The Color of Diplomacy: A U.S. Diplomat on Race and the Foreign Service
What began as protests against police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s death have converged into a larger conversation on racial and social justice in America, creating what may now constitute the largest movement in U.S. history. It is a remarkable moment that has also led me to reexamine my own experience as a biracial, first-generation American and how it shapes my role as a U.S. Foreign Service officer — a diplomat — representing the United States overseas. While I have spent the bulk of my professional life looking outwards at the affairs of other countries and America’s bilateral relationships, I have recently found myself looking inwards. This journey began some years ago, but has been accelerated by current events in the United States.
In my profession I am one cog in a wheel working to advance U.S. interests and values abroad. When done well, I firmly believe that this pursuit ultimately leads to a far more peaceful, prosperous, and stable global environment. You often hear of the idea of American exceptionalism in the national security realm, but that can only be a compelling argument if reflected domestically. Thus, for America’s career diplomats to be truly effective, the story we tell of the United States must be an honest one. For me, that begins with a frank assessment of my own experiences.
Personal Reflections: Growing up Biracial
“Take your hat and sunglasses off, smile, always say ‘yes sir or no sir,’ and keep your hands where the officer can see them.” This was how my paranoid (or so I thought) white father told me how to behave if I was stopped by a police officer. For my black mother, a woman who grew up in white minority ruled Rhodesia (modern-day Zimbabwe), her fear manifested itself in sleepless nights if I came home late, one ear cocked waiting to hear the front door open and shut. Neither of these anecdotes are uncommon for any parent, but these standard fears of parenting a teenager were enhanced by my skin color.
My father, an immigrant from the United Kingdom, viewed the United States as a land of opportunity, but also as a nation with a deep history of discriminatory behavior towards minorities, often perpetrated by its public servants. I recall our bookshelf dotted with global histories, to include some devoted to the subjugation of people of color in America. One, in particular, indelibly left its mark: a book sleeve depicting a group of white men in the 1960s gleefully holding clubs, in preparation for a night of terrorizing the local black population in the American South. They were the town sheriffs.
I don’t know why the cover imprinted on me. I never read the book, nor the numerous others similarly highlighting America at its worst. What they portrayed appeared foreign to me, a relic of the past. I preferred to avoid it entirely. After all, America had changed after the civil rights era, at least that was the impression I was left with in school in Texas. Racism still existed, but not as depicted in Roots or the grainy black and white videos of U.S. police officers beating and hosing down civil rights activists. The suburban America I had grown up in was an economically thriving and diverse community. Southern hospitality was not just a saying, but a reality. My friends were white, black, Latino, Asian, Middle Eastern, and African.
Thus, I largely discounted the other things, the things that nagged at me deep down but I never allowed to rise to the surface: the Confederate statues, flags, and street names so frequent they eventually bled into my surroundings. My then-girlfriend/now-wife lived 15 minutes from me in a neighborhood where the main thoroughfare was called Plantation Drive, with others named Old South Drive, Old Dixie Drive, Confederate Court, and Brown School Court. There were the numerous traffic stops by police for seemingly trivial reasons or no reason at all, including two random stops within five minutes as my wife and I drove through Alabama on a cross-country trip to visit family, one of which included the police officer separating my wife and me (asking me to sit in the cop car) to question us separately. My wife’s skin is white, and I am black.
There were the stares directed at my white father and his darker sons, and the security guards who followed us throughout department stores; the time my brother and his friends were walking to their car in a mall parking lot, and a white woman nearby shouted to her teen “hold my bags so I can grab my gun” while watching them menacingly. And there were the anonymous calls in the night with racial slurs directed at my mother, or the passive-aggressive comments directed at me in school: you are the whitest black person I know.
Tokenism was prevalent as well, such as the time Texas A&M University, my alma mater, cropped my brown face onto the body of a white student for a Corps of Cadets recruitment poster. Imagine my surprise seeing my face on a body that wasn’t mine. I self-blamed, “maybe my uniform didn’t look neat,” or “maybe they wanted to show a uniform of a higher-ranking cadet,” as if that excused the lie they told by photoshopping my face and using me as a diversity prop, as I was one of only a handful of black cadets.
For years, these moments in my life seemed unconnected. Rather than viewing them as examples of pervasive racism, I explained them away, with many of the “explanations” contradicting the others. Just a few bad apples, they were just doing their job, it is about southern heritage, it is not that bad. Plus, America had been good to me and my immigrant family. I lived the typical American life: middle-class background, first person in my family to go to university, and I acquired my dream job. My parents didn’t have that growing up.
