Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Tell me if this bothers you...

I recorded yesterday's Oprah because Denzel (no last name required) was going to be on promoting his soon to be released film The Great Debaters. So I sat down to watch what turned out to be a very interesting show. They talked about the movie and showed clips from the film. Also some of the cast was on the show including Forrest Whitaker and Jurnee Smollett (remember her from Eve's Bayou?).

I WAS looking forward to seeing this film. It's about a group of African American students who enter into a debate against White students in the pre-civil rights era. Read more about it here.

What bothered me happened at the very end of the show. The film is being produced by Oprah's production company Harpo Productions. And Oprah decided at the end of the show to introduce the president of Harpo Productions who turned out to be a White woman. And according to Oprah this woman has been running Harpo for about the last 10 years.

That really bothered me on a few different levels. The first being that even when an African American person owns a company, they seem to want to be so magnanimous in their hiring practices. It seems that we are the only group that does this. I remember when Martha Stewart was released from prison they televised her speech to her employees. I noticed that I didn't see a Black face in the room.

Another reason this bothers me is that Oprah just recently did a show in which she and Bill Cosby sat around bashing Black Americans for not taking responsibility. So it seems to be kind of hypocritical to bash African Americans if you are not even going to make opportunities available to them if you can. And Oprah could.

I won't even talk about Oprah building a school for South African girls when millions of African American girls could have benefited from a 40 million dollar school.

I've seen this same sort of thing time and time again. If you have ever seen the MTV show Cribs you may have seen it too. All sorts of African American celebs and athletes have so many Whites on their payrolls. The flip side is that you rarely see African Americans working for White celebs. So the result, we are just out in the cold.

Does the fact that Harpo Productions is headed by a White woman bother you, especially since most of the films they make are "Black" films? Am I making too much of this? What do you think?

Update: I really have to say I have come away from this conversation on this issue feeling refreshed. I want to thank eveyone who commented today. Your comments were really thoughtful and insightful.

After reading the comments throughout the day and having 24 hours between me and the Oprah show yesterday, here is what I'm thinking.

I think that "long money is better than short money". To look at the President of Harpo Studios and to be upset that she is not a Black women may be the "short money" perspective. In other words it is the total picture that counts. And in the long run it's the success of Harpo Productions that really matters. Sure I would like to be proud of an African American woman running things, but an African American women is running things, Oprah. And that is the "long money".

So all in all, in the long run Oprah's overall success is a good thing, for me and for Black women in general. And as I was reminded, we, African Americans have lead the way when it comes to doing the right thing on race relations. So maybe Oprah was just doing the right thing and hiring the right person for the job.



Ehav Ever said...

Greetings MDC,

This doesn't bother me for one simple reason. Oprah's decisions in hiring neither hurt or benefit me in any way. This goes back to your post of whether or not middle class African Americans are responsible for other social economic groups of African Americans.

This also goes to a question of whether or not the woman that Oprah has running her business is the best person for her.

Another issue, are you SURE that Oprah is not doing anything to make opportunities available to African Americans. Just because she got press for founding a school in South Africa doesn't mean that she isn't doing things in America also. Another thing to consider on the school in South Africa. What if what she is doing there is her passion? There are people who talk about Africa and African Americans being the same people. If that is the case helping one helps the other. What if what she is doing is changing the image of African Americans to South Africans?

The other issue to consider here is that the responsibility of change can't be laid at the hands of entertainers. Real change comes from individuals and groups who have a common goal and destiny. I have to be honest I don't see this for African Americans. I see groups of African Americans with things in common who are doing this, but the weight of the world can't be placed on individuals, just because they have money. More later.

Malacyne said...

I like Oprah. I think some of the things she has done, especially with the girls school in Africa is iffy but South Africa have the essential resources that the United States does. I would like to see more publicity about what Oprah has done for the black community, which sadly, does not get any news.
As for the white woman running Harpo productions...she knows who signs her paycheck. Let that white woman come out her face with something and I'm betting that she will be the former president of Harpo productions. Entrusting someone with your dreams, vision and passion is a difficult thing. I would hate that Oprah just chose someone who's black just because they are and to appease a group of people. Oprah has the resouces and the power that's threatening to alot of people. She and her company brought us The Color Purple, Their Eyes Where Watching God, The Women of Brewster Street and now, The Great Debaters. What (white-owned) media company would bring these great black works to life with well-known black actors to boot!
I don't want to say it but I hate to think that the pool of ambitous, dedicated (that's important)and talented people who are black is that small. Oprah seems not to be able to please everyone all the time...I guess she's just another black woman.

