When her Army unit was called to fight, this woman refused — and blazed a new trail.

When Aimee Allison was 14, her mother took her to see civil rights leader Jesse Jackson speak — and something changed in her.

Growing up black and biracial in a predominantly white community, Allison regularly experienced incidents of racism. And while she worked hard in school and wanted to someday attend college, it was hard to imagine herself as a leader. After all, she hadn't seen anyone in government who looked like her.

But listening to Jackson changed her whole idea of what her future could entail.


"It was the first time I heard an articulation of what was possible in our country's future by coming together across race," she says.

Image courtesy of Aimee Allison.

The experience inspired Allison to dream big: She wanted to become the first black female secretary of state. She dove into extracurricular activities to set herself up for success, and with each new challenge, she excelled. On her high school's speech and debate team, she did so well that she went on to compete at the national level. Eventually, she ran for student body president, and she won.

Then, when she was 17, she met a recruiter who convinced her that joining the Army Reserves and serving her country would bring her closer to achieving her dreams.

So she signed up and began her training — but it wasn't at all what she expected.

Image via Staff Sgt. Shawn Weismiller.

"I didn't start out as a person who wanted to pick up a gun," she explains.

The once passionate debater and leader quickly found the environment at odds with who she was. "In military training, there's two main things that you're taught," she says. "You follow orders, and you do not speak up."

So when her unit was called to fight in the first Gulf War, Allison felt the need to finally speak up. She didn't actually believe in going to war and knew her calling was elsewhere.

Image via Upworthy.

"There's an easy choice, which is to follow orders and say nothing," she says. "But my conscience, which is another way to say my heart, would not let me do it."

So instead of going to fight, she became a conscientious objector, which allowed her to be honorably discharged from the military so she was no longer expected to serve. It was a tough move to make, especially because her military training had told her not to question her orders. But she knew it was the right decision.

"Becoming a conscientious objector was my call to serving the country, to serving humanity," she says.

Image via Upworthy.

She learned in that moment that she had the ability to stand up for what she believes in.

"All of my work since my time as a teenager in the military has been to follow my heart, to do the thing that's right, and to be as courageous as I can," she says. "That's how I found who I was, and that's how I have been organizing my life ever since," she says.  

Remembering how powerful an experience it had been to see Jesse Jackson speak, she realized that she, too, could use her voice to engage her community in the political process.

Image via Upworthy.

Women of color are 20% of the U.S. population and yet only 4% of elected officials. And that's why Allison is speaking out to make sure people of color get more representation.

She's the president of Democracy in Color, an organization that mobilizes black and brown voters and supports progressive candidates of color in order to diversify the government.

Allison also hosts the Democracy in Color podcast, writes articles on women of color in government, and uses social media to engage potential voters in the issues that affect the lives of people of color.

While it's taken a lot of courage for her to follow her heart, Allison's journey is an important reminder that the right path is not always the easiest to take. Now, as a fierce advocate for her community, she's showing others that when the path is unclear, it's time to blaze a new trail.

More

Whenever someone's words or behavior are called out as racist, a few predictable responses always follow. One is to see the word "racist" as a vicious personal attack. Two is to vehemently deny that whatever was said or done was racist. And three is to pull out the dictionary definition of racism to prove that the words or behavior weren't racist.

Honestly, as soon as someone refers to the dictionary when discussing racism, it's clear that person has never delved deeply into trying to understand racism. It's a big old red flag, every time.

I'm not an expert on race relations, but I've spent many years learning from people who are. And I've learned that the reality of racism is nuanced and complex, and resorting to a short dictionary definition completely ignores that fact. The dictionary can't include all of the ways racism manifests in individuals and society, and the limitations of dictionary definitions make it a poor tool for discussing the topic.

Since "racism" is such a loaded term for many people, let's look at such limitations through a different complex word. Let's take "anxiety." According to Merriam-Webster, "anxiety" is defined as "apprehensive uneasiness or nervousness, usually over an impending or anticipated ill."

Now imagine thinking that you understand everything that encompasses anxiety from reading that dictionary definition. Imagine thinking you could recognize the signs of anxiety in someone based on that definition alone. Ridiculous, right? The dictionary doesn't explain that some people's anxiety manifests as anger, even though it does. It doesn't say that anxiety sometimes manifests as withdrawal or aloofness. It doesn't say that you often won't see obvious signs of fear or nervousness in someone experiencing anxiety.

