We Humbly Offer (Part II of IV)

Today, marchers fill our nation’s streets to protest the murder of unarmed black citizens by police, and the Naval Academy responds to vitriolic racism unintentionally broadcast by an alumnus.   While the Sisterhood of Mother B primarily focuses on stories of women in uniform, we recognize the intersectionality of this moment, and feel the need to respond in our own words.  We are, after all, an organization that calls regularly on men to be allies, to not stand by as our sisters are mistreated.  How can we then stand idle in the face of centuries long discrimination our brothers and sisters of color endure, laid bare?

We will not pretend to have been blind to bigotry until this moment.  Nor will we pretend that we are blameless in our fellow citizens’ plight.  As one our founding Sisters pointed out, we are #sisterhoodsowhite, with no women of color among our core contributors and only one among our founders.  As leaders, as friends, as wives, as sisters, we all look back on moments when we should have said more. Done more.  Refused to shrink from uncomfortable confirmation of our own biases.

Over the week we will continue, we will be sharing our founding members’ responses to recent events.  From our different walks of life, and our common service, we humbly offer our grief, our anger, and our suggestions for change.  Our experiences are not steeped in the toxic brew of slavery, Jim Crow, and racial animus.  But we are all too familiar with being othered; of being pre-judged for who we are, rather than what we achieve, of being told to grow thicker-skin-it-was-just-a-joke.  Many of us know the gut-wrenching realization that our physical safety is not guaranteed, and our abusers act with impunity.   More than anything, our hope is to build on this solidarity, recognize our own shortcomings, and learn to be better allies, leaders, and friends.

Change requires institutional reflection followed by action.  In this submission, Beth Ann (Thomas) Vann (USNA’98) asks hard questions and presents concrete steps that USNA and the Fleet should take to address systemic racism.

from Beth Ann (Thomas) Vann ’98

In thinking about how we the Alumni of the US Naval Academy in collaboration with the Academy Leadership move forward following the racist and sexist statements of CAPT Bethmann in the midst of a huge anti-racist movement in our country following the murder of George Floyd, I’ve settled on a few highlights that require our immediate and intentional action as leaders amongst leaders.

  1. Racism and Sexism are alive and “well” and even protected amongst us. Capt Bethmann’s actions were appalling and despicable, at best.  Looking at the Alumni Associations response to Capt Bethmann’s FB Live statements; Where is the apology, justice, and dignity for all the “Black Bitches in the office” and all the Chinese American and Female midshipman, sailors, and Marines who are taking over the Academy?
  2. What behavior, guilt by association, institutionalism, pride, etc leads so many alumni to come to his defense of being a “good guy” who has done so much “good” in his career and in his past to not be judged for this event? Would these same people excuse the behavior of a “nice guy” turned rapist? Is racism and sexism not as vile or life altering as rape? I do not imply that CAPT Bethmann does not deserve the opportunity to rehabilitate nor that he does not deserve that personal support of his friends and family while he and his family work through this situation. The direct implication is that his personal journey and that of the institution to which WE belong to or come from are not one in the same, and there should be a public admonishment and consequences for his actions as a member of our/my Alumni Association.
  3. Why is the Academy and the Alumni Association quick to respond so delicately and with such discretion? I understand the need for professionalism and decorum; those two behaviors do not prohibit us from being outraged at the behavior of one of our own and more importantly the in-your-face realization that racism and sexism are alive and “well” in our organization and our institution. UPDATE: After this piece was originally crafted, Vice Adm. Sean Buck released a very strong message via YouTube, please take the time to watch (link here).  This is the kind of leadership we need and more importantly we need to support to endure this difficult transition.
  4. It is time to recognize that our history is a work in progress. The people that we pay homage to on the Yard as building names and monuments and in our service are now a small part of who we are today and our growing history. While we should always teach and learn history as it occurred; it is time to take a look again at what and who is important to the development of our Academy and the Alumni Association. We are not merely products of our legacy instead we are authors of the legacy we leave for those that come after us.

In the week following CAPT Bethmann’s statements and in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, I am privileged to read testimonials from several Alumni from classes 2019 thru 1980 that highlight that the presence of racism and sexism were not and are not unknown to the leadership of USNA, and many of those same people are now and have been leaders in the Alumni Association. Instead, these behaviors are often protected or shielded seemingly to protect the reputation of the institution at large.  This must be called out, highlighted, and discussed amongst us. The conversations will be difficult and passionate.  Our institution is only truly strong and honorable if we hold each other accountable and live up to the values that we espouse. Current leaders exhibiting racist or sexist behavior must be immediately identified, advised, educated, and given a brief opportunity to make an about face and if they choose not to do so, they are no longer welcome to participate in the leadership of the Alumni Association, the Academy, and subsequently our armed services.  As humans, we all have biases and in many forms racism is ingrained in our system; now is the time to intentionally highlight those behaviors and beliefs to eradicate them from the Academy, our military service, and the Alumni Association. This will strengthen our force and allow us to focus more intensely on defeating those who threaten our country and our way of life while in uniform and in support of those in uniform once we are no longer active duty.

I can see the damage that continues to be done to people of varying races, genders, and sexual persuasions who valiantly raise their right hands to serve this great country and defend the constitution. It is not right to expect minorities to just be grateful for an opportunity because so few are given the option to partake in the honor of attending USNA. We can be grateful and demand change at the same time because we took the opportunity. I recognize that we’ve made some progress, and I can confidently say it is not enough and coming about way too slowly. Speaking up does not make any minority ungrateful, it demonstrates our investment in righting the ship. If you insist that the way we’ve led and addressed equality and change must be the way we do it in the future, then you are part of the problem. I challenge our leaders at every level to challenge the status quo and mentor someone who thinks, talks, learns, looks, or leads differently than you to take on and succeed as a leader in our institution and our Navy and Marine Corps because that’s our job! Certainly, the members of the Alumni Association and the Academy leadership can see that our organization is not just and fair for all of us. Continue to open your eyes and ears to the experiences of those of us who are not of the majority and are willing to share our reality.  The path is not yet paved, and we will break trail with you to make right the service and institution that we love in great part because of our love for USNA and the brothers and sisters we served with because we continue to support and defend the constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic.

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