In yet another fantastical tale in the Chronicles of Post-Racial America, 16 black female West Point cadets were recently investigated for being [racist] inappropriately political. Their crime: taking a photo with [raised fists, equated by some to a Nazi salute (I can't make this stuff up)] a "political" gesture while in uniform, a violation of a Department of Defense directive. On May 10th, the investigation concluded that no punitive action will be taken against the cadets, as their gesture was not found to be political. This outcome is not surprising given the overwhelming support for these 16 black women by West Point graduates from all walks of life, not to mention the tireless advocacy of alums like Mary Tobin (also listen here) and Sue Fulton, and most recently, the Commander in Chief's endorsement of what really matters - what these women and all of their classmates have accomplished in the past four years.
But now that all of the madness surrounding this investigation appears to be over, I cannot help but wonder: what have we learned?
The answer, it seems, is simple: West Point cadets must learn that the proper course of action is to suffer and heal in silence. Despite their 'vindication', the #Proud16 will therefore be required to receive additional instruction so that by their May 21st graduation they will fully understand that: At West Point, racial disunity is a personal problem - not an institutional issue.
At the heart of the matter is that all members of the U.S. Army are "green."
What does it mean to be "Green"? Emblematic of the post-Civil-Rights era, it means pretending that race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and religion have no bearing on institutional norms or interpersonal dynamics. None of those axes of oppression matter because all soldiers are "green" - an Army of One - united in one common purpose. Beautiful. Lord knows that is an ideal that no one desires more than non-white, female, LGBTQ, and Muslim soldiers. Indeed, in 1963, a man shared a dream that America would one day make that ideal a reality. Unfortunately, many Americans have since interpreted his dream to be attainable through words, not actions. What has since emerged is a lexicon for a post-racial America where we put the discursive cart before the structural horse - rhetorically touting an ideal that Otherness no longer matters, before implementing the structural and behavioral changes that make the rhetoric true. The term most emblematic of this post-racial lexicon is color-blindness. "Green" is the Army's version of colorblind racism. It advances as truth what remains only an ideal of how the Army could be if it truly strived to be all that it can be. But let us not speak in a language of ideals. Let's speak in a language of reality.
Being "green" means conducting oneself by a moral framework that uplifts and protects the delicate boundaries of hegemonic white masculinity. Founded in 1802 by Thomas Jefferson, the proper values of a West Point cadet were the values on which this country was founded - that all privileged white men are created equal. Since then, the U.S. Army has become the most racially diverse institution in the United States. But what has remained constant throughout the Army's 241-year history is the stark homogeneity of its senior leadership. Being "green" therefore means assimilating toward a value system that is based on - and thus privileges - the experiences and worldviews of a narrow contingent of Christian, heterosexual, white males. What constitutes good judgment, proper behavior, and effective leadership is determined through that narrow lens, toward which all soldiers and cadets must therefore assimilate. By definition, assimilation is a one-way process. It is the one-way movement of all members of Othered groups toward one established set of "proper" values - as so determined by the group in power. "Green" is thus in fact the polar opposite of the unifying ideal it pretends to represent. It is an inherently exclusionary standard that ignores the worldviews and experiences of most soldiers and cadets - including white males, who are by no means a monolithic group. The various iterations of white maleness are not at all valued equally within this hegemonic "green" standard.
Though all people experience West Point differently, the one thing that unifies those experiences is that all cadets are rewarded or punished based on their ability to perform the correct Christian, heterosexual, white male values on which the institution is based. This can be especially challenging when one's skin tone and ovaries automatically make that performance less convincing. I therefore cannot describe how tedious it gets to read the same predictable invalidations and dismissals of cadets' racialized and gendered experiences, that typically sound something like, "Why do black people always have to make 'it' about race?" Or, "Why do women always have to play the 'women card'?" To these questions I have two comments.
First, as I stated above, no group more desperately desires a world where one's race does not diminish one's life chances than people of color. Yet somehow, the dream of racial equality advanced by people of color, has been co-opted by some white Americans and used against us as though it was never our dream to begin with. The idea then becomes that people of color are coasting through life searching for and seeking out oppression under every crevice because . . . ??? . . . secretly, we are all masochists perhaps? Well here's the deal. As with anyone one, black women choose to go to West Point for any number reasons. But I avow from the depths of my Integrity that no black woman has ever chosen to go to West Point with the intention of evoking racial disruption against "the man." Put differently, no black woman interested in promoting racially subversive "politics" chooses to go to a school where she will be 1 of ~15 black women in a class that is 70% white. Forgive me while I geek out, but . . . "one does not simply walk into Mordor . . . the very air you breathe is a poisonous fume. Not with ten thousand men could you do this. It is folly." Black women whose goal it is to destroy white male privilege once and for all do not choose to attend West Point for that purpose, lest they have in their possession "the one ring to rule them all" and somewhere in Washington Hall (the cadet mess hall) resides the fires of Mount Doom. Given some of the comments that engendered the recent investigation, one would think the most appropriate caption for their picture would be: "Down With Whitey: The Fellowship of the Ring."
