This interview coincided with the release of The Butler (2013), a film that dramatizes the life of Eugene Allen, an African American man who worked as the head butler in the White House from 1952-1986. In this interview, news anchor Anderson Cooper discusses racism in the U.S. with the film’s co-stars Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker. Cooper opens the discussion by recalling the recent death of Trayvon Martin, a young African American man who was killed in 2012 by a neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman, who was accused of racial profiling but ultimately acquitted from legal wrongdoing. Winfrey describes The Butler as providing historical “context” to Martin’s tragic death. Describing herself as a “student of her history,” Winfrey points to the little time passed since black men were routinely lynched and a President of the U.S. might have openly used the “n-word.” When Cooper asks Winfrey about her own opinion on the colloquial use of the “n-word” by Black people, she remarks that it is “impossible” for her. “For many,” she continues, “that was the last word they heard as they were being strung up a tree.”
Throughout this interview, Oprah Winfrey supports her statements with appeals to “history.” What, specifically, is the history she is referring to? Does she believe that this history is widely known? Why would this history be more or less known?
Anderson Cooper describes meeting a juror from the trial of George Zimmerman, the man who killed Trayvon Martin. He recalls that the juror “identified” more easily with Zimmerman than Martin. What does Cooper mean by “identified” in this comment? What does it mean to “identify” with someone? Why might it be easier or harder to identify with another person? And how does “identifying” with someone potentially relate to a person’s race (or other facets of identity)?
Winfrey remarks that using the “n-word” is “not a part of the fabric of who I am,” but she says that she understands why others might use it. Under what circumstances have you heard this word? How is the word used differently by different people?
Cooper refers to two scenes in The Butler; one in which the actor playing President Johnson uses the “n-word,” and another in which he uses the term “Negro.” Do these words have different meanings today? Why? Why not?
Discussing the use of the “n-word” will require considerable scaffolding for students of any age. Depending on the ethnic and racial makeup of your classroom and the trust that students have with each other, these conversations can play out very differently. Please also see the related clip titled, “CNN: Debate on the N Word.”