Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Brown Jr. Opens Up About Emotional Talks on Race with His Sons
PEOPLE’s Voices from the Fight Against Racism will amplify Black perspectives on the push for equality and justice
Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. made history this summer when he became the first Black person to ever lead a branch of the U.S. military, as the Air Force Chief of Staff.
The son of an Army colonel, Brown has a long history of service: he's logged more than 2,900 flying hours, including 130 in combat, and prior to his newest promotion, was the commander of Pacific Air Forces, Air Component Commander for U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.
But in June 2020, it wasn't his impressive credentials that brought the most attention; it was an emotional, five-minute-long video recorded and shared in the aftermath of George Floyd's death.
The clip, in which Gen. Brown spoke to his experiences as a Black man in the Air Force, struck a chord with viewers, many of whom praised his vulnerability and candor as he spoke of racism, current events and family, including his wife Sharene and their 28- and 24-year-old sons.
Here, Gen. Brown explains to PEOPLE the deeper meaning behind the video, as well as his plans to impart enduring change on the Air Force during his time in charge.
In the third grade, my sister and I were the only two African-Americans in our entire elementary school. It was the same thing when I came into the Air Force, particularly since I decided to become a pilot. Back then, it was about 2 percent of the pilots were African-American, and that number today is roughly about the same.
Many times I was the only one in my squadron — or in a fighter wing of 72 pilots, there were two of us. That's been my career, and that's something I've had to deal with, from the time I was in third grade all the way to where I am today.
I vividly remember being in Korea. I had the same flight suit, same set of wings as my fellow white pilots, and I'd get asked, "Are you a pilot?" I can somewhat understand that, because they probably have not seen an African-American pilot. But on the same token, give me the benefit of the doubt because I'm wearing the same uniform, the same wings.
Another example: When you get to senior levels, you have reserved parking spots around the base. I was in civilian clothes, I parked in a spot and someone came out and said, "That slot is reserved for the Pacific Air Force's Commander." And I go, "Yeah, I know, because I am the Pacific Air Force's Commander." There was just an assumption there. Those stories stick with me, and it does bother me when people make assumptions before they have a chance to even know or meet me, or they assume I'm not qualified.
One of the things I've always believed is people only aspire to what they've been exposed to. If you've never seen an African-American pilot or an African-American senior officer, then that doesn't really cross your mind. That's the value of being able to see people that look like you in various positions of leadership, opportunities or unique career fields — the more you see it, the more you're likely to say, "You know, I could possibly do that one day."
For my wife and I as parents, it's important to have conversations with our two sons that broaden their perspectives as well as our own. We want them to be successful, and understand that it's not always going to be easy.
I'll never forget the conversation we had after the death of George Floyd: it was mid-morning on a Sunday and we were in Hawaii while our son was in Washington, D.C. I was having a hard time with it, but not on the level he was, and it was a very emotional conversation.
As a parent, particularly when you're six time zones away, when you've got a child who's struggling with something and you can't be there with them, that tears on you. So you ask, "How can I help?" And he said, "What is Pacific Air Forces going to say?" Which meant he was really asking me, "Dad, what are you going to say?"
It really motivated me to think more deeply of how I approach and think about this, and of what I was going to say when I had the opportunity. Filming the video was pretty easy to do, because it was things that were on my heart after talking to our son. It was really my life.
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Some of my mentors and friends who are white, while I wouldn't say they didn't have any idea, the video was really an eye-opening experience for them. And one thing that happened over the course of the summer is that conversation blossomed, and we began talking about things in a much deeper sense than we ever have. We have a chance to move further forward, and I really see this as an opportunity we've got to take advantage of, so that we don't let the door close on us due to a lack of action.
Moving forward, we've got to closely manage our diverse populations, and we've got to actually take a look at the diverse population that comes into our force to make sure their development and opportunities aren't happening just by luck. We need to make sure that we actually have a broader group of candidates to choose from as we go forth, and that we expose some of these young people to certain opportunities they might not be able to afford, such as youth flight academies, as well as tweak the screening process, so it's not so reliant upon a paper test.
As the first African-American service chief, there is a burden that individuals think that I'll be able to come in and make a sweeping change; that I can say, "Here's what we're going to do," and it's just going to happen. It doesn't quite work that way because I can't do this by myself. The one thing I can do is, by having a seat at the head of the table in some cases, I have a lot more influence.
When I'm sitting back in a rocking chair someplace, I want to be able to say, "These meaningful things are still going and we sustained them." I continue to serve because I know there's somebody behind me that's watching, and if I can open a door for somebody else to have the same opportunities I had, I'm glad I can do that.
—As told to Rachel DeSantis
To help combat systemic racism, consider learning from or donating to these organizations:
• Campaign Zero works to end police brutality in America through research-proven strategies.
• ColorofChange.org works to make the government more responsive to racial disparities.
• National Cares Mentoring Movement provides social and academic support to help Black youth succeed in college and beyond.
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