Inspired by a Real Wonder Woman

Apr 19, 2004  •  Post A Comment

When I was a little girl I wanted to grow up to be Wonder Woman, an omniscient, unconquerable goddess with bullet-deflecting bracelets, a golden lasso and an invisible plane. I craved the power to fend off my fiercest opponents (or the neighborhood bullies), the skill to elicit the truth from the most adept prevaricators and, most important of all, the ability to fly.
As an adult I sometimes reflect on the fact that my childhood role model didn’t look at all like me. It wasn’t that I didn’t know any smart, strong and beautiful black women-I was raised by the strongest, smartest and most beautiful one there is. But in the eyes of a child, a lady on TV with a tiara and a lasso is always going to trump the one who cuts orange slices for your soccer games and tucks you in at night.
Besides, there simply weren’t many heroic black women on television, where my mid-1970s superheroes lived.
Just as I have grown up since then, so, to an important degree, has television, where images of strong black women are, though not exactly bountiful, definitely more prevalent.
Today, my most awe-inspiring superhero-on TV or off-is a black wonder woman named Oprah Winfrey.
And best of all, she’s real. She may not be omniscient, but she is uncommonly wise. She may not have bullet-deflecting bracelets and magical powers, but she does have the power to change lives.
She has changed mine-inspired me to unshelve my childhood dream, polish it up and place it front and center for all the world to see.
Having been raised by a writer and an English professor, I inherited a voracious appetite for the written word and near reverent appreciation for education. Still, I was taught early on, as most black children are, that I would have to work harder and be even smarter than my white peers to achieve the same goals. Naturally, I understood that if I wanted to move ahead of the crowd, I’d have to transcend the very best. But that proved to be a somewhat daunting mandate. That was, until Oprah.
The Best
Journalist, activist, ambassador, warrior and sister-friend to millions, Oprah Winfrey is truly the best at what she does. Whether she is exposing the plight of AIDS orphans in Africa, encouraging the nation to rediscover reading, donating computers to inner-city schools or helping a middle-age mother of five realize her dream of becoming a pop star, Oprah’s compassion and generosity inspire us all. She shows us worlds we may never otherwise see, even though they may exist in our own backyard. And she teaches us to look beyond the differences that separate us, to focus instead on our collective humanity.
I remember only bits and pieces of the day I defended my doctoral dissertation. It felt as if, under tremendous pressure, I’d blacked out from shock and out of necessity channeled Oprah. To my mind, for those three hours (for which I’d spent the better part of a decade preparing), I was brilliant, witty, quick on my feet, self-assured and resilient enough to overcome any obstacle thrown my way. In short, I was Oprah.
The reality was, of course, that I’d done it on my own. After years of being inspired by the boldness with which Oprah approaches both her work and her life, I’d learned to recognize my own superpowers, rather than looking to be a fantasy person or expecting someone else to swoop in and save the day.
After earning my doctorate in social psychology, I embarked on a career as an ethnographer. Like Oprah, I make my living interviewing people and telling their stories. I travel throughout the country speaking with consumers about what it is that connects them with certain products and brands, but these conversations often end up being about so much more. By asking the right questions, a conversation about what brand of baby food someone purchases can easily evolve into a deeper discussion about the meaning of family and life.
Warmth and Respect
Each time I sit down with a subject, I make a conscious effort to mirror the warmth, compassion and respect Oprah shows her subjects. Following her example, I try to couple strength with sensitivity so I get the answers I’m after in a way that leaves my subjects feeling enriched, embraced and empowered. And if I’ve done my job well, I’m left feeling as if I’ve provided a medium by which their voices can be heard.
I recently interviewed more than 60 young men and women for a study I designed with the objective of exploring what most matters in the lives of black Americans today. One thing I discovered is that when it comes to role models and personal heroes, the name “Oprah Winfrey” is at the top of most of their lists.
I sensed a great deal of excitement among a new generation of African Americans about where they are, what they have accomplished and where they hope to go. And it is not an exaggeration to say that I attribute the burgeoning self-confidence of young, black Americans to Oprah Winfrey’s influence. When asked what they would say to this wonder woman if given the opportunity, respondents expressed the following sentiments:
“Tell her she makes me proud to be a black woman” … “a full-figured woman” … “a brown-skinned, full-featured, black woman” … “a woman” … “a human being.”
“Tell her that I said, `Thank you.’ For everything that she has given every little black girl who grew up facing adversity. She’s shown us that we can beat the odds.”
“Because of her, I know anything and everything is possible.”
These messages, and many more like them, came from young women and men of all sexual orientations, educational and income levels. And this, I believe, speaks to the impact Oprah has had on the world.
Oprah’s greatest talent is, in my opinion, her ability to connect not only with different types of people but with all the different parts within each of us. And she does this without ever changing who she is. She’s impacted my own life in such a profound way.
She’s taught the psychologist/ethnographer in me to ask the deeper questions, both of others and of myself, and to recognize the truth when I hear it.
She’s taught the woman in me that true beauty has nothing to do with dress size but rather with the size of one’s heart and one’s contributions to the universe. As important, Oprah has taught me that I don’t need anyone’s permission to succeed but my own.
As an African American, Oprah has shown me that it’s possible to reach the highest heights without abandoning my roots. But the best part is she has proved to the little girl who still resides inside me, and to countless other little black girls around the world, that superheroes really do exist, and some of them look just like us.
Because of Oprah Winfrey, we now know that we don’t need some hokey invisible plane. All we need is to put our minds to it and we, too, can fly.
Patricia Raspberry, Ph.D., is a social psychologist and director of research analysis for consumer research firm PortiCo Research. She can be reached at raspberry@porticoresearch.com.