Kerri is a mixed-race woman of Black and White descent. She is a retired mother living in central Texas, originally from New York City. She grew up in the 1960s and went to college in Vermont. Her husband was in the military and she traveled around with him to various U.S. military bases in different countries, including Panama and Germany. For her career, she worked at different jobs before eventually becoming a legal secretary.
When I asked Kerri about her career, she pointed out to me that there was a stigma against military wives joining the workforce:
“Military officers’ wives did not work. That was, you know, when I was first introduced into the military as a wife, it was white gloves and a hat, and you joined and went to tea parties and did social things. And I was never at that, uh, stage. It never interested me. I went to work, so it was, like, ‘who are you and why are you working?’ So I ended up being, um, an un-standard military officer’s wife. Because a lot of them were into politic-ing into getting their husbands into the right rank. And schmoozing and developing, I don’t know, contacts. And that never interested me. So I went another route, and so falling into the legal secretary career was very lucky.”
Kerri is describing traditional gender roles that applied specifically to military families during the time that her husband served. The wives were not expected to pursue a career, but rather to act a certain way in order to maintain a conventionally respectable image. Military wives were essentially expected to campaign for the progression of their husbands’ careers, rather than to focus on their own.
These traditional roles did not appeal to her. She preferred another route involving a long-term career, a sentiment shared by many in her situation. In the “Women at Work” chapter of her book, Feminism is for Everybody, Bell Hooks explains the appeal and the liberation felt by those who join the work force: “While most workers do not feel secure at work, whether they are male or female, they do feel part of something larger than themselves. While problems at home cause greater stress and are difficult to solve, those in the workplace are shared by everyone, and the attempt to find solutions is not an isolated one” (Hooks 50). Joining a work force brings a sense of camaraderie, and the sharing of responsibility is a liberating force. Kerri chose to take this route rather than the other.
“I eventually, when we settled here in Texas, um, went on some job interviews, and one of the interviews was for lawyers. But what I started out as was doing word processing. I ended up working for them for almost 27 years. So, it was like I started off as a- a typist, and then one of them needed a secretary, and they said, ‘oh, you can be a secretary!’ So that’s how I started my secretarial… legal secretarial career. Is just by learning on the job and doing whatever needed to get done. So I didn’t ever take any legal secretary courses or paralegal course, but I ended up doing some of the things that a paralegal would do. Because I learned how to do it for the people that I worked for.”
Kerri didn’t necessarily pursue any particular career, but she found a job she enjoyed and worked her way up. She learned what to do on the job without formal education. She initiated a long-term career without realizing it, demonstrating the unpredictability of life, and how it can sometimes work in our favor.
Kerri described to me some instances of racial discrimination in the context of the military. People would often make assumptions on account of her race and nothing else. She explains how this factored into her and her husband’s experience in the military:
“There are certain expectations, for instance, when I met people and they asked me, ‘oh, you’re a military wife?’ They automatically assumed I was an NCO, an enlisted person’s wife. Because I’m Black, not because of anything else. Because most of the enlisted at that point was black…. one of my lady friends, um, was from a very highfalutin family and she married into a highfalutin family and they were office- he was an officer. And she just…. It was- floored her to know where we grew up in New York. And my husband grew up in…. well, I guess ‘bad’ neighborhood in New York. But he was an officer. ‘How could he an officer and come from there?’ So, it was interesting sometimes seeing preconceptions and how we didn’t fit into the mold.”
Similar to our discussion of military wives, there were certain expectations for Black people in the military during this time. While they weren’t entirely excluded, there were perceived roles that they had within the military. As Kerri explains, these roles are constructs, or molds that not everyone fits into. She theorizes that the way people view race is connected to their childhoods:
“I think a lot of it is how you grow up. I grew up in a multiracial, um… you know I might’ve been the only “Black” person in the area when I was in school. And I didn’t grow up, I- I’m biracial, so I didn’t really grow up in a Black community. Uh, I think that makes my outlook a little, maybe broader in terms of, um, if something happens, I don’t immediately think it’s because of race.”
She comments on the fact that growing up in what she perceived as a racially diverse environment made her more tolerant to the differences of others. Kerri believes that open communication is necessary for us to understand one another. She told me about her book club, in which she and the other members, through their different interpretations of literature, were able to better understand one another.
“We’ll read a book and we’ll be able to discuss how it pertains to us growing up, now, how it pertains to each other, so we learn about each other that way, and I think the more people learn about each other — maybe naïvely I think this – the better off we are… we can’t always walk in somebody else’s shoes, but if you know that they’re wearing a different style, that helps. You know, one of the ladies in the club is from a small town, and she grew up extremely poor. Another one came from another country. I didn’t grow up poor. I mean, we had to watch pennies, but it wasn’t poor. And again, I went away to school a lot, so I got a diverse enough background. So, we all come from different places, so we can meet and talk.”
One of the points Kerri makes here is that sympathizing with the struggles of others, even if we can’t quite empathize, is a first and necessary step towards tolerance. This is a point that is also made by Audre Lorde in her 1980 speech, Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference: “Certainly there are very real differences between us of race, age, and sex. But it is not those differences between us that are separating us. It is rather our refusal to recognize those differences, and to examine the distortions which result from our misnaming them and their effects upon human behavior and expectation” (Lorde 1). Recognizing that someone does, in fact, have different experiences and a different outlook than ourselves can help us to understand what needs to be done to aid others in their struggles.