First and a half, I just have to ask, in what card games do the Race and Women's cards matter? Go Fish? Slapjack? Old Maid? Because when I look at who is sitting in positions of power and authority across the professional and political spectrum, clearly the White Man Card constitutes a royal flush in all of the card games that matter.
Second, shared minority status is by no means a taken for granted way through which minorities choose to forge friendships. I am reminded of a statement a gay black man made when I interviewed him years ago. Regarding his sexuality, he said, "I've found that, for me, that’s not a good basis for me to establish rapport with people. Just like - by the same token - just because someone is black, it doesn't mean we're gonna be friends." When I was a cadet, the group of people who were Family, my lifeline, who kept me sane, who loved and held me despite all of my flaws and eccentricities, was comprised primarily of white men. The same is true of most black female cadets, if for no other reason than the way cadet life is structured. So when a picture like the Proud 16's emerges, it is important to recognize that people rarely seek out meaningful connections with those who share their minority status, unless they are in an environment that makes their minority status salient.
The reason, I believe, why the Proud 16 has been enveloped in such a diversity of alumni support is because so many West Point graduates understand that assimilating to "green" requires a Soul Death. It means denying and ultimately invalidating all of the racialized, classed, and gendered experiences that comprise one's humanity. It means fully submitting to the belief that everything about you that is not appropriately white, male, heterosexual, and/or Christian is wrong. Ugly. Worthless. Despicable. And so you straighten your ugly, kinky, and wrong hair because “green” only allows for hairstyles that privilege straight hair. You purge food from your worthless body because “green” only privileges very specific body types and forms of physical fitness. You believe that you don't deserve to talk about your amazing weekend the way everyone else does because “green” only privileges Adam & Eve. And you pray your wrong and despicable prayers in silence or not at all because “green” only privileges "Our Father, who art in heaven, hollowed be Thy name."
Fortunately, in the midst of assimilationist regimes, there are tools available to hold that Soul Death at bay. These tools comprise what people must do in order to retain some connection to their authentic selves. Apropos the current debacle, finding "safe space" within assimilationist regimes is paramount. At West Point, all space is safe for affirming white maleness and promoting the worldviews and experiences of white men. Others - black women, for example - must therefore seek out safe spaces that affirm their own worldviews and experiences; where they have room to be heard; where they do not have to constantly defend themselves every time their truth pushes up against territory that makes white men uncomfortable. It is that latter function that is key. Safe space can only appropriately exist within assimilationist regimes through privacy. Though privacy temporarily insulates black women from the institution's norms for disempowering them, it just as importantly protects white men from being confronted with their white male privilege. This is precisely why one of the primary critiques leveraged against the photo - even by people who do not agree that it is "racist" - is that the Proud 16 should have known better than to allow the photo to become "public." These cadets were thus investigated because they forgot that “green” means minorities suffer in silence, so as to never ever say or do anything that upsets the institutional norms privileging hegemonic white masculinity.
"Green" will always be a false idol because its very survival depends on the silencing and erasure of Othered experiences. When I was a cadet, there were all of these "scandals" and intrigues. I recall a female cadet accusing a male cadet of sexual assault - twice. The first time he was not punished. The second time he was. Punishment, it seems, is synonymous with being held accountable for one's actions. But the atmosphere that led to the alleged assaults never changed. Therefore, the only thing his punishment "taught" him and his friends was a deeper resentment for his accuser and a deeper distrust of any woman who "cries rape." In proper spaces, these men publicly avowed respect for women, while their resentment of some women festered in private. Accordingly, the incident taught women to keep their sexual assaults to themselves. I recall a "scandal" regarding lesbian officers and cadets who had formed an "underground" community. The institution's response? They were all punished. Yet the atmosphere that drove them 'underground' to begin with never shifted. As such, they didn't just stop lesbianing because that's not how human sexuality works. They simply learned that their community and/or relationships needed to exist under an even deeper shroud of secrecy. Finally, I recall that so many cadets, myself included, drank alcohol like Armageddon was upon us. By senior year, we all had advanced degrees in Binge Drinking. Those caught doing so in the wrong time, place, or age-bracket . . . Yup, they were punished. But the atmosphere that fostered that behavior never changed. So people just kept on drinking, but tried to be a wee bit sneakier about it. In other words, when I was cadet, we were members of an ostensibly unified "green" corps. But bubbling beneath the surface was a petri dish of disunity and disjuncture around gender, sexuality, and race/ethnicity that we all had to pretend did not exist. To achieve the goal of “green,” meant allowing cadets' experiences of racial, gender, and sexual conflict fester. And, as evidenced by the pervasive alcohol abuse, no one benefits from this system, even and especially white men.
