I wrote the bulk of this piece four moths ago and due to the heated politicization and subsequent polarization on the issues at the time, considered it too provocative to publish. My fear was that my words would get lost in the myriad hype articles used to further paint an untrue picture that overshadowed the impassioned and personal pieces written with the intent of increasing awareness and understanding. My feelings on the subject are tied directly to the use of terrible events to justify divisive behavior and to derail much of the progress we as a people have made to effect change in our society.
I am seldom deeply moved hearing speakers at professional conventions. A recent morning in May was an exception. I was not moved for the reason the speaker intended. During the presentation there was a video of a veteran, recently returned from deployment in Afghanistan. She was explaining the difficulty she had, reintegrating into a normal life as a civilian. She was struggling with feelings of no longer having a special purpose or identity. She was definitely not looking for the kinds of adulation that we see and hear every day — the salutes and “thank you for your service” but simply found it hard to readjust from being a freedom fighter to being an ordinary wife, a mom, a coworker and neighbor. She expressed feelings of navigating her everyday life in a world that did not see or acknowledge her as being the person that she was, but as the person that they expected; a soldier/patriot to those that knew her or just some random Midwestern woman to those that did not. She felt like she has returned to a world that had little understanding or concern for her experiences and the struggles she endured. Nothing for the courage it took to do her job and to survive and assimilate to a life that most of us would find terrifying and to then reintegrate to a “normal” life.
What hit me most viscerally, and it will sound blasphemous and unpatriotic to many, was the simple realization that I could strongly identify with what she was saying. It caught me off guard and really confused me. I couldn’t immediately put my finger on what I had in common with this young soldier. Slowly, it began to sink in. What we have in common is the awareness of being perceived as “different”. Growing up as a black boy and now as a black man, the sense of empathy I felt with for this soldier was at first, unsettling.
This opened up a Pandora’s box of conflicting thoughts. “How could I dare compare my experience with someone who has lived in a war zone — with someone who put her life on the line?” Or “Wait a minute! She gets to reintegrate and go back to a “normal” life while my systemic, societal isolation is life-long and there was neither a transition into my identity nor will I transition into another”.
I would not discount or belittle her experience or her legitimate difficulty. She is one of many, returning from war to a world that does not understand them or know how to treat them in a way that meets their needs. My feelings surrounding my personal experience do not diminish the importance of the need to take better care of these vets. I support these efforts.
The realization of our similarity, however, did make me reflect on the backlash that the Black Lives Matter movement continues to endure. The seemingly innocuous reports and articles that purport that the movement is violent, militant, and somehow saying that other lives don’t matter, or that urge people to focus on lives that “really matter” like military personnel and first responders. The word “thug” has recently become synonymous with black men and is attached to every video of a violent or anti-social act of any black man in order to illustrate the inhuman nature of an entire ethnicity in addition to the BLM movement. I do not want this word associated with me.
I think it’s fair to say that most people understand that all lives matter and that none is more important than the other. The point that is missed is that highlighting the need to draw attention to the institutionalized marginalization of one group is not an attack on any other. I was excited to see the beginnings of BLM but I soon lost enthusiasm as its detractors drowned out much of the momentum by conscripting and bastardizing its message into one of “patriotic” one-upmanship.
The other day, I went to buy groceries at a corner store that I frequent in my neighborhood. For the first time in years, I was followed around the store and observed. I thought it was my imagination at first, but the intent became unmistakable after my changing locations a few times. There were at least five other customers shopping, but apparently, my company logo polo shirt and khakis identified me as a potential thug. Talk about an emotional rollercoaster! I initially knee-jerked to shame, as I internalized that surely there must be something suspicious about me to make this person blatantly monitor my every move. Ugh! How embarrassing. Then my face went hot with rage. “Who does this guy think I am? / Can’t you at least try to conceal your ignorance a little better?” I was still shaking when I went to go pay the storeowner (a really nice guy) for my groceries and leave. I was too upset and at a loss for words to try to explain to him what had happened in his store; still caught off-guard that this was happening to me. I left still reeling from the experience and feeling guilt for not saying something immediately, to either my stalker or to the owner (I have since forgiven myself and written this).
I can’t adequately compare the intensity of the feelings that I have with those of a veteran nor would I attempt to apply any metrics or value to either. The realization that we share these feelings is what really resonated.
People who have not been in a war impacted region can never truly understand the experiences, feelings, or the resulting effects of exposure to the stresses our veterans have endured. Similarly, people who have not gone through life as a person of color cannot identify with the micro-aggressions that we endure from birth until death; the societal expectations superimposed on us (that I have been guilty of myself). I want the opportunity to experience society as an equal just as I want to change the way we understand, reintegrate, and honor our returning vets. I simply don’t want my self-advocacy to be misconstrued as an attempt to either disrespect or to subvert any other group. We have more in common than people want to give us credit for. Feel me?