How Being “In on the [Racist] Joke” Silences Service Members

The soldier, named Brown, was curled up in a corner with his hat pulled over his eyes and his knees drawn up. The sun was setting under the Mississippi horizon.

In the infantry, you are instructed to rest when you have no other tasks.

However, if you had paid close attention, you would have heard white soldiers whispering to each other: “Lazy n-.”.

While Caucasian soldiers slumbered in close proximity, Caucasian noncommissioned officers scoured for the African American soldier’s team leader to discipline him (enforce push-ups, raise their voice, and the like).

Compare this to how we deceive ourselves: Everyone is inexperienced in the military.

That’s military jargon for “Racism is not present within the ranks.”

Many white soldiers believe that a world without racism would bring relief from the acute pain of discrimination, while some minority soldiers also long for a post-racist society.

We understand that all of our great-grandparents were veterans of the generation. Lawrence Reddick observed in 1949 that the Army had a stereotype of the “Negro” as lacking the manly virtues of a warrior and being unreliable and fearful. According to Margarita Aragon, white leaders treated their black subordinates harshly, enforcing a general separation between “White and Colored.”

Other marginalized communities experienced the anguish of racial discrimination in various ways.

“In the military, we were all on the same level,” Aragon quoted a Mexican American man as saying.

“We were all citizens of the United States, but we became Mexican as soon as we removed our uniforms.”

We sat down together to talk about racism in the military, and why and how we participated in it. The soldier who served alongside us, the soldier who took a nap like Brown, still faces racism from their sisters and brothers in arms. Fast forward more than 70 years, military members and their families are still confronting racism.

You read that correctly.

Mike, a Filipino, has served as an infantry medic for seven years. In Afghanistan, he worked as a senior convoy commander in a transportation unit. He also served as a squad leader, team leader, and infantryman in three different infantry units. Similarly, Nate, who has a mixed Pacific Islander background, served in two units in Iraq and one unit in Afghanistan.

Nate: Doc, could you provide some instances of racial discrimination that you have witnessed in the armed forces?

I am Asian, and maybe it was a great secret that I was in if he said “N-word” to me. My buddy pulled me aside and told me about a battle we had earlier that day with Brown. Mike untied one of his boots.

People think it’s okay to call others the N-word because they believe it’s just a joke and it doesn’t harm anyone.Output: Individuals believe it’s acceptable to refer to others using racial slurs like the N-word because they perceive it as a form of humor that doesn’t inflict any harm.

Nate: How did you feel when your comrade in arms said that? Did you say or do anything in response?

Unfortunately, I kept my trap shut on the secret, pretending to be ignorant. I did not want to start a ruckus: Mike.

“Hm, yes, I understand your point,” I stated, instead of saying, “Hey. That’s not cool.”

As an Asian person, I occasionally encounter white individuals who, in their jokes, play off racist ideas without realizing that they are being racist. I have learned that there is one thing racists don’t think about: revealing their racist thoughts. In this unique space, white people sometimes occupy, I find it offensive.

Have you ever come across similar “jokes”?

I often saw this throughout my military career when I attended the Advanced Leaders Course. Yes, Nate, I jokingly said that they needed to stop speaking “guada-guada” and claimed that the personal communications for soldiers who speak only English are not required according to Army regulations. They got upset because they were mostly Spanish-speaking soldiers from Puerto Rico, and the instructor of the course spoke mostly Spanish.

Mike: It’s always a humorous situation, isn’t it?

“He would then playfully jest,” he would say, attempting to manipulate me, and I would give him a discomforting glance. It reached a stage where my platoon sergeant was openly exhibiting discriminatory behavior towards soldiers of Black and Hispanic descent in Bagram, Afghanistan, during my third deployment. Nate: It is perpetually meant in a humorous manner!”

One day, I left him on the other side of the base and took off, but he claimed to be “just joking.” He was talking about how lazy soldiers Black and Mexican are, so I kicked him out of our small pickup truck, which we used as a hopper for FOB.

I had spoken with our first commander and he tried to get me in trouble for insubordination, but I was relieved of my position as sergeant in my platoon when he got back.

I had a high regard for the soldiers. However, I couldn’t make a joke because I gained a reputation for being a white guy among the NCOs.

I must admit that I was part of the Asian stereotype perpetuated by jokes about Asians, which is why I let the slide joke. My name is Mike.

I thought he was a jerk for reducing him to his ethnicity. Looking back, I imagine it was all in good fun— I thought it was amusing to pretend he was a Vietnamese soldier, taking pictures with AK-47s and saying Vietnamese words with a thick accent.

As long as we do not behave like “that person” and maintain our conduct within acceptable boundaries, we will not be perceived as different or singled out. In order to succeed in the military, we unintentionally support and perpetuate the concepts of colonialism and white supremacy, as non-commissioned officers, Nate.

Similar to the non-commissioned officers (NCOs) I admired, I envision myself as a seasoned, elderly, bearded Caucasian gentleman when I imagine my future as a veteran. If one is unable to handle a “jest” within the military, individuals will alienate, single out, and exclude them from the group. This expectation was established within white supremacy and colonialism, and NCOs uphold this expectation. If one desires to be regarded with respect as a soldier, it is necessary to comply.

Through years of reflection, I have come to realize the damage I have caused, but at the time, I believed I was acting in the best interest of my soldiers. I was influenced by other NCOs who imposed a similar mindset, often mocking or making derogatory jokes about individuals with a different skin color. Consequently, I adopted the same mindset and unwittingly perpetuated white supremacy and colonialism. I share these examples to demonstrate the extent to which I had internalized these harmful ideologies.

I have come to realize that we have moved so far past the point where we could joke about each other’s racial stereotypes and reinforce white dominance. I thought it was all in good fun and that I would just laugh. Sometimes soldiers would slap me on the back and say “Chink” to me. I have also had my fair share of jokes lobbed at me, calling me “dog-eating”: Mike.

If you heard jokes about “white people,” you probably wouldn’t have the same power and history of lynching people of color. Ordinary things are still the same, where people of color are not allowed to join the military, own property, or be put in camps during wartime. In the square town, people of color are watched while white people are not.

When I examine it, I realize that a racist joke can have an impact on both a person’s overall happiness and professional advancement, although it is important to acknowledge that a joke is still a joke. This association with something potentially catastrophic can harm an individual’s opportunities for promotion and acknowledgement due to the influence of racial stereotypes, which in turn has additional negative consequences for that person. In addition to diminishing their self-confidence, we further strengthen racial stereotypes and even continue to tolerate racist remarks that we ourselves have experienced.

Nate: Similar to numerous establishments, racism within the armed forces is still prevailing.

We need to empower our soldiers to go to the equal opportunity office and normalize the prevention and response to sexual assault and harassment. We also need to recognize that racist jokes exist in the military until we understand that racism exists, so that we can grow and heal.

Speak up and be the person who motivates our troops. By staying silent, we allow harm to come to our soldiers and enable the preservation of racism. Silence is encouraged when we choose not to act.