Looking at Sarah, Somehow Seeing Condi

by Latoya Peterson, originally published at Feministe

As the uproar over the Palin VP pick enters its third week, the media and the blogosphere show no signs of letting go of mining every aspect of the controversy. Feministing put up a Friday Feminist Fuck No as to whether or not Sarah Palin is a feminist, Octogalore says we need to focus on the double standards being aimed at Palin, Alternet is comparing Sarah to Barbie, Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez is trying to talk her friends out of voting for her, Camille Pagila claimed Palin is a new “feminist force,” and Katha Pollitt ripped her a new one in her piece “Lipstick on a Wingnut.

Throughout this all, it appears that there are two dominant ideas swirling around this debate:

1. Palin cannot be a feminist because her views are in complete opposition to what is meant by feminism as a movement.

2. Palin should be supported because she is a strong woman, who represents what feminism is about and in many ways shows what the feminist movement has done for women.

Now, I’ve been following this debate with some interest, and watched many women mount impassioned defenses of Palin, and chide feminists for not providing more support to this strong woman candidate. I don’t care for Palin’s politics at all, and while I can see she was a smart pick for the GOP, there’s a big trump card for me. Palin doesn’t represent anything close to the womanhood I know. So while I listen with interest while people argue about how Palin represents “every woman,” I can’t relate. I just don’t see her in those ways.

But I can put Sarah Palin into context fairly easily, as the issues surrounding Sarah Palin, (white) women, and feminism correspond with the issues around Condoleezza Rice, black (women) interests, and racial politics.

When George W. Bush meandered his way into the White House, he managed to bring two African-Americans into the spotlight – Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice.

I spent a lot of time checking for Condoleezza Rice. By most accounts, she is a smart, driven, and poised woman. So how the hell did she end up on the side of the Republicans? To find a response, I read. And read. And read. I read Condi’s biography, her news interviews, the long form magazine pieces.

Contrary to popular belief, Condoleezza Rice does not seek to minimize her race. It has been recounted in almost every profile of her I have read.

I have a heavy admiration for what she has done and accomplished. And as a black woman, I must admit that I feel a small sense of pride, scrolling through her entry on Wikipedia, looking at all the things she has accomplished.

And yet, I disagree with her politics, even if I like some of her programs.

And while Condoleezza Rice is an accomplished black woman, who triumphed over adversity to become who she is today, this fact alone does not mean she will be a champion of black issues if elected to public office.

In some ways, Condoleezza Rice is like Clarence Thomas – they both were alive during some of the most pivotal moments in Civil Rights history. But their views on how blacks are to operate within the parameters of this society run counter to what most black Americans find to be true.

With Thomas – who was a former black nationalist – he was raised in poverty and segregation, yet he often ends up with an opposite interpretation of events. In various interviews and articles, he has expressed his rage at Affirmative Action programs, with his sentiments stemming from having to deal with all the assumptions that rise about black intelligence and ability while those programs are in effect. To him, the greater injustice was that people assume that blacks only advance to the levels they do because of government intervention. So, in his mind, the solution is to end these kinds of programs. Thomas now seems a bit uneasy with the pro-black activities he once participated in often clarifying his statements by stressing his age then and his age now. In the same interview in Businessweek, he notes:

The assumption is that, since you’re all black, you have something in common. That’s like saying because you’re all women, you have a lot in common. You might have nothing in common with these people.

Condoleezza Rice has a similar kind of outlook, though she speaks about racial differences often. She notes that racism is an issue in America, and pissed off some members of her party by accidentally reminding them that she was black. She has also expressed dismay at the lack of black faces at the State Department.

Yet, there is little evidence that Condoleezza will advocate for these kinds of changes. In 2005, Eugene Robinson – an op-ed columnist for the Washington Post – spent three days with Rice as she toured Birmingham and offered her commentary on Civil Rights and race. Robinson writes:

When she reminisces, she talks of piano lessons and her brief attempt at ballet — not of Connor setting his dogs loose on brave men, women and children marching for freedom, which is the Birmingham that other residents I met still remember. A friend of Rice’s, Denise McNair, was one of the four girls killed in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. That would have left a deep scar on me, but Rice can speak of that atrocity without visible emotion.

She doesn’t deny that race makes a difference. “We all look forward to the day when this country is race-blind, but it isn’t yet,” she told reporters in Birmingham. Later she added, “The fact that our society is not colorblind is a statement of fact.”

But then why are the top echelons of her State Department almost entirely white? “That’s an artifact of foreign policy,” she said in the interview. “It’s not been a very diverse profession.” In other words, there aren’t enough qualified minority candidates. I wondered how many times those words have been used as a lame excuse.

One of the things she somehow missed was that in Titusville and other black middle-class enclaves, a guiding principle was that as you climbed, you were obliged to reach back and bring others along. Rice has been a foreign policy heavyweight for nearly two decades; she spent four years in the White House as the president’s national security adviser. In the interview, she mentioned just one black professional she has brought with her from the National Security Council to State.

As we were flying to Alabama, Rice said an interesting thing. She was talking about the history of the civil rights movement, and she said, “If you read Frederick Douglass, he was not petitioning from outside of the institutions but rather demanding that the institutions live up to what they said they were. If you read Martin Luther King, he was not petitioning from outside, he was petitioning from inside the principles and the institutions, and challenging America to be what America said that it was.”

The civil rights movement came from the inside? I always thought the Edmund Pettus Bridge was outside.

I know very few black Americans who think of themselves fully as insiders in this society. No matter how high we rise, there’s always that reality that Rice acknowledges: The society isn’t colorblind, not yet. It’s not always in the front of your mind, but it’s there. We talk about it, we overcome it, but it’s there.

When Rice was growing up, her father stood guard at the entrance of her neighborhood with a rifle to keep the Klan’s nightriders away. But that was outside the bubble. Inside the bubble, Rice was sitting at the piano in pretty dresses to play Bach fugues. It sounds like a wonderful childhood, but one that left her able to see the impact that race has in America — able to examine it and analyze it — but not to feel it.

Condoleezza Rice is black. She knows this. She understands this. We have gone through similar struggles. But that does not mean she reached the same conclusions, and it does not mean she will use her position to advocate for other blacks.

Sarah Palin is a (white) woman. She knows this. She understands this. Many women can see themselves in Sarah’s narrative, as they have gone through similar struggles. But that does not mean she has reached the same conclusions about women’s rights, and that does not mean she will use her position to advocate for other women. (Of any color.)

I have a soft spot for Condoleezza Rice. I like watching her, always poised and professional, striding across the world’s stage like she owns it. At the same time, I can laugh at political satire like the Condilicious video:

And I can understand the joke and still be miffed at the underlying sexism/heterosexism in this Boondocks strip:

These kinds of relationships with women and nonwhite public figures will be complicated. You can hate someone’s policies and still defend them from ad hominem arguments. I hate when people say that Condoleezza Rice is a sellout and that she isn’t black. That’s a ridiculous assertion to make. However, that does not make Condoleezza Rice a civil rights leader just because she is black and in a position of power.

I hate when people say Sarah Palin is not a woman, or she is a tool of the patriarchy, or any of the other non policy related attacks I’ve seen leveled at her from all kinds of places. But that doesn’t mean you need to start sipping the “this is a victory for women” kool aid. It isn’t. Sarah Palin does not magically become a champion for all women, everywhere, just because she happens to be a woman in a position of power.

In this election, people need to understand to vote with their interests, not the symbolic interpretation they may hold of a certain person.

Listen to the words people speak.

Watch the actions that they take.

But don’t let your own ideas on who that person should be mask who they really are.