Our Body Politic

How to Heal from Racial Trauma in the Workplace, Celebrating Women of Color in Hollywood’s Nerdiest Genres, and a Frank Conversation About the Future of the U.S. Military

Episode Notes

Host Farai Chideya talks with author Minda Harts about the moment she made a difficult decision to leave a racist work environment and prioritize her mental health. Journalist Adam Serwer shares why he felt it was important to write about the Trump Presidency, even if he lost the 2020 election. Farai and business of entertainment contributor Casey Mendoza nerd out about the women of color making waves in science fiction and fantasy fandoms. And in a special episode of Sippin’ the Political Tea, retired Major General Linda Singh and Navy veteran Tashandra Poullard open up to Farai about the challenges of coming home from war, and how they’d like to see the U.S. military evolve beyond the “forever wars.”


0:22 Author and executive Minda Harts on healing from racial trauma in the workplace

13:03 Journalist Adam Serwer on tracing the genealogy of racism and eugenics

21:14 Casey Mendoza on the women of color making their mark in sci-fi and fantasy

31:55 Sippin’ the Political Tea: a special roundtable on the future of the U.S. military with two female women of color veterans

Episode Transcription

Farai Chideya:    Thank you for listening to and sharing Our Body Politic. Thanks to you, we're moving up on the list of news commentary shows on Apple podcasts, it is so helpful to get your reviews on Apple. It helps other listeners find us so after you listen, please consider leaving us a review. We look forward to reading it and hearing your feedback. Thanks so much. This is Our Body Politic. I'm the creator and host Chideya. We cover so many topics on the show from politics to economics to entertainment, and we focus on highlighting the experiences and expertise of women of color in those fields. My next guest will talk about the business world where there's still a lack of women of color in the C suite, they account for only one in 25 executives. Minda Harts is the co-founder of The Memo, a career development company for women of color. She's also the author of a new book Right Within, How to Heal from Racial Trauma in the Workplace. Minda welcome.

Minda Harts:    Hey Farai, happy to be here. Thank you.

Chideya:    So you have early on in the book, a line that sticks with me. "Racism doesn't just kill people, it kills careers, too." And then you talk about a dream job gone wrong. Can you tell us about the personal journey of what it is that you went through in terms of that dream job, and then also how you found that you still had healing work to do years later.

Harts:    So when I took this dream job, I was like many of us, we've done all the things that society has told us we should do, go to college, do this, do that. And so I had checked all the boxes and when I finally felt like I arrived at this place, it still wasn't enough, I was still being called the black girl in certain meetings, I was still being treated less than equitable. And it just really started to impede upon my mental health, I started to gain panic attacks, because it was almost like a scary movie. You get the call, and you're like, wait, it's coming from the house, it's coming from the cube right next door, it's coming from down the hall way.

Chideya:    It's coming from the cube right next door.

Harts:    And you don't know when it's going to happen, it could happen, you could be having a great lunch and all of a sudden, a colleague said something to you. And now you are tasked with trying to make it through the rest of the day, and do your best work, but still try to take care of yourself and it just started to chip that pieces of me. And at some point I was waiting on my colleagues, the so called allies to do something about this toxic environment to show up for me. And I realized that nobody was coming to save me and that Audre Lorde says "Beware of feeling you're not good enough to deserve it." And I realized that I deserve equity, I deserve humanity, and dignity. And I ended up having to leave my dream job.

Chideya:    What about money? You ask a question and then answer it. "As long as I'm making money, who cares about what I have to endure?"

Harts:    Yeah, that was my way of thinking for a very long time. I'm making, this glamorous six figures, and I have health insurance and all those things are great, but I was still suffering. The math wasn't mathing right? Did not equate to happy, a fulfilled life because I was suffering. And if you're suffering at work, then you're taking it home, right? You're taking it to other pieces of your life. And so the money for me wasn't worth the deterioration of my health. And what if I told you, you could have both? It can be yes, and I think because we haven't always experienced what good looks like we question right? What if I told you, you can be free at work and get paid equitably? It's possible.

Chideya:    I'll be real. I'm at a point in my life where I can essentially self finance the kind of work that I believe needs to live in the world. And yet, I'm also still healing from having been in the journalism game and seeing the hubris that has made journalism less high impact and also deeply traumatized a lot of black and brown people and women and non binary people in it. So I'm saying that because even in the context of doing this work in this show, where we have a multiracial team, predominantly, but not exclusively female, these things come up because even when we are able to have our own processes that are healthy, we still sometimes at least for me, I'm bringing my old Farai into the room, and I have to be very careful about that. So what do we do when we are bringing old baggage into new situations even if the new situations are relatively healthy or extremely healthy?

