Oprah, #BlackLivesMatter Is Not Your Mama's Civil Rights Movement

by Valerie Jean-Charles

If I had to crown someone the queen of respectability politics, my scepter and sash would certainly go to Oprah Winfrey. Now, don’t get me wrong: I LOVE Oprah. From watching her mimic Tina Turner’s mannerisms to being engrossed by her highly publicized interviews with newsmakers, I respect Auntie O as a cultural icon and role model for success—she has been able to create these roles for herself, ones that previously did not exist to Black women. However, with money, fame, and an ever-growing generational gap, it’s become quite obvious that Oprah is severely out of touch with what Millennials and those on the lower-rung of the socioeconomic ladder go through day-in and day-out to survive, let alone what we must do to be heard in the midst of perpetual violence and inequality.

In an interview with People magazine last week, Oprah was quoted as saying:
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.’ I think what can be gleaned from our film is to take note of the strategic, peaceful intention required when you want real change.
Now I won’t ask if Oprah has been living under a rock as Shaun King inquired in the Guardian. It’s not a matter of being under a rock. Oprah’s views, as many of those from her generation, are a curious mixture of what happens when our elders refuse to understand what is currently taking place. This is not the 1950s. This revolution is happening in real time, across digital and social media platforms. Therefore, the “leadership” Oprah is seeking may look and sound different than what she is expecting.

More than ever before, Black men and women are filling up higher learning classrooms, board rooms, and creating platforms that serve us and those who wish to be our allies. Due to advancements in technology and the impact of social media, we understand that a hierarchy of voices and leaders need not exist. The Black woman who has been in and out of Brooklyn shelters in her youth is just as much a leader as the Black woman who works at Goldman Sachs. If they are fighting for the same thing, both their voices can be joined together in solidarity and support instead of resigned to an, “I’ll sit back, and you can speak because my life and ways of speaking are not respectable enough to be heard by the mainstream.” This was indeed very prevalent in the Civil Rights Movement.

Many of us are simply not here for this kind of erasing or prioritizing of people’s lived experiences, so the movement can be deemed more “respectable.” Who are we trying to appeal to by doing so?

As much as Oprah is a celebrated figure in our community—and rightly so—her views on what Blackness should be are not always healthy. Though she does not stem from an “old guard” family, her extreme wealth has bought her a position within that group and ideology. It’s quite obvious through her interviews and OWN specials that Oprah believes with the proper speech, education, and wardrobe, Black people can be seen as equals to whites (never mind her infamous trip to Hermes when she was denied access, a blatantly racist moment). Her recent programs have focused heavily on the Civil Rights Movement (which as I mentioned before thrived off respectability politics) and Sag Harbor (a Black vacationing community for our well-to-do on Martha’s Vineyard).

In the ways she promotes herself and Blackness Oprah makes us a monolith, instead of a diverse group of people from various cultures, ethnic backgrounds, and languages. We are more than what the mainstream will see on other networks. In order to break down white supremacy, and the ideals that allow Black people to be defined by those who come off “unclassy,” we need full representation. I come from the hood, I’ve only been to Martha’s Vineyard once, and I am sure I will never enter the upper echelons of society, but I’m fine with that. My voice and the voices of those who have not had my experiences need to be heard and deserve a microphone just like any other.

After reading Oprah’s comments I was saddened but not surprised. I also know that the Black Lives Matter movement has leaders, whether or not they are the ones Oprah chooses to recognize. I also know that someone who has used her own wealth to blind herself from the dangers of interacting with white cops when you live in black body doesn’t speak for me. What I need, and what my fellow activists in the movement need, are people who are willing to work as a collective—rather as a singular figure—to make sure that what we have expressed so clearly in our protests is heard, understood, and made real.

We want to live in a country that values Black lives. We want to live in a country where equality truly has been offered to our people. We want to live in a country where we are not brutalized and murdered for simply daring to exist, especially by the very institutions that are supposed to serve and protect us. We want to live in a country that acknowledges the fight for civil rights is still happening.

Photo: Shutterstock

Valerie Jean-Charles is a regular contributor at For Harriet.

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