BELLE CHASSE, La. –
Assembled at social distance within an auditorium at the 377th Theater Sustainment Command headquarters building, Soldiers from across the Army rank structure took their seats to participate in a discussion on unintentional and perceived biases in the Army. At first glance, the group appeared as uniform as any formation, with the standardized pattern of camouflage adorning each participant. A closer look, and the importance of the event was laid bare.
The assembled Soldiers comprised a veritable medley of demographic groups, with a wide range of races, genders, religions, and backgrounds represented. The commanding general of the 377th Theater Sustainment Command, Maj. Gen. Gregory Mosser, invited this diverse cross-section of the Army to discuss instances of bias or prejudice that they had experienced during their Army careers or in their personal lives. More importantly, the discussion also focused on a way ahead to support the U.S. Army’s newest diversity initiative, Project Inclusion.
“The more that each one of us in this room understand what the people to our right and left have gone through, are going through, and what are they dealing with…the better we understand them, the better we can develop feelings of empathy,” Mosser said as he introduced the discussion. “The better you understand your battle buddy, the more included you’re going to feel and that brings more effectiveness to the team.”
Mosser used the event as a means to spearhead Project Inclusion within his command. The Army-wide initiative represents the effort to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion across the force and build cohesive and adaptive teams. The holistic effort will listen to the Soldiers, Army civilians and family members to identify practices that inadvertently discriminate within the ranks and beyond.
So far, the initiative has resulted in changes like updating the diversity education curriculum, removing identifiable information relating to race, gender or demographic from review boards, and investigations into racial disparities across a wide swathe of military justice cases.
This sensing session involved panelists from within the command discussing their personal experiences, which was led initially by some senior personnel within the command prior to opening up the floor to attendees. Throughout the course of the event, Soldiers highlighted unique life experiences that spoke to the diversity across the ranks, and the challenges inherent to our differences.
Maj. Yifei Zhang, a G-1 officer within the command, volunteered to share the challenges he faced as a Chinese American originally born in Shanghai. Zhang arrived in the United States in 1991 after the Tiananmen Square protests erupted in his home country. His father, a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania at the time, brought his family to the U.S. immediately to avoid being separated as was the case in communist upheavals like those previously in Germany or Korea. Upon arrival to the U.S., he was taught to fit in.
“Yifei is not the kind of name you’d typically hear in the United States,” Zhang said as he stood before the auditorium. “My parents told me that I needed to choose a name that English speakers can pronounce easily."
The correct pronunciation of Yifei is “ē-fā,” or, as Zhang jokingly described it, “E as in E, and Fey as in Tina Fey.” To fit in with his fellow classmates, however, his parents advised him to stick to something that they would recognize. They advised him to pronounce his name as “yif-ē,” or yiffy. They told him this would help him assimilate and blend in with his classmates, as American icons like Jif peanut butter or Jiffy Lube provided reference. All he had to do was simply explain that instead of the J, there was a Y in front. And so, for the majority of his life, Yifei became Yiffy.
That all changed when he reported to his brigade commander for a deployment to Kuwait just over a year ago. When Zhang reported to his new commander and introduced himself as Yiffy, things did not go as he expected. The commander, a Korean American, had a background in Mandarin Chinese and abruptly told him, “no, that’s not it…that’s not a character sound that Mandarin can make. How do you really pronounce it?”
Zhang was taken aback, and described an overwhelming flood of emotion as he responded with the correct pronunciation of his name. He was surprised even more when his name was introduced to the command.
“I told my commander how to pronounce my name, and he introduced me that way at our first command and staff meeting,” Zhang explained. “Then the deputy commanding officer said it, then the field grade officers said it…and I realized all of a sudden I wasn’t being a bother at all by having my name pronounced correctly. It turned out to be so much more in my mind than it really was. It was great, it was such a little thing but it was so empowering.”
He returned from Kuwait and reintroduced himself to his friends as Yifei. Along the way, he explained to the group, he learned some valuable lessons.
“To build a good team, you have to always tell the truth. You have to share suffering, and you have to show vulnerability.”
As the discussion evolved, one of the panelists, Sgt. Maj. Brian Hess, the senior non-commissioned officer in G-3/5/7 at the command, offered his thoughts on overcoming unconscious bias. After initially asking the Soldiers in attendance whether they had overcome any biases during their lives, he offered up one of his own. A native of northern Minnesota, Hess had a humorous admission of a bias he had carried with him throughout his childhood.
“If you spoke to me with a Southern accent, you immediately lost 15 IQ points,” he joked. “There was no way around it, if you talked to me with that accent I assumed you were dumber than whatever it was you were saying.”
Hess credited his extensive travel and exposure within the military for his breaking of this bias, and explained how unfair and discreditable his assumptions had been.
“I conquered that bias by meeting people from the South, by living in the South,” he said. “I met extraordinarily intellectual and vibrant people from the South to the point that when I go back to Minnesota and I hear people talking about rednecks and hillbillies, I tell them to stop because they haven’t met anyone from there. Those are some of the best people in our country.”
The bias that Hess described, and the lack of exposure that preceded it, were in his mind the target of Project Inclusion.
“The only way I was able to conquer that bias was to actually know those people, and I think that is what this program at its root is trying to do.”
As the discussion concluded, Maj. Gen. Mosser highlighted some of the key takeaways for the path ahead. He spoke about the importance of open and engaged communication, developing trust with your fellow Soldiers through invested conversations, and embracing the movement by sharing personal stories. In the end, he explained, it serves the mission.
“Take to heart the things that we’ve talked about,” Mosser said as he wrapped up the panel discussion. “Help us as a command understand each other better. Your Soldiers will feel good about being a part of this team and understand that they are a part of something bigger than themselves. And when that happens, I promise you…you will be surprised at what we can accomplish.”