Harts:    You bring up a good point, in the book, I drill into triggers because I realized that when I left one toxic environment and I was going into another, it may not have been the same type of personalities, maybe it was. But because it felt similar because I had that toxicity I was aggressed at every turn, now I'm going with that armor on ready to fight whatever might may or may not be there. And what I realized was this paranoia that I have due to demonstrations that I've been exposed to but I don't have to live with that and I think it's important for us first to acknowledge that we have been harmed. I think as, I'll speak for as a black woman, we've been told to be strong, we've been told to just make it work, right? And it's like wait a second, am I making this work at the expense of my own well being, I mean, who am I being strong for? Doing everything for everybody but myself and I realized that I had to choose me and I no longer had to seek validation from my colleagues to tell me if this is racism or not. Right?

Harts:    Because when you're the one of the only you're like, wait a second, is this isn't in you're like trying to figure it out and it's like wait a second, Minda, you know when you're being mistreated. Affirm yourself first and then you can worry about everybody else in the boardroom. But I think that's where the healing starts, acknowledging that we deserve better.

Chideya:    Yeah, I mean, some of the specifics are really uncanny of how black women in particular get singled out in workplace dynamics. You talk about Chad air quotes whose name I believe you've changed, who was a supervisor who pointed out your burnt orange nail color, and it wasn't about the nail color, it was about singling you out as different from other professional people. And it reminds me of a time that made headlines A while back where Gay Talese had pointed out Nicole Hannah Jones' nails at an event and it became a thing. And I saw a lot of white female journalists be like, "Oh he's really nice," and that's another whole dynamic. So there's like, there's the what was said, how you interpret what was said, how other people interpret what was said about what was said, it's exhausting.

Harts:    It is exhausting. And everybody's so quick to support Chad, right? "No, I know Chad, I go to happy hour with him. He could never." And it's like, well, have we asked Chad what he meant? And why don't I have the same care in the workplace to take care of me? Why is no one ever showing up for us? And that's compounding the trauma. Right now you're telling me what I'm feeling is not that. And again, you start to eventually maybe believe that it's not and I think that's where the harm continues to perpetuate.

Chideya:    Let's talk a little bit about tears. You've cried in the office, I've also cried in the office. And I realized in retrospect, that when I cried in front of a manager, which is something that you also didn't write about, they were partly tears of sadness, and partly tears of frustration. There's basically, the idea of how we feel about our own tears if we cry in the workplace. And then, I'm just going to go there, I have seen the weaponization of white lady tears, certain times that white women use tears to avoid hard conversations or to essentially win an argument. How should we think about tears?

Harts:    I've come to change my mind about tears and over the years, but what I will say is when someone cries what is the intent behind their tears? Right? So when a white woman cries is your intention to take accountability away from you and now center you or are your tears from a genuine place right? And I don't have the energy to figure out what those tears mean, but what I will say is, if that's your go to, crying when accountability is brought to your feet, then you need to think about if you're an ally, if you're an equitable person who's going to make space for other people. And I think that these tears have really caused us even more harm. For me it's been hard to have that empathy right? And that's something that I'm also working through because I know not every white woman that cries is doing it from this victimized place but I think that they need to really sit with the reasons why they're crying.

Harts:    For me, I had a lot of shame around crying initially in my manager's office. I did not want to, I kept playing the song in my head over and over Minda don't cry, Minda Don't cry, but it came because like you said it was all the years of who didn't show up, who didn't say anything, and in this moment, it just came. And I had to forgive myself, and you know what? When I walked out of that office, I actually was somewhat happy that he saw it, because that was the first time I saw some empathy in his eyes to say, wow, she is a human being. And I think that sometimes the situation calls for it and I think we should talk more about tears.

Chideya:    So what is your favorite thing to do just individually as Minda to heal yourself in the short term and the long term? Meaning like, the short term intervention where you know, you need a little bit of a pick me up just to get through a day or a meeting and then the longer arc.

Harts:    One thing I'll say about healing is, I know on internet and things, it's sexy to say, but healing takes some work, and it's not a one time thing, it's a lifestyle. Like every day, I'm committing to my healing because I know it's necessary. And so one of my practices through the week is having therapy. I can be vulnerable and talk about the things that are harming me and making me smile and so having someone that I trust, to talk to. And so, success is not a solo sport, I think sometimes we think we have to go at it alone or not admit that we might be having some struggles in this area and having people in your corner. So I think that having therapy or healing tools or people, church, faith based approaches, making sure you have some type of tools in your toolkit for when you need them.

