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OK, Soldiers, Now Let's Get In Formation

One photo of black female cadets at West Point revealed the dangers of white fragility

There are 17 black women in West Point’s 2016 graduating class of around 1,000 cadets. Sixteen of those women, wearing their gray dress uniforms, came together last month in front of a barracks to pose for a photograph that would become national news. The image that, as a certain song might say, caused all this conversation includes two of the women standing atop a porch railing, their swords crossed. All 16 of them are raising a clenched fist. Only one is smiling.

Nearing their graduation, the women were posing for what’s known as an “Old Corps” photograph -- the traditional portraits taken of U.S. Military Academy cadets who, having finished their studies and training, are ready to be commissioned into the Army. Usually cadets are at ease in these images, sometimes even goofing off. A former cadet told The New York Times that in his 1976 “Old Corps” portrait -- taken the year before West Point began admitting women -- he and other seniors posed for a jokey protest, holding “armloads of basketball, footballs, and baseballs.” Because, you know, balls. None of those young men were punished.

The women with the raised fists, on the other hand, have had to endure a lot of nonsense after their portraits. Too many think a black fist in the air is trying to put white people down. West Point launched an inquiry on April 28 into whether the women violated Army rules prohibiting political activities in uniform. Five days later, Iraq veteran John Burk published a blog post linking the cadets with the activist group Black Lives Matter, which he also erroneously claimed had called for the deaths of police officers and white Americans. It didn’t take that long before it was in the Times.

With their May 21 graduation approaching, these 16 cadets were forced to wonder whether the careers they’d been training for might be derailed or diminished because they took that photo in uniform, and as black women. As they and their defenders have told the media, their fists had less to do with the Black Panthers than with Beyoncé (who herself caught hell for raising her fist during her Super Bowl performance in February).

On Tuesday night, West Point’s inquiry determined that the cadets weren’t making a political statement. Their activity in the image “was intended to demonstrate ‘unity’ and ‘pride,’” the inquiry found, and none of the women will be punished. Prior to Tuesday’s news, their West Point supervisor wrote them a letter that read, in part, “As Army officers, we are not afforded the luxury of a lack of awareness of how we are perceived.” Even though the cadets avoided discipline, that they were warned at all is revealing. It’s as if he was telling these women growing up black in America something that they didn’t already know: What members of a marginalized minority may consider beautiful, prideful, or even playful gets turned into something uglier by people like Burk, who later told the Times that the women’s raised fists weren’t much different than a Nazi salute.

Where Burk sees “Heil Hitler,” I, and probably anyone at least marginally acquainted with recent pop culture, see "OK, ladies, now let’s get in formation." In the vein of Beyoncé’s hit, I see in that image a unity that, as a black man who has raised a fist or two, I still can’t empathize with. I can’t grasp what it was like to go through school in a place like West Point, a place that didn’t admit women until 1977 and is hardly immune to racism, let alone doing it with little more than a dozen people who look like you.

Intention aside, one of the young women’s defenders understood that their gesture could be easily misinterpreted. Brenda Sue Fulton, a West Point graduate and the chair of the U.S. Military Academy’s Board of Visitors, told Army Times that she wouldn’t have made the raised-fist photo public. “I knew it was their expression of pride and unity, but I am old enough to know that it would be interpreted negatively by many white observers,” she said. “Unfortunately, in their youth and exuberance, it appears they didn’t stop to think that it might have any political context, or any meaning other than their own feeling of triumph.”

That may be true, but I’d argue those “white observers” need to avoid prioritizing their own fragility over the right of these women to literally be themselves. As this case illustrates, it would be nice if the powers that be could strive just a little to comprehend public displays of blackness without having to launch an inquiry or legal proceeding.

Conversations about racial justice get sidelined by these overreactions. Like the West Point photo, young activists have been largely mischaracterized as more dangerous than the various injustices and offenses they seek to spotlight. What, then, do we have in this instance but political correctness run amok? A raised black fist can be a symbol of resistance and defiance, sure, but more than anything it is what the U.S. Military Academy determined it to be: an expression of unity and pride. And for black women especially, whether in a West Point uniform or not, expressing unity and pride are political activities. It isn’t their job to make sure others are comfortable with them.

What’s funny is that this wasn’t the only widely distributed photograph that those women took. The same cadets in the raised-fist snapshot took another picture in relaxed yet bold poses. That picture looks like the cover of a ’90s rap album, and I mean that as praise. All of these women, trained to be Army soldiers, have their swords out in that image. Yet, somehow, that is considered less threatening than their fists.