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Nobody's Archetype

By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, February 8, 2005; Page A23

I thought that by now we had grown accustomed to seeing Condoleezza Rice on the public stage, after her four years as a wartime president's national security adviser. But her first foreign trip as secretary of state has been compelling to watch, and I think that has to do with race, image, archetype and all the things she is not.

She is not the first black U.S. secretary of state, nor the first woman to hold the office. (And that's a sentence I thought I'd never get to write.) But she is the first black woman, and that brings into play the whole optician's kit of distorting lenses through which African American women are viewed, both at home and around the world. None of those lenses gives us the view we think we should be getting, and so we try another, and another. Someday we'll give up and take her at face value, for better or worse. I don't think much of her foreign policy or the administration she serves, but I have to give her credit for refusing to be anyone other than who she is.

(Jim Bourg -- Reuters)

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She doesn't fit any of the silly, often repellent stereotypes that black women get tagged with:

There's "Angry Black Woman," personified by Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth, the famous-for-being-famous contestant on Donald Trump's "The Apprentice." Unlike Omarosa, Rice doesn't fly off the handle at the slightest provocation or sideways glance. She isn't constantly telling someone off or storming out of the room, or "assuming the position" of hands on hips, neck moving side to side, as the late Isabel Sanford used to do as "Weezy" in the old sitcom "The Jeffersons." When Sen. Barbara Boxer grilled Rice at her confirmation hearings with appropriate, tough questions about Iraq, Rice flashed anger only with her eyes. Her demeanor remained as cold as steel.

There's "Jezebel," perhaps the oldest and most insulting image of all -- think of Josephine Baker in Paris, dancing in her skirt of bananas. The image of the black woman as temptress has always been there in American society, either on the surface or just underneath, and it's certainly there in Europe as well. Like most professional women, Rice declines to flaunt her sexuality in the way she dresses and behaves. But neither does she choose frumpiness. She is always put together, conservatively but with a sense of individual style. I leave further judgment to the fashion columnists.

There's "Earth Mother of Us All," which buys into the idea of black women as uniquely nurturing, patient, forgiving, supportive, long-suffering -- the notion that the black woman was put on Earth to atone for the sins of all the rest of us. (A subset image is "Nubian Queen.") Rice destroys this one. Whatever else you think of her, I can't imagine that, say, Jacques Chirac believes for one minute that she will be any warmer or more nurturing to him than her predecessor Colin Powell was.

There's "Black American Princess," and Rice flirts with this archetype -- the piano lessons in her childhood, the figure skating, the doting parents. But she departs from the script by being drawn to football, not cheerleading, and by refusing to play damsel in distress no matter what the circumstances. She may take care with her fingernails, but she's not about to get upset if she breaks one.

Condoleezza Rice is nothing if not different. She's not a Democrat, though most African American women are. She's certainly not a liberal. She obviously is race-conscious, but she puts that consciousness into a box that's more deeply hidden than the one most of us African Americans use to store race when we're on the job. People see her walking next to President Bush and there are ugly snickers of the Jezebel sort; but when Rice is escorted at social events, it is usually by Gene Washington, the former professional football player, a black man.

She is, in short, sui generis -- just like every black woman in America.

I don't give her a pass on her performance as national security adviser, and I hold her at least partly responsible for the lies the administration told about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Boxer was right to hold her feet to the fire. I can't applaud Rice when she pursues policies that I believe make us more vulnerable, not safer.

But I do recognize her achievement in confounding expectations that were long overdue to be confounded. And now maybe we can begin to see black women through a lens that's not colored or distorted, but crystal clear.

The writer will be available for questions today at 1 p.m. on www.washingtonpost.com. His e-mail address is eugenerobinson@washpost.com.

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