Harts:    And then I think the long term is making some decisions, deciding is my mental health more important than this particular environment, reminding myself that I am an asset, right? There is another opportunity for me and I don't have to subject myself to this type of abuse. And that's what it is, it's abusive environment, and I think it's time to actually call them what they are.

Chideya:    Yeah. So as we wrap up here, I want you to talk to Minda, who has just decided that she has to leave her air quote, dream job. What would you like her to know about who you are today, where you are today and what lies ahead for that version of yourself.

Harts:    In the Japanese culture, there's a process called kunsuji. And it's putting broken pieces of pottery back together, repairing and becoming an even better version. And so even though you've been hammered, you're thinking about leaving that job, you are leaving, I want you to know that you have the ability to redefine the pieces of yourself that have been harmed. And you have the ability to recreate a better version of yourself. And I'm excited to see where your new version rebuilds and repairs in centers you.

Chideya:    That is beautiful. Minda, thank you so much.

Harts:    Thank you.

Chideya:    That was Minda Harts. Her book is Right Within, How to Heal from Racial Trauma in the Workplace, and it's out now. My next guest routinely writes about race racism and how that impacts us politics.

Adam Serwer:    My name is Adam Serwer and I'm a staff writer at the Atlantic.

Chideya:    Adam told me he's not pessimistic or optimistic, but instead focuses his work on documenting history as accurately as possible. Like in his recent book, The Cruelty Is the Point, The Past, Present, and Future of Trump's America. Now he zooms in on the Trump era and what it says about race in the us today. So I started by asking him about something he brings up at the very beginning of the book. He talks about his choice to use a lowercase B when referring to black people.

Serwer:    So to be honest, it wasn't a decision so much as it was what I was already doing. The only thing that made it worth having a note was the fact that after the George Floyd protests last year, a lot of publications began capitalizing B including my publication of the Atlantic. And I didn't really like that trend, because I felt like it was rather than emphasizing that race is a biological fiction, it was instead reinforcing the idea that race makes us fundamentally different. As my friend and former colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates says, "Race as a child of racism, not the father." It's the concept of race that leads to the idea of racism rather than the other way around.

Chideya:    I thought it was a really powerful way to start the book because you go really deep into the political and economic warfare around race without first assuming that everybody's on the same page about what race even is. And I was also fascinated by another place you go deep, which is eugenics. I want to spend a little time with you on that question. You talk about a book from the way back by Madison Grant, The Passing of the Great Race. Now, Hitler was a big fan of that book. Start out by explaining a little bit about how we need to understand eugenics or why it's important in the context of contemporary issues.

Serwer:    Well, I think people need to understand that the modern concept of race is a relatively recent invention. It's only a few centuries old, and is closely tied to economic and social agendas. In the case of Madison Grant, Grant was a old money type, who is watching as immigration from eastern and southern Europe was changing the demographics the United States. And in particular, Grant believed that Northern Europeans were superior to Southern and Eastern Europeans, particularly Italians and Jews. In fact, he went so far with the pseudoscientific belief that he insisted that the Roman Empire was actually created by Nordics, and that modern Italians were actually descendants of the slave races that they imported to do manual labor, which for him was a message or an explanation, an allegory for why the United States cannot continue to have open doors when it came to European immigration.

Serwer:    His book, The Passing of the Great Race is very influential on American lawmakers and ultimately leads to the immigration restrictions of the early 1920s, which are essentially an attempt to as one of the authors in the bill put it, maintain the racial composition of the United States, as they understand it. And Hitler sees in America kind of example, and Nazi jurists spend a lot of time examining American race laws for inspiration on how they want to build their society. Because of America's role in World War II, America's intellectual contribution to this noxious ideology, sort of gets erased. And on the one hand, is you could look at that positively we don't want to be associated with that, so we've never hold it. But on the other hand by memory holding it, where we have erase the map of our own history, and therefore can get lost and find ourselves in a bad place again.

Chideya:    So yeah, you do a lot of intellectual genealogies of racist thought in this book, because it hasn't gone away. And as part of that, you talk about the former Trump adviser Stephen Miller and his family of origin, about their family's immigrant experience, discrimination, anti semitism in Europe, immigrating to the US. And that history seems like an unlikely family origin story for someone who was completely adamant about closing borders to the US. But there's been so many different cases where people's family stories don't align with their political narratives. I think about Enrique Tarrio of the Proud Boys whose Afro Cuban, returning to that first idea of race as a construct, are you surprised now that we're no longer in the Trump era that there's still people who are embracing white nationalism, who are not white, or at least who are not generally considered white by white nationalists?

