I really (really) don't want to discuss Geraldine Ferraro.
And that, perhaps, is part of the problem.
Much has been made of what Ferraro said; indeed, it's hard to find people who actually discuss what she said, but instead focus on the meaning of what she said, adding layers of interpretation, and then creating arguments over that level of interpretation, rather than sticking to what was actually said; it helps, in this case, that Ferraro has said so much, and didn't stop talking, but kept piling on. On top of which, the Ferraro Flap comes in the context of rising tension between supporters that's making civil debate more and more difficult, and leads to a "trading scalps" sense of Ferraro vis-a-vis Samantha Power.
Moreover, I don't want to discuss what Ferraro said, because I'm not sure it's productive. More than the issues of race and gender she (rather messily) raised, I think Ferraro demonstrated what it is to be a New Yorker, feisty and confrontational, unwilling to back down. I'm not that New Yorker, and I think that we can get more done with less confrontation.
Where I'm going with all of this is that, as I think about it, the problem here is language. We are having a difficult and painful debate on issues of race and gender because we lack the language to discuss it, a language we've lacked for a long, long time. And rather than grope, artlessly, towards finding one, we instead, too often, fall back on silence, letting our discomforts drive our decision making.
So let me try, for a moment, to talk about what Ferraro said... and what she didn't.
Here's what I think: I think Ferraro meant to bring up the fact that gender and race are treated differently, in our society and in the press, and that we can't deal with a sexism we don't even see. To get there, she used the fairly common "feminist thought exercise" of saying "imagine the gender roles were reversed" and suggested that were Barack Obama white, or a woman (or both), his story would be a different story.
Well, of course, it would be.
Much of the initial flap came from Ferraro calling Obama "lucky" - suggesting that his accomplishments were not about skill, or education, or talent... but simply a matter of being in the right place, at the right time. You could debate the alchemy of skill and good fortune in Obama's success this year, but why bother? It's simpler, as many did, to interpret Ferraro's statement as calling Obama "lucky to be black" and take off from there, at dizzying speed, to decrying a racism that's not necessarily there.
Okay, then, let's talk about race. Or not.
RedStar gracefully, and thoughtfully, brought up last night my old post on the discussion of race we're not having in this country, a discussion that we're now not having in the context of Barack Obama's run for President. At the time I was questioning the notion being floated that "Obama transcends race" as shown by his success in Iowa, and suggested that America's preference not to examine its past warps our discussions of race.
I appreciate the link, but that post has nagged at me ever since. In part, I discounted the prospect that the black community would decide, so wholeheartedly, on Obama; that's proven to be not the case. Moreover, I think I underestimated our ability to avoid discussing race - I often do - expecting a painful discussion on actual issues, rather than, as Obama's done, avoiding specifics in favor of a generalized, vague exhortation to "vote for change."
If there's a really positive racial development in this election cycle, I think it's that the discussion of "black enough" has become moot. The black community's embrace of the nice man with the African father and the white mother may finally signal a ratcheting down of an ugly, rarely seen conversation over black men, in particular, who marry/have relationships outside the race (if you want to see an example, check out "Waiting to Exhale" early on, when Angela Bassett's character confronts her husband about his affair that's leading to their divorce). I'm old enough, as is Shelby Steele - as is Senatir Obama, really - to remember that our mixed race status was not necessarily well received.
But in order to test the theory that we've moved on, we actually have to talk about it. What concerns me in the fallout from the Ferraro Flap is that we've returned to a "we can't talk about race, in that way" decision that neglects to admit that in fact "in that way" actually means "at all." Bring up uncomfortable notions, prejudices, and conroversy... and the room falls silent. We look, accusingly, at the person who brought up the verboten topic. And we shun them. And, bye bye, Geraldine.
Let's be clear: there's a discussion - a healthy one, I think - to be had about the validity of Ferraro's "thought exercise." The point could, and should, be made, calmly, that the thought exercise doesn't really yield us something we can act upon. It would be different if Barack Obama was white. Or a woman. But he's not. And here we are.
On the other side of the Ferraro mess is the very real tension among women, especially a generational tension within feminism that's also, up to now, played out on the margins. The notion that there's a split between older feminists who support Clinton and younger ones who support Obama is simplistic, but it's become the driver for discussing how we see the two campaigns. Younger, Obama supporting, feminists talk about rejecting "old notions" of backing the woman, just because she's a woman. OIder feminists - Steinem, Morgan, and now Ferraro - suggest that women ignore their own interests in backing someone other than Clinton. Our language, and the very personal nature of many feminist discussions, makes this discussion painful, and difficult. We grope for a way to respect both points of view, even though the tension between them is really the core of the feminist argument, and it's not about age or "second vs. third wave" feminism. It's the many ways "what's best for women" can be defined.
And all of this, for me and many like me, comes back to something we're even less comfortable talking about - sexuality. Because if we can't figure out ways to talk about race and gender issues, we'll never be able to wade into sorting out, much more thoroughly, issues for the LGBT community, either.
The point is, painful though it may be, we have to grope for the language to have these discussions, to feel our way around, and figure some things out. Our predicament this primary season, I'm convinced, didn't "just happen." We're here, in this moment, at this time, because we were bound to get here, to a moment where the lovely notions of racial and gender equality meet the hard realities of people who find talking about race uncomfortable and prefer not to see gender issues rather than confront them. It's the moment when a generalized notion of change becomes the actual, painful, work of changing. How odd, and how natural, to discover, right now, that words fail us. I don't think we can just give up on a conversation for want of a language. We actually have to find one. So let's.