Sage said...

Great post! Very thought-provoking.

Like you, I am very shocked to learn that the president of Harpo Productions is Caucasion. The flip side...well, she's a "woman." I think that's a plus.

My thoughts on your question (hope it wasn't rhetorical! LOL) -- I'm definetely an avid believer that those (African Americans) in power should present opportunities to others (African Americans).

But at the end of day, it boils down to "who can do the job the best." I'm not worried about color.

I'm thinking Oprah had many (African American) candidates in mind for the president of Harpo position; however, the best candidate just happened to be a Caucasian woman.

I think the fact that Oprah is committed to making quality black films speaks for itself. To me, it shows her committment to her people. Black films means black actors...in some cases, new and young talent. To me, that's presenting opportunities...

Ya think?

Ehav Ever said...

Okay here is part 2. The biggest problem that I see in using Oprah and celebrities for that matter as examples is the fact that they are human. They have their own interests desires and peragatives. The idea that because of their success or their money they have a responsiblity to save or help people is a flawed idea, in my opinion.

Hard working and moral people can do that themselves. Yet, that can only come when people have something in common and a vested interest.

Let me give you an example from my neck of the woods. When I lived in NYC I was invited to a Black Israelite synagogue. The Rabbi there asked me where I prayed, i.e. what community I was a part of. At the time I was praying with Syrian Jews also known as Sephardim. In a snicker of a voice he said to me, I used to pray with the Sephardim, but then I realized I had to come help my people. I knew he was directing this at me, as a way to CLAIM that some how I was selling out my people by not being a part of a Black Israelite community.

Yet, there were several things he didn't consider.

1) He didn't even know me so he didn't even know who my people are. He simply assumed that my skin color somehow made me a part of his group.

2) His group believes that ALL African Americans are Israelites and that all African Americans should be Hebrew Israelites like him. Well tell that to the African American Christians, Muslims, Buhhdist, etc.

3) His own group didn't show up for many of their services. They even had some huge dispute about their 1st synagogue in Harlem that was being done in a very public and dirty way.

4) Most important, I don't agree with the Black Israelite philophies. I also didn't grow up in a Black Israelite community. As I sat in their synagogue it became COMPLETELY apparent that I didn't fit in, and I was just visiting.

Add it all up, and his group were not my people. I had more responsiblity to the Syrian Jews I was with than he and his group.

So back to the Oprah issue. The next question is, are you sure that the "white" woman who heads Oprah's company doesn't have a concern or vested in interest in what Oprah stands for? There are a LOT of so called "white" people who are EXTREMELY concerned with the destiny of African Americans, should they be passed over to meet a color code to make people sleep better at night.

On the flip side Bill Cosby and Oprah have no right to tell African Americans what they should and shouldn't be doing. They are not the pillers of what it means to be African American. Being African American can mean a multitude of things that are often mutually exclusive. They can suggest or challenge PEOPLE to do better, but to claim that African Americans as whole, not as a group, need to do better is like saying that only they are doing well and everyone else if falling off a cliff.

This is the flip side of the whole, we are the same people because of skin color thing. It leads itself to several illogical conclusions, and illogical ways of having to live. Illogical conclusions that never exited in any part of Africa, and didn't exist in America either.

Tami said...

This doesn't bother me. I'm going to give Oprah the benefit of the doubt and assume that when she is hiring employees she casts a net wide enough to catch a range of qualified people of color, and then chooses the best person from all candidates, white, black or other. When living in Chicago, I met a few black women that worked for Harpo, so I know that the company is not exclusively white even if its president is.

I know that too often the mainstream overlooks blacks when making hiring decisions. At various times in my PR career I had to coach colleagues to consider posting jobs with organizations like the National Association of Black Journalists or HBCUs to attract candidates of color. It was frustrating that I had to take that initiative, and it has been really frustrating in my work life to so often be the only black woman in the room.

If I had my own company, I would want top-notch, qualified people of all races working for me. And I would do the extra work to make sure that I reached people of color with employment opportunities.

