We Humbly Offer (part III 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 next week, 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 individual and group action.  In this submission, Shannon Martin McClain (USNA’98) recommends concrete steps that Alumni, Midshipmen and Leaders to address situational and systemic racism.

from Shannon Martin McClain ’98

I hope that we have all been thinking about what we can do as individuals, and what we want from our institution. I have been happy to see a robust discussion among members  of the  USNA Women’s Shared Interest Group (SIG), and I have taken time to think hard about what I think it takes for USNA, Midshipmen and members of the Alumni Association at large to make lasting change.

For me, it starts and ends with leadership. We, the Midshipmen and Alumni, are as much the institution as the bricks of Stribling walk and the walls and windows of Bancroft Hall.  Are we intentional leaders? Do we truly lead with Honor, Courage, and Commitment to the mission of the Naval Academy and our Oath of Office? How are we as alumni supporting the mission? The number of stories women and minorities tell each other about an old grad, a professor, a classmate, or a leader who was blatantly racist or misogynistic, who tore minorities and women down, harassed them and voiced a lack of support for their success is embarrassing. CAPT Bethmann is not representative of our alumni, but neither is he alone in his views. How can we as alumni effect positive change?

If you are at a tailgate or an alumni event and hear anyone interacting with our midshipmen and junior officers, voicing their prejudice outright or in coded language, say something.  Say. Something. We are supposed to be morally courageous, and that means speaking up, especially when you come from a place of power. Silence is concurrence.

If you are part of a local Alumni chapters, partner with local National Naval Officer Association Chapters, the Naval Academy Minority Association (NAMA), and the USNA Women’s SIG to identify and prepare minority and women candidates for the rigors of Academy life. Actively mentor minority and women midshipmen and junior officers once they are accepted and commissioned. If POC and women aren’t attending your meetings, seek them out and find out why.  Listen to them if they say they do not feel welcome, and then work to be more inclusive. Mentor our young men and women to see and combat systemic racism – it is a threat to our national security. Continue recruiting efforts through the NAMA and USNA Women’s SIG for women and minority Blue and Gold Officers, Congressional nomination board members, and Alumni Association leadership positions.

Read broadly. Learn about our country’s problematic and often sordid history of racism. Learn about the POC and the women who have served our nation in every war because they believed  in the nation’s ideals even though they recognized the flaws in its execution. Seek knowledge and share it with our young people.

If you are on active duty, don’t wait for an incident to happen – make your position known without equivocation. Stop dismissing Equal Opportunity training, SAPR training, and diversity celebrations as something the Navy “forces” you to do, and do not allow your subordinates and leaders to get away with that attitude either. Your Sailors and Marines are taking cues from you.  Your attitude and words will determine whether one of them reports harassment, bias, or any other of a myriad of problems they might be experiencing.

Don’t expect POC or women in the room to always be the professionalism police when someone tests the limits. Don’t check and see if it is okay with them. When you know it is not okay. Say something. Say.  Something. If a minority or woman speaks up, back them up. Women and POC, especially when junior, have to pick their fights lest they are labeled “too sensitive” or “unable to take a joke.” Prepare yourself for the unexpected racist or bigoted remark or the off-color joke. Know what you will say before it happens. Chair fly your response. We should all be offended by unprofessional behavior. And leaders speak up. Silence is concurrence.

Demanding professional behavior in the daily conduct of our business helps, but it is just a start.  The Naval Academy prides itself on being a top tier institution of higher learning. As such, it needs to bake diversity into the system. Diverse perspectives improve understanding and create better solutions, so the institution needs to introduce that diversity in all aspects of the Naval Academy – who it chooses to lead the Brigade at all levels; who it chooses as professors and what courses it chooses to sanction; what texts and tools professors use to teach; who USNA invites for Forrestal Lectures and other speaking opportunities; who organizations invite for conferences and panels; what universities we partner with for learning exchanges. Make these choices intentionally to include the thoughts and perspectives of POC and women.

For me, changing the names of Buchanan House and Maury Hall are easy wins.  I know, Buchanan was the first Superintendent and Maury is the “Father of Modern Meteorology” who served this nation for thirty years before the Civil War. However, when the Civil War broke out, every sailor, soldier, and Marine had a choice to make – Loyalty to the Constitution or loyalty to their states and the institution of chattel slavery. When faced with this question of loyalty, we expect our Midshipmen and alumni to choose loyalty to their oath and the Constitution. Why would we continue to celebrate men who failed this test?  The Superintendent’s Quarters have only had the name Buchanan House since 1976 so the cry “but Tradition,” rings hollow in my ears. With the opening of Hopper Hall and the shuffling of department locations, it is an appropriate time to rename Maury Hall. Work with NAMA and the Women’s SIG to determine which of our diverse graduates who have served our country with honor deserve their name on a building. Who we venerate demonstrates what we value.

Determining new names for these buildings reveals the enormity of the larger problem. If you want to name the Superintendent’s residence after a Superintendent, it will still honor a white man continuing the lack of diversity of naming on the yard.  From the Navy’s own numbers (found here and here), on 1 January 2019, 86% of Flag officers were white men. Out of the 221 positions, only 32 were held by women and minorities, including six African American men (2.7%). This despite the Naval Academy classes consistently starting each class from 1971-1998 with 5.5% African American representation and consistently reaching 7% or above in African American officer accessions since that time. The diversity of our officer corps does not reflect the diversity of our enlisted sailors under 60% of whom are white and including almost 20% African American sailors. How are we, the Naval Academy and the Alumni  Community, growing diverse leaders so that we can see a change in the years ahead? What are we doing to retain those officers in the Fleet? What opportunities are offered and what are denied to our brothers and sisters of color? What can the majority get away with that would destroy the career of a person of color or a woman?

If we value diversity in leadership, our long-term goal must be increasing diversity at all levels of our officer corps. At the Naval Academy, that means determining how to find, recruit, prepare and grow those leaders. It means training all of our Midshipmen in the value of diversity and having no tolerance for those unwilling to embrace a diverse force with diverse leaders. It means identifying racist and misogynistic constructs and removing them.   It means evaluating our conduct and honor system to ensure offenses are reported and adjudicated justly.  The time is long past when we should have confronted racism at our institution. We cannot hide from this.  We cannot remain silent.  We are supposed to be better than this.  It’s time to live up to our core values.

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