Today, marchers continue to 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, Jeannette Gaudry Haynie (USNA’98) recommends concrete steps that Alumni, Midshipmen and Leaders to address situational and systemic racism.
from Jeannette Gaudry Haynie ’98
These are cruel and tragic times that we are living through, times to despair that the social experiment that is America will not survive this test intact. At the worst moments, I focus on the magnitude and complexity of the problems we face because they are everywhere, appearing intractable and destructive, and I cannot move with their weight. But these times also offer flashes of promise and resilience. Moments to rejoice in our shared humanity and to take inspiration from. When beauty breaks through and shows the best of what we have to offer, we can find motivation to push and act and believe. For me that humanity and its promise of resilience and change has emerged at unexpected times over the past three months. Here in New Orleans, at the height of our lockdown, two priests rode around the city in the back of a run-down trailer for hours, wearing baseball caps and blasting Gregorian chants from a massive sound system… just to reach people of any belief structure and bless them. High school friends who haven’t spoken in years are connecting and reaching out to old classmates to discuss the deep impacts of racism and how to lead change and are working to do more. We are having frequent, difficult conversations with our kids, our acquaintances, those we lead… some are incredibly humbling. But they at times end with new connections, increased empathy, and a more robust embrace of humanity.
Two weeks ago, in the wake of the revelation of CAPT Bethmann’s racist and sexist rant, the USNA Women’s SIG distribution list came alive. While the universe of women graduates of USNA is apparently diverse in perspective and – shockingly – type A, the immediate explosion of dialogue, activity, planning, and leadership that followed was a beautiful thing to experience. And conversations are being led by women across the classes, from all backgrounds. True change is rocky, painful, and humbling – and indeed this process is. But as someone who has agitated about “gender issues” for some time now, it energizes me to see the activity and the powerful, if at times clumsy, connections being made in the name of challenging racism and sexism. Simultaneously, a new Facebook group of Service Academy Women went from 0 to nearly 10,000 members in days – and the same conversations are happening on those pages. This is where and how change happens, with all of its raw and rough edges.
So where do we go now, and what do we do? My fellow Sisterhood members have shared concrete ideas for action, and other ideas are being discussed in the Women’s SIG and on the SAW pages. But change will take every one of us working in every way possible. What can we each do today, tomorrow, and or the rest of our lives no matter where we are and what position we hold? We can talk, listen, and learn every chance we get. We can listen to podcasts. Watch documentaries. Reach out to friends. Work through anti-racist reading lists. Educate ourselves. But as we do it, we must embrace the discomfort. We must be humble. But we must also be open and willing to make mistakes – as we will – and learn from them. Over the past two weeks, I’ve said and done the wrong thing over and over again as I have grappled with my own ignorance of how racism shapes our country. Growing up in New Orleans as I did, those roots run deep – and it will take my lifetime to untangle them. Learning how blind I have been and how my ignorance has affected others’ lives hurts. It sucks. It makes me feel insensitive and stupid. It makes me feel like a horrible person. But if we do not try, we cannot learn. And if we cannot learn, we cannot change and we cannot reshape America. No one will do it for us. It must be us. Every one of us. Every day.
A friend asked me this morning how I would measure success in addressing racism and sexism; how to judge when we’ve “arrived.” We will likely never arrive, since it will probably take America’s full lifetime to untangle racism from her institutions, her structures, and her people.
But in considering how to measure change, I can’t get past a story that I heard from one of our sister graduates from the 2000s about the Herndon climb. I’ll get the details wrong… but the gist is that as one of her male classmates neared the top of Herndon, someone threw him a female bucket cover to place on the top. He stared at the cover, looked down at himself and the crowd, and then threw it back down onto the ground. And the crowd cheered.
My heart stopped when I read that. The anger and shame rose to my face. I would have felt punched in the gut watching it happen. And I wondered – if that had happened when my class climbed Herndon, would the crowd have cheered? No doubt. Would my classmates have cheered, sat quietly, or actively stopped the cheering? I believe many would have cheered, out of ignorance or out of hatred, while my female classmates and I sat quietly in agony. And while this story demonstrates sexism in action, I wondered about the many similar gestures that my brothers and sisters of color have experienced over the decades. Did I cheer at those moments, anxious to fit in and survive? Did I sit silently, ignorant and negligent, afraid to speak up because I wasn’t the target? How many times did I injure or wrong someone because I hadn’t learned, hadn’t listened, had turned my back? How many times did my silence condone and reinforce racism?
And that’s the point. Until that cover isn’t thrown, until the crowd doesn’t cheer and instead actively stands against hatred and bias, until we all shoulder the burden of pushing for equity and inclusion, real change will stall and the status quo will triumph.
So here’s how we change. We elect diverse leaders. We use every lever we can find to force inclusion if we have to. We partner, we co-author, we embrace and learn from others, and we humble ourselves. We listen and we educate… and we lead. Then we hand up the cover of a classmate who doesn’t look like us. We expect that cover to be placed on the top of Herndon. And until that cover is not thrown down and is instead celebrated, our work will not be done.