Piling on Oprah

Critics slam the media titan for building a $40 million school for girls in South Africa.

By Carol Lloyd
Published January 5, 2007 6:58PM (EST)

If it wasn't so damned sad it would be funny. The world's most famous and powerful black woman spends 40 million dollars founding a school for girls -- and not just any girls, but brilliant girls pulled from extreme deprivation in a nation that once was synonymous with racism -- and already the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa is being described as an ethical conundrum. (For one of the crankiest discussions, try the Huffington Post.) Along with a fair amount of praise, there's a bizarre amount of shaming, critiquing and questioning associated with the venture. Diversity Inc. traces the bashathon back to Newsweek writer Allison Samuels' disparaging tally of the academy's many perks: "oversize rooms... 200-thread-count sheets, a yoga studio, a beauty salon, indoor and outdoor theaters." Since then, there have been numerous criticisms of and questions about her choices. Karen Russell at HuffPo critiqued Fox News' John Gibson's suggestion that Oprah should have used her money to build more schools and therefore help more children. Other bloggers have questioned why the big O didn't give the money to poor American kids -- a question she predicted and already answered (she'd grown tired of giving money to American youth who were more interested in getting the latest consumer item than learning). Some even questioned why there weren't more white little girls in the student body. And why only girls? Boys need education too.

Damn, if you're a generous female billionaire these days, watch your back. Oprah's decision to spend 40 million dollars on a relatively small number of African girls has been dissected every which way. Mostly the comments come off as petty; other times they reek of various forms of bigotry. But in the wake of the Madonna's awkward stumble into African charity, I can't help but think how powerful these female celebrities have become and how unsettling it is when they begin to use their power in thoughtful ways. When they act like idiots (like Paris Hilton) we love to hate them, but when they act like decent human beings we criticize them for not being better. Was $40 million over the top for a school meant to serve only 150 girls? Maybe. But my guess is that Oprah would have been slammed regardless of how she chose to spend her money. That she chose to include some luxuries (like whoop-de-do bargain-basement 200-thread-count sheets) for impoverished black girls reminds everyone of our global inequalities.

Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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