Chigozie Okocha: The Slow Burning Car That is the Black and Brown Experience in the State Department

By Chigozie Okocha
(The author is a second-tour Foreign Service Officer, currently serving as Vice Consul in the Consular Section of the U.S. Consulate General in Hyderabad, India).


In response to the killing of George Floyd and tense protests in the United States, a white colleague graciously reached out to me and asked if I would be willing to lead a discussion on the racial tension that I or other black and brown colleagues may be experiencing in the State Department.  I assumed it was an appeal to support in organizing a space for me to vent my frustrations, if I chose to do so.  I recognize that the idea with this type of forum is to encourage further discussion around issues particularly affecting officials that look like me to freely unpack and process through subtle hostilities and/or overt discriminatory practices we witness within the State Department.  I respectfully declined.
I declined not because I am against such a proposition, quite the contrary.  I do believe holding open and honest interventions about racial issues and unconscious bias, interwoven with office politics, could prove fruitful (and probably should be instituted in most office spaces).  Such fora could potentially help victims of these office transgressions express themselves in ways that they have never done before, to colleagues who may occupy a significant amount of time and space in their daily lives.
I declined because as I was experiencing mental burnout from processing racial tension in the United States, I was not convinced this request satisfied the cost-benefit analysis.  And now that I have taken a bit longer to reflect on the proposition, I feel fully cemented in my decision.  Holding such a forum is not for me, and here is why.
All officers who work for the State Department upon entry into the Foreign Service go through a six-week orientation, in which one day is dedicated to acknowledging the institution’s white-washed history.  The State Department, like most other institutions whether public or private, had its history imbued with racist measures embedded in its brick and mortar – from biased recruitment and testing to the “Negro Circuit,” or as former Ambassador Harry Thomas Jr. explains, a label that describes a process by which assignments for African American Ambassadors were limited to only smaller less-influential posts.  The State Department in its inception was not for black and brown applicants.
In its defense, the State Department has made strides to uproot its previously held racist policies, including a concerted effort through fellowship programs and advocacy/affinity groups.  But naturally, that uprooting leaves residue scattered everywhere, which can be hard to see.  The decision makers who take up senior leadership positions in the State Department are still predominately white.  And for many black or brown junior and mid-level officers, stories abound of racial bias or prejudicial slights and insults that would considerably dampen the mood at any weekend social gathering.
It’s this elephant in the room I am reminded of that makes me think, “what would a forum for such discussions serve, if not only to put these officers on display so they may relive their possibly potent traumatic experiences, for your recreation?”  As onlookers drive past and stare intriguingly at the burning car, only to then continue on toward their intended destination, the consequence of inaction is institutionalized apathy.  You might be thinking, “well these sessions help us learn, and they encourage us to devise a path forward,” to which I echo an activist who asked “what extensive course are you learning and why haven’t you passed yet?”
From junior officers to ambassadors, the stories of racism or inequities in hiring practices, promotions, and assignments that former or current black and brown State Department officials have experienced are already public and accessible.  The statistics underscoring inequalities are also public and accessible.  Better yet, there are countless articles on the web that offer direct testimony on how underlying racial biases have permeated the workplace and everyday life.  What else is there to learn?

While I am not ready to entertain in such platforms, for those who may choose to engage, I offer three considerations.  For white audiences, these forums are hard and exhausting for your black and brown colleagues.  Its equivalence is having very difficult conversations with close friends and family, conversations the victims were probably ready to leave unspoken.  In worst case scenarios, you run the risk of unpacking closely held traumas that may not be appropriate for group discussions, especially as we are all also bearing witness to jarring racial tension and pain in our home country.  The irony here is that with most other transgressions, the federal government mandates protecting the victim’s privacy.  There are often private investigations and correspondence when an HR issue arises.  However, the generally suggested fora around issues of race are open source.
Secondly, such get-togethers are ineffective without concrete policy and cultural changes.  The State Department prides itself in executing “action items,” drafting meticulously researched and informed cables, and designing “Standard Operating Procedures” or SOPs, for even its most mundane tasks.  In effect, the department is better served if before a forum is held, the audience members come prepared after researching and reading articles and opinion pieces that convey the black and brown experience as it pertains to biases inside and outside of the workplace.  After the forum is held, the audience should then take what they have learned to adopt SOPs on how to uproot residual racism within their office or within the broader State Department.
Lastly, and certainly not least, I implore you to consider reversing the model altogether.  Perhaps a new methodology is required to penetrate and advance the race discourse in the State Department.  Perhaps white colleagues can address an audience of racial minorities and work to unpack questions such as: how have I experienced and perceived race in my day to day life?  How have I responded to issues of racial discrimination or unconscious bias in and out of the workplace, when it has been revealed to me?  What is my knowledge of race relations and its history in the United States, and how has it informed my thinking?  I imagine this would be a hard discussion to have, but it is equally essential, and may help us all heal and move forward together.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. Government.