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Apple TV's new Oprah show highlights the evolution of an American truth-teller

As we consider Winfrey’s legacy in its entirety — including her myriad shortcomings — it’s critical to recognize how she became, and has indeed remained, one of our most important voices.
Oprah Winfrey.
When Oprah speaks, we listen.Julius Motal / NBC News

For more than three decades, Oprah Winfrey has been one of our culture’s greatest truth-tellers. When she speaks, we listen.

“For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dared to speak their truth to the power of those men. But their time is up,” Winfrey said during her acceptance speech at the 2018 Golden Globes. “But their time is up. Their time is up! Their time is up.”

Winfrey, of course, was referencing the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, which both aimed to hold predatory men in Hollywood, journalism, politics and beyond responsible for harming women. Winfrey — who has been brutally honest about the sexual violence she experienced at the age of 9 — looked Hollywood in the eye and did not blink.

Few women — and no other Black women — have succeeded in Hollywood to the degree that Winfrey has, which is why it’s not entirely surprising that she is once again the person we’re leaning on to guide us through a difficult, layered cultural moment. Apple TV recently tapped her to helm “The Oprah Conversation,” a series of her trademark conversations with some of the writers, activists and politicians helping us navigate a racial reckoning that began with George Floyd’s killing in May and continues today.

Winfrey has been a cultural icon for so long that it sometimes feels as if she’s beyond reproach.

Winfrey has been a cultural icon for so long that it sometimes feels as if she’s beyond reproach. No one person is above criticism, especially since calling in people and holding them accountable is one of the most loving things we can do in our society. But as we consider Winfrey’s legacy in its entirety — including her myriad shortcomings — it’s critical to recognize how she became, and has indeed remained, one of our most important voices on issues like racial justice, even when it’s hard and opens her up to the criticism her fellow billionaires attempt to dodge at all costs.

In the series’ second episode, Winfrey drew the ire of conservatives when she rightfully pointed to the importance of challenging whiteness in this moment. After one of Winfrey’s guests said, “Not all white people have power” because “there are plenty of poor, working-class white people,” Winfrey, in typical fashion, clearly and accessibly revealed the faultiness of the argument that socioeconomic class position trumps race.

“There are white people who are not as powerful as the system of white people — the caste system that’s been put in place,” Winfrey responded. “But they still, no matter where they are on the rung or ladder of success, they still have their whiteness.”

Republican congressional candidate Irene Armendariz-Jackson tweeted that Winfrey, who is considered the wealthiest Black woman in the United States, was “trying to shame white people” though she’s the “personification of white privilege.”

But Winfrey’s ability to parse through the age-old argument that being working-class somehow negates white privilege speaks to her keen ability to cut through the noise and deliver honesty, pulling no punches without alienating her ever-evolving audience.

There’s a reason she’s maintained this ability. Though Winfrey’s wealth insulates her from some of the troubles that plague ordinary Black people, she’s not so far removed that she’s escaped racism and sexism. It has only been seven years since a shop assistant in Switzerland refused to let Winfrey see a $38,000 handbag because she believed it was “too expensive” for Winfrey’s tastes. She’s also still enmeshed in the same cultural conversations that have led some Black men, including Snoop Dogg, to declare her a race traitor because she’s dared to side with sexual assault survivors rather than the Black men who allegedly harmed them.

While her fellow billionaires Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are trying to colonize space, Winfrey is instead erecting 26 billboards across Louisville, Kentucky, to demand justice for Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old Black woman whose face is gracing September's cover of “O, the Oprah Magazine.”

“I think about Breonna Taylor often,” Winfrey wrote in her editor’s letter. “We can’t be silent. We have to use whatever megaphone we have to cry for justice.”

Yes, Winfrey is wealthier than any single human should be in a world where millions of people are unemployed, food insecure, unhoused and unable to secure child care — all conditions worsened by a never-ending pandemic. But Winfrey also, at least on the surface, seems to have retained a critical character trait that her peers do not appear to prioritize: empathy. Racial injustice and white supremacy aren’t new concepts; in fact, Winfrey experienced plenty of discrimination growing up in Kosciusko, Mississippi. While she’s certainly not in Kosciusko anymore, she hasn’t forgotten her origins.

Again, Winfrey’s career arc has been far from perfect. When the host cut through the crowded talk show landscape in 1986 — populated by Phil Donahue, Sally Jessy Raphael and other traditional hosts — she employed similar tabloid tactics ranging from interviewing white supremacists, an episode Winfrey has expressed regret about, to dragging a wagon with 67 pounds of animal fat on stage after losing weight.

But as her ratings soared, Winfrey’s content evolved as well, from trying to shock audiences to comforting them, promoting and eventually distancing herself from a slate of questionable spiritual advisers — like Iyanla Vanzant, Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz — hosting an ever-popular book club that churns out bestsellers and passing out gifts each holiday season.

She meandered much in the same way with the Oprah Winfrey Network, starting with some of that spiritual fare and then expanding the lineup to include reality TV shows, scripted dramas and other shows catering to a Black female audience.

Instead of catering to white, middle-class, suburban moms, her content has pivoted toward Black women of all ages.

The evolution of Winfrey’s audience has a lot to do with her own personal shift. Instead of catering to white, middle-class, suburban moms, her content has pivoted toward Black women of all ages.

As Black women express, over and over again, that they’ve been left unprotected, Winfrey reminds us that she has our backs. We have her to knock on doors in Georgia for Stacey Abrams’ gubernatorial campaign. We have her to call attention to Breonna Taylor’s killing and put resources behind a marketing campaign to get her justice. We have her to tell a white person that class doesn’t negate racial privilege. We have her — and her best friend, Gayle King — to hold Black men accountable for the harm they cause women. We have her.

Winfrey's partnership with Weight Watchers remains problematic. So was her selection of Jeanine Cummins’ "American Dirt" for her book club, despite Latinx critics pointing out the book’s many faults. The spiritual experts she helped make famous, including Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil, are now spreading COVID-19 misinformation on television.

Winfrey should be held accountable when she’s wrong. But a lot of the time she’s right — as she is when she calls out white privilege.

As she shared in that Golden Globes speech, her work has been to “say something about how men and women really behave. To say how we experience shame, how we love and how we rage, how we fail, how we retreat, persevere and how we overcome.” She’s achieved that goal in her career, even when the delivery is flawed, she misses the mark or she responds poorly to criticism.

But if her life’s work is to make us reflect on our own behavior and what in our life has caused us to react in the way we do, then she’s more than lived out her promise. Now it’s on us to pick up the baton she’s been carrying for nearly 35 years: Call out injustice where we see it, put our money where our mouth is, make mistakes — in public — that those watching us can learn from and then correct those mistakes in ways that keep us as true to our purpose as Winfrey has been to hers.