Dreams of A Diplomat: Plights of a Black Diplomat

by Just Juan
1852 views 6 min read

“In our diversity, lies our strength” – Former Secretary of State Colin Powell

Earlier this evening, while Ashton was running around and doing what toddlers do, I kicked back and read some articles on the NPR website. Amid all of the articles about the George Floyd thing and the country’s reckoning with longtime racial injustice was a piece that drew my attention. It was about a U.S. diplomat and her run-ins with officers from the U.S. Customs & Border Protection as she crossed over from Ciudad Juarez in Mexico to El Paso. The diplomat—a Black woman named Tianna Spears—apparently had been pulled over by CBP on numerous occasions for secondary inspections and felt she was discriminated against…something her chain of command in the Foreign Service didn’t take seriously. She wrote a pretty scathing post on her blog about the experience. In addition to the article on Spears, there was a segment that All Things Considered did a little over a month ago and it was an interesting 4-minute listen. In that segment, they covered what appears to be a significant issue with diversity in the U.S. Department of State…particularly in the Foreign Service. The issue seemed to hit home with a number of Black Americans serving in the Department’s diplomatic corps.

The way NPR described it was “male, Yale and pale”…the seemingly heavily-skewed demographic makeup of the Foreign Service. According to a recently-released report from the Government Accountability Office, the numbers look a little bit scary. Of the 13620 Foreign Service employees on the rolls in FY2018, 75% of them were White while only 7% were Black. The numbers also showed that 65% of diplomats were men. I didn’t see anything regarding university pipelines into the Foreign Service but the schools I hear about most when it comes to foreign service curriculums are Columbia, Georgetown, and Yale…and those are schools where you’ll likely see White men a lot more than you will Black women.

So what does all of this mean? Well, for starters, it means that there is a major HR issue at State regarding this summer’s preeminent term: diversity and inclusion. I’m sure a lot of people will saddle this on President Trump and the culture of government in his administration…perhaps even his Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, since it is his shop. Given that it was FY2018 numbers, we’re basically talking about the first 2 years of this current administration. A 75% White-7% Black and 65% men, 35% women breakdown doesn’t happen in just 2 years unless there is either a mass exodus or ridiculous bias in hiring. I don’t think either is the case here so I’ll go with this being a long-term problem…something the numbers support, actually.

What does this mean for Black diplomats? Obviously, it’s an issue. In addition to Spears, there was the story of Lekisha Gunn, a Foreign Service Officer from my native Alabama. She said she was told that “African Americans have a harder time in the Foreign Service” and that while “White women…have been able to crack the glass ceiling…Black officers tend to disappear”. Those are pretty alarming words. And these women aren’t the only ones. I’ve read a lot of comments from former Black diplomats, detailing what they went through while serving and how their White (and often male) counterparts saw them as “invisible”. Even Black ambassadors like Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley and Charles Ray have had their own experiences with discrimination and the lack of diversity over their long careers in the Foreign Service. It’s definitely an issue.

What does this mean for me? I don’t think it’s only a Department of State issue. Look, I’ve been a Black man working for the U.S. Government since 2003…10 years in the Air Force, the last 7 as a Federal civil service employee. I’m no stranger to the lack of diversity within the ranks. I actually think it’s a government issue. For the entirety of my decade in the Air Force, I saw a lot more White men than I did Black men (or Black people, in general)…and that includes the circles of people I usually hung around at all of my assignments, which happened to be overwhelmingly Black. Of the 87 civil engineer officers that were in my chain of command over that 10 years (yes, I actually kept a log of this), only 8 were Black. Of those 8, there was only 1 woman and only 1 of the Base Civil Engineers—the commander of the Civil Engineer Squadron—was Black. Fortunately, for me at least, all of my supervisors in the Air Force were minorities…all except two were actually Black. It hasn’t been that much better on the civilian side. Over my 7 combined years with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Department of the Interior, I have definitely seen other Blacks but if I’m being honest with myself, it’s kind of like a sprinkle of chocolate on vanilla ice cream. That’s why I think it’s really a government issue at large and not a singular issue tied to State. Nevertheless, I’ve learned to deal with it, and fortunately, for me, outside of an incident I experienced in 2009 at Yokota Air Base, where a White male senior non-commissioned officer called me “a thug” because I wore my uniform hat low and almost over my eyes, I haven’t experienced anything in the area of racism or discrimination nor do I think I’ve been held back because of it. Sure, I felt I was held back from making staff sergeant 2 years longer than I should have but that was a product of an incredibly screwed up testing and promotion system, not discrimination.

