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Gay, Muslim, AAPI Names: Broken & Unreadable

12 December 2022:

Over the past few months these three stories have circulated in and out of my mind. Tonight, I decided, it’s time for me to share them; to release them.

1. Gay: Some time ago while I was doing an airborne assignment, one of my fellow aviators shared something with our crew over dinner. As we all sat at one of the dining facility tables eating, another flyer came in, got his food and sat at a different table. We flew with him but he wasn’t apart of our unit. "There he is" one of my fellow Airmen said. "That’s the man who was calling Gay people Fa**** during the flight, and that they all need to die." I asked, what happened? They retold the story. Some members in our group said "mmm... " shook their heads and caried on eating their food. I scanned the table for everyone else’s reactions to include the person telling the story and they all carried on. I asked, "what did you do when he said those things?" They told me, "I just turned my radio down low so I wouldn't have to hear it." No one asked anymore questions. The subject was changed, and we caried on eating our meal.

After dinner as I walked back to my bunk, I said to myself, "Kristin, that was wrong, you need to report this!" I felt bad that, the recognition of the need to report this incident, didn't dawn on me sooner. I then thought that maybe the nature of our environment being flatter along with the daily grind of work, caused me to momentarily forget my power as a leader and person. I went back to the Airmen to tell them that what happened was not ok, and that I would like to let the leadership know. The Airman was visibly uncomfortable but said ok.

I went to our office to meet with the Mission Commander, but he was out at the time, so I reported the incident to the Senior Enlisted Leader (SEL) and the Operations Superintendent (Ops Sup), who were both available. The SEL said, "They shouldn't have turned down their radio. That’s dangerous and a threat to crew risk management (a big safety concern when flying)." "True...." I said, "but the Airmen should never have been placed in a position where they felt the need to turn down their radio, due to the vile words of their crew members." The SEL replied by saying, "They need to toughen up. When you're a flyer you have to be tough." The Ops Sup jumped in, "Yea if they’re going to fly, they need to toughen up. They can't turn down their radio because they don't like what someone said."

I started getting frustrated because they weren't seeing the root of the problem. "We don’t tell women who are raped that they should have toughened up, or they shouldn’t have worn that outfit, or walked down that alley because that’s blaming the victim. This Airmen was a VICTIM. They were hurt and felt personally attacked by what their crew members said so much so that the only way they saw out of the situation was to turn their radio down. Yes, that wasn’t a safe move, but their crew should have never put them in a position where they felt unsafe."

Somehow, telling the scenario caused something in them to click and be more supportive. When the Mission Commander came in, I reported the incident to him and he took swift action with the other flyer's leadership. As far as I know, this was no longer an issue again with this individual.

2. Muslim: While I was in elementary school, I usually would walk, ride my bike, or occasionally get rides from my mom, to and from school. During our travels to and from school my mom and I would usually see a South Asian American man who wore a turban walk, his small daughter to school. This went on for years.

Then 9/11 happened. I was in the 6th grade by this time. The man still carried on walking to and from school with his daughter until one day he stopped. He kept taking his daughter to school, but he stopped wearing his turban. I don’t know when or if he ever put it back on again.

In the year that followed, I remember there being a lot of fear in our community surrounding Islam and terrorists and anthrax and all kind of stuff. I was mostly sheltered from it but one day, I overheard my parents discussing how there had been a murder two blocks away from where we lived. Allegedly, the man chased his wife around his car in their driveway with welding jack and bludgeoned her to death. According to the neighbors, when the husband was arrested, he told the authorities that the wife was a "terrorist." Overhearing my mom tell the story, it sounded like the man was just saying anything to help his case and there was no merit to his story. I heard nothing else about it after that.

3. Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Names: While I was in high school a friend of a friend of mine apparently changed their Filipino last name to something more "American" sounding. My friend shared with me how the decision was not that of the friend but of their father. Apparently, the dad was concerned that the "Filipino" name could possibly be a discriminator for entry into colleges, jobs and other career opportunities. His child was TRULY gifted and talented, and he didn't want anything to stand in the way of their potential advancement. My friend who shared this with me, was also Filipino and apparently there was quite a bit of civil discourse and controversy over this decision within fellow Filipino students and parents connected to our high school.

I look back at each of these stories and I can't help but think of the term, "Broken and unreadable." This is a military term used when speaking over the radio when someone on the other end comes in muffled or unclear. Saying, "Broken and Unreadable" alerts the speaker that they need to say the message again. But in a non-radio scenario and in human life, how many different times and in different ways do messages have to be said again before they are received clearly?

Why does it take someone being gay themself, or knowing someone gay, or relating a scenario of hate speech to rape for someone else to see their humanity? Why have so many people had to HIDE their faith out of fear of being seen as a terrorist and ultimately losing their life or livelihood? Why do some people in the AAPI community feel compelled to change their name to something more "American," something more "White" to eliminate any possibility of discrimination from a name before they even have their performance records reviewed or show up to an interview? What kind of environment is this where so many people of color fear that by showing up as their authentic self at school, at their job, or even in their own driveway could lead to them losing everything they've worked for, care for, and their very own lives?

I think the message has been repeated enough times. Saying "Broken and Unreadable," for life scenarios is no longer an acceptable response when I continue to see history repeat itself over and over and over again. I see this in others, and I see it in myself.

During the onset of the pandemic, one of my former Vice Wing Commanders shared how a lot of things changed after 9/11. And while we are eager to go back to how things were before the pandemic, that we should be open to possible changes that come out of the pandemic that are for our good. I personally have found that the pandemic with all of the racial injustices, Ft Hood murders, imbalance in health care, protests, capital insurrection by American citizens, education, mental health, and much more have exposed so many areas where America needs restoration. Instead of "pushing it under the rug" or "carrying on" I see this as a wonderful opportunity to confront who each of us really are, what our existing systems are and see what we can do to authentically build trust within ourselves, in our communities, and ultimately become stronger. Not just stronger in our ability to be resilient, but rather in our ability to have empathy and connection. But to do this, truth must be confronted, and the work starts WITHIN.

I don’t want replays of the same message told over and over again, where I fail or am unwilling to try to comprehend. I want to pay attention. I want to keep seeking truth and understanding, even if it scares me or makes me uncomfortable. I no longer feel responsible or pressure to educate others on their blind spots or to "change" other people. I am committed to cultivating safety within my own self and am accepting that while I am tired of the foolishness in the world that has so heavily affected me, change can only begin in me and I'm no longer willing to give others my power.

Photo: Gifts given to me last year from one of my Squadron’s Korean counterparts during our holiday gift exchange. I was gifted an alcoholic beverage and a gelatin cookie dessert. The beverage (left) is concealed in a clay cover. Around the new year, one is to take the hammer, use it to break the clay seal then drink the beverage inside of it. The clay represents the negative energy from the past that is being “broken” away, while the beverage represents the good to come.


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