I entered the Navy with a big advantage: I am the granddaughter of a retired Army lieutenant colonel who commissioned as one of two African American men in his 1959 Officer Candidate School (OCS) class. I am also a third-generation postgraduate degree holder; though not uncommon, that is not the standard for many Americans. Though I grew up in a predominantly black community, I learned the code-switching game early. Code-switching, a term from linguistics, is the way in which people change language, dialect, and accents depending on context, but it also can be applied more broadly, as it is here, in a social sense, not limited to language.
My four years at the U.S. Naval Academy taught me how important it is to learn the art of code-switching. Before I arrived, I had not experienced what it was like to be the “only black and female” person sitting in the room. Imagine the weight of having to speak for your race and gender during class discussions, knowing you might be sitting next to a future admiral who might never before have heard that perspective. I realized I had to adopt a diluted version of myself: my opinions, words, demeanor, and tone of voice—even my physical appearance. The Naval Academy taught me—indirectly—that who I was as a black woman might be received as unacceptable, ultimately hindering my success as a naval officer.
Admittedly, I was not a great student, and I struggled academically, graduating at the very bottom of my class. I commissioned as a surface warfare officer (SWO). Though my command did not send a representative to ship selection, I learned they had live-streamed it and were aware of my class rank. Several members of the wardroom were not impressed by having the Anchorwoman as a new division officer. A well-meaning department head pulled me aside early and warned me not to associate with the only other black female officer on board. She had developed a reputation, and the implication was that any association with her would inadvertently make my own reputation worse. The other new division officer who reported with me did not receive the same advice.
The other black female officer and I could not have been more different. She graduated from OCS; I was a service academy graduate. She was short; I was tall. She had a STEM graduate degree; I barely graduated with a liberal arts bachelor’s degree. She was a first-generation American, and I can directly trace my ancestry to enslaved people in Maryland and Georgia. On paper, she should have been the stand-out candidate for rock-star junior officer. Unfortunately, I had one skill in my toolbox that she did not: the ability to code-switch.
She is the daughter of Caribbean immigrants, and despite her first-class academic background, she had not received the good foundation I had on how to move in a predominantly white and male environment. Her first interactions with the wardroom were negative, and she was misunderstood. Despite the warning, I did get to know her, and she became my closest friend on board, and we learned from each other. Unfortunately for her, the damage was done, and her reputation was sealed. I, however, having learned to move, talk, and act just as the Naval Academy had taught me, had a decent (if tumultuous) first division officer tour.
I pose the question to you as leaders: What does inclusion look like to you? Do you allow your officers to express themselves genuinely, drawing from their backgrounds without consequence, or will you only accept a diluted version of their learned experiences? Is a newly reported sailor automatically compared with others on board who look like them or come from the same geographical location, the same commissioning source, etc.? Unconscious bias, after all, is not limited to race.
I would love to say my first tour was a success and that I have done well in other commands solely because of hard work and perseverance, an outgrowth of being at the bottom of my class. I learned my low-ranking past need not define my future, but that past has shaped the naval officer I am today—for the better—and this is why I had a successful career as a SWO and lateral transfer.
But that would not be entirely honest. I have served with many other junior officers who look like I do, are smarter than I, and possess the same drive I do, but who might have graduated from a historically black college or university or been an OCS graduate and who were not as successful as I was at that point. Why? In most cases, the wardroom was their first experience being “the only,” and they failed to master code-switching.
A critic might say that a naval officer must be professional at all times, and perhaps professionalism is actually what these officers failed to master. But the behavior I refer to is not a function of professionalism. To be blunt, there are jokes a white man could get away with telling at the wardroom table that would be laughed off; a person of another background, however, could not expect to say anything similar and get away with it. This can be seen in the unsanctioned Junior Officer Protection Association Facebook page, where junior officers voice their grievances and what should be a shared experience is limited to one point of view—that of the majority.
Other critics may attempt to dismiss me as an angry and tainted former SWO; to do so would both be false and tend to reinforce what I am saying. I have enjoyed most of my time in the Navy; like many officers and enlisted, I have experienced frustration, pride, and disappointment, but—in the end—I have grown. My challenge to you, as leaders and mentors, is to not accept a diluted version of your sailors; see them for who they are and the value they bring to the team. Lead the horse to the water, and they may have to watch you drink first before they grasp the concept for themselves, but as teachers and trainers that is what we should do. The only code-switching that should be acceptable on board is from daily routine to combatting a casualty.