In case you were unaware, Oprah Winfrey went to India recently. Naturally, she decided to film it and make it into a television special. However, reviews—specifically Indian ones—are not so kind. The vehement backlash seems targeted at the fact that Oprah’s special seems to do nothing more than present a typical Westernized vision of India, one rife with stereotypes in that hackneyed move by the global West to Orientalize* that which is not familiar—the East. You can read a short report of this on the BBC’s website.
Now, obviously I have not seen this Oprah special, but if Indian critics are calling it “myopic, unaware, ignorant and gauche” and an “ill picturized and badly scripted show,” I’m going to go with them and not Oprah. Why? Because this is the first time she’s ever been to India. Granted, the media is slanted and could be reporting this just to slap Oprah, but the fact that the BBC is reporting over how Indians are upset makes me think there’s validity here. (England used to occupy India, but lost her as a colony when the people revolted and demanded their independence. The English exacted atrocities upon the Indian people for decades and still do to an extent through global corporations, as does America. Many people argue, actually, that India is “free” from England only on paper, but that the ghost of colonialism still drives them into the ground.) Since I haven’t seen the special, I’ll only focus on what the article reveals: Oprah’s comment about eating with one’s hands.
Oprah asks a Mumbai family, “I heard some Indian people eat with their hands still?” I love the blogger Rituparna Chatterjee’s reaction when he says, “Using our hands to eat is a well-established tradition and a fact none of us are ashamed of.” This is a typically Orientalized question that Oprah asks in the sense that it reveals a sense of Western superiority. If she had simply asked, “I heard some Indian people eat with their hands?” that’s one thing. But the moment she adds that “still” on the end of her sentence, she seems to imply to the Indian world that eating with one’s hands is an aberration, is backwards, and reeks of a severely underdeveloped society. It begs the question, “When are you people going to figure out the fork-and-knife thing?” Chatterjee’s response is fantastic, amounting to a snarky criticism of Oprah for knowing nothing about India since he takes it upon himself to inform her how it’s a “well-established tradition.” Later, he does indict her specifically, pointedly saying, “You should have done your homework.”
Some people will counter-argue that critics are being too harsh on Oprah here. Perhaps. Perhaps Oprah was asking an honest question and really didn’t know anything about Indian culture. She just had an innocent question. Even if that’s the case, though, she doesn’t get a pass here. What you have to understand and what she has to understand is that if someone as powerful and wealthy as her is going to go to another country, document her travels while there, and then show it to everyone when she gets home, she has essentially become an ambassador for the United States. Unfortunately, TV specials like this reveal to people that, yes, perhaps Americans are just simple, one-track minded folks who suffer from unending tunnel vision that comes as a result of gobbling up the Orientalized stereotypes their culture puts forth when it comes to other nations.
Or, perhaps all of Oprah’s Indian tour guides conspired ahead of time to show her an American’s version of India so as to make her look stupid when it came time to air her TV special. Now that would be kind of funny. It’s always humorous when the “savage” gets the best of the “civilized.”
Part of me expected better than this from Oprah simply because she’s black and a woman. I’m not playing the race and gender card in the same way it’s usually played. What I mean is this: Oprah is no stranger to stereotyping in her own white male dominated culture, and yet here she is in India doing it on the West-East tightrope. Then again, given her criticized actions in the East in the past, perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised she’s doing this sort of thing again. I don’t know if Oprah is attempting to showcase herself as a “global citizen” through this TV special, but it seems to amount to anything but.
* Orientalism is considered a postcolonial term, delved into and unpacked to the greatest extent by Edward Said in his study by the same name. Orientalism is many things—a noun, a verb, an adjective. I can Orientalize someone or something, and something can become exceedingly Orientalistic or Orientalized. But what does it mean? When I Orientalize something, I am simplifying it in a rather offensively stereotypical manner. Orientalism exists to note how the West creates and manages the dichotomy between it and the East (usually Africa, the Middle East, and Asia). In order to do this easily, we remove the complexities of these regions, even though these other cultures are anything but simple. We emphasize the foreign aspects, but downplay the commonalities—like shared humanity. It’s a move to highlight difference. The West turns the East into a simplistic monolith so it’s easier to make decisions about it—like whether or not to invade and occupy, or whether or not to privatize water and create hydroelectric dams that will displace people. It also makes it easier to establish who we are as the West when we Orientalize the East and make all those billions of people the same. “Look at how different they are. They are not like us. We do life the right way.” The West needs the East to exist so that we can be solidified in our identity here in the Occident. The Orient is exotic and peculiar because we say it is. Obviously what ends up happening is we distance the East while still pretending we know something about it. We study it from afar and create “informed” opinions about it when we really don’t know what we’re talking about. So we keep stereotypes alive. Here’s an example of Orientalism: “So, like, everyone in India has, like, tigers and bamboo and elephants in their backyards and they, like, wear those loincloths and, like, do they even have cars? And I hear they all eat rice and only rice.” Another example is Disney’s Aladdin. Employing just about every Middle Eastern stereotype you can think of, it’s classic Orientalism.