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?

Continue reading

Activists Missing in #Zimbabwe, Also the U.S. Ambassador Tweets About Mickey Mouse

Posted: 4:01 pm ET
[twitter-follow screen_name=’Diplopundit’ ]


In case deleted, the tweet is here:


Senate Confirms Allen, Furuta-Toy, Hankins, Thomas, Jackson, and 632 Career FS Members

Posted: 1:20 am EDT
[twitter-follow screen_name=’Diplopundit’ ]

The U.S. Senate confirmed the following nominations for ambassadors the last couple of weeks:

2015-11-09 PN569 European Bank for Reconstruction and DevelopmentScott Allen, of Maryland, to be United States Director of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

2015-10-22 PN581 Department of State | Julie Furuta-Toy, of Wyoming, a Career Member of the Senior Foreign Service, Class of Counselor, to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Republic of Equatorial Guinea.

2015-10-22 PN631 Department of State | Dennis B. Hankins, of Minnesota, a Career Member of the Senior Foreign Service, Class of Minister-Counselor, to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Republic of Guinea.

2015-10-22 PN715 Department of State | Harry K. Thomas, Jr., of New York, a Career Member of the Senior Foreign Service, Class of Career Minister, to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Republic of Zimbabwe.

2015-10-22 PN745 Department of State | Robert Porter Jackson, of Virginia, a Career Member of the Senior Foreign Service, Class of Minister-Counselor, to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Republic of Ghana.

The U.S. Senate also confirmed the following 632 nominations of career members of the Foreign Service by unanimous consent:

PN643 FOREIGN SERVICE nominations (101) beginning Jennifer Ann Amos, and ending Holly Rothe Wielkoszewski.

PN800 FOREIGN SERVICE nominations (127) beginning Kreshnik Alikaj, and ending Brett David Ziskie.

PN877 – 1 FOREIGN SERVICE nominations (404) beginning Jason Douglas Kalbfleisch, and ending Stuart MacKenzie Hatcher.

One list remains pending on the Executive Calendar, courtesy of Senator Grassley:

PN573-4 – Nominations beginning Bradley Duane Arsenault, and ending Jamshed Zuberi, which 20 nominations were received by the Senate and appeared in the Congressional Record on June 10, 2015.



American Ambassador Finds New Love in the Philippines

— By Domani Spero

We’re late on this. Apparently, this past summer it was really big news in the Philippines that the American Ambassador was swept off his feet by a Philippine beauty. Manila Mail asks, Is US Ambassador to the Philippines Harry K. Thomas, Jr. in love with a dusky, voluptuous Filipina with a tattoo?  And made headlines like these:

Screen Shot 2013-10-07

Below an excerpt via Philippine Star:

MANILA, Philippines – Moved by “personal and professional relationships,” US Ambassador Harry Thomas Jr. said that his three-year stay in the Philippines was made more memorable and blessed when he was accepted by the family of his Filipina girlfriend.

“I am very blessed to be accepted by the entire Aquino family. Nanay (mother) and Tatay (father) are very nice to me. My heart is always there for her. I don’t want to answer tsismis (gossips). I don’t want to talk about her life, but I would say that I am blessed to be with her. I am blessed to know her and I am blessed to be accepted by all the members of the Aquino family and by all the Filipinos,” said Thomas, referring to relatives of his girlfriend Mithi Aquino.

“Having stayed in the country for three years made me realize that the Philippines and the Filipino people are great,” Thomas said in an interview last Tuesday night at Intercontinental Hotel in Makati where he and Vice President Jejomar Binay attended a testimonial dinner to celebrate Philippine-American friendship day.

Thomas, who was divorced from his wife while posted in Manila, met Mithi, a human resources specialist, on board a cruise ship.

At the time, Mithi was giving a training course for the cruise ship’s staff and crew.

Thomas had just gotten his divorce when he met Mithi who grew up in Mindanao but graduated from the Manila Central University in Caloocan City.

She is reportedly accompanying Thomas when he leaves for the US after his tour of duty in the Philippines.

Last month, the ambassador also gave an interview to a local press: For the first time, Harry Thomas talks about his ladylove.  According to Philippine press clips, he was previously married to jazz singer Ericka Ovette.

It looks like Ambassador Thomas is still in the Philippines but already listed as Diplomat in Residence for the Southwest.  He will be posted at Arizona State University – Phoenix.  His successor at US Embassy Manila, Ambassador Philip Goldberg, until recently A/S to State/INR, had his nomination hearing at the SFRC last month.







Photo of the Day: US Embassy Manila Hosts First “Eco-Fashion” Show

Via US Embassy Manila

Photo via US Embassy Manila/FB

Photo via US Embassy Manila/FB

“U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Harry K. Thomas Jr. hosted “Forward Fashion,” U.S. Embassy’s first eco-fashion show on September 17, 2013 at his residence. The event was a celebration of U.S.-Filipino collaboration in eco-fashion and design, corporate social responsibility, and sustainable development under the creative direction of Aristeo Tengco and showcasing eco-fashion designs of Dita Sandico-Ong and Paul Cabral. Some of the celebrities who donned the designs for the runway were Anne Curtis, Dennis Trillo, Matteo Guidicelli and Venus Raj.”