So, instead of looking inwards and questioning why I and others had grown to accept these blots in life, I chose to look beyond the water’s edge. Family trips led to a fascination with foreign cultures, politics, and cuisine. Traveling through the countryside of a Zimbabwe economically ravaged by authoritarian leadership and listening to my English grandmother describe, in harrowing detail, the Blitz on London and my grandfather’s actions as an air raid warden left a profound impression on me, an appreciation for my country, and eventually a passion for public service. 9/11 transpired, then Iraq and Afghanistan, I nervously tracked my wife’s evacuation from Lebanon during the 2006 war during her family’s summer visit to Beirut, and so my captivation with all things international and America’s role in the world grew, while my personal experiences sat idle on a metaphorical bookshelf, yearning to be read and understood. It is only now that I have come to revisit them, but in the context of current events and my occupation, in one of America’s most storied institutions.
Professional Reflections: The U.S. Foreign Service of Today
I recall day one of my A-100 Foreign Service orientation class, a moment of true excitement and anxiety for any new Foreign Service officer preparing to embark on a journey to an unknown destination. For me, it was a career that would scratch the itch for public service and the fascination with foreign cultures, politics, and cuisine. But as I took a seat and searched the room, I noticed my class consisted of two black officers, including myself, out of 75 (my wife’s class had one, seven years prior). Weeks later, I was pleased to see the subsequent orientation class with substantially more people of color, but I soon learned the majority were hired through fellowship programs designed to increase diversity at the State Department. A monumental step, but I wondered: Why the glaring distinction with non-fellowship hires? It is such a stark one that minority officers are often assumed to be fellows, as if that is the only way racial and ethnic minorities can enter the field. The perception will likely not change soon, as only 7 percent of the U.S. Foreign Service is represented by employees who identify as black, a mere 1 percent increase since 2002.
In 2020, the U.S. diplomatic corps, regrettably, does not represent the true diversity and talent of the United States. And it shows.
It shows every time a visa applicant asks to speak to a “real American” at the interview window, as an Asian-American colleague experienced. The interviewee demanded he speak to a supervisor, looking over my colleague’s shoulder for the “pale, male, and Yale” American who surely must have been around the corner. My colleague granted the request, inviting the consul to the window. The consul was Afghan-American. I relished in the satisfaction of imagining the applicant’s facial expression in that moment. But now, six years after the encounter, knowing only 6 percent of Foreign Service employees are of Asian descent, I ponder what assumptions remain about U.S. citizens in the minds of those we interact with abroad.
It shows when, upon entering a U.S. embassy or consulate in Latin America, my Hispanic-American colleagues are greeted with a presumptuous “hola” by a guard or coworker whose eyes search frantically for a sign of credentials, while their white colleagues breeze through entryways. Only 7 percent of the Foreign Service is Hispanic.
As a member of this small cohort of minority diplomats, numerous stories are privately shared. Skin tones or “different” names can correspond with treatment of being less authentically American. We laugh uncomfortably and tolerate racially tinged jokes at our expense, if only to avoid confrontation. And in a work environment where employee reviews and corridor reputation are paramount to one’s success, people suffer in silence to avoid rocking the boat. Thus, when colleagues tell me they prefer to withhold such experiences from their leadership, I understand the core message to be I don’t know who to trust and who to turn to for help. And who do we turn to for mentorship and a helping hand, when the senior ranks are largely a homogenous club with African-Americans (2.8 percent), Asian-Americans (3.6 percent), and multi-racial (1.3 percent) officers representing less than 8 percent of the Senior Foreign Service.
But this is not uniquely a State Department problem, it is an American one, as Tianna Spears, a former black diplomat, frustratingly illustrated after her encounters with another agency:
A CBP [U.S. Customs and Border Protection] officer flagged me into secondary inspection, for what I estimate was more than 15 times since I arrived in Mexico — at least once a week. The official inquired if I was a U.S. citizen, motive of travel in the United States, reason of visit in Mexico, and if the car I was driving was stolen. I sat on a cold bench and endured further questioning. I showed my Diplomatic Passport, stating I worked at the U.S. Consulate General in Ciudad Juarez, and lived there.
“Sure you do,” he laughed.
Similarly, Fatima, a former ambassador’s spouse was not spared:
Fatima was “detained” at her workstation in an embassy … during a security drill after hours. She had permission to work; notwithstanding, three white American guards, with guns pointed at her, yelled at Fatima to get on the ground, put a knee in her back, tied her wrists with zip ties, pulled her up by her underarms and shoved her against a wall. She was humiliated and physically bruised. She did not want to identify herself as the spouse of the ambassador, and she did not. The only other person treated similarly that night was a Black American.
The cuts continue as I read a number of public recollections that describe officers facing discriminatory behavior, affronts, and hostility from colleagues, supervisors, and members of other U.S. government agencies. Inevitably, I and others are left to wonder, what do these and countless other tales reveal? The easy answer is that recruitment has yet to attract enough Americans to the Foreign Service with diverse backgrounds — geographic, socio-economic, and racial. But regardless of whether recruitment improves, the issue of retaining people of color is another battle being lost. This is clear as a common theme across these stories, which is that all the voices sharing them have left the Foreign Service entirely. The hard answer is, therefore, linked to the underlying biases in American society.
