When it comes to embracing diversity, tolerance and standing up for Army values, Staff Sgt. Akeem Williams, a dental specialist assigned to Dental Health Command Europe, is all in.
As an Army brat raised near Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, Williams says he was fortunate to be taught right from wrong at an early age. Having lost his father to cancer at age 11, Williams was raised by a single mother, who was also in the Army, but had a lot of help and guidance from his grandmother. Williams recalls a number of challenges growing up regarding racism and tolerance.
“I played a lot of sports as a kid,” said Williams. “I would hear kids make racist jokes and pick on and ridicule other kids based purely on their skin color or their accent. I didn’t think it was a big deal at the time and I got along with everyone.”
“Now that I look back on it, I realize it was a big deal,” Williams added. “I believe my experiences as a child helped me to appreciate and respect people of other ethnic or racial backgrounds and to be more accepting of people who are different than myself.
“My mom taught me that we are all equal and to not judge others, or let someone judge you based of your race or ethnicity. She told me to let them judge you based on your character,” Williams added.
According to the Pew Research Center, as the United States has become more racially diverse, so has the U.S. military. As of 2015, racial and ethnic minorities made up 40 percent of the Department of Defense.
“Tolerance and diversity are important because we can learn from people with different backgrounds,” Williams said. “In the Army, listening to different perspectives is key. That’s how we solve problems, by bringing in new ideas from people of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. The color of your skin shouldn’t be a factor.”
As part of the Army’s focus and emphasis on diversity and inclusion, Williams was recently among a group of four Soldiers hand-picked to participate in a webinar with Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston.
During the webinar, Williams shared his experiences with Grinston and the webinar host, former Sgt. Maj. of the Army Daniel Dailey.
“There’s no place in our Army for micro-aggressions,” said Sgt. Maj. of the Army, Michael Grinston. “Just because someone hasn’t seen or experienced racism within the Army itself, doesn’t mean it isn’t present.”
During the webinar, Williams shared a personal experience he witnessed that has helped shape his perspective on diversity.
“I’ve definitely witnessed intolerance during my time in the Army. A mentor of mine, whose second language is English, received some dirty looks and snide remarks during a briefing one day based purely on her accent,” said Williams. “I intervened on her behalf because it is immature and ignorant to act that way. Looking back on it, I wish I would have put them in their places a little bit harder. It makes me upset that we all wear the same uniform and swear to protect and defend this Nation with our lives, if need be, but we still have to deal with racism in our ranks.”
In an effort to promote diversity among its ranks, the Army recently unveiled a new initiative called “Project Inclusion,” a holistic effort that will include a series of worldwide listening sessions with Soldiers and DA Civilians.
“A diverse and inclusive DOD draws out and builds upon the best in each of us; it builds esprit-de-corps, forges teamwork, and brings out the best between us,” U.S. Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper said recently. “In short, it brings out the best in America.”
During the webinar, Williams shared his personal beliefs and experiences and emphasized the need for all Soldiers to embrace diversity and stand up for each other.
“You should be yourself,” said Williams. “Embrace your battle buddy’s culture if it’s different from yours, learn their culture and teach them yours. When you meet new Soldiers ask them where they come from. Get to know their background.”
“Don’t be afraid to speak up and intervene when you witness racism,” Williams added. “And whatever you do, don’t accept ‘it was just a joke’ as a response. I’ve lost some friends over my speaking up, I’m sure, but I don’t need ignorance in my Army anyway.”