Oprah Winfrey is a picture of the American Dream. Raised in a rural area and from a poor family, Oprah has worked hard and ridden a wave of popularity to acquire a net worth of over $2.5 billion.
She is adored by Americans of every background and social class — but she has been particularly popular among white middle-class women, who have been the single biggest demographic that have boosted her to fame and fortune.
Despite this, during a recent interview with former NBA player and activist Emmanuel Acho, Oprah made some surprising remarks about ‘white privilege’. She spoke of a white “caste system that’s been put in place” in the United States, and said of white people, “no matter where they are on the rung or ladder of success, they still have their whiteness,” and that “whiteness still gives you an advantage, no matter”.
Racial disparity and ‘white privilege’ has become a topic of intense public interest in America and around the Western world. This is especially so in the months since George Floyd was unjustly killed by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020.
The problem with someone like Oprah weighing into this conversation is that her life disproves the theory. As radio host Todd Starnes tweeted sarcastically after Oprah’s show,
“I pray for the day that America becomes a nation where someone like Oprah will be able to become a billionaire.”
George Floyd’s death has raised important conversations about the disproportionate use of force that police use towards African Americans, and disadvantage more broadly. But ‘white privilege’ is an unhelpful framework through which to view these issues.
There are many data points that challenge the notion of ‘white privilege’. For example, the median household income of Asian Americans is far greater than for white Americans. This includes people who have backgrounds from India, Pakistan, China, the Philippines, and many other nations. Asian Americans are also better educated on average, and more likely to be approved for a home loan than white Americans.
What’s more, ‘white privilege’ is a phrase that means little to the 25 million white Americans who live below the poverty line, and the 270,000 who are currently homeless. Imagine Oprah telling them, “you still have your whiteness,” and “whiteness still gives you an advantage, no matter.” It’s bizarre to even imagine.
The problem with the theory of ‘white privilege’ is that it reduces complex issues to a single factor like race. In fact, life is much more nuanced than this.
It also results in a kind of ‘reverse racism’, where certain judgements are made about all white people before the facts are in. It is true that with respective poverty rates of 20.8 and 10.1 percent, Black Americans are twice as likely to be poor than their white counterparts. But this disparity vanishes when family structure is accounted for: the poverty rate among married Black Americans is less than 10 percent, and this has held true for decades.
Marriage doesn’t fix everything either, to be sure. Poverty can be influenced by other factors like education, location, cultural values — and indeed, by racial discrimination.
But while racism is an ongoing problem in the West — as it is all over the world — Western nations have afforded unparalleled opportunity to people of every ethnic and cultural background. That so many non-Westerners continue to migrate to countries like America is undeniable proof of this. The wealth and world fame of countless African Americans is proof of this, too.
Martin Luther King Jr’s dream was that his four little children would one day live in a nation where they wouldn’t be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.
Sadly, there are still people with racist attitudes in America who pre-judge people based on their race, rather than their behaviour, attitudes and conduct.
The problem is that now it is being actively encouraged, as though making assumptions about white people will somehow counteract it. It won’t.
The philosophy of MLK remains as relevant as ever. As he said,
“Black supremacy is as dangerous as white supremacy, and God is not interested merely in the freedom of black men, God is interested in the freedom of the whole human race and in the creation of a society where all men can live together as brothers.”
Let’s keep aiming at that.
[Photo: Alan Light, Wikimedia Commons