United States Mission to the United Nations
Office of Press and Public Diplomacy
For Immediate Release
June 22, 2021
Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield’s Interview with Jonathan Capehart on the Washington Post Podcast “Cape Up”
JONATHAN CAPEHART: Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, thank you very much for coming to the podcast.
AMBASSADOR LINDATHOMAS-GREENFIELD: And, Jonathan, thank you for inviting me.
JONATHAN CAPEHART: So, we are speaking on the day that the President of the United States is going to do something I didn’t even know was on the radar, and that is to sign the bill into law that makes Juneteenth a federal holiday. And you’re going to the White House to be there for the signing. Talk about the significance of this day.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, first, just getting to this day – I was remembering, as I heard that the Senate had passed this, and I was shocked, because it wasn’t on the radar. And I remember the battle that had to be fought to get Martin Luther King’s – the Martin Luther King holiday. And so when I heard this, I was a little surprised, and I thought, “It can’t be true. They can’t have passed this.” And of course, when it goes to the House, it’ll – that’s when the fight will start. And there was no fight. And it passed. And so it is historic, and I’m just amazed.
JONATHAN CAPEHART: Yeah. What surprised me is that it started in the Senate and passed unanimously in the Senate. That’s a place where bills usually go to die. But you’re going to be there at the White House, and you’re part of an administration that, quite honestly, has been very forthright, very honest in dealing with our country’s history and the uncomfortable truths of our country’s history. As someone who represents the United States at the UN, what does it mean to you to have a president and vice president of the United States be so honest about who we are as a country?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: That’s a wonderful question to ask me. For me, it’s reaffirming. It’s confirming who I am and what I know and what I share, in terms of my own life story. And you may have heard that I gave a speech at the United Nations on race and racism. And I talked about the uncomfortable truth that we have all lived with our entire life. And I was roundly criticized for it. And so this is reaffirming for me. The President outlined four major priorities when he came on board, and one of those priorities is dealing with issues of racial injustice in the United States. So this is just the next step in this President reaffirming for all of us who have lived and experienced this uncomfortable truth that now we are prepared to deal with it in a more open fashion. So I’m very proud to be associated with this administration.
JONATHAN CAPEHART: I’m glad you brought up your speech at the UN It was a speech that you delivered on March 29th. It was a commemorative meeting for International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, and it is – or was – one of the boldest speeches I have heard on race coming from the UN and from a U.S. official that I’ve ever heard. Why did you feel – Before we get into some of the specifics of what you said, why did you feel compelled to be so personal but also so blunt about our uncomfortable – America’s uncomfortable truths on such a global stage?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, I am who I am, and that’s who I am. I am a person who I’ve always confronted the uncomfortable truths wherever I’d been. I started a conversation on race in the State Department several years ago before this became a huge issue. So, for me, it was not anything extraordinary. For me, it’s who I am. It’s how I work. And I thought it was a powerful way of addressing these issues for other countries, many of whom deal with the same issues but are not prepared to acknowledge their own truths. And so I wanted to be an example.
JONATHAN CAPEHART: In fact, you said in your in your speech, “But even though slavery is our original sin, America is not the original source of slavery. Others share this shame with us. Slavery has existed in every corner of the globe. Africans enslaved fellow Africans long before the American colonists existed, and, sadly, in many places around the world, slavery exists today.” You clearly, in that paragraph, you wanted to make it clear that while, “Yeah, I’m the American ambassador to the United Nations talking about, you know, our uncomfortable truths, uh, hello, world – you also have to deal with this.”
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Exactly. And if I don’t acknowledge what we have experienced, then I can’t point my finger at them for what they are dealing with, as well. So I think it was a great platform for me as the U.S. permanent representative to acknowledge our weaknesses but also to pat ourselves on the back, because we have come so far as a nation, and we still have much further to go, but we – we have accomplished a great deal. And the fact of my being there was a huge accomplishment.
JONATHAN CAPEHART: And you talk about that in your speech. It is in the United States that someone like you – I think you said in the speech – only three generations ago, three generations removed from slavery – Do I have that right?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I think that’s right. I can’t count very well, but I think it’s right. It’s my great-grandmother who was born in 1865.
