Recently, in this Black Lives Matter protest moment, my five-year-old son looked at me and asked, “Mommy, where did all the brown people go? Did the police here shoot them?”
We’d just moved to the outskirts of a more affluent rural town from a city where my son and three-and-a-half-year-old daughter mixed daily with black, Latino, and Asian American kids and were among a minority of whites at their preschool. Now, it was whites to the horizon: the white UPS guy, the white neighbors nearly a mile away on either side of us, the white motorcycle gangs zooming down the road in front of our house, sometimes sporting confederate flags on their seatbacks.
As I fumbled to explain racism, the general mistreatment of people of color, income inequality, and redlining in the simplest terms I could imagine, my son tried to clarify things: “So white people steal? Is that what they use the guns for?”
In his young life he’s already absorbed way too much talk of guns, bombs, weapons, and war thanks to the news he catches in passing, as well as discussions of my husband’s work on nuclear and ballistic-missile submarines and now as a Pentagon official, not to speak of my own work as a therapist in military communities, a human rights activist, and the co-founder of the Costs of War Project. I think, by now, he assumes that things in this country happen mainly thanks to the brute force of white guys with guns.
At his young age, he already struggles regularly with thoughts about how it feels to be treated badly because of the way you look. Late the other night, when he should have been asleep, he called me in and asked, “Mommy, what does it feel like when someone kneels on your neck?” And when, while riding in our car with the radio news on, he heard about the pepper spraying of protesters in Lafayette Square near the White House, he asked, “Was that coronavirus they were spraying? Does that make you not breathe, too? Is the world bad?”
Later, he wondered aloud: “Does daddy have a gun? Is he scared?”
I guess it’s logical enough for the child of a man who has served on three subs and an aircraft carrier during his 17-year naval career to assume that the people with power and the mandate to kill are white men. Certainly, whenever we’ve attended a Navy gathering, we invariably face a sea of white officers and their white, J.Crew-clad wives.
And—not to cast aspersions—the four of us look as if we belong on the cover of a Muesli box with our pale skin, fair hair, and long, well-nourished limbs. The rare people of color we’ve come to know among the officer class in the Navy have had their own stories to tell about the commonplace nature of the racial slurs like “raghead” they’ve heard in the service and of being threatened with racially motivated violence by peers and higher-ups alike, sometimes under the guise of “training” exercises.
To report such threatened or actual violence is usually futile in the submarine force, as to do so you have to identify your rank and so open yourself up to further retribution. In other words, my son is already experiencing a system in which 43% of the men and women on active duty are people of color and yet, in practice, one that has regularly culled its officer class down to white men, as Helene Cooper’s recent striking investigative piece in the New York Times made all too clear.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that my son and other children like him tend to assume that the bad things that happen in this country do so through violence, armed and otherwise. Like more or less everyone in the U.S. now, he knows that George Floyd died on a street corner in Minneapolis because a police officer knelt on his neck. In my son’s short life, he’s also experienced a military world in which old missiles are painted bright colors and repurposed as street lamps and benches at military bases, not to speak of seeing whiskey bottles in our own dining room shaped like ballistic missile submarines.
At three, I remember him standing beside me as I anxiously watched the nightly news during one of his father’s sea deployments to an unknown location, as Donald Trump threatened to release “fire and fury like the world has never seen” on the Korean peninsula. I’ve found him looking over my shoulder as I sifted through photographs of burnt and bloody Iraqi and Afghan children in my work for the Costs of War Project. Relatives have snuck G.I. Joe figurines into some of the toy trucks they’ve given him as gifts—in their quest to one day make him “like his daddy.” And let’s not forget the active-shooter drills that were a regular part of preschool until Covid-19 struck, making the threat of weaponry an aspect of any child’s life away from home (and dodging them a kind of game).
Even at his young age, my son has been interested indeed in finding out what violence feels like to those who experience it and to its perpetrators as well. He zoned out during Sesame Street’s town-hall style program that attempted to explain American racism by having Big Bird teased for his size and color (a show that, by the way, didn’t explain slavery). Yet he was riveted when Nickelodeon stopped its programming for eight minutes and 46 seconds.
Most white parents assume that their children need to be sheltered from truths central to how our country is run and how it feels to so many. In the world of military families I’ve lived in for so long, however, as (to a far greater degree) in civilian communities of color, reckoning every day with what violations of your body will feel like is part of life itself.
One veteran’s story
The threat of armed violence shapes the major life decisions of so many people of color today. I recently interviewed retired Marine enlistee Affraz Mohammed. He has written eloquently of his path as a Trinidadian-Muslim immigrant of Indian descent, who grew up in Newark, New Jersey, in the 1980s and 1990s, into the U.S. Marines. There, before 9/11, he became well enough respected to be assigned as an escort to high-ranking diplomats at President George W. Bush’s 2001 inauguration, but the road to that moment (and thereafter) would be hell indeed.
Affraz Mohammed decided to join the military on the assumption that he would die young anyway if he stayed where he lived. “In the community I grew up in,” as he put it, “there wasn’t much opportunity. We had a crack epidemic. If I died in my neighborhood, the government wasn’t going to pay for my funeral.”
After all, his neighbor, the cousin of his best friend, shot his two cousins in an act of violence Mohammed still doesn’t understand. “There were guns lying on the ground there because drug dealers stashed them in abandoned buildings. It was like stepping on candy, because that was your self-protection.” To him, joining the military seemed to offer more hope of a future than staying in his neighborhood. At least in the Marines there would be “rules of engagement” when it came to using a rifle.
His journey through boot camp, however, would prove anything but easy. Drill instructors placed sandbags around his bunk (“to make me feel more at home”), called him a “towel head,” and punched him. “My meanest boot camp drill sergeant told me that one day I would understand why I was treated this way.”