The dictionary doesn't offer anything close to the reality of what anxiety is or looks like. It would be silly to say that someone isn't experiencing anxiety because they're not clearly showing signs of nervousness like the dictionary definition implies. Just as the dictionary definition of anxiety is not comprehensive, neither is the dictionary definition of racism. Yet people keep using it to "prove" that something or someone isn't racist.

Fox News analyst Brit Hume just pulled that trick on Twitter to try to back up his claim that Donald Trump's "go back to" statements to four Congresswomen of color weren't technically racist.


The first Merriam-Webster entry for "racism" reads "a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race."

Merriam-Webster

First of all, I'm not sure how this definition actually makes Trump's statements not racist. A belief is not always conscious, so even assuming that his racism is unconscious, a white man telling four women of color to "go back to" their countries of origin—despite three of them being born in the U.S. and the fourth being a naturalized citizen of the U.S.—is pretty objectively racist. No one knows exactly what is going on in the President's head, but such statements only being made to women of color would certainly be consistent with the behavior of someone with a belief in white people's inherent superiority.

But that simple definition isn't truly definitive, either. Shortly after Hume's tweet, Merriam-Webster pointed out a usage note for the word "racism," which clarifies that dictionaries do not provide the be-all-end-all definition of words.

Anti-racism advocates have tried time and time again to explain that racism is not as straightforward as someone saying, "I think I'm superior to people who don't share my skin color." Racism is almost never that blatant, and yet oodles of Americans refuse to call anything less than that kind of bold statement "racism." We have a long history showing exactly how white supremacy—the origin of racism in the U.S.—exerts itself in both strong and subtle ways, and thousands of hours and pages of education from experts describing how racism works on an individual and societal level. But people still insist on the simplistic narrative of "Racism=hating people of a different race."

I've seen many people, including Brit Hume, argue that the word racism has lost all meaning. Frankly, that's a copout. Racism—as both a conscious or unconscious belief of racial superiority and as a system of racial prejudice blended with power dynamics—has a broader meaning than one person hating another person for the color of their skin. But that doesn't make it meaningless.

I've also seen people complain that "everything is racist these days," but no, it's really not. We simply understand more about racism now, thanks to the field of race studies and to people of color offering their time and energy to explain it, so it's easier to identify in its various forms. In my experience, when someone's understanding of racism reaches a certain stage, they start recognizing it in places where ignorance or unconscious bias may have caused them to miss it in the past. That's not imagining racism where it doesn't exist or "calling everything racist these days"; that's simply seeing reality more clearly.

When you really dive deep into the historical, psychological, and sociological reality of racism in America, it becomes painfully obvious that racism is far more prevalent and enmeshed in our society than most people think. Until defensive, mostly-white folks stop automatically denying racism every time the word is used and stop throwing around dictionaries to avoid having to do that deep dive work, we're not going to make real headway on this issue.

Let's stop pretending that the definition and supposed overuse of the word "racism" is the problem, when the problem is racism, period.

Democracy
Photo by Hunters Race on Unsplash

If you're a woman and you want to be a CEO, you should probably think about changing your name to "Jeffrey" or "Michael." Or possibly even "Michael Jeffreys" or "Jeffrey Michaels."

According to Fortune, last year, more men named Jeffrey and Michael became CEOs of America's top companies than women. A whopping total of one woman became a CEO, while two men named Jeffrey took the title, and two men named Michael moved into the C-suite as well.

The "New CEO Report" for 2018, which looks at new CEOS for the 250 largest S&P 500 companies, found that 23 people were appointed to the position of CEO. Only one of those 23 people was a woman. Michelle Gass, the new CEO of Kohl's, was the lone female on the list.

Keep Reading Show less
popular

California has a housing crisis. Rent is so astronomical, one San Francisco company is offering bunk bedsfor $1,200 a month; Google even pledged$1 billion to help tackle the issue in the Bay Area. But the person who might fix it for good? Kanye West.

The music mogul first announced his plan to build low-income housing on Twitter late last year.

"We're starting a Yeezy architecture arm called Yeezy home. We're looking for architects and industrial designers who want to make the world better," West tweeted.

Keep Reading Show less
Cities

At Trump's 'Social Media Summit' on Thursday, he bizarrely claimed Arnold Schwarzenegger had 'died' and he had witnessed said death. Wait, what?!


He didn't mean it literally - thank God. You can't be too sure! After all, he seemed to think that Frederick Douglass was still alive in February. More recently, he described a world in which the 1770s included airports. His laissez-faire approach to chronology is confusing, to say the least.

Keep Reading Show less
Democracy