I am a successful Black man.
I am an active-duty officer and pilot in the U.S. military with degrees from the U.S. Air Force Academy, Harvard University and Northwestern University. Over my 32-years on this earth, I learned to become comfortable in my skin, how to navigate the world and when to shield my blackness in precarious situations in my personal and professional life.
I recently had in-depth conversations with other Black professional peers, mentors and mentees about the social uprisings across the country and our tenuous office dynamics. All of us are stunned by how much the videos involving George Floyd, Christian Cooper and Ahmaud Arbery affected our white peers. Simultaneously, we are confused when our white colleagues say, “Sorry for my ignorance” and “How can I help?”
For many of us, learning how to be the only black face in the room was tough because our socialization took decades. The recent barrage of requests for conversation leaves us confused, scared and afraid. I want to use my experiences in the Air Force to provide insight into why some Black military members are skeptical of our colleagues’ recent intrigue with racial injustice.
My racial maturation started as an early teen. Being disinvited to the “spin the bottle” gathering and called the “whitest Black person I know” in middle school by white peers developed resilience. I cried when my ninth-grade basketball coach told me being a smart Black kid would not get me as far as being a dedicated athlete. Accusations of cheating by white teachers in high school because they hadn’t seen a Black student receive high marks in advanced placement courses established perseverance.
At the same time, I turned the other cheek to Black peers who called me Carlton and Steve Urkel because I preferred to wear slacks and polo shirts. Luckily, I had a mean crossover, mid-range jumper and lockdown defense to combat the taunts of “sell-out” and “uncle tom” for playing golf and soccer. Fast forward 10 years, I was overcome with emotion when those same people said, “Sorry, keep representing for us because we need you to be great.”
Professionally, I acquired a radar to detect people of authority who thought, “no Black person is that clean. There must be something wrong with him, and I’m going to find out.” I learned which racial and political conversations were safe. Colin Kaepernick, Tamir Rice, George Zimmerman, Sandra Bland and Eric Garner were discussed at the water cooler and on the flight deck. However, I became disheartened when every conversation fell along racial lines. My white peers and superiors consistently offered ideas like, “There is no racism if you are here,” “My life is hard, too,” “They should have known better,” or “Don’t break the rules and you won’t have to interact with the police.”
I am scared my white colleagues think their recent questions show they are not a “bad” white person like that cop. I am scared that they don’t want my opinions. Instead, they want to get rid of guilt for not valuing my prior perspectives. Ultimately, I am scared that they do not want to be a part of the solution; they want their “Black friend” to tell them they are not racist.
I am afraid of my white peers and superiors who saw the George Floyd video and felt nothing. My radar tells me to be afraid that my white peers will let me down because it is uncomfortable being change agents. I am afraid they will go back to the familiar positions they held before 2020. Ultimately, I am afraid my white peers and superiors will use my opinions against me in 2021.
Despite my fears, I am hopeful that our country is on the path toward racial equity. Addressing racial dynamics in the country is complex and requires institutional restructuring. However, I have three actions for white professionals to practice tomorrow at work: Give | Seek | Ask.
Give the benefit of the doubt to the person of color. Superiors should punish people who break the rules. However, whenever you have discretion, ask more questions and lean towards grace. Seek out the people of color in your office and ask them to share their journey to their current location. Do not be alarmed if they decline your first invitation. Be persistent. Your genuine consistency will earn their trust over time. Ask your other white colleagues how they feel about the videos. Until everyone agrees a problem exists, we cannot achieve equality.
Nathan Dial is an active duty Air Force officer and pilot. The views expressed are the personal views of the author and do not represent the official views of the U.S. Air Force or the Department of Defense.