I am who I am; I CANNOT change that.
You asked how I feel; I will tell you, but you will never personally understand.
Teammates, you have asked me recently, “How do you feel about racism, social injustice, police brutality, discrimination, and inequality in America toward Black Americans?” My first response to this question was: “Why do you want to know?” You are asking about an open wound—be careful what you ask for, because the answer may be more than you are prepared to digest. I’m not perfect—no one is. This note is intended to be raw; not have any specific flow or design. It is a way for me to share with my teammates that I, too, have fears of sorts that I have kept locked away for some time. Until recently, Soldiers have not been comfortable, allowed, or encouraged to communicate our feelings and talk about how these issues affect us, regardless of race.
The purpose of this writing is twofold. First, I want you to know Mike Bostic, the man—the Black man—so I will answer the question asked of me over the past few weeks. A question that has never been asked of me in over twenty-six years of active duty service. A question about a topic I never thought I would have to entertain, much less answer. A topic that no one I know in the Army profession has ever addressed the way American society has lately.
Second, I want you to know that there is no difference between Mike Bostic and Command Sergeant Major Bostic. All of our teammates have more going on than what you see at the office. The most important responsibility of any Army leader is to “take care of Soldiers.” In our Corps, the most important duty is to take care of all of our teammates. Which means you must really know them. As a leader and as the senior enlisted member at our premier educational and training institution, it is my duty to help guide our future. Many of us feel deep hurt and anger over the current state of racism in America. These emotions will not hold us back—they must light a fire to move us forward.
Many of you might be thinking—like I was, at first—“Where do we go from here?” The recent tri-signed letter to the force on civil unrest told us to “listen to your people, but don’t wait for them to come to you. Go to them. Ask the uncomfortable questions. Lead with compassion and humility, and create an environment in which people feel comfortable expressing grievances. Let us be the first to set the example.”1 And that is what we’ll do.
Past and Present
To know how I really feel, one would have to live in my life and in my skin and live all that I have seen, heard, and experienced. I will share the raw thoughts that I’ve had over the years and the ones that are a direct result of what has happened in America and around the world. I do this because most of you will never experience how I feel; but, if I share my thoughts, perhaps others will be able to empathize and understand why I feel the way that I do.
My whole adult life I have had to be STRONG, be resilient, and “suck it up.” This is not uncommon for Black Americans. This expectation has existed for centuries. To suffer indignities without reacting—for centuries. To be paid less for the same work—for centuries. To be doubted, to be suspected, to be accused—for centuries. To have to prove, to have to be perfect, to have to be more deserving just to get the baseline—for centuries.
The recent and public killings of Black Americans include names of people we should not have to know. The only reason we know their names is because of the method of their demise. We must know their names now. Especially the final and publicized eight minutes and forty-six seconds of the life of George Perry Floyd Jr. He was a father of three, forty-six years old, a Black man, and allegedly passed a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill. I am a father of two, forty-five years old, a Black man, and could also pass a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill. To date, I have not watched the video of his attempted arrest and murder—I do not have to. No matter how I view it, my first thoughts still are: Why now, in 2020, and why did he have to die? My second thought: That could have been me. I choose not to speculate on how he lived his life and dare not compare it to mine. The law enforcement officers knew what they knew at that time and did what they did.
I joined the Army to challenge myself and find my strengths. I could have struggled financially in college, but, instead, a recruiter—a Black man—showed me a way to get away from a small rural area in South Carolina. That said, I do seriously believe that I could find myself in an area where I might face similar treatment by law enforcement authority simply because I am Black and face similar fates of judgment because of a stereotype or false perception of danger.
Today, information travels faster than the collective response to an action. We all see on our screens what is happening, but many of us will never know the immediate and visceral response to visuals of racism and discrimination, like the video of George Floyd—the way Black Americans do.
Through that lens of information technology, we can see that in some communities, Black Americans are under assault through policing, hate groups, politicians, businesses, media, and others. The communities I identify with are fighting to live and appreciate the societal opportunities granted by the Constitution of the United States—a country established on a continent that drowns in controversy of how it was occupied and later founded.
Protests and Riots
Protests have been known to bring attention to crises in our culture. There have been protests for issues across the political spectrum. These protests often spur change. And, frequently, that’s the end of the story. The issue is moot. Protesting is how Blacks have fought for civil rights for decades. But why? Why was this issue not resolved during the Civil Rights Era, filled with peaceful protests? Why do Black Americans keep having to come back to the table and speak up again and again for fair and equal treatment? I hope that these current protests reach our elected officials and empower them to enact fair and impartial laws and not just place Band-Aids on the year 2020 and the problem with race in America.