I don't know the woman who heads Harpo, but if she is a dedicated and savvy employee, she deserves her job. My question is, does Oprah have women of color in other leadership positions within her vast organization? I hope the answer is yes.

I don't ask that black people fill their businesses solely or mostly with other blacks, but that they show strong diversity and that they present ample opportunities for people of color.

Mes Deux Cents said...


I suppose you have a point about Celebs not being responsible for African America. But do good practices trickle down or up?


I just feel that 'our' opportunities are artificially limited by the larger society on a regular basis, so why wouldn't a Black women realize that and utilize the Black talent pool when ever possible?


You are right about the chances to work for Black actors, etc. But Harpo is the largest and probably most successful Black studio, wouldn't it be nice to have a Black woman running it?

There are no African Americans running any of the Hollywood studios.


The woman who heads Harpo might indeed have a vested interest, but more so that a African American woman?


"If I had my own company, I would want top-notch, qualified people of all races working for me. And I would do the extra work to make sure that I reached people of color with employment opportunities."

Do you think that non Black owned businesses think that way? I would like to feel the way that you feel, but in a perfect world. As things stand now affirmative action exists for Whites in so many cases that when we hire others in our businesses it adds to the limiting of chances for African Americans.

Liz said...

In some ways I think that Black people have a deep spiritual capacity to do the right thing and that includes hiring people of all colors, regardless of whether or not white folks do it. But, as we know, we are conditioned to believe that White folks can do it better, even if they think really can't. I'd hope this didn't come into play at Harpo. Of course, I have no idea who else applied for the job or was recruited for the job so I really can't speculate.

I can't believe how grown up Jurnee Smollett is now! I feel old!

Tami said...

I totally see your point, MDC. My view probably seems really Pollyanna, because I do realize that most white-owned companies do not follow the process that I outlined when making hiring decisions. But I strongly believe that perpetuating the wrongs of the mainstream will ultimately hurt black people and society as a whole.

Ehav Ever said...

Hey MDC,

It depends on whether or not celebrities are representative of up or down. As you mentioned in your previous post there are some people, like for example Snoop, who are a step down, even though he has money and has the potential to financially help people. I don't think that celebrity equals either up or down. I believe that the actions of people irregardless of status equals up or down. Sometimes a person with no money or status can cause an affect that trickles to people with money. Oprah once had a show where a person with no celebrity made a difference and Oprah mentioned that said person inspired her.

In terms of vested interest. Once again that depends. Maybe the woman who is president does have the right vested interest for Oprah. Like I said before it depends on whether or not this is about the right person for Oprah and her bottom line or is she simply filling a color code one way or the other to make everyone happy with her. You have to consider that simply because Oprah may be African American doesn't mean that African American woman would agree with her business practices or even her day to day morality. That would make it out that African Americans all share the same views on things and that by simply being African American they have the same vested interest. For all you know, Oprah's shows about African Americans may be to simply fill out her bottom line. I.e. in order to get the African American support and dollar she does certain things, in order to get the European American dollar, she does other things, etc. Sometimes in business on that level you have to have an extremely universal view.

Even if it were true, for example, that Oprah skipped over or ignored qualified African American women in order to get herself a European American president that is her prerogative. Her show and the movies she has produced, etc. have given a lot of opportunities to African Americans so I don't she could be criticized for not making everything African American across the board. Because that is where this eventually leads. For example, okay Oprah broke down and hired an African American for the president spot. Okay why is that camera man not African American? Why is Dr. Phil who is not not an African American on her show sometimes? Why didn't she fill this segment of her office with African Americans? Why did she not fill her whole company with African Americans? How many African American men are in positions of power in her company? Why isn't her president an African American man? At some point any decisions she makes in hiring becomes a why isn't this person or that person African American in her company? How many African Americans have to be on her payroll until she is really filling the void? I just don't think that is fair to expect that from her or anyone else. BET from what I understand has a pretty diverse staff in leadership positions, but look at what direction they have gone. Also, what about record labels filled with African Americans that put out garbage music and images?

Her support for Barak Obama is giving him an opportunity to possibly be president of the US. I think that alone speaks to where her ideals lye. But again, just because she supports him as a presidential candidate doesn't mean that he is the most qualified for the job. It also doesn't mean that if he were to get the office he would change the face of African America. Maybe he is and maybe he isn't. No one knows that yet.

