Hillary Channels A Poor Understanding of Cultural Diplomacy

I can’t help it. I find Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s reaction in Kinshasa, DRC to a student who asked her what the perspective of her husband was about China’s role in the DRC, to be out of proportion to the question – and well, laced with a racially biased response. Would Secretary of State Clinton respond this way were she say in France, the same way that she responds to this student in the DRC?

To be sure, the question, if we accept it at face value,  is full of paternalistic implications  – inappropriate and sexist, because Hillary Clinton is the Secretary of State. She is also married to the fomer President of the United States – a president who often ignored the well-being and struggles of those on the African continent (Rwanda, anyone?) until after the polls (cigars and dry cleaning bills) were all counted, before he became actively and genuinely involved with Africa.

Though former president Bill Clinton is not the Secretary of State (someone may have to remind him), it was Mr. Clinton, not Mrs. Clinton, who in a delicate political dance (one that showed President Obama’s commitment to human lives above didactic pontification), traveled to North Korea, to secure the release of journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee. To be clear, Secretary Clinton could not have gone on the trip without compromising the U.S.’s position on North Korea. It was in some ways an ingenius plan to have former President Clinton go. Such a trip and charge was a rather stately, diplomatic mission, that landed President Clinton solidly back in the news, and admittedly was a confusing political moment for all involved.

It was a calculated risk precisely because it was also an opportunity to create a great deal of confusion about who was really in charge: President Obama or the Clintons, Hillary Clinton or her husband and former President, and for good measure, it threw in Al Gore for the best possible equation for triangulation. So, when the student in Kinshasa asks his question, one must consider the context on the world stage. Hillary may know what role she has, but Bill Clinton is infamous for being easily confused about what his role is or should be. And in fact, he’d just acted in a political role in a global context, that relied heavily upon his former role as President of the United States and “global statesman.”  Clinton seemed (dangerously) positively Presidential. But there’s also precedent in U.S. political history for this role (think former president Jimmy Carter).

Hillary’s heated response then, was far more revealing, I think, about how she felt about being upstaged by her husband (and maybe challenged by yet another man), than it had to do with the student’s question. I think it’s important to consider a few things. First, the question was translated – and as we all know much can be lost in translation. Some media sources are suggesting that it was the interpreter/translator who misspoke, asking the question incorrectly and out of the context in which it was spoken. Sources are reporting the student said President Obama, not former President Bill Clinton.

Second, the context I explained previously: Bill Clinton had in fact been acting in the role of global political figure in the last few weeks. In fact, Bill Clinton has worked hard to cultivate a brand of the Clinton name as representing a global political dynasty. While it seems clear that Hillary assumed she was in a situation where she was being challenged, questioned or ignored because she was a womyn in a powerful role, it might very well be that the student was asking what the political dynasty as represented by Bill Clinton’s aforementioned cultivation of said role, thinks about Africa.  

Third, the question is coming from a student. We can make certain assumptions about students – perhaps even with our Western lens, which might be appropriate in thinking about Clinton’s response. Students, specifically in the U.S. context are looked at with a certain amount of insouciance; taken seriously, but just barely – assumed to be naive, or not quite aware, folks to be educated. So Clinton’s immediate and fiery response, while it may have been appropriate were she speaking to a diplomat or even a student studying diplomacy, seems incongruent with the ways one could possibly respond to a student- particularly when one serves as the chief diplomat for your nation. Finally, what if this student was saying to Clinton, “you’re a womyn, what does your man think? ” That would indeed be sexist and problematic – and then maybe he does deserve some correction. In which case, there were many ways Clinton could have responded. She could have laughed it off. She could have said exactly what she did say, with a different tone and body language, reflecting an understanding of the context she was in. She could have used it as a teachable moment – discussing the role of gender or assumptions of power and control. She could have, diplomatically asked for clarification, saying, “I think I heard you say…but certainly that’s not what you meant.” There were many ways that she could have responded that would have been less demeaning and disrespectful to the student and community she addressed. 

Clinton seems to immediately assume, perhaps based on her own rhetoric about the violence endured by womyn in Africa, that she too is now going to be abused by those brutal, sexist, ridiculous Africans. Such a response has the rather eerie effect of placing Clinton, as the white womyn, in the role of victim in a country, on a continent, in which womyn of color have sustained and endured far more real and brutal slights and struggles.  Had I wanted such a show, I could have rented Out of Africa or The Interpreter. Hillary Clinton is Secretary of State, but at least in this clip, she does not respond quite like a diplomat who has full control of the situation, and most tellingly, of the culture in which she is a guest.

