Oprah says 'inequality is a pre-existing condition' in commencement speech at star-studded graduation ceremony

Raechal Shewfelt
Editor, Yahoo Entertainment
Oprah Winfrey was the commencement speaker for #Graduation2020: Facebook and Instagram Celebrate the Class of 2020. (Photo: Zach Pagano/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

Oprah Winfrey challenged the students graduating in these strange and challenging times to make the world more equitable.

“Can you, the Class of 2020, show us not how to put the pieces back together again but how to create a new and more evolved normal? A world more just, kind, beautiful, tender, luminous, creative, whole?” Winfrey said in her headlining speech during the #Graduation2020: Facebook and Instagram Celebrate the Class of 2020 special that aired online Friday.

“We need you to do this, because the pandemic has illuminated the vast, systemic inequities that have defined life for too many for too long,” Oprah continued. “For poor communities without adequate access to healthcare, inequality is a pre-existing condition. For immigrant communities forced to hide in the shadows, inequality is a pre-existing condition. For incarcerated people, with no ability to social distance, inequality is a pre-existing condition. For every person burdened by bias and bigotry, for every black man and woman living in their American skin, fearful to even go for a jog, inequality is a pre-existing condition.”

With the jogging comment, the media mogul was of course referencing Ahmaud Arbery, the 25-year-old black man fatally shot during a run in Brunswick, Ga., in February. Since video of the shooting surfaced online, two white men, Gregory and Travis McMichael, have been charged with murder. Their attorneys have argued that the public shouldn’t “rush to judgment” based solely on what they see in the video.

“My hope is that you will harness your education, your creativity and your valor, your voice, your vote, reflecting on all that you’ve witnessed and hungered for, all that you know to be true and use it to create more equity, more justice and more joy in the world,” Oprah said. “To be the class that commenced a new way forward, the Class of 2020.”

She reassured graduates who are having feelings of apprehension about the post-graduation world they are entering.

“I wish I could tell you I know the path forward. I don’t. There is much uncertainty,” she said. “In truth, there always has been. What I do know is that the same guts and imagination that got you to this moment, all those things are the very same things that are going to sustain you through whatever is coming. It’s vital that you learn and we all learn to be at peace with the discomfort of stepping into the unknown. It’s really OK to not have all the answers. The answers will come for sure if you can accept not knowing long enough to get still and stay still long enough for new thoughts to take root in your more quiet, deeper, truer self.”

Oprah encouraged them to think deeply about how they can affect the world, and she praised essential workers, such as teachers, grocery store employees and, of course, medical workers.

“What will your essential service be? What really matters to you?” Oprah asked. “The fact that you’re alive means you’ve been given a reprieve to think deeply about that question. How will you use what matters in service to yourself, your community and the world?”

Oprah Winfrey, Miley Cyrus, Sterling K. Brown and Selena Gomez all appeared on #Graduation2020: Facebook and Instagram Celebrate the Class of 2020. (Photo: HBCU Pulse via YouTube, Getty Images)

Oprah was one of more than 75 celebrities who appeared in the two-hour ceremony. The streaming event was hosted by Mindy Kaling and one of her co-stars from The Office, B.J. Novak. Miley Cyrus performed her hit song “The Climb.”

Activist Malala Yousafzai, Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles, and actors and musicians including Sterling K. Brown, Selena Gomez and Kristen Bell dropped in to offer words of advice, as the names of every school in the country ran across the screen.

However, most of the time was rightfully focused on the grads, via videos and photos that people sent in using the hashtag #Graduation2020.

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