As was mentioned before, Oprah is in one of those positions where no matter what she does she won't be able to please everyone. For example, in the 1980's and 1990's there were a lot of African American men that joked around about how the Oprah show seemed to be all about downing African American men. Those same men felt like all women were praising Oprah for this. I remember African American men who refused to watch Oprah because of this belief that her show was negative towards African American males.

There were also people who criticized her because she and I think it is Steadman won't get married. On one of her shows recently she said that she does not want to be married, and she was criticized for that.

I simply think at the end of the day people have to make decisions that transcend the whole black and white issue. People have to make decisions that are right for them, especially in business. Oprah is the one who has to be able to sleep at night with her decisions in this area. It is easy for us to question her, but we are not the ones who directly gain or suffer from her decisions. I think the belief that we do is putting too much on her shoulders, and the shoulders of others like her, and it is expecting so little from the average man and woman.

Ehav Ever said...

MDC Wrote:
As things stand now affirmative action exists for Whites in so many cases that when we hire others in our businesses it adds to the limiting of chances for African Americans.

Ehav Ever Writes
The problem though becomes a situation similar to with Barak Obama. I was watching an African American author on the Colbert Report who stated that Obama was not Black because his father is from Kenya and his mother is a European American woman from Kansas. Her view that supporting him was really not supporting a Black person in the American racial sense of the word.

What happens when who you hire isn't African American enough for others? This goes back to the problem with what African American is and isn't? It also goes back to how African American does your company have to be before you have actually done everything humanly possible to give African Americans a chance? Do you at some point post a sign, only hiring African Americans? That is the only way I know of to try and guarantee that you are giving African Americans first dibs on everything. Yet, that is a huge hurdle to have to jump.

I am Jewish and we don't even live by those kind of rules. It only counts when there are jobs that, according to religious law, only a Jew can do. For example, be a Rabbi, be a Kosher butcher, be a Mashigiach (inspects kosher certifications), perform a Jewish religious wedding, do a Brit Milah for a boy, be on a religious Jewish court. These are things that are defined by our religious laws going back thousands of years. Yet, it doesn't mean that we have to hire Jewish first in other areas. That wouldn't work as it is anyway. Not all Jews follow Jewish religious law, so there are a lot of Jews who don't even go by the above. There are a number of Jewish owned stores that hire anyone qualified for the job whether they are Jewish or not, with the above listed exceptions.

There are non-African American companies out there that try to look for a diverse and qualified staff. I have worked for some of them in America and now here in Israel.

Mes Deux Cents said...


You and Tami are thinking along the same line. I tend to agree that 'we' have risen above pettiness in many ways and have led the way on issues of racial tolerance.

Isn't Jurnee amazing! (lol) I remember her being so little in Eve's Bayou.


I like your point about not perpetuating wrongs. I think that if there are historical legacies that African Americans share, that may be one.


I think your argument with the most sway is about Oprah supporting Sen. Obama. In other words look at the big picture.

Got it!

Sage said...

Great discussion to all who posted a comment. Bravo! Bravo! *clapping* :-)

@ MDC: love the update you added to your blog.

So glad I was able to contribute to this healthy and engaging conversation!

Looking forward to many more...



Mes Deux Cents said...


Thanks. Your comment was great!

Jackie said...

It didn't bother me about Harpo's prez being a white woman, for many of the reasons stated by your commentors. Nuff said. The only thing I'd like to add is about "O" opening a school in Africa vs in the U.S.
As the wife of a school teacher, I understand her reasoning quite well. But first, please know that here in Chicago there are black private schools that have enjoyed Oprah's support for decades. It doesn't get a lot of media and she never seemed to seek any. From what I understand, she wanted to give opportunity where there is none. Americans have schools but sadly the wasted opportunities are astounding. I can't even begin to go there.
I applaud Oprah for seeing that these girls who yearn for and appreciate education can change the world.

Mes Deux Cents said...

Hi Jackie,

Thanks for the info about Oprah's involvement with Chicago schools. I didn't know that.

Thanks to you and others who have commented I now have a larger perspective on the subject of Oprah.


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About Me

West Coast, United States
African American, Poet?, Vegetarian, Music lover, Agoraphobic, Social Phobic

My Favorite Poet

My Favorite Poet
Staceyann Chin

My Favorite Track Athlete

My Favorite Track Athlete
Christine Arron