JONATHAN CAPEHART: Wow. Her parents were slaves. And you also talked in the speech about how your line, how, in this country, you could go from being the descendant of the enslaved to sitting there before them, what was the reaction from your colleagues to your speech?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Interestingly, I got such positive reactions to the speech in New York, and I think it caused some problems for some of our other colleagues who have some of the same issues to deal with, because I talked about our uncomfortable truth, but I also talked about the uncomfortable truth that the Chinese have to deal with in relation to how they have treated Uyghurs. I talked about the uncomfortable truths that other countries who have ethnic tensions have to deal with. So they all were kind of put on notice. You know, “If you’re going to criticize us, you need to – I know what our weaknesses are. The strength of our country is that we can acknowledge our weaknesses, and we can work to correct them. I want to hear how you are working to correct yours before you start to criticize me.”
JONATHAN CAPEHART: Also in the speech, you said a phrase that in, maybe just a year ago, would have been really controversial for a government official to say, but you said in your speech toward – near the end of the speech, about the protesters, the folks demonstrating in the streets, you said, “They say that Black lives matter, because they do. They chant ‘This is what democracy looks like,’ because it is. This is the American way.” Did you have any trepidation whatsoever about even articulating the phrase “Black lives matter” in this context?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I do not. I wear proudly my Black Lives Matter T-shirts and hat and was not at all concerned about putting it outside my house, because Black lives do matter. And what most people don’t understand, for most African-Americans – and I think you talked about that a bit when you spoke recently – that we all experienced the George Floyd experience. I have said to everyone, when I saw George Floyd sitting – laying there on that sidewalk, I saw my son and my husband and my brothers and all of my nephews. And it’s not the first time I’ve seen them. I saw them when other African-American men have died. And we all know that this is an experience that we could go through. We could be the family of George Floyd. And so, for me, Black Lives Matter is not a slogan. It’s just a fact.
JONATHAN CAPEHART: You got criticized by some Republicans for not even using – saying the phrase Black Lives Matter but for just giving this speech in its entirety – giving this speech at all, I mean – at the UN I think one person said that, you know, “This showed that you hate America,” or something nutty like that. What is your response to folks here in the United States who might look at what you said at the UN and criticize you for what you did, what you said?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Yeah, their views are their views, And I don’t think that I can do or say anything to change those views. But the reality is that I have spent 35 years of my life serving the U.S. Government. It’s 35 proud years. And I give speeches all the time to young people that say, “The proudest moment, for me, is seeing the American flag fly outside my window, driving up to a building and seeing that flag in a foreign country.” I am as patriotic as any American. I believe in all of our values, and one of our values is truth. And truth has never hurt anyone. You know, when we were little kids, you remember that saying, “Sticks and stones might break my bones, but talk don’t hurt me”?
JONATHAN CAPEHART: Mm-hmm.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Remember that?
JONATHAN CAPEHART: Yeah. Yes. And talk is – doesn’t hurt. So I’m not hurt by the criticism. I know my reality. I know my truth. And I’m going to continue to tell that truth, and it does not in any way diminish my love for this country, it does not diminish my patriotism, and it does not diminish the contributions that I feel that I have made to this country, serving the American people abroad. And you’ve served the American people abroad on four continents, in various roles, including ambassador to Liberia, appointed by, I believe, President George W. Bush, at the tail end of his term, and you stayed until 2012, so through the Obama – first term. You said in your speech something interesting. Talking about your time, you wrote – you said, “Across four decades and four continents in the Foreign Service, I experienced racism in countless international contexts from overly zealous searches at airports to police racially profiling my son to being made to wait behind white patrons for a table at a restaurant.” In terms of experiencing racism in an international context, I mean, you’re an ambassador, you’re a diplomat. Who has the nerve to – [laughs] Who has the nerve to look down their nose at you?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, they don’t know, in many cases, because you don’t wear the American flag on your forehead, right?
JONATHAN CAPEHART: Well, that’s true, right.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You’re just another Black person.