Rioting embarrasses me, and I neither understand nor support it. Stealing and destroying communities and business establishments is not the right thing to do; however, I realize it is sometimes how those who feel most disenfranchised choose to exert some small amount of control over what is right in front of them—even when counterproductive. I simply pray that, as a collective, we choose other, more peaceful ways to draw attention—like speaking out on social media and supporting “blackouts” that illustrate the numbers of supporters of racial equality. We have to model other ways to support causes and express ourselves than attempting to solve violence with more violence. Martin Luther King Jr.’s protests—always planned as peaceful gatherings—brought about huge change in American law and society during the Civil Rights Era. Sometimes, though, I wonder if his speeches about love begetting love and hate begetting hate would work today. Black Americans have endured and even excused latent as well as blatant racism for fifty more years beyond King’s dream for a future America—different treatment based on the color of our skin has taken a toll on Black Americans’ energy and patience. For us Black Americans, this movement is not about special treatment. This movement for us Black Americans is simply about fair and equal treatment. Yes, we speak of hope for equal treatment of all races by all races, but the Black community also feels exhausted and sometimes hopeless after centuries of fighting for something that should be a given—equality.
Emotions and Children
Every time social media tells me that another Black person has died, I am hurt. When I read and watch about the violence of the Civil Rights Era and Slavery, I am emotionally devastated. I feel rage, despair, fear, and sadness. Today, 23 June 2020, I still feel angered about all that has played out publicly regarding police brutality, race in America, and equality for Black Americans and others. For many years, I have watched with disgust the way a class of people that I belong to has been treated by the law enforcement and criminal justice systems; and, on a larger scale, how long-standing systems have emplaced obstacles that prevent this class from achieving the same opportunities as others.
All of the recent killings, protests, and riots have ignited a locked-away trigger that controls my fear, anxiety, sorrow, and anger deep in my heart. Until now, no one knows about this trigger. During my childhood, my parents told me that they went to a segregated school, where only Blacks attended, and there were no buses—they had to walk a few miles. I visited this school, and it was nothing compared to the schools I had the privilege to attend. I often think about what my kids learn in school today compared to what I did not learn in school about a culture that is so much a part of me.
Today, I choose to take the time to educate my children about Blacks, American society, racism, discrimination, and what police brutality means; after all, if they don’t learn it from me, then who will teach them? They will have yet another viewpoint to support what they will learn on their own, or in their schools. Before now, I refrained from speaking to my children about some topics because of the fear and anxiety that arise when these images appear on the screen. I must be in a great mood to speak with them. I believe that I must present a strong and fearless image to them. But lately, whenever Black violence (to or by) is broadcasted, I turn off the television and change the subject or leave the room. I should not have to do this. But this is the unspoken expectation of Black Americans, just like I said before, to “suck it up,” pretend it’s not happening, and drive on. Not anymore. Now, I am talking to my children about what we all have endured so that they can better understand the unique lives and privileges they enjoy as young Black children.
Experiences and Micro-Aggressions
While I am not the first Black man or Black 27D to achieve success in my career, many times I have been—and still am—the only Black leader in an organization, meeting, formation, or gathering. It would not be truthful of me to say that I never felt strange. Sometimes I count the ethnicities of people in the room, in photos, at challenging events, and in formations. I am always looked at as being strong for what I have accomplished in the military. I am expected to be an example and often-times have to resist addressing topics that truly are elephants in the room, but feel meaningless to point out.
Do I fear being a Black man in America, in Charlottesville, Virginia, in and out of uniform? Yes. I feel looks of skepticism and dislike from time to time—it’s something that you just can’t ignore. In establishments in and out of uniform as the only Black person, I have been denied smiles, eye contact, and had my receipt or change placed on the counter instead of in my hand and the customer service voice sparingly used when compared with the person in front of me in line. I hate to notice these things, but most of us do. In the past, I have attended recruiting and leader speaking engagements, and White people have said to me and about me: “He speaks so well”; “You sounded White on the phone”; “You don’t act like the others.” My image and professionalism restricted me from responding with anything other than a thank you from the U.S. Army. I know those people making those remarks were being truthful and didn’t see anything wrong with what they were saying; they expressed incredulity that I differed from the stereotypical Black man they have in their minds. In those instances, my anger does sometimes turn to sadness, pity, and hopelessness when a frank remark like that reveals this type of passive yet insidious racism.
