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?
A CALL TO ACTION . . .

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Reviews For Pompeo’s WSJ Op-Ed: “God-Awful”, “Risible”, “Mendacious”, “Bananas”, and More #PAPressClips

Related item: Saudi Arabia: Background and U.S. Relations (PDF) | September, 2018 (Congressional Research Service).

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Tillerson’s End of Year Confession: I Am Proud of Our Diplomacy #TigerTeamsin2018

Posted: 4:02 pm PT
Updated: 12/31 10:29 am PT

 

On December 28, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson published an op-ed in The New York Times, entitled “I Am Proud Of Our Diplomacy”. You may also read it here via state.gov.

On North Korea: A door to dialogue remains open, but we have made it clear that the regime must earn its way back to the negotiating table. Until denuclearization occurs, the pressure will continue.

Pakistan: We are prepared to partner with Pakistan to defeat terrorist organizations seeking safe havens, but Pakistan must demonstrate its desire to partner with us.

Russia: Absent a peaceful resolution of the Ukraine situation, which must begin with Russia’s adherence to the Minsk agreements, there cannot be business as usual with Russia.

Iran: We will continue to work with our allies and with Congress to explore options for addressing the nuclear deal’s many flaws, while building a like-minded effort to punish Iran for its violations of ballistic missile commitments and its destabilizing activities in the region.

On the redesign:

I am proud of what our State Department and Agency for International Development teams around the world have accomplished this year, and our progress will continue in 2018 and beyond. To that end, we have undertaken a redesign of the State Department to strengthen our teams’ ability to deliver on our mission.

Our redesign doesn’t involve simply shifting boxes on an organizational chart. Our changes must address root problems that lead to inefficiencies and frustrations. By making changes like streamlining our human resources and information technology systems, better aligning personnel and resources with America’s strategic priorities, and reforming duplicative processes, we are giving our people more opportunities to flourish professionally and spend more time confronting the global problems they have dedicated their careers to solving.

When I wake up each morning, my first thought is, “How can I and my colleagues at the State Department use diplomacy to prevent people around the world from being killed, wounded or deprived of their rights?” In spite of the challenges, I remain optimistic about the power of diplomacy to resolve conflicts and advance American interests. My confidence comes from the knowledge that our efforts are carried out daily by patriotic and dedicated State Department employees who make sacrifices to serve with patience and persistence and who, by advancing democratic values the world over, are protecting our citizens’ rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Should we thank the new R Undersecretary Steve Goldstein for this? A bit underwhelming after a tumultuous year around the world, and a year of ‘what the heck’ is going on in Foggy Bottom. Folks can be forgiven if you let out a deep sigh. We did, too.  Tillerson did not mention them in his op-ed but we’re hearing about the “tiger teams” and the “keystone projects” that are in some of our readers’ future as 2018 marches in.

Rawr!

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Burn Bag: Diplomat Writes About “The Slog of Leadership” and Misses Attack Date By a Year+

Via Burn Bag:

What’s this? The worst day of Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley’s life isn’t the day five of her staff were killed in Saudi Arabia? How did she get the date so wrong in this NYTimes Op-Ed? The attack was December 6, 2004, not/not December 4, 2005.

Like every chief of mission around the world, then and now, I began and ended each day with the question: “What can I do to increase safety for my staff?” I had reason to worry because for several years, the security situation in Saudi Arabia had been perilous, with terrorists attacking and murdering Saudis, other Arabs and Westerners. Diplomatic missions were favorite targets and ours, the Consulate General in Jeddah, made up of approximately 50 Americans and 150 locally-hired employees, was particularly attractive. With the advice of my security team, we raised the height of our walls, topped them with glass shards and barbed wire and imposed travel restrictions on the staff. We armed our guards and, unlike most diplomatic compounds, allowed military patrols inside our walls.
[…]
One proposal, however, threatened to tear our community apart. My security chief wanted to require all non-American staff to pass through metal detectors to enter the compound. I understood the imperative for a careful screening. But for a community under siege, the feeling that “we were all in it together” was critical to getting us through each day. Disparate treatment was sure to corrode our cohesiveness and send a signal to the local staff that we distrusted them despite the fact that they, too, put their lives on the line every day by walking through our gates.
[…]
After it was installed, I made sure that I was the very first staff member to walk through the metal detector. I can’t say that we had a Kumbaya moment or that resentment of my decision ended immediately among my American staff.  I had to lead by example and trust that they respected my integrity even if they didn’t like my position.

Despite all our measures, on December 4, 2005, one of the worst days of my life, terrorists attacked the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah. After a long standoff, 10 of my staff members were injured, some terribly, and five were killed. These were colleagues with whom we worked alongside every day, and socialized with after work. And each and every one of them was a local staff member.

Read: http://nytlive.nytimes.com/womenintheworld/2017/05/15/diplomat-to-saudi-arabia-opens-up-about-what-got-her-through-one-of-the-worst-days-of-my-life/

Related posts:

Related item:

Review of Department of State Implementation of Jeddah Accountability Review Board of Recommendation to Consider Remote Safe Areas at Missions Worldwide (pdf)

 

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