The Foreign Service Journal, November 2020

THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | NOVEMBER 2020 21 SPEAKING OUT Female, (Won't) Curtail & Yale: Waiting to Exhale Reflections on race and service from six Black women working at the State Department BY SAMANTHA JACKSON , AYANDA FRANC I S - GAO, L I SA- F E L I C I A AKORL I , A JA KENNEDY, ANNAH MWENDAR - CHABA AND TESSA HENRY S ince the May murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, discussion about rac- ism has filled the halls of the State Department. Many Black Foreign Service officers have received words and actions of support from our non- Black colleagues. But we’ve also heard voices of disbelief and denial and seen delay and lack of action, implying that incidents of racism at State, and in the United States generally, are one-offs or not a priority to address. We are writing now to reassert that, unfortunately, racism is and has always been the systemic rule, not the excep- tion. In 1946 Secretary of State Dean Acheson warned that the “existence of discrimination against minority groups in this country has an adverse effect on our relations.” Sadly, this remains true. Racism needs to be acknowledged and addressed as a priority at all levels. As Black, female, Ivy League gradu- ates and members of the Foreign Ser- vice, we feel a responsibility to disrupt the good ol’ (white) boys’ club stereo- type of the FSO (“Pale, Male and Yale”) that lingers, ghostlike, around the State Department. In the interest of making progress toward genuine diversity and inclusion, and to amplify the voices of the Breonnas and Tiannas, we share here a few of our stories and perspec- tives on racism at State. Samantha Jackson Samantha Jackson, a three-time Ivy League alumna, is a public diplomacy officer learning Arabic to serve in Doha. If I didn’t define myself for myself, l would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive. — Audrey Lorde Ugh. That’s not even an overstatement. If you are a Black professional and you do not fit the fantasized stereotype living in some minds, you are “confusing.” If you are anything like us, Black female FSOs with Ivy League degrees, prepare for acute reminders of your difference. The seemingly innocuous reminder can come in the form of the side-eye or the microaggressive incoherent insinuation that your achievement is somehow at odds with your race: Voilà—The White Black Girl. Apparently, it is a thing. That State has historically struggled to retain talented Black officers is discussed ad nauseam, but the idea that its hostile culture hemorrhages talent, provoking Black FSOs to resign citing racism and isolation in predominantly white spaces, is not. For those of us who remain, the Herculean task of dragging the margins into the narrative rests on our shoulders. As diplomats who take the advancement of American ideals seriously, we are uniquely positioned to offer perspective and provide solutions, yet our expertise all too often goes untapped. We are the cohort who grew up to the “Waiting to Exhale” movie soundtrack of Toni Braxton, Whitney Houston, SWV and Babyface hits. We are the generation who witnessed 9/11 in grade school and came of legal age to vote in the historic election of the first Black president. We’ve completed our first tours and are waiting to exhale. But this time it’s not a soundtrack; rather, we aim to track a sound response to State’s incessant delay in unambiguously committing to meet- ing the needs of all employees. Perhaps you were drawn in by the audacity of this article’s intriguing title, and perhaps you now understand why. Over to you, Ayanda… Ayanda Francis-Gao Ayanda Francis-Gao, a Columbia University alumna, is an economic officer serving in Seoul. “I can’t breathe.”The famed last words of Black people dying at the hands of the police in state-sanctioned (or at least condoned) violence is relevant to the experience many people of color—particularly Black women—face in the State Department. Our nation’s oldest agency lives up to its “Pale, Male and Yale” legacy by systematically pushing