“Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.”—Toni Morrison
On Thursday evening, embattled U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice tweeted this:
“Those of you who know me know that I'm a fighter, but not at the cost of what's right for our country.”
Immediately, thousands of retweets and responses came pouring in to her feed expressing both sadness and support for her decision to remove her name from consideration for the coveted position of secretary of state position. But I was disappointed, as were millions of professional black women in America. We were not disappointed in Susan Rice the woman, who we love and admire; but in a national culture and political process that would so angrily and so readily define, decimate, and dismantle the qualifications and quality of a woman like Susan Rice to be nominated for secretary of state.
There can be no doubt that we as women of the 21st century have come a long way. But there can also be no doubt that there are still far too few extremely well qualified women of color in high-ranking political offices and appointed positions both in government and in corporate America. Look at the United States Senate for example: there will be 20 women serving in the Senate in 2013, none of them African-American, Native American, or Latino. There is one Asian-American woman, Mazie Horino, who is the new senator-elect from Hawaii. The numbers are even more dismal for women of color in corporate boardrooms, university board regents, and throughout industry.
Here is my point: Rice is more than qualified to be secretary of state, and no rational person can argue otherwise. She should have been afforded a hearing before the Senate if the president nominated her, and she should have been judged solely on her stellar qualifications and responses to the senators’ questions. The fact that she understood—as do far too many women and women of color—that we are doomed once the stereotype “code words” start flying, is tragic. It’s the oldest “old boy” trick in the game. The “boys,” e.g., Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham, came at her with code speak: “unqualified,” “incompetent,” “misleading,” and “not prepared.” And sadly they enlisted the help of other female senators such as Susan Collins and Kelly Ayotte. The deployment of other women to undercut a powerful woman is something we as women have all experienced, and we grimace each time it occurs. The clear winner here is one of the Senate’s own: John F. Kerry. McCain and the boys will likely support him quickly and painlessly as a matter of senatorial esprit de corps!
As I said, accomplished women of color still have a long way to go before we can get a fair hearing in the public arena outside of ugly and demeaning stereotypes and images that still define us. No matter how many Ivy League degrees, Rhodes Scholarships, or academic letters we have behind our names, it is never quite good enough. Stereotypes may seem inane to some, but to those of us who have to fight every day against the insidious nature of how others have defined us, it is no laughing matter.
As for Rice, I respect her decision to withdraw for the reasons she articulated in her letter to President Obama and in her Dec. 13 op-ed essay in The Washington Post. However, as a fellow black woman in the struggle for our progress as women in the workplace, in government, academia, and industry, I wish she had fought the good fight. Trust me, I get that she has a family, and that she does not want to subject her country or herself to the drama that was sure to unfold if she was nominated for secretary of state. But, at some point, just like Anita Hill, we as women of color must be willing to take on the fight, have our voices heard, speak our truth, and let the chips fall where they may so that those young sisters coming behind us will have a better path forward.
In the final analysis, according to news reports, Dr. Rice will remain in the public arena. That is a good thing. Yet I can’t help wondering what would have happened if she had stood her ground, let the president nominate her (as I think we all agree he would have), and then taken on the Senate old boys club, forcing them to vote her up or down in front of an entire nation watching live on C-Span and cable TV. More important, many young black girls and young women would have watched with pride (as I watched Anita Hill in 1991 as a 22 year old) as Rice made her case for her right to have her voice heard—and for her right to be given a fair and respectful hearing as a nominee for our nation’s highest diplomatic position.
As the poet James Greenleaf Whittier once wrote, “For of all sad words of tongue and pen, / The saddest are these: ‘It might have been!’” God speed, Susan Rice. We’ll be watching and cheering you on for whatever comes next in your stellar and amazing life.