The Long Climb to Nowhere: On Oprah and the Impossibility of “Transcending Race” -The Toast

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I love Oprah Winfrey.

When The Oprah Winfrey Show was on the air I didn’t watch it much, because that woman has a gift for finding my heartstrings and pulling them until I’m feeling whatever emotion she wants me to feel. Full disclosure: I cried like a baby when she interviewed John Travolta about his then-upcoming movie Ladder 49. And, I mean: really, Jessie? That shit is not sad. It got 40% on Rotten Tomatoes and a whopping 6.4 stars on IMDB (who ranks these movies on IMDB anyways? They are always wrong). I also have a hard time watching her act in movies. Not because the woman can’t act. She most certainly can. But I can’t see her as anything but OPRAH.

I have early memories of Oprah doing awesome things like getting Michael Jackson to moonwalk on her show. I also have memories of her repeatedly doing the brave and difficult thing that is talking about race and racism in front a national television audience. About talking about what it is to be a Black woman in the world. And about how fucking hard it can be.

I love Oprah Winfrey.

She has achieved so much. Forbes ranked her as the number one most powerful celebrity and the thirteenth most powerful woman in the world in 2012.

As a woman of colour, I have often heard that if I just work harder, or act in a certain way, or wear the right clothes, or [insert any number of things here] that I may be perceived positively by white folks, or that I may be able to protect myself from racism. That there is a successful way to “transcend race.”

I don’t believe I should I have to work harder to rise above discrimination. I don’t think there should be any racism to “transcend” in the first place. I’m not interested in forbearing. And I certainly don’t believe that freedom from racism should be dependent on anything other than a basic human right for all people to live a life free of discrimination.

This “transcending race”  line of thinking may represent an attempt to justify the oppression of people of colour. It may represent a desperate belief that we can have better lives for our children and ourselves if we just play by the rules. It may be related to the ridiculous claim that we are living in a post-racial society. It may speak to a belief in the ability that anyone can overcome any marginalization if they just try hard enough.  In reality, it just isn’t true.

If we believe that we can end racism by following a formula, then we are placing the burden of ending oppression on those experiencing it, and blaming victims when they are discriminated against.

Just ask Oprah, who was told she “couldn’t afford” an expensive purse by a saleswoman in Switzerland this week.

I thought about the times that I’ve experienced racism in retail environments, and of how similar our experiences have been as Black women just trying to live their lives.

In a well-known upscale store I was completely refused service. Not through actively asking me to leave. A staff member followed me around the entire time I was inside the store. The rest of the staff refused to make eye contact with me. Every staff member who wasn’t following me cleared out of each new department I walked into.

I used to live in a house with three white roommates near a corner store we all frequented. When I went into the store alone, the owners would charge me more than the listed price on items. If something didn’t have a tag, they would name an outrageous price. When my roommates used the store they were always charged the listed price, or charged a reasonable price for tagless items, including items that I had purchased myself.

While working at a shoe store in a mall, an elderly woman walked in and asked me “Do you have any nigger colour purses?”

These stories differ from Oprah’s in some ways. I wasn’t in Europe (although it’s happened to me there too). I wasn’t a celebrity. I was not buying a luxury item worth tens of thousands of dollars. But the underlying experience is the same. No matter what we do, or where we go, or what we accomplish, or whatever else, we are Black, and we will continue to experience racism.

Oprah still can’t go shopping for a purse while Black. No more than Danny Glover could catch a cab in New York City while Black. No more than fourteen-year-old Tremaine McMillan could go to the beach and look around while Black.

As people of colour trying to fight racism, we are carrying a heavy load and climbing a steep hill. It often feels like we are getting nowhere.  There is no such thing as “transcending race.” Our equity does not lie in a “colourless” (which really means “white”) society. It doesn’t lie in a few people achieving a great deal,  in the hopes that their success will trickle down. It lies in the same solutions that will work to address all oppression. That is, in the universal acknowledgment of the inescapable intersectionality of oppression that cannot be “transcended,” and in working together towards an equity that values every single one of us, exactly as we are.

Jessie is a perpetual grad student, studying all the social justice issues. She is a lover of all food (cheese is the only food, also bacon), critical analysis of everything all of the time, and really bad TV shows.

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