Is Oprah the new Imus?

At Howard University she noted that while her grandmother worked for white people, now white people work for her. And some white guys are mad!


Joan Walsh
May 16, 2007 12:50AM (UTC)

It's hard to be white these days. I mean, one morning Don Imus is the king of the talk universe; the next thing you know he's lost his radio and television perch for calling the Rutgers women's basketball team "nappy-headed hos." Meanwhile, Oprah Winfrey, one of the most powerful moguls of media, is getting away with bragging to Howard University graduates on Saturday that she has "some really good white folks working for me."

No, I'm not kidding. Aggrieved white men are trying to equate what Imus said with Winfrey's moving commencement speech at historically black Howard University over the weekend. She was talking about her grandmother, who worked as a maid, and who always told Winfrey she hoped she'd "get some good white folks" to work for. "She used to say, 'I hope you get some good white folks that are kind to you,'" Winfrey told the crowd. "And I regret that she didn't live past 1963 to see that I did grow up and get some really good white folks working for me."

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How fragile do you have to be to take offense at that? Or intentionally dense? Or politically opportunistic? I took Winfrey's kvelling as a way to remind all of us she's come a long way, baby. The granddaughter of a maid who worked for white people now runs a media empire and has a whole lot of white people working for her. It's every bit as remarkable as her grandmother would have imagined, but in our post-civil-rights mind-set, we're somehow not supposed to talk about it? For fear of making white folks feel bad? Winfrey wasn't trying to say that the natural state of white people is to serve blacks (the worst possible interpretation I could imagine). She's just reminding these graduates -- who need to hear it -- how much has changed in just one generation.

I only know about the reaction to Winfrey's remarks because I was watching "Scarborough Country" last night, and my friend Joe was doing yet another segment on media double standards post-Imus, with John Ridley and MSNBC media analyst Steve Adubato. I finally forgave Ridley for teeing off on me over Imus and hip-hop after watching him battle Scarborough and Adubato, who were using Winfrey's speech as an example of offensive racial remarks that get a pass, unlike poor Imus'. First they took off on Rosie O'Donnell's admittedly awful imitation of Chinese people talking about drunk Danny DeVito on "The View" last year, and unfortunately Ridley agreed when the overheated Adubato called O'Donnell's dumb shtick "as bad as the N-word." (It was racially offensive, O'Donnell apologized, but the N-word? Please.) But Ridley redeemed himself by refusing to even join the debate about whether Winfrey's remarks belonged in the same category, and mocking the two white men for even trying to make that case. He was funny and held the moral high ground while Adubato raged, disarming a chuckling Joe Scarborough, who couldn't muster the indignation his own show segment required.

I don't think Winfrey's beyond criticism -- her narcissism creeps into even her greatest charitable efforts (like her famous South African school for girls) and I wish she hadn't hawked "The Secret," denounced in these pages by Peter Birkenhead as "minty-fresh snake oil." But this is a ludicrous thing to get upset about, and aggrieved white guys should give it a rest. As Ridley noted, pointing to two recent Media Matters studies, they still dominate American television talk shows, despite Winfrey's success. Having John Ridley on "Scarborough Country" to joust with Joe and Adubato is a perfect example of why the unbearable whiteness (and maleness, but we'll let that pass for now) of television news still matters.

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Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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