The “N” Word
I had to listen to this for nearly an hour one afternoon in 1987.
I was a young Private in Basic Training at Fort Knox, Kentucky, and one of the members of my platoon had used the “N Word” in front of the Drill Sergeants.
His punishment? We were now all standing around the courtyard while he stood in the center and shouted the offensive word over and over and over again for the better part of an hour. Every time his voice started to fall off the Drill Sergeant would bellow “LOUDER!”.
My guess is that he never used that word again, or certainly didn’t without cringing. I can’t hear the word without remembering this moment.
I’ve been struggling for the past week over whether or not to share this story. I remembered it as I watched yet another chapter play out in the Colin Kaepernick/NFL kneeling saga, this time with the controversial decision by Nike to feature him prominently in their advertising.
I learned a lot about racism while I was a soldier in the Army. I grew up in a predominantly white, suburban neighborhood and the military was really my first exposure to a truly multicultural environment.
I quickly learned that there was almost zero tolerance for racism within the Army. I can’t say for certain if that was true in the other branches of the Armed Forces, but my experience in the Army was that racism had no place.
That wasn’t always the case, I know. There are endless examples of inequality in the Army’s history, such as the case with the Tuskegee Airmen and the countless stories of discrimination black soldiers endured in the jungles of Vietnam.
But by 1987, a mere 10 years after the military became an all-volunteer force, the culture in the Army had shifted to one where racism and discrimination had no place.
As much as I would love to believe that this was the case because the country and the military leadership had suddenly become marvelously enlightened I think it largely happened for more utilitarian purposes: after the draft was abolished, the military could only fill its ranks by becoming more appealing to the population at large, which included having to become a place attractive to people of color. If you can’t FORCE people to join and stay, you have to make them WANT to join and stay.
There was another reason, however, for the little tolerance I saw for discrimination in the Army, and I think it’s more compelling:
Racism is toxic.
Outside of training soldiers to be technically and tactically proficient, one of the most pressing goals of military training is to form strong, cohesive teams. It’s encouraged from day one of Basic Training, when a soldier gets a “Battle Buddy” and continues through the Squad, Platoon, Company and higher levels. The very foundation of the military “Esprit de Corps” is the sense that all the soldiers are pulling together for a higher mission. Soldiers that feel they are an equal member of a team will lean in more than ones who don’t.
Racism and discrimination are poisonous to that spirit. They erode trust. They destroy initiative. They’re absolutely fatal to building a culture where it’s imperative that a member knows his buddy has his back.
When racist actions occurred, I saw the Army confront it. It was called out, condemned and corrected swiftly. Ignoring it was toxic to the team.
By 1987, and throughout my 11-year career, I saw that the Army understood that and adopted a zero-tolerance attitude towards racism and discrimination. It certainly wasn’t applied perfectly and I’m sure countless service members of color could regale me with stories of discrimination they encountered, but the Army as a whole during my career seemed to be a place where anybody could thrive based on their dedication and skills and not their color. It certainly seemed to be a more equitable environment than I saw at the same time in the civilian world.
When I look at the struggle today around NFL players kneeling for the flag, I don’t see disrespect for the military. I see people trying to sweep racism under the rug. It’s uncomfortable to acknowledge and it’s tempting to push it out of view by changing the narrative, but the ugly truth is that there is a problem out there that needs to be dealt with.
Letting it fester benefits nobody.
We can certainly keep going down the road of slinging anger at who is being more disrespectful to whom, but the truth of the matter is that until we call it out, condemn it and correct the racial inequalities and treatment of people of color we are never going to move forward on this conversation.
In the Army we built stronger teams and served the country more effectively by swiftly dealing with racism in our ranks. I can only believe that the same would be true if we demanded that our police and justice systems do the same. Acknowledging the issue isn’t about disrespect or making them look bad; calling it out and correcting it makes them better. It would build their Esprit de Corps and would strengthen our communities.
I long for the day when we can truly say “we hold this truth to be self-evident: that all humans are created equal” and that racism and discrimination are unwelcome.
Call it out.
We’ll all be better for it.