her from playing any part besides critic, really. She’s God-rich, she’s only on television when she wants to be, and she’s clearly not apolitical. What she is, however, is disconnected politically.

The main problem is that leadership of the kind she’s alluding to doesn’t work anymore. The world is too technologically connected, too fast, and too facile on the issues of the day. Anyone who comes close to stepping into the role is instantly scrutinized within an inch of their lives, with every possible social, political and cultural angle of responsibility and theory applied to them at the same time with equal weight. No single earnest person could withstand the job in this day and age. So no single person steps to the plate, and the minute someone gets close, they’re usually smart enough to say “I’m not a leader.” Dr. Cornel West (and I use him here, not because he is the best intellect on this topic, but because he is at least an intellect she would have been aware of) speaks on this in the last chapter of his most recent book, Black Prophetic Fire, where he describes why we don’t see the kind leadership we used to. Of his three point platform, the one that strikes home here is his first reason, which reads:

“(T)here is the shift of Black leadership from the voices of social movements…to those of elected officials in the mainstream political system. This shift produces voices that are rarely if ever critical of this system. How could we expect the Black caretakers and gatekeepers of the system to be critical of it?”

There’s more to that paragraph, and you should dig it up. The last chapter is worth your time no matter how you feel about what he has to say about the president. But to the point, remember when Barack Obama was running for president the first time? And how close Oprah got to the campaign? That’s not a coincidence. This is how she thinks the work is supposed to be done, and this is exactly why it never works. The only unanswered question is why Oprah holds on to this leadership model when it so clearly doesn’t work?

At the same time, the very technologies and advances that nullify traditional models of leadership have empowered communities – mostly through the act of giving them uncensored, 24-hour, nationally unbound voice – to act on their own behalf in key ways that we used to expect from leaders: education of the masses on issues, the dissemination of values, constructive criticism, suggestions for action…all of these things are constantly fermenting and firing off whenever something notable happens. There is no single leader because at every moment the baton is being handed off to the next person with the right idea, drive and timely sweat equity.

Saying it’s hard to organize that kind of momentum is a severe understatement. Trying to coral the internet beyond hashtags hasn’t really proven to work across the board, but that’s not the fault of the people or the means; the board is simply larger than our efforts to engage it. In this respect, Oprah is spot on: where are the concrete goals beyond the generalized sentiments of “stop killing black people?” We do need specific goals, and those goals are different from place to place, and we know that change happens best by example, not design. In this way it’s counter-productive to seek out or build up one leader. My community may need body cams. Some places already have some, but need more. Some places have plenty of body cams, but no oversight or punitive measures for when that oversight is compromised. No single leader – even a handful of leaders – could manage the needs. What is happening now is exactly what is supposed to be happening: communities standing up in their communities, learning from and feeding into the examples of other communities in need. I’m sure any of those communities, in their varied states of need, would welcome her support beyond constructive criticism.

Ultimately, I choose to take her statements as less of a criticism (though not devoid of criticism) and more as a moment of too-true hope. She’s saying what a lot of people who aren’t billionaires are saying. That said, Oprah should have done at least three things differently here:

  • She should never divorce what she represents from what she is saying. Ergo, don’t speak in the Royal We when you got more cards than everyone.
  • Never criticize a grassroots movement doing indisputable good work you supposedly believe in when you have plenty of scholars, leaders, sponsors and politicians in your cellphone who could be lending a (better) hand, and would at your insistence.
  • Never suggest that leadership isn’t occurring where there is a movement. Just because you can’t name the players doesn’t mean there aren’t any, but more importantly, none of that work is happening in a leadership vacuum.

If Oprah needs activists to come to you concrete, detailed plans before she can stand fully behind them, put that out there. Send a tweet that MLKs birthday in 2015 is Movement Fair Day, and you(r people) are taking all proposals for change, and you will choose some to back with the full force of the resource that is Oprah Incorporated. You’re Oprah: hundreds of thousands of people will bring plans to your career day for support. That costs you one tweet, two tops depending on who’s typing it for you.

But until then? Remember how you were looking at Raven-Symone when she said she wasn’t African American, Oprah? That’s how we’re looking at you right now.

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3 thoughts on “How Oprah Was Wrong – and Right – About Protests

  1. “Never suggest that leadership isn’t occurring where there is a movement. Just because you can’t name the players doesn’t mean there aren’t any, but more importantly, none of that work is happening in a leadership vacuum.”

    👏👏👏👏

    Oprah has a power that she could easily harness and change the game across the nation. Despite my dislike of Jay Z, he went to Andrew Cuomo and advocated, from what I read. Oprah at this point wants for nothing, go talk to someone or a few people lady.

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