The 66th U.S. secretary of state also served as president George W. Bush’s national security adviser during his first term. A long-time faculty member at Stanford University, Rice currently teaches two courses, and recently published a memoir of her parents’ influence on her life, Extraordinary, Ordinary People.
Q: You grew up in a completely segregated city. But you write that as a child, the sense of injustice didn’t sink in. Why not?
A: When you’re young, your world is pretty limited. My parents, my family, my church dominated my world. And because Birmingham was so segregated, you didn’t really have to encounter the slings and arrows of racism on a daily basis. Obviously, from time to time you did, like when my parents took me to see Santa Claus and he wasn’t letting black children sit on his knee. But my parents tried to insulate me as much as they could.
Q: Like not wanting you to use “coloured only” facilities?
A: Right. They were pretty clear that “coloured” meant, usually, inferior. My grandfather on my mother’s side was determined that his family would never use a “coloured” restroom. My aunt remembers a lot of uncomfortable road trips where they really needed to go to the bathroom but he wouldn’t let them. It’s a way to shield against linking skin colour with something second-rate.
Q: In Birmingham, were you ever inside a white person’s house?
A: I don’t ever remember being in a white person’s house. And on only one occasion can I recall a white person in our home, an insurance salesman.
Q: And you wanted him to leave so you could finish watching The Mickey Mouse Club.
A: I loved Mickey Mouse! I loved the songs, I liked Annette Funicello. My parents watched with me. They tried to draw me in to their world—music with my mother, and sports and politics with my father. And they were perfectly willing to be part of mine. I loved being an only child. I would ask my mother, “You’re not going to have any more children, are you?” I made it clear I wouldn’t approve.
Q: They sound a bit like helicopter parents.
A: [Laughs] Well, yes and no. If it could be thought of as an educational opportunity, and figure skating fell into that category, then they were there. But when I wanted to quit piano at 10, my mother said, “You’re not good enough to quit.” I’m glad she did, because I would never be able to do the things I do now, like playing benefit concerts with the Philadelphia Orchestra or Aretha Franklin.
Q: It’s ironic that you have a performance career given that as an undergrad you switched out of music and into political science.
A: I am not confused about why I got to play with Yo Yo Ma—it wasn’t piano that got me there! It was that I was national security adviser at the time.
Q: Growing up, your parents talked about “the white man” and constantly said, “You have to be twice as good.” At what?
A: Everything. Twice as good at speaking the language well, twice as good at your schoolwork. It was just a mantra that I believe parents and teachers were using to armour us. If you were twice as good, “they” might not want you, but “they” had to respect you for what you had achieved.
Q: So in a sense, the insularity of segregation had a silver lining.
A: Absolutely. If a black teacher said to a black student, “You’re not performing,” there was no racial overtone. Today, a white teacher saying that to a black student, all of a sudden those overtones are there. I’ve seen it even at a place like Stanford, where teachers then start pulling their punches.
Q: Do you think you would’ve gone so far if you’d been raised in an integrated city?
A: We’re all products of our environment, and I suspect that strength of will—the feeling, “I’m going to be able to do whatever you put in front of me”—is honed in an environment where not everything is easy. Ironically, growing up in that environment, you don’t have a sense of aggrievement or entitlement. You just have a sense of overcoming.
Q: As a child, you played with the little girls who were then killed in the church bombing in 1963, and your father sat on the porch with a shotgun watching for night riders. How did your own experience of terrorism shape your response to it as an adult?
A: It informed my sense of what terrorism really is. We sometimes think of terrorists as anarchists, as not having a political point. But in fact they do: to humiliate, dehumanize, and ensure there will be no resistance.
I think my experience also made me more empathetic. At the end of the Palestinian-Israeli peace conference, I started wrapping up in normal fashion, but then I put my papers aside and said, “I think I know what it’s like for a Palestinian parent to drive along and not be able to go up that next road because you don’t want your children to feel devalued. I also know what it’s like for an Israeli mother to put her child to sleep not knowing if a bomb’s going to fall that night.” That was Birmingham in a nutshell. It was, “You can’t go there because of who you are,” and parents trying to find a way for that not to be crushing. And the fear of going to Sunday school and somebody bombs the church.
Q: Through your father’s career as a university administrator, you met a lot of civil rights leaders, including Stokely Carmichael, who called you “little sister.” You write, in reference to the flak Obama took for his “radical associations,” that you wonder what people would make of yours. What do you think white Americans don’t understand about black America?
A: There’s maybe a lack of understanding that—particularly in the ’60s and ’70s, but probably up until now—the history of segregation tends to unify people. When I was growing up, there were black conservatives, liberals and radicals, all trying to figure out a response to the nature of the black experience in America.
Q: Why do you think some blacks attack you as “not black enough”?
A: Oh, I don’t know. And you know what? I really don’t care. Most black people are extremely supportive. I go into the grocery store and people come up and say, “Thank you for what you’ve done.” I don’t need anyone to tell me how to be black. I’m confident that I am black. As for being called “not black enough”—what does that mean? Where it gets to be destructive, though, is not with somebody like me, but when somehow our kids think being “black enough” means speaking English poorly, doing badly in school and thinking they’re victims.
Q: Affirmative action helped you early in your career as an academic. Did that push you to prove you deserved a place at the table?
A: I think I felt what every assistant professor feels: “Did Stanford make a mistake? How could I be sitting at this table with the giants in my field?” I’m supportive of affirmative action, but the problem sometimes is the internalization, thinking, “Maybe I’m only here because of affirmative action.”
Q: You’ve had a lot of mentors, using the old boys’ network in exactly the way women are advised to, and have been criticized for it.
A: Nobody, nobody, makes it on their own. It’s a myth. Everybody’s met that person who’s put them in a position they wouldn’t otherwise have. And I don’t know why anybody feels guilt or has reservations about that, if, when you get there, you’re qualified to do the job. I always tell students, “If you see a faculty member you’d like to get to know, don’t just sit back and hope they’ll notice you. Go up and say, ‘I read your latest article on x.’ ”
Q: You did everything very young. Stanford provost at 38. National security adviser at 47. If you form a professional identity as a prodigy, or others thrust it upon you, what happens now, when you’re almost 56?
A: There is a little bit of, you know, having been the youngest and then you start to catch up. But working at a university helps smooth that transition because everybody seems younger. You talk about the Berlin Wall falling and realize your students hadn’t been born yet.
Q: Given how important your parents were to you, why haven’t you had kids yourself?
A: I never found anybody I wanted to spend my life with. People say, “Didn’t you want to get married?” Well, sure, but it’s not abstract, there has to be someone you want to marry. I’m pretty traditional. Marriage would have to come first, before kids.
Q: You write, “I’d always hoped to marry within my race.” Why?
A: The sense that the preservation of black culture is important. Now, I think interracial marriage can work very well, there are a couple in my family. So ideally, I would’ve married a black man, but it wasn’t, “I won’t get married if he’s not within my race.” And ideally, it would be someone who came from similar circumstances, someone out of the segregated South. But that’s starting to draw a pretty fine line.
Q: How do you feel about being portrayed and psychoanalyzed in books and movies?
A: Well, I haven’t seen any of the movies. Why would I want to watch a movie about the Bush administration? When I watch a movie, I want it to be pretty mindless. Like you say, people want to psychoanalyze me, but the fact is, I’m not that complicated. I’m pretty straightforward. And I’m not all that self-reflective, because I tend to be a doer.