There have been three times I have been pulled over for speeding in my life. The first two, I offered my military identification along with my license. Not as a TTP to get out of the citation and solicit leniency, but rather for potential self-presentation, cautioning the officer that I was not just a Black man driving a nice car, but a Black man that served in the military and drove a nice car a little faster than I should. All three times I was afraid and did what has been taught—be quiet, sit still, and hands on the wheel. All three times I received a fine. Why should this even matter if we are all supposed to be treated fairly and equally?
During one of these incidents, I was living in Germany. It’s embarrassing to admit but, as a Black American man, I was treated far better in that country than I have ever been treated in my life. Even though I was the only Black American amongst many others, I genuinely felt more appreciated because of the color of my skin than I did—and I do—living in America. I wonder why this is. Is it because they do not have the same recent history of enslaving a people based solely on the color of their skin? Is it because they do not continue to perpetuate and endorse government systems that suppress that same population through modern times?
Instead of whole-heartedly rejecting the stain of slavery and racism in America at the end of the Civil War, this country looked the other way as the Jim Crow Era supplanted slavery, and the next system replaced Jim Crow, and so on. Each new system became smarter than the last and stopped using certain words or tactics, but still achieved many of the same end states of discrimination. This history acts as a poison in American society, and it still reverberates today—in the form of racism against Black Americans and the resulting anger and exhaustion a Black person naturally feels because of that discrimination. I have achieved much in my military career. Being a Black man, though, it feels like I have always had just one more obstacle to overcome to reach those achievements.
Influences and Experiences
Currently, everything that I do reflects on the military and its culture, where discrimination and racism are not to be tolerated simply because of Army Regulation 600-20. Service members are restricted by a plethora of punitive policies that shape our behavior on and off duty. So why doesn’t America reflect certain behaviors of the military?
When I think about our forty-fourth President—a Black man—and how challenging his presidency was publicly, and how he had to fight daily with other elected officials, I feel like he was stripped of the power that should have come with that office. They would publicly berate him because of his politics, but also because he was Black—his female Secretary of State was treated similarly due to her gender. Think about his position during his two terms compared to other Presidents—why was there so much disparate treatment in our society, even amongst our most powerful?
Every time a Black person dies of inconsiderate, intolerable—and sometimes even criminal—treatment by the government or through police brutality and violence, I feel angered. It is the visible sign of the fact that Black Americans must be perfect, extra respectful, extra “good,” just to have the best chance at receiving something resembling equal treatment—and it is hard to immediately identify when Black Americans can simply be our normal, respectful, good selves, and when we must turn on the “extra.” Because we do not know whose latent racism will affect whatever is happening, the wrong decision can cost a Black person their life; so, most of us opt for the extra effort all the time. To act and to put on an air of perfection at all times, in every situation, is draining. I believe that right now, in this moment, Black Americans are simply exhausted from all that has happened in our lives.
Black people are stereotyped, especially with the advent of social media. Back in 2005, during Hurricane Katrina, my unit was alerted at Fort Bragg to prepare for a deployment to render aid. We never went; but, I am reminded of how the media turned the storm’s aftermath into a racial conundrum of haves and have-nots. Before, and since then, Black Americans are portrayed as inferior and not deserving of living fair or prosperous lives in America—on this continent.
I’ve been asked a lot of questions these last few weeks, most pertaining to how I feel. I am answering them now because I am ready to share those sentiments, those emotions. But this conversation does come with a caveat. I am Mike Bostic. I am not every Black man. I have experienced racism and the effects of prejudice in my everyday life—both personal and professional. But I am not every Black person; there are many people whose lives are much more and much less affected by racism. This is my story.
Soldier and Duty
I have been publicly silent about controversial topics because I am not quite sure how one additional voice can affect this problem. Now that I have inked these thoughts, I am sure I will find out. I also know that I have a public and Family image in the Army; therefore, when it comes to controversial topics dealing with race and discrimination, I am cautious about pushing non-mission agendas, ideas, and feelings upon others. These topics often lead to politics, but I do not understand why the issue of racial equality is political. Given our ethical and equal opportunity-based restrictions on posting to social media and speaking publicly about these and other sensitive topics, many military leaders cannot and do not understand these topics and are rarely—if ever—confronted with the challenge to understand them.
Our Sergeant Major of the Army shared a powerful story, that he is Black—having a Black father and White mother—and faces a dilemma when he has to check a race box on forms. I appreciated this story and, in my mind, I wonder what he has experienced—since he visibly appears White. What has he experienced as a Black man in America, much less in the U.S. Army? To answer that question, and because what he shared moved me to connect, I reached out to him for mentorship.
