Does Race Matter in the Military Community?


As someone who loves this life and community, my goal as a writer is to always share glimpses of who we are while staying true to myself. My "self" happens to be that of a wife, Mom, business owner and, YES, a black woman. 

Being affiliated with the military means that no matter where you grew up, you are thrust into a melting pot. Different genders, races, religions, upbringings and beliefs intersect, all working toward one common goal. Those different backgrounds extend to the family of the service member, as well. 

There’s a saying in basic training that one of the goals is to “tear you down, then build you up." They strive to partially strip you of your self-identity and replace it with a team mentality.

Identity runs deep, as do experiences. As someone who went through basic training herself and later married an Army soldier, I know that basic training and life in the “Real Military” are starkly different. While no one can ever fully and effectively strip you of your identity, the team mentality is crucial to a successful military career.

It’s easy to assume that because we’re all going through the “same” thing -- life in the military -- it will connect us in ways greater than our experiences and cultural differences can separate us. In a perfect world and a perfect military that would be true.

Yet, we know the world and the military are far from perfect.

No matter how much we, as a community, embrace our differences, it seems the nation is moving at a slower pace. That’s not to say that we don’t have our own set of struggles, both with accepting something new and being accepted as something new.

Consider that every PCS move brings you to a different pocket of our nation. It’s possible to experience a type of culture shock with each move. If your background is somewhat different from what is accepted as normal in your new area, you could be met with disdain, or worse -- obvious bias, prejudice and/or any facet of “isms."

(Side note: whether you believe me or not doesn’t change the truth, unfortunately. In life, denial does not equal truth.)

I distinctly remember my (now good) friend from Boston struggling with her first duty station move. As a newlywed she moved to the South, excited for warmer weather and new adventures. While she did experience those things, she never really took to sweet tea. The other shocker: She was disturbed, saddened and angry at how normal it was to see the Confederate Flag proudly flying. Even though we know the “history” of the Confederate Flag and Civil War, it doesn’t change the negatives associated with that symbol.

As a young black woman who grew up in the South, I was surprised how unnerving it all was to her. I’d become desensitized to it. Her culture shock helped me become more aware. For her, it wasn’t even about race; she felt that a minimum, flying the Confederate Flag was the opposite of patriotism. Not everyone agrees with her; nor do they have to. It is an example of how culture extends beyond gender, race, religion and orientation.

When we PCSed several years ago, a large part of "Our Group" moved at once, and many of those friends were a large part of that group were Latino and Hispanic. During our time in the area, I was privy to (and witnessed) quite a bit of racism toward minorities -- especially toward Latino/Hispanic military families. The small community where we’d moved was forced to grow and embrace change, and they're still experiencing some of those growing pains. This may not have been everyone’s experience, but it’s an example of how cultural growth can affect a community, and not always positively.

These were glaringly large and ugly scenarios, but cultural issues can be impactful on a much smaller scale. I won’t get into how long it took to find someone who was well-versed in ethnic hair at our last duty station. Ask any woman what’s one of the first things they look for when they’ve settled from a move -- hair is at the top of the list. So while it seems trivial, simple pleasures during a transition like a great new stylist help you feel better about your new community.

Since writing for SpouseBuzz, I can’t count the number of women who’ve reached out to me to just say, "Hey! It’s nice to see someone who looks like me as a voice for military spouses.” It’s not a place we’re used to seeing diversity. Their acknowledgment reinforces that representation matters a great deal for all of us, no matter how we identify. Knowing there is someone close that understands your plight (or is willing to acknowledge it) is a great equalizer.

So what does all this mean and why am I even bringing it up? Simple awareness. We are not immune from the everyday issues that plague our civilian counterparts.

What makes the military community different is that we have the ability to look around those close to us, seeking out those with cultural differences. Rather than pretending those differences don’t exist or don’t matter in the military community, we should listen to each other’s stories and experiences as we share ours in return.

And to answer the question: does race matter in the military community?

The answer is definitely NO. Race doesn’t matter in the military ...  but cultural awareness and experiences absolutely do.

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