White “privilege” - the curse that sounds like a blessing. It is not. Consider the following story. Toward the end of my senior year at West Point, counting down the days until graduation, I had a brief exchange with a white male classmate whom I'd known since freshman year. We weren't close friends, but always friendly. Let's call him Rob. The moment Rob pulled me aside, I could tell he had something deep and important to share with me. I'm paraphrasing slightly, but in a moment of sincere platonic intimacy, he said the following, "You know Mahan, I just wanted to say that - black women have always been very unattractive to me. But you and Smith [pseudonym for another black female cadet], are two very attractive black women. The way you carry yourselves. And I think that black women could actually be attractive if they acted more like you." I . . . was not ready. As I struggled to find the words to respond, he continued, "I'm from [city, state], and there were a lot of black girls in my high school." His face then contorted to a scowl and he said with utter revulsion, "They were all so - loud - and just nasty - and ghetto - had horrible attitudes - and they were just so . . . UGLY. I mean I went to school with a lot of black girls, and I'm telling you, the way they behaved - the way black women behave in general - they were just so ugly and unattractive." The scowl did not leave his face until he continued, "But you and Smith. You are - " He listed some positive traits that I don't remember. When he was finished, he smiled, satisfied that he had bestowed upon me the greatest compliment - his approval of my black femaleness. So near the end of our four years at West Point, my soul - not quite dead - was so beat down that all I could muster was a nauseous and hesitant . . . "Thank you." Nauseous because I lacked the will to fully tap into the depths of trauma his words triggered, much less to articulate that pain out loud. But I also recognized something else. The white male privilege in that place was not only killing me, it was killing him too - but unlike me, he didn't even realize he was dying.
Do not make the mistake of interpreting this through a neat racist-nonracist binary. Real life is so much more complex. Yes, there were a handful of cadets to whom I think the "racist" side of that binary neatly applies. But Rob was not one of them. Not even close. He had a beautiful soul and was, in some instances, deeply empathetic. He was a fundamentally kind human being. A lot of my classmates were. But unfortunately, that conversation with Rob was indicative of the white male privilege that West Point cultivates within far too many cadets. White privilege is, in and of itself, a Soul Death. After four years of constant validation and affirmation of all that is white, West Point molds white male leaders, some of whom come to believe it is their right to pass judgment on the behavior and beliefs of those who are Other. Privilege of any kind can retard the personal growth and development of its benefactors, placing them further apart from - indeed convincing them that they rightfully exist above - the human family to which we all belong. And the consequences are far-reaching.
Upon graduating, West Pointers serve in the most racially diverse institution in the United States. Despite its diversity, the Army power structure, like the nation it serves, is deeply stratified by race. The officer corps is 70% white, while 42% of enlisted personnel are non-white. West Pointers must therefore enter an Army where the soldiers they lead will look nothing like them and who will have vastly different backgrounds and life-experiences. Rob, for example, inevitably had black female soldiers. A man who had only met two black women in his entire life whom he regarded as not vile, loud, obnoxious, and ugly was inevitably responsible for the well-being of the vile creatures he inwardly reviled. Nevertheless, I argue that Rob, and many grads like him, are not the problem. The problem is West Point's failure to provide them with the appropriate tools for leading a racially and ethnically diverse force. And when West Point fails its Robs, it fails the soldiers they will one day lead.
To the Proud 16, I salute you. But most importantly, my heart embraces, honors, and affirms you. Assimilation is a Soul Death no being should have to confront. Yet you are taking it on with strength, courage, and grace. As a recovering West Point assimilationist, I thank you for modeling - for embodying - a deep commitment to your true selves in a way that I could never achieve when I was in your shoes. Bless you all.
I am disappointed in my alma mater. In a post-investigation letter to the corps of cadets, West Point Superintendent Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen upheld the inappropriateness of the Proud 16’s photo and spoke to the disunity it [uncovered] created, reminding cadets that:
The only thing I can muster in response to this statement is: Exactly! So what message does West Point send when it allows for the possibility that nearly all of its black female seniors are pathological? When it does not acknowledge this technicolor clear opportunity to begin making positive shifts in the racialized realities that continue to pervade cadet life? The message is clear. The Proud 16 are not valued members of the team. The boundaries of Army "Green" will not be extended to include the realities and worldviews of non-whites and women.