This is one action I have taken as a Soldier, reaching out to someone in a higher position and with a more public platform, to ask questions and to provide an insight that will inform my perspective; in turn, that may inform my leaders’ perspectives. This is what all members of our Corps should do. It is imperative that our members “lead up”—and down and around—by sharing your perspectives with others.
Leadership and Obligation
Remember, I am not perfect—no one is—and I do not think I have done as much as I can. I do believe I have been doing what I could, when I could. Over the years, I have aspired to be the example of a good Black person: a Black man, a Black husband, a Black father, and a Black Soldier. Why so many titles? I have never been rowdy, disrespectful, or innately intolerable. Is this the right example to set? Is it all that I could have done? I wonder sometimes. One thing I do know is that the military has not always welcomed Black Americans. Others died for the right I have to serve my country, for the right I have to my career of choice, and for the quality of life I deem my own. I do not know if I am doing enough; whether I am able or not. What I do know is that even though I hold all these titles, they all describe one person. I wrote this article to share my story and show you that I am all of these personas. For those of you who only know me as the quiet and professional sergeant major, I have shared with you the raw emotion. I have shared with you the stew of feelings of anger, sadness, and resentment for the unfairness and inequality Black Americans suffer daily. I have let down my guard and taken off my stoic mask. I have showed you that I am one person, capable of feeling deep, complicated, messy emotions while displaying professionalism at the same time. My hope is that by taking this step, you will feel less alone. We all put on masks and guard ourselves. It’s okay if you do, too. And it’s okay if you decide to remove that mask when you feel it could make a difference.
Another thing I know for sure is that I will proactively continue this conversation on race as a necessary part of the professional development of our Corps. From my foxhole as a Judge Advocate General’s Corps sergeant major, I will do my part to contribute to—and maintain—a climate in my organization that doesn’t just allow, but encourages, our members to put down the heavy ruck sack of hurt, anger, guilt, resentment, and pressure. When it comes to the burden of racism, our members should not “suck it up.” They should know that their leaders will listen and respond with compassion, empathy, humility, and—even if they can never truly comprehend—a desire to understand.
You and Support
I believe the voices of all those that have spoken out about racism and equality in America. There must be multiple lines of effort to bring about the change in behavior necessary to achieve what the nation needs. We sometimes don’t have the words—that’s okay. We do not always have the information and answers either.
We are what we know. We cannot control what we experience, see, or hear. We can control how we react to what we experience, see, or hear. This is what the “old heads” told me growing up. Now I am one of the “old heads,” trapped in my feelings and leveraging opportunities to share how I feel, aspiring to calm myself and inspire others. You can keep listening, keep asking, and keep an open mind with the information you receive. Some of my friends and colleagues have given book or movie recommendations in social media, or otherwise, to help us understand each other when it comes to the perspective of Black Americans. It is important that we keep up the dialogue, keep learning, and keep sharing experiences.
For leaders, especially staff judge advocates and command and chief paralegal noncommissioned officers, it may be awkward or uncomfortable to talk about race—especially if you’re White. “Suck it up.” Get over it. You have advised commanders and senior enlisted advisers on the most sensitive issues our Army grapples with—ethical failures and sexual assault to only name a couple. You must be willing to be as candid with your team as you are with your boss. For the benefit of your team, you must be willing to overcome the discomfort. The candor you show to your boss about sensitive legal issues shows what kind of a lawyer or paralegal you are. The candor you show to your team shows what kind of leader you are.
I began this article with the statement that you, the reader, will never personally understand my experience: this is true of everyone. I will also never understand exactly what you are feeling. But I have told you that I am open to asking, to finding out, and to learning—I have been my whole life. Now that you are asking me as well—and I feel encouraged to be honest about my experiences—it is a two-way conversation. Let’s talk.
Closing and Thank You
I thank you for asking me how I feel. I thank any reader who appreciates me, my viewpoint, and what I offer—regardless of how I look. I ask that you do the same of others as they have always done for you. I accept—and so should you—that I will never know what it is like to be a White person, as you may never know what it is like to be a Black person. Trying to empathize is the next-best thing. If we continue to seek understanding from each other, we will all get through this, and we will be stronger in the end. TAL
1. Letter from Command Sergeant Major Michael A. Grinston, Gen. James C. McConville & Sec’y of the Army Ryan D. McCarthy, to Soldiers, Civilians, Family members and Soldiers for Life (June 3, 2020), https://www.army.mil/article/236157/a_message_to_the_army_community_about_civil_unrest. after (June 3, 2020).