Serwer:    No, I mean it just goes to show you that ideology is very important. There're obviously people's material circumstances are very relevant, but people interpret those circumstances through their life experience, and through their ideology. And Stephen Miller is a great example, I mean, he prays these laws that essentially exacerbated the Holocaust, had they been in place, his family would not have made it here. And he was nonetheless gleefully and much of this frustration of some of his family members was involved in making it harder for other people to come here under similar circumstances. But I think the important thing to understand about Trumpism is that it's not really about one person. The book's called The Cruelty Is the Point. And most people think of cruelty as an individual problem, which it often is, but it's part of human nature. It's not something that you can avoid simply by having like the right political beliefs.

Serwer:    But what I'm focused on in the book is cruelty is a part of politics, specifically, the way it's used to demonize certain groups so that you can justify and deny people their basic rights under the Constitution and exclude them from the political process. Our system itself incentivizes this because, the structure allows one party to hold power without winning a majority of the vote. So it becomes more urgent to persuade that constituency that they're on the verge of destruction and so that means that you have to appeal to sort of their sense of persecution, and convince them that they are on the verge of annihilation at the hands of their fellow Americans who are not really truly Americans when you think about it. And that appeals to some people beyond the bounds of whiteness, but it is a kind of racialized white identity politics, that is going to continue as long as the system rewards it.

Chideya:    You also talk a lot in the book about being biracial, being Jewish and being black dealing with moments like, watching the Million Man March as a teenager and wondering what your classmates thought of you. So how do you think race might change over the next decade or two from now, as the next generation comes of age?

Serwer:    Well, I wrote about this in the book and specifically in that essay on eugenics about how the definition of whiteness was constantly shifting, the courts could not come up with a general definition. Eventually they just gave up and said the word Caucasian is that word as it's popularly understood, which basically meant, it's whatever people say it is, it's whatever people who have the power to define it say it is. I think that because of that, because understanding that race is an invention, and that the meaning of racial categories has shifted over time. Although obviously, there are some that are more persistent than others. Toni Morrison wrote about part of Americanization being the acceptance of anti black racism. And that's obviously something that has persisted since the founding of the country because it is essential part of the founding of the country.

Serwer:    Race and the politics of race shift tremendously over time, they're not static, the political identities that stem from them are not static. All I can say is that, they will shift with the class, economic and power dynamics of the country. And that's the only thing that we know is consistent is that it changes.

Chideya:    Adam, thank you so much for talking to us. And thank you for your book.

Serwer:    Thank you so much for having me.

Chideya:    That was Adam Serwer. He's a staff writer at the Atlantic his book is called The Cruelty is The Point, The Past, Present and Future of Trumps America. I'm thrilled to have back our regular contributor on all things business of entertainment, Casey Mendoza. We've had a month full of entertainment news, including last month's Emmys which failed to award any people of color in lead or supporting acting categories. Excited to go over all of this with you Casey, welcome.

Casey Mendoza:    Thanks Farai.

Chideya:    There has been a lot going on with the awards. The Emmys were a few weeks ago but they are still having a ripple effect. What happened and what stood out to you?

Mendoza:    Yeah, so, I guess before we get to the big controversy with the Emmys I first wanted to talk about some of my favorite highlights. RuPaul's win for Drag Race made him the most awarded person of color in the history of the Emmys now with 11 trophies. And it was so great to see, that win and that representation. Another highlight Michaela Coel's win for writing, I May Destroy You, which she also starred in and directed. And I know we've chatted about her on Our Body Politic before, specifically after her series was stabbed by the Golden Globes. But the reason her work is so important is because it talks about life after sexual assault in a way that was so introspective showing audiences that there is no one kind of assault and no one kind of way to process trauma. So I was really happy to see Coel get recognized for that. But obviously, of course, we need to talk about the fact that no actors of color, won in the 12 major acting categories.

Chideya:    Yeah, I mean, how are people processing what happened with the awards that were given to the winners?

Mendoza:    For a year that had a record number of nominations for actors of color, it was really disappointing to see that none of them won. I think a big part of the conversation is this idea, especially in entertainment. But there is a difference between looking diverse and intersectional versus actually supporting diversity and intersectionality. What if I personal upsets was the lack of performance wins for pose, which is a really great drama that highlights the history of LGBTQ and gender nonconforming drag culture in New York City. It's led by black artists, specifically Billy Porter and MJ Rodriguez, who were both nominated for lead actor and actress in a drama. They both lost to the crown, which is a show that I do enjoy, I'm not here to bash the crown. But it was such in uninspiring win for a series that really doesn't tell a new story, or highlight diverse talent.

