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Opinion People and Leadership Short Read

Black Lives Matter: The View of One Black Officer

Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version

Editor’s note: This piece is part of a series run by the Wavell Room offering unique and personal perspectives on Black Lives Matters. The series reflects very personal moments in from the lives of the writers and our aim has been to capture the mood from differing perspectives.

As Officers, Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen we make assumptions and conclusions every day.  This is what military training does; it makes people react faster than the enemy because fast decision making is vital to get inside an opponent’s OODA loop.  Our assumptions and output are based on knowledge, judgement, and experience.  Exposure to different cultures and ideas can only make this better.  The UK’s Black, Asian, Minority and ethnic (BAME) population is 13% of the UK’s total, but the Armed Forces are only 8.2% BAME.  This means that parts of Defence are limited by a lack of exposure to minority problems.  And because of this some may be subject to bias, unconscious or otherwise, that undermines their team’s performance. 

Since the murder of George Floyd, we have all seen many different reactions to the Black Lives Matter movement. Some have vowed to listen and understand.  Some have virtue signalled their intent to do things differently.  Others have legitimised violence and criminal damage.  In this article I will not judge the rights or wrongs of any beliefs.  Rather, I hope to challenge any assumptions you may hold and present my own opinion as one Black Officer.

The Situation

During my eight-year career in the Army as an Officer I was often the only Black Officer in the mess.  I have few complaints (above the usual gripes) and by and large I was treated fairly and equally.  I was only once subjected to a racial slur but even then, I only heard it because I walked into the room at an inopportune moment for this individual. It was not meant for my ears.

But much to my shame and anger, I did nothing, and said nothing, about it.  I feared I would be considered weak for raising, what in essence were, my hurt feelings.  The overriding feeling I had was that my view wasn’t worth presenting, no matter the impact on me.  I convinced myself that maintaining the cultural status quo was selfless commitment

Maybe this was because of the context of the moment.  Only days before, our Company had one soldier killed and another seriously injured.  Did we not have greater problems to deal with than being called a, arguably racist, nasty name?   Would my comrades and superiors have thought less of me for raising the problem in that moment?  I feared that the perceptions of my fellow Officers and Soldiers would change after I had spoken up for BAME service members.  At the time, I judged it better to ignore the insult, perceived or otherwise, than to be labelled as overly sensitive or ignorant to the threat posed by our actual enemy.

I had convinced myself that this is just how some soldiers speak, it was a “turn of phrase”.  Today, however, I have a deep sense of burning regret that I said and did nothing.  

Black Lives Matter

Since the murder of George Floyd, it has been interesting to read the responses of former military colleagues to the Black Lives Matters protests.  The rioting and looting that has accompanied the mainly peaceful protests have been divisive; marked by the boarding up of Churchill’s statue in June 2020.

But many have taken an analytical approach.  They have read much of what has been published and concluded that more can and should be done.  Commonly this seems to be to listen more, understand the nature of their position, and the privilege afforded to them, and not to be passive in challenging inequality.  

Leadership; Be Honest With Yourself

One of the many examples is  Lieutenant General Tryone Urch’s whose wrote an open letter to all Commanders.  In his letter, he outlines what he is doing to understand and improve a problem that he does not have first-hand experience of but recognises that it undermines team cohesion; “I have clearly not experienced first-hand the challenges” faced by the BAME community… “but I do understand what it means to treat people equally” he writes. 

These are welcome words, but it requires courage, and support from all, to stand up to issues in the moment at all levels.  In my personal example above, I lacked the courage in the moment.  Before reading the next sentence, please be honest with yourself; ask yourself how many opportunities have you have missed to counter racism?  Did you even realise the moment was wrong?  I know I have.

Values and Standards

Others have suggested that there is no problem.  The implication is that military values and standards apply and therefore racism isn’t real.  That understanding and listening is pandering to popular opinion and it can all be written off as banter.  These people, I fear, have buried their heads in the sand.  It’s time for people to stop and listen to the minority experiences around them.

Saying and doing nothing is perhaps the safest approach in Defence.  After all, careers are determined by the next annual appraisal and individuals are faced with a choice.  Stay grey and promote on time or take a risk to individual profile by standing up and challenging the culture around you.

Moral Courage Applies All The Time

At best, doing nothing is sad.  At worst it shows a total lack of moral courage and respect for others.  Do you want people who won’t stand up for what is right on the baseline next to you?  On operations I thought I did, but now I know that I don’t.  Moral courage applies both on and off operations.

Whatever your conclusions to the current protests, I simply ask that you are well informed.  As such, your conclusions will be sound.  The question for leaders is not just how does the situation affect me, but how does it affect those around me or under my command?  Understanding and human intelligence will go a long way in the current context and you may surprise yourself at how much more coherent your team becomes.

Ask yourself what help you can give your comrades to understand and inform your conclusions. But the Armed Forces are different in that we form unique bonds bound by ties of trust.  Next time you see racism, or sexism, or any inappropriate behaviour, ask yourself the simple question: can I trust that person with my life? Then what do you do?  Will your actions, or inactions, leave you with a burning regret?  Doing the right thing is, I believe, the essence of Serving to Lead.

Cover photo by James Eades on Unsplash

Chris J

Chris J served for 8 years as a regular Infantry officer, including three tours of Afghanistan and tour as a Platoon Commander at the Infantry training Centre Catterick.  He has now left the Regular Army.

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