I usually write articles for G.I. Jobs that give insight on transitioning into civilian life, using my own experience as the basis to provide advice, tips and best practices. While I am passionate about helping fellow Veterans in this life-changing process and will continue to write on the topic in the future, I felt it necessary to pause on that for this piece. Instead, I want to give a tiny glimpse into America from my foxhole, as a black veteran.
The Fight Within
Being a black veteran can feel like an internal war. There’s a delicate balance that I walk on a daily basis. I enlisted in the Army during the Global War on Terrorism and served this country for 10 years, knowing that I could have possibly died in service to the United States of America. Even with all its flaws, I do love this country, even at times when I feel it doesn’t love me back. I can remember being thanked countless times for my service while walking through a grocery store on the way home from any given duty day. People saw the uniform and looked at me like some type of hero, but if I wear a hoodie and sweatpants in that same grocery store, I can be viewed as a thug and possibly followed around that very same grocery store to make sure I don’t steal merchandise. Some of those same people who thanked me for my service five short years ago would either discount me or think I’m up to no good. That’s the duality of being a black veteran.
The Game is Rigged
America has its own duality at play. Economically, there is the promise of what America can be, versus the reality of what America is. While progress has been made since the end of Jim Crow, disparities remain for the black community, especially from an economic standpoint. Kimberly Latrice Jones, an author and screenwriter, recently broke down the economic gap on her Instagram page. She asked viewers to imagine playing 400 rounds of Monopoly, except all the money made in those rounds goes to the opponent. She then asked viewers to imagine playing 50 more rounds and finally getting a chance to build wealth, only to have it all taken away by the opponent. She likened those 50 rounds to the Tulsa and Rosewood Massacres in the early 1920s, where two affluent communities of black people built independent wealth, only to have it destroyed. That’s the duality of American economics.
Racism in the 21st Century
The notion that racism is “over” or “doesn’t exist anymore” is greatly misconceived. My wife and I have not experienced the boisterous discrimination our parents and grandparents faced at the heights of the Civil Rights Movement. Instead, we frequently encounter racial microaggressions. Recently, my wife bought me a coat for our anniversary at a nationally known men’s clothing store. The coat didn’t fit, so we hopped in the car and went over to exchange it but when we walked in, the employee behind the counter didn’t acknowledge us. Only after I asked for assistance did he say, “I’m helping someone else.” At that point, we decided we didn’t want to make the exchange and demanded a refund from a different employee. We informed her that her co-worker seemed to have a problem with us, and we would take our business elsewhere. Needless to say, we refuse to shop with this clothing store. That’s the duality of being a black consumer.
My wife faced racial microaggressions at a hotel in New York City a few years back. While on the elevator with her sister and our niece, a lady commented about the fact that they were staying on a higher floor than her, implying that they shouldn’t be there for some reason. That’s the duality of two black military wives, one of whom is a veteran herself, encountering the duality of America, and it happens a lot.
Our Children Aren’t Immune
Our kids don’t come away unscathed in this, even in 2020. My wife and I have discussions with our daughters about maneuvering through society differently from their white counterparts. We have to tell them that life is not an even playing field. We have to tell them to “survive the encounter” if they have a run-in with a police officer who treats them unfairly based on their race because we want them to make it home. However, we also tell them to celebrate and embrace our culture and don’t let unfair circumstances stand in the way of them achieving success, regardless of what hurdles are placed in their way. That’s the duality of being a black parent.
Talk… Listen… Learn
So how do we finally fix it? We didn’t get here overnight, so anyone who expects it to change overnight is setting themselves up for disappointment. I don’t have all the answers, but a good starting point, in my opinion, is standardizing expectations of law enforcement behavior across the country. The military has the Uniformed Code of Military Justice. How is it that a Marine or sailor in Okinawa, Japan, is held to the same standards as a soldier or airman in Texas, but neighboring law enforcement agencies can have different rules on the use of excessive force? There should be a national standard that governs the behavior of law enforcement professionals and holds them accountable, similar but more expedient than the UCMJ. The other thing that should happen is pragmatic and actionable dialogue, difficult discussions between white people and people of color. I’ve had these chats with a couple of people in recent weeks and appreciated the fact that they just wanted to listen. It may have been uncomfortable, but it’s what needs to happen more.
If you are looking to have one of these talks, statistics should not be the basis of the conversation due to the virtually nonexistent reporting of racial microaggressions that most black people experience nowadays. Instead, listen to the stories and experiences of your black and brown counterparts, but be prepared for a potentially emotional conversation because we’re tired, angry and sad. We continuously see people who look like us dying unjustly and every time it happens, it takes something out of each and every one of us. The list seems to grow daily. To add salt to those wounds, we have to justify why that person should still be alive because some people minimize their humanity after the fact in a failed attempt to rationalize their deaths.
Breonna Taylor shouldn’t have been killed in her home, and when I see her, I see my wife.
LaVena Johnson shouldn’t have been brutally murdered on deployment in Iraq, and when I see her, I see my daughters.
George Floyd shouldn’t have been smothered in the street, and when I see him, I see my uncles.
Ahmaud Arbery shouldn’t have been hunted in broad daylight, and when I see him, I see my brother.
Philando Castile shouldn’t have been slain in his car with a child in the backseat, and when I see him, I see me.
I love this country, even at times when I feel it doesn’t love me back.
This is my duality of being a black veteran in America.
James Payton Jr.2020-06-18T07:52:07-04:00