Chideya:    And before we move on to some of the more expansive and inclusive work that's happening in Hollywood, we're getting into that season of guessing who's going to get an Oscar nom and what's the buzz on Will Smith.

Mendoza:    So Will Smith is starring in King Richard which is a biopic that tells the story of Richard Williams, the father of tennis players, Venus and Serena Williams. It just premiered earlier last month at the Telluride Film Festival. And so much of the praise for the movie is centered on Smith's performance. I haven't seen the film, but I see the film as a return for Will Smith's career in drama, because for the past couple of years, the bulk of his work has been in family projects like Aladdin and Spies in Disguise or, action films like Bright. So it's really exciting to see him go back to acting in these very serious emotional stories. And I think he's someone that a lot of people want to see win that acting Oscar and he's been so close before, he was previously nominated for The Pursuit Of Happiness in 2007, and Ali in 2002.

Chideya:    Now let's talk about all things fandom. I myself have to say that I'm a huge science fiction, speculative fiction, comic etc fan. Let's start with the Marvel Universe. Do you see women of color gaining a foothold?

Mendoza:    Absolutely. So two big names right off the top of my head. Oscar winning director Chloe Zhao of Nomadland fame is at the helm of the New Eternals movie coming out next month. And Nia DaCosta, who is the director of the horror movie sequel Candyman is directing the Marvel's which is a sequel to Captain Marvel, which is filming right now. I'm so excited for both of those films. One because I'm also a huge Marvel nerd, too, because I'm just really excited to see what they add to the franchise tone and story wise, and I really do think it's a step in the right direction for a big franchise like Marvel.

Chideya:    Yeah. And also keeping our eyes on galaxies far, far away. There is also Victoria Mahoney, she made history as the first woman and first woman of color to direct a Star Wars movie in 2019. And so what's the significance more broadly, whether it's Marvel or Star Wars of people of color, especially women of color, being active as creators in fandoms, which often have been seen as predominantly white and male, and sometimes where there's been kind of deep turf battles over the fandoms.

Mendoza:    This is one of my favorite topics, especially as a narrative color a woman in the nerd community. And last month, I had the pleasure of chatting with William Evans, and Omar Holman, two of the writers and co-founders of Black Nerd problems, which is both a long running website and now a book of essays. And one of the things we talked about, is this idea that before nerd culture like, comic book superheroes or Star Wars before they were like, truly mainstream, nerd culture was a subculture of pop culture. And so to be a Black Nerd, or to be a nerd of color was to be a subculture within a subculture. They started their website out of the frustrations that came with that. But once they got going they hired on marginalized voices, women of color, queer writers, because they knew that's where strong analysis comes from, everyone being able to bring in something new to the conversation.

Mendoza:    I think Victoria Mahoney coming into a long running franchise, like Star Wars, again, allows the franchise to broaden it allows, like nerd culture to be more open to newcomers to new fans. And I think that only strengthens a fandom and a culture rather than keeping someone out purposefully.

Chideya:    And there's also a movie that already came out still in theaters, Shang Chi. I know a lot of people who have been excited about it, I have not gotten out to see it yet, mainly because of COVID fears. But, it's part of the Marvel Studios tell, us how it was staffed creatively and what people are plugging into there.

Mendoza:    Not so fun fact about Shang Chi is that, this character has been around since the 1970s. He's, I think a lot of people don't realize one of the earliest, our original like Marvel characters. But he didn't have an Asian American writer telling his story until last year, when comic book writer Gene Luen Yang who's also one of the writers of one of my favorite books American Born Chinese took the helm. They hired on director Destin Daniel Cretton, and co-writer David Callahan to strong Asian American voices. They knew they needed to fix a lot of the ways Shang Chi has in the past, misrepresented and orientalized Asian culture and Asian American communities in specifically comic book culture. And one of the things I loved the most about their take on the series or their addition to the cinematic universe, where one all of the Asian lore, there's a lot of really cool and I’m not going to give any spoilers, but little references to Chinese folklore.

Mendoza:    But even in the very beginning, there are so many early scenes in San Francisco that were just so personal, genuine Callahan grew up in the Bay Area. And he said in interviews that that was something he specifically wanted to get right.

Chideya:    Yeah, there's also critique of Awkwafina, how she responding and what's it all about?

Mendoza:    This situation is that Awkwafina has been criticized, really for years. I'd say ever since she became more famous through crazy rich Asians, She's been criticized over her use of AAVE, over for quote unquote black ascent.

Chideya:    Let's be clear that AAVE refers to African American Vernacular English, which used to be called Ebonics, sometimes.