After 9/11, he would indeed find out. He would be arrested in a sting operation for purchasing a then-illegal automatic rifle from another Marine. He had only wanted a pistol, but the seller arrived with what he claimed was a legal semi-automatic rifle, and offered him a good price for it. As soon as the deal was completed, he was, as he wrote in a piece for the New York Times, “swarmed and arrested by government agents from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.”
Held in a prison in Alexandria, Virginia, he was not informed of the charges against him (which would fall apart at his future trial, the jury concluding that he was lied to and entrapped). He was, he says, raped there before being sent back to pretrial detention at Marine Corps Base Quantico. During that time, fellow Marines watching over him treated him as a “terrorist,” threatened his life, forced him to do menial tasks like picking up pubic hairs in the public bathroom using tweezers, and continued to sling racial slurs at him. “They called me Taliban Marine, Sand Nigger, Taliban Faggot, and more.”
Despite such treatment, Mohammed told me, “the military was hard, but growing up in the United States was harder. Even fellow Muslims at my local mosque treated me like an outsider because I was not Arab. Now, the FBI officials watching me want to know all about my connections with local mosques where I was never really accepted anyway.” Calls and in-person check-ins from the FBI have continued both for him and the Veterans Administration therapist treating him for the post-traumatic stress disorder he got from his time in the military.
“I learned to keep going even though it’s tough.”
Other service members of color regularly suffer, even if not as severely as Mohammed did. Research by the Costs of War Project has, for instance, documented the way people of Arab and South Asian descent were profiled en masse and mistreated after the 9/11 attacks.
Of one thing there can be no question: the U.S. military like the rest of American society is infused with racism and yet service members of color like Mohammed often enough join anyway to steel themselves against the more unpredictable racist horrors of American life. In one military community where my family and I once lived, for example, I met a Mexican-American veteran who had served in a wartime Air Force unit in Vietnam. I still remember him telling me that he felt more affinity for the people he was shooting at than for members of his own command, most of whom were white. He spoke in anguished terms of then-candidate Trump’s warning that there would be “taco trucks on every corner” if this country didn’t severely restrict immigration. His parents, he told me, owned a Mexican restaurant and that was how the family survived. Through his military service, he added, “I learned I mattered even if it wasn’t recognized outside. I learned to keep going even though it’s tough.”
By all accounts, it is tough. And the boot camp of life for people of color begins early in this country. Once, when I mentioned to a black friend that my kids didn’t seem to notice differences in race at their preschool, she responded, “Well, I bet that the black kids notice differences.”
Not long after, while dropping my kids off one day, I noticed an African-American staff member yelling at two black girls struggling over a doll. “Sit down, right now!” she insisted. Her tone was harsher than commands I’ve seen given in the military. Unnoticed, I’ve watched the same woman discipline my white child in a similar dispute by commenting on how great the toy was that he and the other child were fighting over before counseling them both on how to take turns. In that way, I feel I saw a tiny example in the lives of those preschool children of the boot camp of black life in America.
In an NPR interview, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker described an all-American “tradition” of elderly black men teaching their kids “how to protect their black bodies from racism manifested in the most evil of ways, which is murder.”
The end goal of such a boot camp: keeping such kids safe from white peers, coaches, the police, future bosses, or anyone likely to find them “out of place” and capable of hurting them in response.
Home front or war zone?
As a military spouse and therapist, it’s clear to me that, these days, whether people of color or not, active-duty servicemen and women, as well as veterans, generally face a host of difficulties in this country. They range from problems accessing much needed responsive healthcare services to social isolation from a civilian population that understands little about their experiences, to chronic illnesses and injuries they suffer, to repeated deployments in America’s forever wars.
Now, add to all that the current showdown between highly militarized police and Black Lives Matter protesters, as well as the president’s deployment of the National Guard and his threats to deploy federal troops to quell protests in Washington, D.C. (and elsewhere). As one Washington therapist who works with military service members and their families told me, many veterans find that memories of combat are triggered by the sight of police in military-style equipment facing down crowds of civilians and, in response, they socially isolate themselves more.
For some veterans, when the home front starts to look like a war zone and fears rise that the Trump administration will use force against peaceful citizens, it feels like a new red line has been crossed. As Affraz Mohammed told me, “When the veterans of these wars come home, they won’t understand what’s going on. They are not used to a hostile environment at home. They want to come home. They turn the light switch off when they go home. What’s going to happen when they’ve got to turn it on again?”
As illustrated by an NPR interview with that rarest of figures, black retired Major General Dana Pittard, Mohammed is not the only person of color who worries that the very civil liberties he’s fought to protect are at risk in the United States as our endless wars in distant lands continue to come home. (“I was very concerned with even the threat of using active duty military to quell the protests.”) After all, those heavily white police forces, now facing off against Black Lives Matter demonstrators in cities and towns across the country, are equipped at this point with about $1.8 billion dollars worth of Pentagon-supplied military gear, including mine-resistant vehicles and grenade launchers. (Since that Pentagon program began in 1997, $7.4 billion worth of such stuff has been handed out.) A 2017 study found that cities where the police had received such military gear had more civilian deaths than those that hadn’t.
In the present context, my own family members, unlike General Pittard and some of the parents of my child clients, aren’t afraid for our lives or those of our children, not here in the U.S.A. That’s what racism means at the deepest level in a still white-dominated military in a still white-dominated country. Yet, as the United States comes ever more to resemble a war zone in a pandemic moment, in a country run by a president with autocratic inclinations, amid a surge of protest over racism, the home front could indeed become a war front. Then, among military families at least, the experiences of so many people of color and their children could come to seem more familiar. If those in uniform continue to be the aggressors against black, brown, and white protesters, including children, where will any of us find a safe haven?