“Let’s have a police appreciation event. I’m so sick of hearing about that stupid nonsense of NFL players kneeling,” a woman said, rolling her eyes, at the police community information meeting near the Air Force base where I live.
Sitting a few rows ahead of her, I told myself that I should have stayed home. I had come to this Police and Community Together event at the invitation of the police chief, whom I’d met at a local anti-racism workshop. I’d hoped to be a bridge between the black community and the military. I was reminded, again, that straddling these two worlds isn’t easy.
On our Midwestern base, where many airmen are military police, servicemen go to great lengths to show they “back the boys in blue.” Blue striped flags hang from front porches, trucks are adorned with Blue Lives Matter paraphernalia, and condemnation of law enforcement is met with self-righteous anger.
As I follow news stories about police brutality, and see the negative reactions on the base to #takeaknee and Black Lives Matter and Colin Kaepernick’s Nike ads, it’s hard to find my place. But this is also the only place where people understand the challenges of my daily life as a military spouse. And that matters, too.
I am expected to be either against Black Lives Matter or anti-police — to conform to one way of thinking, or be seen as un-American.
There are about 328 million American citizens, 252 million of them over the age of 18. Only 3.5 million join the United States military. My husband — then boyfriend — became one of them nearly five years ago, when we were both college students.
He joined the Air Force, in part, because he found it hard to navigate a Math/Computer Science double major while working full-time (and overtime) in the retail sector. He also hoped to continue a family legacy. All three of his parents — biological and step — had served in the armed forces, along with two of his siblings and a handful of his uncles. My own family has a similar record of service.
The United States military has afforded us many opportunities. It allowed my husband to use his skills for a larger purpose and it has allowed me to experience life outside of my cultural bubble. But the sacrifice is more profound than previous generations understood. For my husband, there are threats of physical and mental harm. For me, there are months of separation, bouts of single parenting, and limited knowledge of my husband’s job.
Fellow military families understand this, and support each other through it. The spouses hold a wealth of knowledge and will bend over backward to suggest solutions for some of the most confusing aspects of military life. I’ve gone to an online spouse group many times to ask questions about managing stress while parenting alone, or how to move off-base with an absent husband.
I’ll never forget the time I posted that I was having an extremely hard day and was on the verge of breaking. It was “TDY” season, when airmen prepare to leave home on temporary duty, and my husband was just as stressed as I was. One spouse saw my post and asked, “Can I bring you some food?” We didn’t speak much afterward, but the act of solidarity and understanding meant the world to me. Military culture is filled with gestures like these; our families have a way of understanding the unspoken elements of each other’s stress.
And yet there have been many times when I’ve felt alone. The U.S. military was one of the first American institutions to integrate.More than 1 million African Americans were inducted into the armed forces during WWII. Their contributions prompted the military to reevaluate its racial policies. In 1948, President Truman signed an executive order desegregating the U.S. armed forces. But a change in policy didn’t change attitudes, and the continued negative treatment was enough to trigger decreased enrollment from black servicemen. Today, fewer than a third of military members identify as people of color.
Recently, the Air Force has grappled with accusations of hiring bias against airmen of color. But the quiet cultural differences are challenging, too. Today, overt racism is socially unacceptable. But black service members and their families still face bias, intentional and unintentional.
I’ve been the only person of color in the room when someone felt it was appropriate to make racist jokes — or to express expertise on race issues thanks to their one black friend.
I’ve learned not to befriend some other military spouses on social media, out of fear that they’d fill my timeline with non-fact-checked hate speech.
The biggest barrier, I’ve found, is the way political discourse is dominated by “either/or” dynamics. I’m often shocked at the number of people who assume that now that we are a military family, we are fully on the side of law enforcement in cultural issues. I am expected to be either against Black Lives Matter or anti-police — to conform to one way of thinking, or be seen as un-American.
But I shouldn’t be forced to choose between speaking out about dismantling racism and developing relationships with other spouses. And current service members and veterans shouldn’t be expected to choose between the risks they face in uniform and the identity they represent in plain clothes.
Thankfully, veterans of all races have come forward to support NFL players’ right to protest — understanding that these players are exercising their freedom of speech in honor of the armed forces, not as an insult. I only wish more military families would see their protests the way I do.
In the meantime, my husband and I occupy an uncomfortable middle ground. He is celebrated as a hero while in uniform but labeled a threat as a civilian. He is expected to remain silent about that irony for risk of being associated with the enemy.
I hold down the household and try to bridge the gap. My base is filled with love and kindness, but also with people who can’t empathize with the stress that comes with being one of few black Air Force families. I’m forever grateful for my communities. I just wish I could find more people who understand both of them.