Our discussion shifted to a discussion of the media, and the evolution of news sources from fact-based to rating-based journalism:
“People don’t wanna listen to the news anymore. When I was a kid, Walter Cronkite was, you know, he told the news. He didn’t say, well, is this what it’s supposed to be? Or he just said, ‘this is what’s happening.’… News wasn’t on a rating system. The news was the news, period. And then they started doing Good Morning America kind of news, where it was more ratings and more social…, ‘who do you think is gonna be the best dressed so and so, or have the best backing for this, that and the other thing?’ Everything is instant gratification now.”
Kerri has pointed out some of the problems with contemporary news media, in that it is often motivated by viewership. There’s been a shift, she notes, from the straightforward reporting formerly delivered by Walter Cronkite. Though some subjectivity is inevitable, the old type of news media that she’s describing aimed to be as objective as possible. When I later asked her if she believed there was a present-day news source that maintained this same level of integrity, she said that she couldn’t think of any. Considering these changes, she began to discuss how she believed one should navigate today’s news media. She says that the best way is to explore all viewpoints:
“I try and listen to different things and I think it would be very hard now growing up, going onto the internet, trying to find a reliable source…. some people say, ‘well, I don’t look at the news anymore because it’s against so and so and pro- so and so, and I just listen to my network.’ Your network is only gonna bolster what you have already. You have to go to the other networks, the other news sources, the other, uh, sources of information. If you get onto a website that says the sky is orange, and you and all of your followers say that the sky is orange, then go outside and look. You know? Talk to someone who doesn’t believe that it’s orange, see where they’re coming from. You can only expand your horizons by talking to different people, or listening to different newscasts, or sources of information”
Here, Kerri observes an increased divisiveness between people of different ideologies, which she says has been exacerbated by social media. “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” from Harper’s magazine also acknowledges this: “The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted” (“A Letter on Justice and Open Debate”). Kerri notes that social media enables users to isolate themselves among others who share their same beliefs, blocking this “free exchange of information” which the Harper’s letter says is essential. For this exchange to thrive, we need to speak to those who think differently, entertain differing perspectives, and vary our news sources in order to develop ourselves as human beings and contribute to society.
I found her explanation of how she began her career to be very inspiring. Though one thing was expected of her, she followed her own path. As a man, I don’t foresee the expectations Kerri faced being an issue to me. However, gendered expectations lock men and women alike into a position that may not be ideal for the individual. While a woman may feel oppressed by being confined to the household, a man may feel oppressed by being urged into the position of the provider when he would rather spend time with his family. The notion that one’s masculinity is linked to financial success is also something that gives me pause, considering that the field I plan to pursue isn’t particularly high paying. I believe traditional gender roles can be limiting for all involved, and so I was inspired by Kerri’s decision to defy them.
Without realizing it, Kerri began what she described to me as a fulfilling, lasting career. It wasn’t something she’d planned to do since she was young, but it was something that she enjoyed. Though I have a general idea of what I want to do for a career, I can’t possibly know the specifics. I might end up doing something else entirely. Her story is a reminder that our futures are invisible to us, and that doesn’t need to be a source of anxiety or fear. Instead, it can be a point of hope for a lot of us.
Her experiences with racial bias demonstrated to me a real-world example of implicit biases. I have had no experience of my own with this type of prejudice, at least not on the receiving end. My own experience as a White person has often been as a bystander. As such, I feel that I often fail to notice microaggressions such as those that she described to me. I understand that for her, noticing these things is unavoidable. Speaking to her has given me some additional perspective which will make me more aware in the future. While we’re often hesitant to notice or act against something that isn’t explicit – that is, if there’s no malintent behind it – it’s important for us to recognize these things and nip them in the bud. Noticing the prejudices that we have and noticing that others are afflicted by prejudices that we might not be afflicted by allows for more thorough understanding and fair treatment of all people.
One of the points Kerri kept coming back to during our interview was about open communication. I thought her take was refreshing and agreed with her that people often surround themselves with those who share their beliefs, isolating themselves amidst one ideology or another. We discussed this in the context of social media and news media. She came at this from the perspective of someone who didn’t spend a lot of time on the internet, while I’m the exact opposite, and we ended up agreeing. It’s true that social media enables us to live in a bubble, free from anything that might offend or disrupt our worldview. While I’m not of the “social media is evil” school of thought, I do recognize the flaws and shortcomings associated with it. Social media is a tool which, like all tools, is not inherently good or inherently evil. It has positive uses and negative uses. It can be abused and exploited, but it can also bring us together. The type of communication that Kerri describes, in which we listen to myriad perspectives and entertain each of them, wouldn’t have been possible prior to the internet, save for specific settings like college campuses. These days, we have access to a world of information, but many of us are prone to stick to only one kind. Keeping an open mind is something we need to train ourselves to do.
Listen to the Full Interview Here:
“A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.” Harpers, 7 July 2020. https://harpers.org/a-letter-on-justice-and-open-debate/.
Hooks, Bell. “Women at Work.” Feminism is for Everybody, South End Press, 2000, pp. 48-54.
Lorde, Audre. “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference.” Copeland Colloquium, April 1980, Amherst College, MA. Reading.