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.
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