JONATHAN CAPEHART: Mm-hmm.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: So if you’re going to through the airport, you’re just another Black person. If you’re standing in a line, you’re just another Black person. You’re not an American diplomat. And in one case, in one experience, someone said, “Well, you should have told us you were a diplomat.” And I’m like, “Well, if you had asked, I would have.” But that shouldn’t matter. I’m a person. And that’s the point, that you shouldn’t have to wear some kind of badge to show that you’re entitled. You are entitled because you are a person, and you deserve dignity and you deserve respect, and that’s what racism amounts to. It’s showing lack of respect. It’s showing hatred toward you for what you can’t change. You know, we can’t decide we’re not going to be – we’re not going to look black. So it’s not even enough, you know, back in the day, you know, to act like you belong, because you don’t belong because your color is wrong.
JONATHAN CAPEHART: Ambassador, how do you – This is a personal question here. We could commiserate. But how do you deal with those slights? How have you dealt with them, no matter the context?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, I don’t own them. And I’ve talked about this before. I don’t own the slights. For me, it’s about who these people are, not who I am. And I generally try not to get angry, because I think, in the end, they will always be embarrassed, particularly when they learn who I am. They will be embarrassed. And I get a tremendous amount of pleasure out of that embarrassment.
JONATHAN CAPEHART: I laugh because, in own my own little way, I do the same.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Yeah.
JONATHAN CAPEHART: There’s just some perverse thrill.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Just treat me – treat me right because I’m a person. You know, don’t treat me right because, you know, you think I’ve earned it. So that’s how I deal with it. I tried never to own it. I tried never to take it personally. And I move on, and I leave people with their own anger, and they can deal with their anger. I’m not going to let it damage me. If someone stops me from going someplace, I’m like, “Okay. Fine. I’ll go someplace else.” And I just leave. And I’ll tell you how I learned that, actually. Ambassador Perkins, who was the first African-American ambassador to South Africa – he was the ambassador to Liberia, as well. He was Director General of the Foreign Service, and I held that position in, and he was Ambassador to the United Nations. And I think it’s either in his book or he told me – I can’t remember – when he was in South Africa, he was invited to this very big reception or event, and this is during apartheid. And he showed up, you know, this very tall, stately African-American man, and he was told, “Oh, excuse me. You can’t come in here.” And he said, “I was invited.” And they’re like, “No, no, no, no, no, you can’t come in.” And he left. And it was later that the government discovered that he had been turned away, and they sent cars to his residence to get him. So he could have made a scene, right? He could have made a horrible scene outside – “I am the American ambassador, and I won’t allow you to treat me this way.” No, he didn’t do that. He went home. That was so embarrassing to the government. And so, you know, I’m just remembering this right now, but maybe that’s where I got it from, that you don’t own their embarrassment. Don’t give them the pleasure of disrespecting you. Just let them live with their own issues.
JONATHAN CAPEHART: Okay. So, I don’t know if you know the answer to this question, but they sent all those cars to get him. Did he go back? Do you know?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know what? I don’t remember. I think he probably did.
JONATHAN CAPEHART: I’ll look it up.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: And I would have.
JONATHAN CAPEHART: Oh, you would have.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I would have. Yes, I would have.
JONATHAN CAPEHART: More evidence that you are a better person than me.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Because it would have embarrassed them even more. Now, you – It’s about who they are, not who you are.