Mendoza:    Of course. And personally, I am disappointed that she hasn't addressed the criticism or apologized in a way that feels substantial or shows atonement. There is the point people make that Awkwafina started off her career as a rapper. And I've written before on the history of Asian Americans in hip hop, and I do think there are genuinely Asian Americans who grow up in the hip hop community, and use AAVE because it's part of the culture they're surrounded by. But the point in Awkwafina's career that drew more criticism was when she started acting more and dropped her usage of the black ascent, which showed a lot of people including her fans, that it was almost like an act or a caricature, and not something that was genuinely her. So it is very difficult to argue the idea that that is who she is when it's not clear if that's truly the case.

Chideya:    Yeah. I will happily keep nerding out with you all day, every day. Casey, you always just bring us so much information. Thank you so much.

Mendoza:    Thank you.

Chideya:    That was Casey Mendoza, reporter for Newsy and Our Body Politic's business of entertainment contributor. This week on Sippin’ the Political Tea, I'm joined by Major General Linda Singh. She's the first woman and first African American to lead Maryland's Army National Guard. She served for 38 years, including in Afghanistan and Kosovo. Welcome to Our Body Politic Major General.

Ret. Major General Linda Singh:   

Thank you.

Chideya:    And I'm joined by Tashandra Poullard known as Tasha. Tasha is a US Navy veteran, she served nine years including in Iraq after 9/11. She worked as a cryptologic technicians operator and information systems specialists and she is part of the veterans group Common Defense. Welcome to Our Body Politic Tasha.

Tashandra Poullard:

Thank you. I appreciate being here.

Chideya:    I just want to say that like, it's really been deeply on my mind, the future of veterans in the United States, what a pivotal time. And so let's dive in with listening to a clip from ABC News about the vaccine.

News Clip:    This is a shift from the Pentagon, they previously indicated that they would wait for FDA approval, but now Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, expected to move forward with this making the recommendation to the president that would require all of the 1.3 million active duty service members to be vaccinated.

Chideya:    So Major General, I want to turn to you first. This mandate applies to all military, active duty, National Guard, Reserve. And so this is not about veterans, per se, but it's really a moment for the US military, and how do you think the military is going to pull this off? It's my understanding that there's been some deadlines.

Singh:    Well, so first off, I'm pretty sure that they have a plan to really get all of their individuals vaccinated. And sometimes it's going to come down to having availability of vaccinations ready so that when they start moving through and vaccinating service members, they're going to be able to do it. And the good portion of that is National Guard, and National Guard has already been out on the front lines, helping their communities get vaccinated. And so they are probably a little bit ahead of maybe the other parts of the military is. But, this is not abnormal for military to require certain vaccinations. And so we all have to kind of think and put our mind centered around what we're asked to do. And from a military perspective, anytime you deploy, you're getting, I mean, if you're behind in your vaccinations, at least in my last deployment I was laughing at the person in front of me because they got 12 vaccines, and I think I ended up having to get nine.

Singh:    It really is up to everyone to do their part when we think about trying to get us out of where we are, and I get it that, it's very controversial, but we can't move forward if we don't think about how are we going to kind of rebound from this, right? And this is the first time that probably a lot of us has gone through something so significant.

Chideya:    And Tasha, what are you hearing from people you know who may still be in the military, active duty and in some form? I mean, do you think people are having concerns, regrets, pretty open to this?

Poullard:    Well, I find it interesting because when I was active duty about roughly 10 years ago, there was no option to take any vaccines. Actually, I was on board, the USS Fletcher out of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and I was deployed throughout the northern and southern Arabian Gulf. And before we even deployed, we were required to take the anthrax shots. And there was no, you may or may not have to take it, it was mandatory. And we actually had some people be discharged because of the fact that they refused to accept the vaccines. Many of my friends who are still active duty, did not really in support of receiving the vaccination, but they understand how important it is to ensure that, for example, while they're on a ship, they are not compromising themselves or anyone else. And they understand that it's very important to make sure that their families are vaccinated. So we are very surprised that there's now a mandate, and it wasn't officially made concrete in the beginning of the vaccines being distributed.

Chideya:    Tasha, I'm curious, as a veteran, how do you make sense of your healthcare options? There's been a lot of debate in various places over how much and how well the VA serves veteran's health needs. I mean, how did you deal with becoming a veteran and making your own healthcare plans?

Poullard:    Well, it was a matter of finances for me. When I separated from the military, I did not have employment at the time, so the Houston VA was my go to source for medical care. Like many veterans who leave the armed forces, they don't really have that established for themselves once they separate or retire. So we rely on those government funding resources to ensure that we can get to the doctor if needed. For me, it has been an interesting experience, because I've noticed that there's different levels of care at which VA clinic you attend, based upon what funding that location receives. I'm currently going through the Oakland VA here in Oakland, California. And I'm noticing that they're severely understaffed, and they're not really receiving, from my observation, the funding and the support that they need to cater to the community.

