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Time for “The Talk” — Gloria Steinem’s NYTimes op-ed raises questions about race, gender and election year media

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January 28th, 2008

By Guest Blogger Avis A. Jones-DeWeever

It’s time for “The Talk.”

I met Gloria Steinem yesterday. As a woman, I must admit I was a bit star-struck—proud to be engaged in conversation with one of those rare people in history who mixed passion, courage, and action together in such a way as to inspire others to help bring about change. But as a Black woman, the pride I felt was measured with no small amount of pain. I was one of those who read Gloria’s now infamous New York Times op-ed piece following the Iowa primary where she famously made the case that gender was more prohibitive than race in the presidential electionbecause, she asserted, gender breakthroughs typically occur after racial ones.

To illustrate her point more fully she argued, “Gender is probably the most restricting force in American life, whether the question is who must be in the kitchen or who could be in the White House.” She then went on to state, “That’s why the Iowa primary was following our historical pattern of making change.” And then, as if to say—here’s the irrefutable evidence—she reminds us, “Black men were given the vote a half-century before women of any race were allowed to mark a ballot…”

You know how Oprah has her “ah-ha” moments? Well, that was my, “Oh, hell no” moment. I remember reading those words for the first time and feeling the stab in my soul that inevitably occurs whenever I’m confronted with what I believe to be dismissive, diminutive statements that seem factual on their face but are not placed in the proper historical context and, as such, ultimately downplay the real horrors and outcomes of racial apartheid in America just to make the point that others today seemingly “have it worse.”

But as I listened to Gloria, I heard what I needed to hear from her. That the final piece than ran in the Times was significantly different than the one she had originally crafted. That in the full version, the sentence that had offended me most had actually acknowledged the reality of lynchings, poll taxes, literacy tests, and other forms of racist and violent oppression and intimidation that in practice erased the enfranchisement of Black men (and Black women for that matter) for many more decades to come—far beyond, in fact, the acquisition and implementation of voting rights by white women. I also heard her take full responsibility for giving the go-ahead to the edited version after having it vetted by several friends (none of whom, though, were apparently Black).

I heard her say that it was never her intention, despite how the piece read, to compare oppressions between Blacks and women, and in fact, she specifically instructed the Times not to imply such in whatever headline they chose for the piece. I heard all of that and believed her. It seemed sincere when she expressed remorse for the “us” vs. “them” dichotomy her final piece implied. It seemed sincere when she spoke movingly about the importance of having the oppressed join together to fight for a more just society. Yet, I found it sad that neither she nor her friends could have anticipated the interpretation that women like me would take from her words.

With all the talk recently about how unfortunate it is that we have come to focus so much on issues of race in the run up to the South Carolina primary, it seems to me the lesson we can learn from the major blind spot exhibited by Gloria and her friends – and by the Times and others in media – is that we, as a nation, need to talk more about race, not less. Of course that talk needs to be substantive, real, and sustained; not the snide, race-baiting innuendoes we’ve seen recently that play to the Willie Horton-hatin’ wing of every party. It won’t be easy. But such a discussion is indeed necessary. When even our friends don’t understand what offends us, such a discussion is long overdue.

As a nation, we now stand at a critically important moment in history. Having viable presidential candidates that break the white male mold creates the space we’ve never had for having “the talk.” Now all we need is the courage to engage in it.

Guest Blogger Avis A. Jones-DeWeever, Ph.D. is the Director of the National Council of Negro Women’s Research, Public Policy, and Information Center. The RPPI Center is a research/action institute which seeks to inform, catalyze and mobilize African American women for change in both the policy arena and throughout the broader cultural dynamic.

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