It does not have to be this way. In today's Army, it should not be this way. Moving forward, the Academy should heavily consider the following question: At what point should West Point's leadership take responsibility for the atmosphere it fosters? In the same letter, the Superintendent stated that:
I suggest a reframe of his statement as follows:
Military institutions are based on a tear down / build up process. What would it mean for West Point to take a much more rigorous and intentionally inclusive approach regarding the values it chooses to "tear down" and the kinds of leaders it subsequently "builds up"? This is not as farfetched as it may seem. It simply requires a slight shift in orientation.
The way to move beyond an exclusionary standard of "green" that only functions to silence ruptures within its ranks, is for West Point to instead acknowledge those ruptures when they reveal themselves. That means taking seriously any indications that members of the Corps of Cadets feel apart from the desired unified Whole. It means listening to, not punishing, those who - of course - feel outside of a "green" standard that inherently invalidates their reality. It means, for example, that when a photo surfaces of black female cadets using a universal symbol for racial solidarity, the first and most important question that West Point leadership should be asking is, "What kind of atmosphere are we fostering at West Point that would lead our black female cadets to leverage this symbol of racial solidarity?" More to the point, "to what extent have we, as Leaders, failed our graduating black females?"
The numbers game is crucial. In any institution there are always a few knuckleheads acting out as an N of 1, in which case it may be appropriate to immediately question that individual's character. But a much larger N is indicative of a systemic problem that must therefore be handled very differently. In the current incident, all but one of black female seniors participated. A slight change in orientation. Instead of allowing for the possibility that something is wrong with nearly all of their senior black females, West Point leaders had an opportunity to instead respect those cadets' experiences and worldviews as valid; as meaningful; and as essential to an officer corp charged with leading a 21st-century Army.
If, upon investigating the extent of its own shortcomings, the Academy discovered that a Down with Whitey Fellowship of the Ring conspiracy was afoot, then there would have been evidence that these cadets' character and judgment needed investigating. But that is not the right place to begin. Because if West Point leadership wants its Othered cadets to respect the institution, than they need to model that by respecting the integrity and personhood of Othered cadets. That means first and foremost standing by all of the leaders it produces, and not deviating until the institution has made damn sure it has reason to. After all, does not the Academy trust in its own ability to shape America's future leaders? Does it not believe in its capacity "to educate, train, and inspire the Corps of Cadets so that each graduate is a commissioned leader of character committed to the values of Duty, Honor, Country and prepared for a career of professional excellence and service to the Nation as an officer in the United States Army?" If not, then by all means, throwing their graduating black females under the bus over some disingenuous trumped up "politics while in uniform" charges was appropriate. But if so, than West Point's leadership needs to trust in the integrity and fortitude of these resilient women, and open the Academy's doors to constructive criticism by taking their motivations seriously. That is the essence of putting the ideal of Unity into practice. That is the hard work of “building teams where everyone is a valued member.”
Look, I get it. The photo hurt some people’s feelings. It ruffled some people’s racial feathers. But the right thing to do is not to go all in to assuage those people’s hurt feelings by calling the photo inappropriate. Why? Because doing so ignores that the women in the photo also have feelings and . . . racial feathers. That’s the thing about diversity. It’s not easy. But managing a diverse force does not mean privileging the feelings of one group over another. It means acknowledging that the cadets’ feelings and experiences that motivated the photo are just as valid as the feelings of those who reacted negatively to it. When you start from that foundation, you get to essence of the long-standing racial disunity that motivates both parties a whole lot quicker.
Difference is not an enemy that needs to be vanquished with a weaponized lie of Sameness.
In a U.S. Army where a range of races, ethnicities, and nationalities are represented; where the entire spectrum of human sexuality is present; where an equally broad spectrum of gender gets performed; where a diversity of religions and spiritualties are practiced; where educational attainment exists at vastly different levels; and where class status and wealth are one of many ways in which people enter from different starting points; it is irresponsible to advance a "green" ideology that inherently ignores the richness of experiences and worldviews within its ranks. Shift the orientation. Is Difference a threat to the current “green” exclusionary standard? Or does it perhaps offer the building blocks for actualizing an inclusionary standard? A united fighting force is not realized when Difference is treated as a menace that needs to be silenced, controlled, or ignored. Difference needs to be acknowledged and respected if for no other reason than the fact that it is Real. And when an institution begins to act based on what is Real, then and only then is it acting in its fullest Integrity.
I have no idea what an inclusive West Point standard will look like. But I do know that the only way to get there is to spend more institutional energy Listening and Learning and less energy Silencing and Censuring. In the Army, West Point graduates are called "ring knockers," a largely pejorative term associated with aloofness, arrogance, and being convinced of our own greatness. It would be so nice if "ring knocker" came to instead be associated with conscientiousness, humility, and being convinced of our capacity to learn from the unique gifts that reside within all of our soldiers, no matter how Other they may be.
For the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.