Poullard:    Whereas when I was in Houston, it was a much larger system of care for veterans there, because it was closer to the Houston Medical Center. So they could interchange a lot of those resources, personnel, equipment, supplies, you name it. So it's all about what the government is doing to ensure that there's a safety net for veterans who rely on no services. And in some locations, they're not receiving the assistance that they need to provide the care that is required to meet the needs of the veterans in those locations.

Chideya:    And Major General, how do you have conversations with other veterans about health care and ongoing care in general?

Singh:    Well, first, I just have to say Tasha hit the nail on the head, it is about the various different locations and what's available. But, my conversation with veterans in terms of health care is that, if it is available to you, you need to take it and you need to use it. But one of the things that really sticks in my mind when I was coming back from Afghanistan, I had to leave Afghanistan early because of a medical issue. And they sent me in to get evaluated for surgery. And I really was not happy about that, right? So being a female, and this had something to do with female issues and challenges, and they wanted to make sure that I didn't have cancer at that point, and I really didn't want them to do the surgery. But, when you're coming off of a deployment and you're pulling, you're out, and they have this problem that came up, they don't really give you an option.

Singh:    I had to put my trust and faith that they were going to take care of me and they did an amazing job, but I had my doubts that, as a female, that they could really handle me in the way that I deserve.

Chideya:    Yeah, thanks for sharing that. I want to switch gears a little bit and talk about the military and the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Here's a clip of President Biden at the White House.

President Biden:

    I'm the fourth president, must face the issue of whether and when to end this war. When I was running for president, I made a commitment to the American people that I would end this war. Today, I've honored that commitment.

Chideya:    Tasha, what do you make of the President's remarks and on how we are processing as a nation and how the military and veterans are processing the withdrawal?

Poullard:    Well, first, I want to say a common misconception on many of the news platforms that I've scoured from time to time is that they believe the majority of veterans are for the republican party or right leaning, and that we supported the war and we were for going in and delivering democracy to that nation. That's a false hood that I want to address, first and foremost. And second, I am a member of a grassroots movement called Common Defense, which is a military nonprofit veteran organization, and we advocate for many social justice socio political issues. And we have worked closely with the Biden administration in regards to promoting ending the forever wars, which that includes the war in Afghanistan. We have been in Afghanistan for over 20 years. And many of my veteran friends who've been boots on the ground in Afghanistan, knew from the get go, that it was a debacle, but they knew that once we pulled out, it would be ugly.

Poullard:    So we're glad that they withdrew the troops. I think it's just the matter and how it was carried out. Because for one, even though we train the Afghanistan, even the Iraqi forces to defend themselves, many of us who had already served in those regions knew that those people would not be prepared to deal with the Taliban, to deal with al Qaeda, to deal with ISIS. You got to remember, a lot of those people were farmers, they were just common workers, common people who we put uniforms on and gave guns to, and told them, we're going to train you how to fight back. That's not going to work. On top of that, the fear of what would happen to the women, once we withdrew was something that we already knew was going to transpire, we knew that their human rights were going to be violated as soon as we pull it out.

Poullard:    I believe we shouldn't have went in anyway, that's just my personal opinion in the beginning. But once we were there, and we saw that it was an issue in regards to delivering what we call democracy to these people, there should have been something put in place during the Bush administration, to ensure that we never even got as far as we did. But I want to bring up the last point, we're providing care and support to them, but don't forget about the Haitians, and my Latino brothers and sisters at the southern borders, who have gone through the same issues, running from the same social injustices. And they're being whipped at the border, as we saw lately. They're receiving unauthorized hysterectomies where the women are being sterilized. So we have to play our part, and we have to acknowledge what we've done in regards to unstabilizing not only the Afghan theater, the Iraqi theater, but how we've provided support to other countries, and have unstabilized them. And now we're dealing with the issue of human rights and people coming to us seeking refuge.

Singh:    Hear, hear Tasha, because you hit the nail on the head, I was just as I'm listening to you, and this is a tough situation. And I agree, in the sense that if we thought that this was going to be pretty in terms of the withdrawal, then, whoever thought that was sleeping. I sat there and I listened to some of the leaders say, "Well we didn't think it was going to go in a short amount of time." Well, what were you thinking? Because we were still fighting to maintain a footing in various areas. And if we were fighting to do it, and to maintain control, then once we pulled out, what were we thinking that they were going to be able to do? And so we have to take a step back and look at our international policies. And I think if we can start looking at putting things in place, looking at how we can handle some of these situations before, we have to go in with this level of encroachment or, I hate to say it that way, but I feel like, there are... We have to start thinking about, we can't be the world's police, but we can be a leader.