To be sure, her statement is bold. I am envious of the bluntness. The response is clear and unmediated. She’s speaking on behalf of every womyn who’s been treated disrespectfully, shunned or ignored because she’s the only “she” in the room.  It’s a tough response; unapologetic, and about time that a womyn told a man to check himself before assuming she’s speaking for anyone but herself. Or that her power comes from anyone else. On that score, I say “kudos,” sometimes people will take you there and you need to help them get clarification quickly. Secretary Clinton is modeling being a (certain kind of) strong womyn. It is true that many countries and ethnic groups in Africa have struggled with issues of gender – just as many ethnic groups, nations, and countries have struggled in the Western hemisphere (France, the U.S. Bosnia, Mexico)

And yet….her response is also disrespectful. It’s  not thoughtful. There is no nuance. No diplomacy. It’s a white womyn on a Black continent belittling an African student, even as she serves under a president who traces part of his ancestry to the same continent. And it draws her in sharp contrast to President Obama’s cool responses – even when he was pointing out that Cambridge police officer James Crowley acted stupidly, he was basing it on the facts – and he wasn’t testy doing it. He used humor and seriousness before he dropped the dime, so to speak. True, the politicos still went after him, however, there was nothing inherently disrespectful in the way he spoke to the reporter who asked the question. Moreover, in the course of his political career, at times when the entire country witnessed, he did not take the bait and respond with rage, to assertions, insults, and wild accusations (some, in fact, from the Clinton camp – who among us can forget Geraldine Ferraro’s implosion) that were clearly racially motivated.  

Obama remained respectful, logical, coherent and compassionate.

It’s not only the visual dynamics of the situation which are superficially troubling (white womyn on stage, dressing down Black student in the audience), it’s also Secretary Clinton’s choice of words, she states “I’m not going to channel my husbands thoughts.” The use of the word channel, in an African context, seems telling. She could have used any number of other words or phrases: I’m not going to guess, discuss, hypothesize, serve as a mouth piece, or puppet – but she said channel. As if the African perception of womyn is to as  magical containers to channel men. Now, there’s some debate about the belief and role in different African cultural groups, about the role of womyn as conduits of power for men, but the inference here is loaded. The word channel has an implied “magical” edge and seems to be, inadvertently, I think, a belittling of the idea of “channeling,” while at the same time asserting that “channeling” is the problem with African politics.

Unless of course, in a brillant stroke of genius, Clinton’s response is a technique to deflect from the question. China’s role on the African continent and particularly in the DRC, threatens American and European interests. It could have potentially put Clinton in the situation of pointing out China’s  inquitable practices, exploitation, capital edge over the U.S. in the region, and human right’s violations. The core kernel of the question: what does the U.S. think of China’s involvement on the African continent, is a pertinent and timely question. But what poor timing that would have been, just after her husband retrieved two journalists from China’s quiet ally and fellow communist state, North Korea. You can learn more about China’s role on the continent in Yale’s report “Assessing China’s Growing Influence in Africa,”  and here

In my own practice of compassion, I try to think about what could have led to Clinton responding in this way. Was she hot, tired, uncomfortable, fed up? And are these assumptions gendered (Yes, I think they are.) ? It’s a tense time: Republicans are acting up around health care – that has to bring up some post-traumatic stress, right? Perhaps she really did interpret the question as being inherently sexist – and like Obama when he pointed out that the Cambridge police were acting stupidly, she didn’t feel like mincing words. Perhaps it’s time for womyn and people of color to call race and gender out on the carpet.

Unfotunately, because this comes in a long line of entitled, culturally mismatched, and racially divisive behavior, I’m not quite able to trust that Secretary of State Clinton was just having a bad day. I think she’s in a tough situation; mediating her husband and his role, desired role, and shadow, negotiating what role she will play globally, re-imagining herself now that she’s not President. And maybe after 40 plus years, she’s tired of men making assumptions and she will use her power as she sees fit.

But notice no one immediately demanded she apologize, no one launched into hundreds of op-eds or blogs analzying her statement, I guess perceived testiness and “reverse racism” only matters when directed at white men.

Maybe Clinton should ask her husband what he thinks about that.

Note: I by no means intend to write as if Africa is a.) a country, it is not or b.) a monolithic grouping of people. The continent of Africa has 54 countries, thousands of languages, and unique cultural and ethnic groups.


One Response to “Hillary Channels A Poor Understanding of Cultural Diplomacy”

  1. eccentricyoruba ec Says:

    this is very thought-provoking. i must admit that when i read about Hilary Clinton’s reaction to the student’s question on BBC, my first thought was ‘very good!’. i’m African, Nigerian to be specific and though i recognised Clinton’s reply as undiplomatic and disrespectful almost immediately, i also though the student deserved it for wording the question the way he did. i admit i never thought of the racial biased perspective though.

    incidentally i’m currently in the process of rounding up my research on China’s influence in Africa. in retrospect the student asked a really good question and it would have been interesting if Clinton had answered it.

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