Considering all of this, why do I want to still pursue Foreign Service? First off, I absolutely love national service. And I love it even more when I get to do it outside of the nation’s borders. I hated the uniform of the armed forces so the Foreign Service is the only way for me to continue upon that love for national service in an international setting. Second, and it should go without saying if you know me or have read into this series, being a Foreign Service Facility Manager is my “dream job”. I’ve labored for damn near 8 years to make it this far…to the Foreign Service Register.  While the stories of Tianna Spears and Lekisha Gunn and Ambassadors Abercrombie-Winstanley and Ray amongst others are definitely concerning for me, it’s not a dealbreaker for me. I feel like being a Foreign Service Facility Manager is my destiny and I’ll be damned if I’m going to play myself out of it because of some diversity and inclusion metrics. Don’t get me wrong…that’s not to say that the plights of those diplomats aren’t important to me. Trust me, it is…and when I make it to the big stage, I’ll be giving a more than earnest effort to bring in people who look like me and fight for people who look like me. In fact, in addition to being an FSFM, membership in their union—the American Foreign Service Association—may be in my future. But what really still has me passionate about pursuing the position is my career as a Facility Manager. Have you looked at the demographics for this industry? As Samuel L. Jackson said in Coach Carter, here are some “stats for your ass”: (1) 71% of all Facility Managers worldwide are White; (2) the average age of Facility Managers worldwide is 48; (3) the average experience of Facility Managers worldwide is 25 years; (4) 81% of Facility Managers worldwide are aged 40 or older; (5) only 8% of Facility Managers worldwide are veterans of the military service in their country. Here are a few more: (1) only 10% of Facility Managers worldwide are Black; (2) the average age of Black Facility Managers is 50; (3) the average experience of Black Facility Managers is 11 years. I’m sure these numbers are a lot more alarming if you broke it down to just the U.S. military or the Federal civil service. I wrote all of that to emphasize that in this work, as a Facility Manager, I already know there is a lack of diversity. I already know that I’m not going to see many people that look like me. I’m 35 years old, Black, and I have 17 years of experience in this industry…all of it in managing U.S. government assets. I’m well aware that I’m something of a unicorn surrounded by stallions. I’d be very surprised if I come across 2 other people in the Foreign Service with my profile. This is the kicker right here though: Facility Managers are always hated on, discriminated against, handcuffed, or whatever other term you want to use. We often meet people in their worst moments, when the building isn’t functioning to their liking. And we’ve been subjected to harsh words and acts of aggression. In her blog post, Tianna Spears mentioned being called “a bitch” after denying a visa application for a Mexican citizen. As a Facility Manager, there aren’t too many disparaging things I haven’t been called yet…and that includes the N-word. It’s just part of the job. I wish it wasn’t the case but it just is. I’ve had people report me because I wasn’t working fast enough to resolve their issues. I’ve had my budget slashed and technicians taken away from me as punishment for not being a Facility Manager on the terms of someone who doesn’t even know the hundreds of things that have to go right for just a second of cool air to blow out of their vents. When I get to “the show”, I’m absolutely sure it won’t be any more different than what I’ve already experienced as a Facility Manager…and it won’t be because I’m Black, because I’m relatively young, or because I’m new to the agency. My dream is still to be a Foreign Service Facility Manager and I’ll do what I’ve always done: let my work speak for me in ways my skin color, my age, or my perceived experience can’t. I will do it the same way Edward Perkins did it as one of the great statesmen in American history.

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