JONATHAN CAPEHART: So that’s a story you’re telling about Ambassador Perkins in South Africa. I want you to talk about your experience in Rwanda and an experience that I’m sure 100% of the people listening have not heard and maybe even 99% of folks who might know who you are might not have have heard. And I only have a snippet of it, but you were there during the Rwanda genocide. And you were held at gunpoint?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: So, I was based in Kenya in a job that was a regional job that covered the Great Lakes region, which Rwanda is in, and I was responsible for refugees in the region, so I’d gone to Rwanda. My memory is failing me completely, but I think I got to Rwanda April 2nd, but before April 6th, when the genocide started. So I was there for a couple of days for meetings, and then I was going to go to refugee camps further afield. The night before, on April 5th, having dinner with colleagues, we heard a loud kaboom, which, to me, sounded like thunder. We would later learn very quickly that the President’s plane had been shot down, and the president of Rwanda and Burundi were killed. And so I went to bed that evening not knowing what I was going to wake up to that morning. And I woke up to the sound of gunfire and the beginnings of a genocide. And at some point on that morning, military individuals, they were some of the genocidaire, they were looking for a government member by the name of Agathe, and I can never pronounce Agathe’s last name because it’s so incredibly long. And she lived next door to the to the deputy ambassador – DCM, Deputy Chief of Mission’s home, where I was staying. And she called to say that she was – that her name was on a hit list and could she come over for safety. And we attempted to help her come across a very, very high wall and did not succeed. But the soldiers on the street saw the attempt, and so they came to the house, started banging on the gates and got in. And when they came in, they came bursting into the house, looking for Agathe, and they saw me. And when they saw me, I saw what they saw. They saw her. And I had never met her before. I didn’t know what she looked like. I don’t know that I look like her. I’ve seen one picture of her since, but they didn’t know that I was an American diplomat. And to make a long story short, I did – I was held at gunpoint. Clearly, I escaped. It wasn’t any kind of amazing escape. They found her, and somebody came in and told them they found her, and they left us alone. And she was killed, and I survived. And it was a life-changing experience for me.
JONATHAN CAPEHART: Mm. I mean, I can – I can hear it in your voice. And for those who are listening, we’re doing this via Zoom, so I can actually see Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield as she’s telling this story. Finding out that the person they were looking for was slain, and you said it was a turning point, a turning point how?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: It was a turning point in many different ways. One, that I appreciated my own existence a bit more. But I also became a bit more bold, in my own – in my own way, in terms of how I worked, in terms of how I try to understand people and how I engage with people. And one of the things that I think helped me at the time that I had the gun in my face is, there was a point when I decided I wanted the young man who was holding the gun in my face to know my name, because I thought, “If he killed me, I wanted him to always remember Linda” – Like, “I killed this lady, Linda.” And so I told him my name, and I got his name, which I can’t remember right now. And I also kind of struck up a conversation with him. And I use that as an example of why sometimes kindness is important, because I do think I struck a relationship, a nerve in him. And I didn’t think he was trigger-happy, by any means, although he had his finger on the trigger and he could have pulled it at any time. I think I softened him by talking to him and letting him know who I was. And I’m not even sure he understood what I was saying, because he didn’t speak French nor did he speak English. He spoke the language, but he did understand when I did this and said, “I’m Linda.”
JONATHAN CAPEHART: How long did this whole ordeal last? Do you remember?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Interestingly, not very long. In my mind, maybe two hours, but it could have been shorter or it could have been longer. It wasn’t hours. They came through, 25 guys with guns, they searched the house, they ransacked, and then, at some point, they got a – somebody yelled and came in to tell them that they’d found her. And they ran out the door, and it was like – it was like a nightmare that ended. You know, you’re sleeping, and you’re in this terrible nightmare, and then suddenly you wake up, and that’s kind of the way it was. We were in this nightmare, and it was over.
JONATHAN CAPEHART: But at least with a nightmare, you have – once your mind clears, you realize, “Oh, it was just a dream.” But for you, it was a reality.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Yeah, it was a reality.
JONATHAN CAPEHART: So, the woman’s trying to get over the – get over the high wall. Agathe, I think you said her name was.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Yeah.