Singh:    And I think what bothers me about just this whole thing, and, how we're handling it, not just with the border, not just with Haiti and what's been going on there and what's been going on in a number of other countries. It just really irritates me that we can't even get our own house in order. We can't seem to stop trying to take rights away from our own women. And so I'm a little tired of us here in the US, kind of setting ourselves up as being the leaders and we can't get our own house in order.

Chideya:    I want to pull us back before we let you both go. And I absolutely love this conversation to the US and to the future of veterans specifically, I am assuming that there will be a lot more veterans in the future as a ratio to active duty military if we are not fighting this massive war. I'll start with you, Tasha. What do you want to see for veterans returning to the US and those who already are veterans in terms of just being engaged in American society, being treated well, being employed? How do we get to a place where veterans are better resourced, better respected?

Poullard:    Well, first things first, something my group Common Defense and I advocate for is to ensure that all veterans receive their benefits across the board. It makes absolutely no sense that you have to go through a review board in order to receive the benefits that are due to you. And you have to literally prove that your injuries, mental and physical, are service connected. Second, I want to touch on the housing insecurities that many of our veterans face when they come home from service. I was a homeless veteran. I was blessed to be able to live at a shelter that cater to women in Houston under Catholic Charities, a civilian organization. That should be something that the military provides automatically for any female veteran coming back, especially if she suffers from PTSD, or military sexual trauma.

Poullard:    That brings me to my third point, the mental stability of our brothers and sisters who served should be a top priority. We have many veterans who are homeless, or who are in jail, because they do not receive the mental care that they need to ensure that they can hold down a job, that they can go to school, or that they can simply live and function normally. It's not normal to go and put bodies into a burn pit. It's not normal, to shoot people to make sure that they're dead, so that you and your comrades survive. It's not normal to go to other countries and see the atrocities that you witness and can't do anything about it. These things stay with you whether you served as a boot on the ground, in the sandbox, or whether you were like me, who did intelligence and saw the many graphic pictures, the aftermath was going into these areas. So mental stability should also be a top priority. There should be nobody who wore the uniform, hungry, homeless and destitute.

Chideya:    Going to you, Major General, as we wrap up, what do you want to see for veterans?

Singh:    So first, I mean, Tasha did a very good job at just hitting on all of the issues. And then she ended with probably the biggest thing that I think we have to focus in on is this whole thing of mental health. So we have to remember now that, not just the ones that are coming back home from Afghanistan right now, but all of us that have served, we're now second guessing. Why we were in Afghanistan, we're now second guessing our level of service and whether or not it was worth it. And all of that plays into this destabilization for our veterans. And so we really have to make sure that we are continuing to do the things to thank them for their service. And so just take note of all the things that Tasha have laid out, because they're all important. And just please when you see a veteran, don't forget to say thank you.

Chideya:    Yeah, absolutely. And thank you to all of our veterans and we're going to have to leave it there. Thank you so much for joining me, Tasha and Major General Singh.

Poullard:    I want to say it was an honor to be here and I look forward to coming back and discussing more issues. Thank you so much.

Singh:    Thank you.

Chideya:    That was veteran Tashandra Poullard of the organization, Common Defense and Major General Linda Singh. Thanks for listening to Our Body Politic. We're on the air each week and everywhere you listen to podcasts. Our Body Politic is produced by LWC. I'm the creator and host, Chideya. Juleyka Lantigua is executive producer. Jen Chien is executive editor. Our senior editor is Veralyn Williams. Paulina Velasco and Sarah McClure are our senior producers. Cedric Wilson is lead producer, and makes this episode. Our political booker is Bridget McAllister. Emily Daly is assistant producer. Original music by associate sound designer, Kojin Tashiro. Production assistance from Mark Betancourt and Natyna Bean. This program is produced with support from Craig Newmark Philanthropies, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, Democracy Fund, the Harnisch Foundation, Compton Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the BMe Community, Katie McGrath and JJ Abrams Family Foundation, and from generous contributions from listeners like you.


Chideya, Farai, host. “How to Heal from Racial Trauma in the Workplace, Celebrating Women of Color in Hollywood’s Nerdiest Genres, and a Frank Conversation About the Future of the U.S. Military.” Our Body Politic, Diaspora Farms LLC. October 8, 2021. https://our-body-politic.simplecast.com/