"But Some of [Them] Are Brave": Identity Performance, the Military, and the Dangers of an Integration Success Story

Publication Title

Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy

Document Type



With the issuance of Executive Order 9981 on July 26, 1948, President Harry Truman, in his role as Commander-in-Chief of the United States Armed Forces, effectively signaled the racial integration of the United States military While this blow to racial segregation was not without enemies, the Order was ultimately followed without crippling, defiant opposition, and it became a harbinger for increased civil rights for people of color, inside and outside the military.

With regard to race, and increasingly with regard to gender, the military experiment in social engineering has been heralded generally as a great success. The central point of this Article is to question whether the praise afforded this success story is truly warranted and to explore a disjuncture that may exist between this positive narrative and the lived experiences of service members. Given the number of minorities, in particular African Americans, who have used the military to improve their life conditions, it is with some reluctance that this Article criticizes the praise that has been accorded the organization for its success at including minorities. This Article will suggest, however, that although the Armed Forces have done much to alleviate the effects of racial discrimination and subordination within the Services, some important work remains to be done with regard to managing opportunities for service members across myriad identities. In particular, attention needs to be paid to the unique challenges that face service members disadvantaged along multiple dimensions of difference, such as women of color. Consequently, this Article seeks to interrogate the continued viability of an integration success narrative where there exists disconfirming evidence and in an environment where the most significant challenges to minorities are related neither to bare inclusion nor mere elimination of instances of overt discrimination.

Specifically, this Article argues that the military services, like many institutions, must grapple with problems related to unconscious bias, which Professor Lu-In Wang has recently described as "unconscious cognitive and motivational biases that lead us reflexively to categorize, perceive, interpret the behavior of, remember, and interact with people of different groups differently." Belief in the continued veracity of an unchanging narrative of successful integration undermines a commitment to uncovering and solving such problems. By dislodging the story and acknowledging the effects of unconscious bias, the Armed Forces will be better able to address the ways in which some use identity-race in particular-as a tool to stigmatize, dishonor, and disfavor group members based on their perceived characteristics." As it currently stands, the operation of unconscious biases interacts with Armed Forces' institutional policy choices-such as a commitment to formal equality achieved through race- and gender-neutral regulations-and organizational social norms to negatively shape the work "performance" of women and minority service members. Performance, then, which serves the dual function of measuring skills competence and reflecting assimilative conduct, becomes the basis to limit the promotion and retention prospects of these same groups.

This Article critiques the current state of integration within the military through an analysis of the ways in which identity markers such as race and gender still matter. To that end, the Article applies theories related to the social construction of identity, to explore and reveal how women and people of color must still manage the effects of identity stereotypes, even within an organization that has been heralded as a model for successful inclusion. The Article suggests how, without an organizational commitment to meaningful identity-conscious policies, the essentially required identity performances of women, people of color, and gays and lesbians prove to be unsatisfying practices to ensure their success within the military. These circumstances thereby undermine the strength of any true integration story. Further, it argues that individuals who inhabit multiple identity categories must engage in greater feats of assimilative conduct to fit in and might, therefore, be at the most significant disadvantage in terms of promotion and retention within the military. In essence, with regard to the effects of "working" their identities, this Article contends that these individuals must negotiate a contemporary version of a "double bind," where their differences make it difficult to fit in along white and male social norms, but where assimilative conduct may provide inconsequential relief.