Soledad O’ Brien is feisty. Fierce. Some might even say combative. At least these are some of the words that first come to mind. And then I force myself to step back. Would I say those things if Soledad O’Brien were a man?
She addressed that question head on Wednesday night during a JFK Jr. Forum at the Institute of Politics. When the moderator noted that many of her critics call her controversial, Soledad chided: “That’s because people are lazy and can’t come up with a better word with more nuance… what does controversial even mean?” This from a woman who went on to say that she’s not afraid of a fight and that she won’t stand people treating her “like a little girl.”
There are certain forums you sit in on because you’re fascinated by the topic or because you really admire the person. And then there are certain forums where you see a sliver of yourself in the person who is speaking. When Soledad O’ Brien said “I like a certain amount of discomfort in my conversations,” I think I saw that sliver.
Soledad O’ Brien will grill you, as I unceremoniously found out during an impromptu Q&A after the forum. She had come to the Institute of Politics to talk to a group of about 40 undergraduates about politics and public service in a more casual setting. There was pizza, there were stickers, there was 90’s music.
She came in, stood at the podium, and instead of launching into the banal stump speech glittered with inspirational stories and encouraging mantras, fired a question at us: Why do you want to go into this field (politics)? It seems to me that there are a lot more effective ways to affect change, she challenged us. She stood defiant. No one answered her at first. “Well this is going to be a pretty short meeting,” she chuckled.
She wasn’t there to inspire us, she was there to make us think.
From the moment she started talking, we were on the defensive, forced to justify why we wanted to help people through a career in a field that doesn’t seem to be doing all that much these days.
“I mean, have you looked at Congress’ approval rating?” she asked us. Soledad O’ Brien wasn’t going to let us off easy.
Her bio is not at all common. She told us that growing up her mother would always remind her: “Now don’t let anyone tell you you’re not black. And don’t let anyone tell you that you’re not Latina.” It’s something she says it took her years to appreciate, a seemingly obvious truth that gave her confidence when her critics said “she wasn’t really black” or went so far as to say that she was named after a prison. (For the record, there is a prison named Soledad in California but to be clear she was named after the Virgin Mary.)
But to her point, statements like these speak to a larger conversation that we often shy away from. What is black? What is Latina? What is really black? And what gives someone the right to say that another doesn’t fit either characterization?
In hearing her pose questions like these, I could see that Soledad had wrestled with them personally. It’s the reason why when she did her series “Black in America” she says she cared so much about every aspect of it– how they framed a story, how they produced it, how they told it. To her, those stories came from her community. They mattered. And they deserved to be told because as she put it, “I don’t know what the answer to these questions are– but I do know that the answer is not ignorance.”
These are the memories like vignettes that remain now from the two or so hours I spent sitting in Soledad O’ Brien’s presence this past Thursday. I would like to say that my perception is nuanced enough to have automatically adjusted for the fact that 2 hours is not nearly enough to know a person. But I won’t lie– it probably isn’t. First impressions, as they say, are everything.
Soledad O’ Brien to me came off at first as fierce, combative, smart, offstandish, not willing to back down. I saw in her the same defiance I sometimes see in myself.
I know many of my peers walked out of the room shaking their heads. ‘Wow she was something, wasn’t she?’ We all nodded knowingly, disapprovingly. It is not customary, after all, to put your audience on the defensive before you’ve even said hello.
Soledad O’Brien did not reveal at first that she is a mother to four children, two of them twins. She did not talk about how she sits on a board that gives scholarships and mentorship opportunities to low-income girls who need it most. She did not mention any of that. She didn’t care if she was liked, she wasn’t aiming to be our friend.
But if my hunch is right, Soledad asks questions and challenges her interviewees in the way she does because she really cares. More so than most. She wants to know and understand and unpack your answer more than you probably do yourself.
So then, my question is, absent style, why is it that we have such an averse response to this kind of forwardness? Why don’t we inherently like people who are there to challenge us, push us, make us justify ourselves. People who don’t let us get away.
Perhaps, Soledad’s style– and our response to it– actually reveals more about us than it does about her.