Confronting West Point and Racial Micro-Aggressions

Not long after she entered the United States Military Academy at West Point in 2010, Jozlyn McCaw criticized a White male cadet for showing disrespect toward other cadets at summer training. The student retorted, telling McCaw, who is Black, that she was an affirmative action placeholder.

“I know why you got into West Point, and it wasn’t because of your qualifications,” he said.

The remark was one of many racial and gender-based slights McCaw heard during her time at West Point. She succeeded despite them, majoring in sociology and becoming a first lieutenant after graduation in 2014 — one of 74 African-Americans to graduate.

But during her senior year, McCaw decided to channel her frustrations in a way that, she hoped, would start a constructive conversation about minorities at West Point.

With around 50 other cadets — students of color, gays and women — she created a social media campaign in which participants took self-portraits holding whiteboards with racist, sexist and homophobic remarks they had heard while at West Point. The project, titled #ITooAmWestPoint, took its inspiration from the #ITooAmHarvard campaign at Harvard University.

Source: Jozlyn McCaw

But #ITooAmWestPoint never made it onto social media. West Point administrators discouraged McCaw and others from releasing the photographs so close to graduation, fearing that doing so would run afoul of military regulations that bar active service members from engaging in certain political activities while on active duty.

Now, as West Point prepares to graduate 994 cadets on Saturday, McCaw is speaking out.

McCaw was reluctant to go public with the campaign, fearing reprisal against her and other participants. She stressed that it is her admiration for the institution that drives her effort to see it become better at handling issues of race and gender. But in light of last week’s controversy over an “Old Corps”-style graduation photo taken by 16 Black female cadets — in which the students posed in blue dress uniforms with raised fists — she changed her mind.

Photo: Associated Press

“I love my alma mater,” McCaw said in a phone interview. “West Point was the best place I could have gone. What these photos say to West Point is, ‘Let’s have this conversation, if we’re going to learn and grow from this experience.'”

Mic has exclusively obtained the photographs from the project, and they are published here.

Mic interviewed a handful of West Point graduates for this article. The cadets said they’ve cemented lifelong friendships at the school that carry on into Army careers and beyond. But African-Americans and other students rarely went through West Point without hearing racial micro-aggressions, the former students said.

“I felt that with #ITooAmWestPoint, it helped shed light on what a lot of people don’t understand — what minorities have to go through in a predominantly White military,” McCaw said.

Micro-aggressions — brief and commonplace verbal or behavioral acts that express hostility toward minorities — aren’t harmless. A growing body of scientific research shows that, cumulatively and over time, these seemingly innocuous interactions have psychological and physiological effects, impairing performance on the job and in the classroom.

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West Point culture is infused with its own lore and slang. McCaw explained some of the most common insults she heard during her undergraduate career, couched in West Point lingo.

West Point has several prep schools that serve as a pipeline to the school for students of color and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Calling a recruit from one of these schools a “prepster” means they are not there on their own merit.

Source: Jozlyn McCaw

“Recruited athlete” is used to refer to a cadet who got into West Point because of their athletic ability, but not intellect.

Some cadets, especially African-Americans, are called “rock swimmers” if they test into a beginner-level swim class as part of required physical education. It’s a hit tap to the stereotype that Blacks cannot swim. This slight is particularly insulting given the history of African-Americans being segregated or banned from using “Whites only” swimming pools and beaches.

Other slights aren’t unique to the military academy. Cadets who participated in the #ITooAmWestPoint project called out a range of micro-aggressions common to students of color at predominantly White institutions across the country — from the “you’re so articulate” backhanded compliments to jokes that play on stereotypes of Black criminality. Telling any African American student that he or she is articulate suggests they are intelligent in spite of their skin color.

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