This troubles many of us in the service, for it hurts America’s diplomatic effectiveness and, by extension, weakens U.S. national security and economic prosperity, as the Foreign Service is inevitably not working at full capacity.
Investing in and retaining a diverse diplomatic corps that adequately reflects the United States is undeniably valuable, as I have personally witnessed in my overseas assignments. For example, in Saudi Arabia female colleagues seamlessly interacted with a segment of society not open to male officers, while Arab-American officers who had mastery of the local language and culture were able to provide insightful reporting cables to U.S. policymakers. I also watched colleagues from rural America effortlessly grasp the intricacies of Mexico’s agricultural sector, which helped build a stronger bilateral economic relationship. And, as a biracial American officer, I have found foreign interlocutors noticeably more willing to speak with me about sensitive issues such as extremism, discrimination, and political reform in their own societies knowing the United States has its own warts in relation to my racial background. Diversity makes the Foreign Service a more effective organization by varying its skills and backgrounds, and thus helps U.S. foreign policy succeed in achieving its objectives.
In 2020, this should be obvious. So, why has change moved at a leisurely pace? As James Baldwin, the American writer and activist, once said, “We are cruelly trapped between what we would like to be and what we actually are.”
Call Racism by Its Name
From afar, as I watch the United States reckon with its own inner demons, I recognize that my personal and professional experiences and those of others are not anomalies but a consistent theme in America’s story. They are inextricably linked to not only the State Department’s shortcomings, but also to copious others. They humanize a larger mosaic of what it means to be a person of color in America. My lens was heavily shaped by a romanticized accounting of U.S. history in textbooks and a personal desire to keep moving forward, and so I never allowed myself to dissect my own experience and identify it for what it was: an undercurrent of systemic racism, whether in the form of unconscious bias, microaggressions, or blatant discrimination. The fact that I failed to call out my own encounters, even as a person of color, shows how America has normalized (at best) ugly behavior and (at worst) a lack of opportunity and true injustice for people of color.
But it is exactly these smaller moments — which I have often told myself are not worth the headache — that define America’s unspoken culture. They allow inequalities to permeate throughout the country’s most respected institutions and, ultimately, are to blame for the mistreatment of Fatima, Tianna Spears, and Christian Cooper; and worse, the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Trayvon Martin.
Only when the majority of Americans allow themselves to have a moment of genuine introspection and are ready to address the scourge of systemic racism in society (not deride it as “political correctness” or “cancel culture” as is so often the case) will the institutions that serve the United States permanently reflect its founding principles. Only then will the story America’s diplomats tell of the United States be an honest one, both at home and abroad.
Small steps are already being made.
The Tipping Point
Confederate statues and numerous monuments with questionable origins and depictions of race have now been removed. Juneteenth became a household name (I am ashamed to say I only heard of Juneteenth in the last couple of years, and Galveston is only an hour drive from my hometown). With a little push from prominent establishments, Mississippi voted to eliminate the Confederate emblem from their state flag. And public and private institutions across the United States have bolstered efforts to enhance diversity and inclusion within their ranks, including the U.S. Department of State.
Should the State Department truly capture the momentum of this national moment, the result will, hopefully, be a genuine shift in internal culture and policies. Change is possible, as I am already seeing white friends, peers, and supervisors reflect and acknowledge their own biases and actively make time to listen to those who represent a different race, gender, or sexual orientation from their own. To them I say, let’s keep it going. Because in the near term this progress will show in recruitment practices and promotion boards, so that in the long term persistent inequalities and biases will no longer exist in the ranks, setting a national example. Such systemic change will strengthen the Foreign Service and the message its officers carry overseas, for true power lies with a nation that is capable of self-reflection and corrective action.
This is the United States at its best — constantly learning, evolving, and reinvigorating its values of equality and justice for all. This watershed moment is one step in America’s journey to reckon with its past and present. It is the America I choose to represent overseas, and it is the America that foreign interlocutors have constantly praised to me, even during profound disagreements over U.S. policy.
May the U.S. public overcorrect or even err in the process? Yes, as the toppling of a statue of Ulysses S. Grant demonstrated. But, inevitably, reform and change will be put in place because that is who Americans are.
I will continue in my chosen profession. For an organization that represents the face of the United States overseas, its ranks must remain populated with individuals who accurately reflect the diverse culture and ideas of the society they exemplify. Perhaps 20 years from now, the country will have a Foreign Service that looks and sounds like our United States to guide American decision-making in the international arena.
Kip Whittington is a Foreign Service officer with the U.S. Department of State who has served in the Middle East and Latin America. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. government.
Image: State Department