JONATHAN CAPEHART: Weren’t able to save her. However, you were able to help a group of nuns, if I understand – 29 nuns – escape the genocide. I would love to know this story.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I don’t know that I saved them. I helped them, for sure. By then, I had – I was back in Kenya. I was safe in my home with my family but working on refugee issues, and an order of nuns in Rwanda, one of their emissaries of their reverend mother came to see me to tell me that these nuns were in their home in Butare, which is in Rwanda, and that they were being threatened by their gardener and they needed to get out, but they couldn’t cross the border because the border was closed. And so my assistant and I wrote letters, and we put them on this big, beautiful parchment paper. It was a nice beige paper with cloth – You could see the little cloth weaved. It was really beautiful paper that I think was used in the old days of diplomacy that we didn’t use anymore, and we found it in a cabinet. And so we typed out these letters – not on a computer, right? This is 1994, so most people weren’t using computers. So my assistant typed each of the letters, “To whom it may concern,” putting this nun’s name and saying that they were well and favorably known to the U.S. Government, and if the Government of Burundi would be so kind to allow them to cross the border, we would consider them for resettlement in the United States,” which they were not interested in, but they needed their lives saved. So we did up these letters, and we printed them out in the envelopes in really nice print – I think calligraphy-like print, with their names on the front and put a red ribbon on them with the red wax, with a seal so they look really officious and they look beautiful. And so she took them to the border and took them to the government, and these nuns were allowed in. And so their lives were saved. And the head of the order gave me a rosary, which my staff knows I don’t go – I don’t travel without. I usually have it on me any time I get on a plane, because, for a split second when the guy had the gun in front of me and I thought he was going to pull the trigger, I said a little prayer like, “God, I’m not supposed to go this way. I thought I was going to die in a plane crash.” And so then, from that moment on, I was a little afraid to fly. So I was always carry my – I always carry my rosary with me on a plane, just in case. I’m not Catholic, but, you know, God is God. So I always have this rosary, and occasionally, I’ll forget it. And everybody knows when I don’t have it that we might be in trouble.
JONATHAN CAPEHART: Wow. Are you still afraid of flying?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I’m still afraid of flying. I am. I fly – I fly regularly. I have never, ever allowed my fears to keep me from doing what I need to do. And so I have been afraid of flying for years, and it’s never – and I’ve gotten on some scary planes even in the past few years. I’ve gotten on some scary planes, and I kind of hang in there. And if I got the rosary at hand, I hold it in my hand and say, “Not this one. Wait – Wait until the next one.”
JONATHAN CAPEHART: I mean, we’re laughing, but it is – it’s a joyous laughter and a laughter of relief.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Yeah, it is.
JONATHAN CAPEHART: Bring it back home, in the little bit of time that we have left. Listening to you talk and especially how this conversation began, about Juneteenth, and certainly about your speech at the UN about discrimination and racism and Black Lives Matter, wondering, what would you say to those young people who are still – they’re still active? A lot of them are still out and protesting. And I would suspect, a year after the murder of George Floyd, are frustrated by the pace of change. You’ve been in your career now for more than three decades. You have a lot of life experience that they don’t. What would you say to them that would buck up their courage or their determination to keep them going?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, that’s a hard one, because my generation will always say patience, and your generation doesn’t – you just don’t have that in your system.
JONATHAN CAPEHART: You’re kind to think that I’m part of that generation.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You are. So I can’t say patience, even though I would think that. So I would say, “Don’t give up.” Don’t give up. Because even as we – I mean, when we look at what they have accomplished, even in the past year, it is extraordinary. I mean, I never thought Juneteenth would matter. In fact, I will tell you, I had never even heard of it until I moved to D.C.
JONATHAN CAPEHART: Mm-hmm.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: And I grew up in Louisiana. And I went to Black schools. All of my teachers were Black. I don’t think they ever heard of it, because our history and our life experiences are kept from us. It’s not in anybody’s history books. So if it’s not in your history books and your relatives don’t know about it, then you don’t learn. My nephew sent me a message congratulating me on Juneteenth, and he sends me a picture of himself as a one-year-old. He’s about 30 now. And he’s a one-year-old in a dashiki, saying, “I bet you don’t have a picture of yourself in a dashiki at one, celebrating Juneteenth.” And I went back to him and said, “I don’t have a picture of myself at one, and I didn’t know what Juneteenth was until I was in my late 20s.” And the fact that he knew at a year old was extraordinary. But I didn’t. So this – these young people accomplished this for us, and I just – my message to them is just don’t give up. Keep pushing.
JONATHAN CAPEHART: Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the 31st United States ambassador to the United Nations, this has been a thrill. Thank you so much for coming to the podcast.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Jonathan, thank you so much. And now every time I see you on TV, I’m going to smile. I always did, but I’m going to smile wider.
JONATHAN CAPEHART: [Laughs] Thank you.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You make us proud, too, by the way.