An Oprah candidacy is not the change we need
20 Jan 2018
Oprah’s speech at the Golden Globes highlighted her ability to shape the international zeitgeist. Her powerful words on #metoo revived a movement which, after its initial earth shattering revelations, seemed to have lost direction. In a world where POTUS calls African countries “shit-holes”, and alleged paedophilia is only just enough to lose you an election, it’s unsurprising that Oprah’s visibility – as an intelligent, assertive minority voice – has triggered support for #Oprah2020.
Far from being the change we need, however, an Oprah candidacy – or even Oprah as President – would only set us back. This is not just about the swell of celebrity candidates trivialising our political system: the internet is flooded with “hot takes”; we can see the impact of a reality TV approach to diplomacy. Celebrities are likely to lack policy experience, political nous, and an understanding of the issues that matter to their constituents.
“Oprah’s meteoric rise is truly inspirational and demonstrates the ability of personality, bravery and old-fashioned hard work to achieve success”
Rather, this is about what it really means to be a minority. Oprah Winfrey has an incredible personal story – she has skyrocketed from rural poverty and obscurity to become one of the most successful African-American women in the world. She has battled injustice and prejudice at every step of her career and can now claim to be a respected establishment figure, a talk show stalwart with the gravitas required to make a speech at an event such as the Golden Globes. This meteoric rise is truly inspirational and demonstrates the ability of personality, bravery and old-fashioned hard work to achieve success.
This is the problem. It would be easy for us to encourage Oprah to run for President; to act as an inspiration for millions of women and ethnic minorities around the world. But that would be wrong. The truth is that what makes Oprah so amazing is the fact that there is simply no one else like her. This is not because there are no young talented black women who could be excellent entertainers, or make inspiring speeches, but because they have structural inequalities stacked against them. Not only do women of colour face the misogyny faced by all women, and the racism faced by all people of colour, often combined in the form of misogynoir, but race and gender inequality for us is likely to be combined with class-based inequality.
“Oprah Winfrey is fortunate enough to have gained enough power to make the world listen when she speaks”
Oprah’s stratospheric success means she no longer represents these inequalities. Much like Meghan Markle here in the UK, her creation as a figure of the cultural establishment means that she is no longer seen as “black” – rather her blackness has been erased by her success – she is now not a woman struggling against inequalities of race, of gender; of class, but part of an international oligarchy. A class of the shiny, of the instafamous; a ruling class for the millennial generation.
I would like to make it clear, I do not begrudge Oprah her success. In fact – minus the glitz and glam – my own life is not without its parallels. When I was born my parents lived in a bedsit in a deprived corner of London and neither of them had been to university. As a lucky recipient of a bursary to a sought-after independent school and a graduate of an elite university, I am sensitive to the fact that my position smacks of hypocrisy. If my acquired privilege has put me in a position to pursue a political career, then surely I should not deny Oprah her chance at the Oval Office.
“If Oprah were to stand for President she would not be an agent of change, but a figurehead for a broken system”
But my point is not so much about position, but rather about power. Oprah Winfrey is fortunate enough to have gained enough power to make the world listen when she speaks. In fact, her political power in the position she is currently in is greater than her power would be as US President, encumbered by the archaic power structures and special interests that define the US political system. She can say and do what she likes, defining her own constituency and her own agenda outside of a system that prioritises the desires of rich, white men – as we have seen with the Republican party’s response to Trump.
If Oprah were to stand for President she would not be an agent of change, but a figurehead for a broken system – unable to agitate to change it. She is in an amazing position to critique the public discourse and frame the public agenda, and to argue for the promotion of talented women of colour throughout politics – using her incredible cultural and economic power to help effect systemic, rather than cosmetic change.
Obama’s presidency taught us that presidency is not enough. We should not make the same mistake twice by rushing to Oprah to save us.