The struggles of Military Spouses of color

The life of a military spouse has its highs and lows. Separation from your spouse, moving and raising children alone are some of the most obvious challenges. Imagine facing those obstacles while experiencing racism at work and in your community. Chiara “CC” Thomas shares her story with MilSpouseFest, full of ups and downs, about how she tackles life as a military spouse of color. Her journey is representative of the Blue Star Families’ recently released findings from their “2021 Understanding the Diverse Experiences of Military Families of Color Survey.” The organization has dubbed the study “groundbreaking” and claims it “​​provides unparalleled insight.” Here’s a breakdown of the findings and how they could affect you and your family. 

Diversity in the Armed Forces

According to BSF, “Three in 10 service members identify as a racial/ ethnic minority and this number is expected to grow in the coming years: by 2027 most recruitable U.S. adults will be people of color.” The population of racial and ethnic minorities in the military has grown steadily in recent decades. The report described challenges within career progression, fear of racism at certain duty stations, and financial instability for military families of color.  

“Military spouses of color report a greater need for two household incomes than their white, non-Hispanic peers, and they experience substantially higher unemployment rates and lower earnings than their civilian counterparts,” the report noted. It wasn’t hard to find a military spouse of color to share her struggles with employment.

Overlooked  

Thomas is an African-American Air Force spouse of 13 years. She’s jobless, which has been a trend during her life as a military spouse. Her story starts as a high school graduate in Alaska, a place where she said she “never encountered racism.” She worked at the United States Postal Service for almost seven years. During that time she was married to the love of her life, an airman.  As a young, optimistic military spouse she thought it would be “easy to transition” with her job across the country. Her first move as a military spouse in 2010, brought her to Pope Air Force base in Fayetteville, North Carolina, a community where she struggled with employment for almost a year.

A temp agency finally hired Thomas to be “underpaid, overworked, and overlooked for promotion as I continued to outperform my counterparts,” she said. Thomas worked in property management for four years. Was the color of her skin the reason Thomas was being overlooked? “They would tell me I was top-tier and doing good. They would give me more responsibility. And then people coming in new that weren’t Black would get higher pay and a better position. I think it is because of race, but I don’t know,” she reflects.

The biggest shock came after word got around the office that she’d be moving to follow her active duty military husband—and then she was let go after completing a big project. “I had put in a lot of time and dedication into my work. I took it seriously and I thought I could do it long-term and not the case at all,” Thomas said. According to the North Carolina Justice Center website, employers at the time in North Carolina were free to fire an employee for any reason or no reason at all.

Identity Crisis 

Discouraged, they moved to Travis Air Force Base, near Fairfield, California, and faced another six months of stress without her earning any extra income. Thomas was desperate and took a job she hated in a call center, while she continued to search for something else. She reached out to national and local resources on base for resume consultation and no major adjustments were ever made. “I applied for I don’t know how many jobs,” she explained.  

Eventually, her determination paid off and she accepted employment in the GS system. Finally, she was in a good place professionally. It lasted a mere 18 months and then came orders to Oklahoma and more heartbreak. She couldn’t take her job with her across the country. “I have worked all my life and I have a degree, but I am in my 30s and I haven’t established a career,” she said. “I have an identity crisis outside of being a wife and a mother.”

She’s not alone. In fact, according to the BSF study, “49% of active-duty respondents of color report their ability to advance within their career is worse than their non-white family and friends.” 

Starting Over Again

Thomas currently feels like the newest spouse at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City. “I am applying for whatever,” she said. “It’s not something I want to do but I need income. His income alone is not enough, I’ll do whatever is offered.”

Her family decided not to live on base at this duty station. Instead, they worked with a consultant in the area to find a neighborhood where they would feel safe from discrimination. They also walk together as a family through a place like Walmart every time they move. “We look at how people take to us. (In Oklahoma) We observed older people give us some looks. This is how we figure out what is going to be the safest community for our family,” Thomas said. 

The BSF study reports that “46% of active-duty respondents of color consider racial/ethical discrimination when submitting base/installation preferences.” Thomas has had some negative experiences in her life as a military spouse.  “Other mothers living on base said really racist things with ease not realizing what’s coming out of their mouths,” she explained. She has a well-thought-out approach to handling these situations: “Instead of confronting anyone, I distance myself because I don’t want to disrupt relationships my son and husband have,” she said. 

Moving Forward

Relationships are key to improving experiences for military families of color according to the “2021 Understanding the Diverse Experiences of Military Families of Color Survey.”

The report claims, “nearly one in 10 respondents who are veterans of color (8%) report racial discrimination as one of the reasons they left military service.” Researchers did come up with recommendations to better support military families of color. More data, training, and perhaps the most important, developing relationships within local communities are just a few. 

“We need to keep making progress,” said Retired Navy Rear Adm. Sinclair Harris in the study. “We know that being more diverse and more inclusive can make us stronger. We have the opportunity to show the world what is possible and what can be achieved by being stronger together.”
The interviews, statistics and other research combined proved one final takeaway:  “issues affecting military families of color are a matter of national security and necessary to ensure long-term military readiness.” Thomas is in a long-term relationship with the military with no end in sight. At the very least, she says she can “see the light” at the end of the tunnel based on recent efforts to include the BSF study. Read the report in full here.