Military spouses come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Personally, I think that’s a good thing. There is a lot of discussion in our country right now about the presence of racism and how far we need to go to treat others with fairness and respect. I’m glad to see military spouses vocally speaking up and calling for change, while also lending an ear and being an ally to minority voices.
But I’m not at all surprised to see military spouses celebrating diversity. In some ways, military spouses have a head start in countering racism when compared to our civilian counterparts.
The military has sent my family to live all over the country, in towns we never would have chosen on our own. We have lived in small-town North Carolina and in the diverse suburbs of San Diego. We spent three years overseas in Spain, learning Spanish, trying new foods, and falling in love with Spanish culture. Then we spent three years in the super expensive Orange County, California, where people gave sideways glances when I went out with my 4 children and asked how we could possibly afford to have so many. Soon we will be sent to the Deep South in Mississippi to experience another new culture.
If my husband were not in the military, there is no way we would have had those diverse experiences. It’s very likely we would have always lived in a small town close to our families, surrounded by familiar people and places. Instead, the military stretched both of us outside our comfort zones. It has thrown me into cities and neighborhoods I might not have chosen. And I’m thankful, because along the way, I have learned a lot.
4 lessons on diversity I learned from the military community
I have learned that America is composed of many different types of people.
In the military community, you aren’t the only one traveling and living in different places. All your military neighbors are too. Walking through a base neighborhood, you can see license plates and sports flags from a variety of places. Neighbors are just as likely to listen to country music as they are to hip hop or rap. While there is still an assumption that military families are conservative and vote Republican, that stereotype is no longer true. Service members and their spouses hold a wide range of political and religious (or non-religious) beliefs. Veterans and spouses are active in political campaigns and activism for all the political parties. Being surrounded by so many different types of people helps you remember that in any situation there will be differences of opinion.
I have learned that other cultures have so much to offer.
Because the Marine Corps handles security at all the overseas Embassies, it is common to meet people on base who have lived in different countries. And some service members meet their spouse overseas! I have had neighbors from a variety of cultures, and I love learning from each one of them. I was a witness at the wedding of a Marine friend and his Filipino wife. She made the best food whenever I visited their house! When I joined a Mommy group with my toddlers, I met a military wife from Bolivia, who was just learning English and used our playdates for conversation practice. At our last base, I had a neighbor who met her husband in Honduras. She was still working on getting a beautician license, so I always went to her house for my haircuts, and she is the one I asked to style my hair for Homecoming. On the surface, it might not seem like I had much in common with each of these people and their cultures. But as military spouses, we had plenty in common to become friends.
I have learned that “different” doesn’t mean “weird.”
Living overseas taught us to have a broad world view and realize that many people do things differently than we do… and being different is ok. Spaniards eat dinner at 8 PM. Americans may think that is crazy, but it’s normal in Spain. In California, the Filipino birthday parties are incredible, with tons of guests from all generations, and a bountiful buffet. My kids have never had a birthday party with all their relatives present, but they have learned to appreciate and be happy for the kids who can. We have learned that different households have different rules, and that just forces us to be more clear and consistent about why we have our family rules. Instead of accepting that “we do things this way because that’s what is normal,” our family constantly has dialog about values and priorities. It makes us all more accepting and respectful of anyone who is different from us. We have learned to focus on what we have in common, rather than superficial differences. I’m glad the military has given us this perspective.
I have learned how it feels to be a minority.
I’m white, and so is my husband, even though we have a Native American last name. Growing up in a small town, I went to the same grade school my dad had attended, and everyone at our small church knew my family. By contrast, the military has definitely put me in situations where I am the only one like me in the room. When my kids were young and living in Spain, they sometimes got frustrated that everyone spoke to them in Spanish. They would blurt out, “Why can’t people just speak English?” Even in the moments when I shared their frustration, I would remind them that we were the guests in this country. We were the foreigners who had to learn to fit in. We were the ones doing things differently and pronouncing things wrong. That experience taught all of us to be more open-minded and compassionate when we meet others who are different from us. I’m proud of how my kids have expressed empathy for new kids at their schools—because they know how difficult it can feel to be the new kid. Even now, in San Diego, we live in a neighborhood that is predominantly black, then Hispanic, then Asian, then white. Everyone always comments on my children’s blue eyes, because they are typically the only blue-eyed child in the classroom. They are surrounded by a sea of different colors, and they have learned to call them all friends.
Now, I am NOT saying that my children have been mistreated as minorities, and I am NOT claiming to have experienced anything like what the black community is discussing right now. I am simply saying that occasionally being in a position where white people are outnumbered has helped me have respect and appreciation for people who are in that position every day of their lives. I have taught my children to show respect to everyone, and to judge people by their actions, not the color of their skin. I’m proud that their closest friends are black and Asian and Hispanic, and we happily invite those friends over to our house to play (at least we did before the COVID-19 shutdown.)
So yes, military spouses can learn a lot about diversity from the military community. Of course that doesn’t mean we have learned as much as we need to. Everyone still has a lot to learn about respect, appreciation, and being an ally for anyone who is different from them. But I think that our military spouse community is a great place to start. Think about some of your neighbors in base housing, or other spouses from unit meetings. You are probably not friends with every single one of them, and may think you don’t have much in common. But if you reach out, you will certainly learn that you have more in common than you think. So make the effort. Reach out. Listen. Ask others how they are doing and if they need help. We can all take steps to make America a better country, and it starts right here in our military community.