Editor’s Note: Mary Tobin is a 2003 graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point
When I first saw the photograph of black female cadets at West Point raising their fists, I put my face in my hands and thought to myself, “Why would they do this?”
I didn’t think about whether or not it violated some article of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). I simply thought, “If this gets out, it could threaten their graduation dates or hurt their careers.” Why did I think that? Because I am fully aware of the negative perceptions associated with the “fist.” No matter what way we slice it, if a black person displays “the fist,” it is immediately associated with being a symbol of either pride or racism, and there is no way around that.
No amount of education, documentaries, op-ed pieces, or books about the history of the symbol or what it means to the black community has managed to absolve it of the perception that it means, “Black people hate white people.”
I’ve taken that kind of photo.
Not with the fist, but I’ve taken the traditional “Old Corps” photo with the black females in my class as a sense of pride and accomplishment. I remember one of the white underclassmen asking me why all the black female cadets took that photo together and not with all the females in my class. And I can remember replying, “Because they didn’t go through what we went through.”
I would later explain that I didn’t mean that to imply that West Point isn’t hard for everyone. In its 214 years of existence, as the premiere leadership institution in the world, West Point is the only organization in the world that has consistently succeeded at making the four-year-undergraduate experience suck for everyone! Pick a day, any day, and pick a class year, and you will see a cadet questioning why they came there. Any cadet will tell you, they had multiple scholarships to numerous colleges, but they chose West Point.
This controversy is really based on the insistence that these black women cadets are only allowed to exist through one lens. They are only allowed to be cadets. They cannot be black cadets because talking about the very real racism they face detracts from the greater mission of becoming an officer, and we are really all green right? They cannot be women cadets because we have female Rangers now, and combat arms are integrated, so there is no need to discuss the sexism that is rampant in the military.
And we definitely cannot discuss being both black and a woman, because well, it is such a small amount of people that fall into that category, taking time to really address the social, psychological, and cultural challenges associated with that status will only muddy the water and again detract from the greater mission to produce leaders of character who lead our nation’s sons and daughters.
I love West Point, and I will tell anyone who asks that I had a better time than most while there. I bought into the system because I knew my goal of following in Gen. Powell’s footsteps meant that my path was going to be rampant with people who said I couldn’t succeed for whatever reason they deemed legitimate.
However, even in my intense love and pride as a graduate, I refuse to be silent about, cover up, or deny the incredible challenges that minorities face every single day as literal “unicorns” in a sea of white men. I refuse to allow my young West Point sisters to be railroaded, ostracized, demonized, degraded, and humiliated without speaking up on their behalf. They are proud. Point blank.
And while I would not have advised them to display “the fist” while taking this traditional picture, my advice would’ve been solely rooted in the fact that we exist in a very racially and politically charged environment, and not everyone will understand what you meant. But that is the 35-year-old, combat veteran, seen plenty of life, Mary, saying that to 22-year-olds, excited to be graduating, passionate about their future, and who have plenty of life to live and wisdom and experience to gain.
The current leadership at West Point is doing a phenomenal job to address issues around race, gender, sexual orientation, sexual assault, etc. in a way that I have never seen before at my school. I am so proud of the evolution of my alma mater, and to paint West Point in any other light than one that desires to be a true representation of the best that our country has to offer would be false.
With that being said, if these women are crucified on the altar of cultural misunderstanding and youthful zeal, then we will lose an incredible teachable moment for every graduate, current cadet, and future cadet. We have the opportunity to have a REAL discussion about race and culture among the men and women who will undoubtedly lead in every facet of society. We have the opportunity to heal old wounds and develop a level of understanding that can only be borne of pain and honesty.
We have an opportunity to rise from all of this better, stronger, and wiser and the time is now. We can seize this moment, mentor and support these young ladies, become a better Corps and a better country, or we can descend deeper into the abyss of racism and divisiveness that only serves those who are already full of hate.
This is not about a fist. This is about the bandage of racism at my beloved alma mater being ripped from an old festering wound. I won’t turn coat and run while these young women are served up for the slaughter as if they aren’t the brilliant, beautiful, talented, and strong leaders I know them to be. I believe in West Point, and I believe in all my brothers and sisters in the Long Gray Line. We are better than this, and we will be better than this.
Mary Tobin is a 2003 graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point. Tobin is currently a IT Project Manager at the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.