It’s not always easy discussing race and diversity issues.
That’s why Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael Grinston said he usually opens up these discussions by asking his soldiers how they grew up.
“It kind of defines who I am today … how I grew up,” Grinston said Monday during a virtual discussion of race sponsored by the Association of the United States Army. “And that’s why it’s so important, that question.”
Ten days after the death of George Floyd, a Black man prosecutors say was murdered by a white Minneapolis police officer on May 25, Grinston, whose father is Black and mother is white, shared via Twitter some of his experiences growing up in Alabama.
“Racial identity is something I struggled with my entire life,” Grinston said in the video.
Grinston said Monday he decided to release the video because he thought it was the right time, and if he was struggling to share his story, maybe others were as well.
But learning how someone grew up is just the beginning, Grinston said. The next question is whether soldiers have seen or experienced racism in the Army.
The AUSA discussion also involved four noncommissioned officers in the Army, several of whom said they have seen others mocked for the way they spoke while giving briefings, including in cases where English was the speaker’s second language.
That type of behavior doesn’t belong in the Army, according to Grinston.
“There’s no place in our Army for microaggressions,” Grinston said. “The little comments, the snickers — we’re better than that, and we can do better.”
Although he acknowledged there may be some fear in speaking up when others behave inappropriately, Grinston encouraged soldiers to address the issue when they do witness such bias in the Army.
“It’s OK, and it’s OK to stand out,” Grinston said. “If people judge you for that, they need to be corrected, not you.”
Grinston also said just because someone hasn’t seen or experienced racism within the Army itself, doesn’t mean it isn’t present.
The Army has taken several steps recently to address unconscious bias throughout the service. For example, the Army announced in June it was eliminating official photos for officer, warrant officer and enlisted selection boards.
“One of the reasons we are taking out the photos is because, I thought, of the unconscious bias,” Grinston said. “I thought people, in the board, they were looking for people that looked like them. … I don’t think that’s what we’re going for.”
The removal of photos also was due in part to the results of an October 2018 study in which the Army conducted two selection boards that were identical in all aspects but one — one board used photos, the other did not. The study found that board members ranked candidates more similarly when the photo was absent.
The Pentagon followed suit and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper issued an order to eliminate the use of promotion packet photos, coupled with a review across the services to determine how best to promote diversity. Pentagon leadership is weighing the possibility of removing names and sex from promotion packets as well.
“We’re a taking a very holistic look at the way that boards can look at packages, by virtue of merit, into promotion,” Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chairman Ramon Colon-Lopez said in July during a virtual town hall.
“I know that the secretary and the chairman can agree that we can do better on those boards,” he said.