Catalysts for Change

Alumni share personal stories of racism and offer paths for greater inclusion and equity

While recent events have shown the Naval Academy and the Naval Academy community are not beyond the reach of the ugly, lingering tentacles of racism, the Naval Academy Alumni Association and Foundation’s response is designed to send a clear message that intolerance is unacceptable.

In the wake of incidents on the Yard and across the country— and the growing national conversation about racial equality—the Naval Academy Alumni Association Board of Trustees launched a Special Committee on Alumni Culture, Diversity and Inclusion in June. Events that touched the Academy community in recent months include racist and sexist language broadcast live on social media by a now former member of the Alumni Association Board of Trustees as well as racially-charged social media posts by a first-class midshipman and a high school senior who was to be part of the Class of 2024.

The Special Committee on Alumni Culture, Diversity and Inclusion, co-chaired by Lieutenant General David Beydler ’81, USMC (Ret.), Matice Wright-Springer ’88 and Captain Karin Vernazza ’90, USN (Ret.), includes a diverse group of 12 alumni. It will review ways to improve leadership in the organization and operations to support and ensure racism, sexism and bigotry and their damaging effects do not exist and will not be tolerated in the Alumni Association.

It will also review all aspects of the Alumni Association mission, board policy, processes, recruitment and succession planning. The committee will report its initial findings and recommendations at a meeting of the Board of Trustees in September.

The co-chairs of the Special Committee made clear, “Our goals are to empower our alumni leadership with findings and recommendations that aligns our culture with our core values, leverages the diversity of our alumni membership, and welcomes inclusivity from all alumni members.” Adding, “Thus far, we have framed three desired outcomes: Greater appreciation for each other as alumni, greater transparency and better education of Alumni Association mission, goals and objectives and greater diverse participation in the Alumni Association with numerous findings and recommendations we will soon share in surveys, focus groups and town halls for broad alumni input prior to presentation to the Alumni Association Board of Trustees.”

Although the committee’s review remains ongoing, several alumni contacted the Alumni Association to share their personal experiences with racism and bias. It’s clear the nation’s continued fight against racism and sexism goes well beyond one person and one organization.

As the nation, the military and the Naval Academy work to dismantle the impacts of lingering racism and sexism, alumni offered first-person perspectives and calls to action with Shipmate. Here are a few of their stories in their own words.


Captain Hung Cao ’96, USN

It has been extremely difficult for me to observe the recent events that have been tearing apart our great nation. Now more than ever, our Navy needs to be the standard bearer for how we should treat one another as Americans. I have a unique history as a Vietnamese refugee who spent seven years of his youth in West Africa. I did not learn English until the age of 12, but I earned the opportunity to attend the best school in the country and serve in the most powerful Navy on the face of the earth. The Navy has allowed me to see the rest of the world, where I witnessed its beauty and its ugliness.

From my experiences, I witnessed the Vietnamese people’s traditional hatred of the Chinese. The Chinese have a deep-rooted hatred for the Japanese from the atrocities of World War II. When I was stationed in Italy, I saw how poorly the North Africans were treated. At NATO conferences, we had to keep the Turks and the Greeks apart. The point is that we can always find ways to hate others due to our differences and out of jealousy or envy. Hatred is a heart issue that can only be fixed when we experience a higher calling, requiring us to face adversity and forcing us to rely on one another.

What I loved about the Naval Academy was—because plebe year was so difficult—we learned to lean on our classmates to escape the wrath of upperclassmen. We never considered our classmates’ race or gender as we were disciplined for not having a straight gig line or not knowing the menu for morning meal. In the fleet, I did not care about the skin color of the sailor under the firefighting ensemble, but rather their courage during a main space fire. I learned the commitment of the person under a dive helmet or bomb suit is more important than their gender or religious belief. I learned in combat that the sexual orientation of the warrior beside me was irrelevant; I only cared that they had my back and they knew I had theirs.

A few years ago, I read an interview given by Vice Admiral D.C. Curtis ’76, USN (Ret.), Commander, U.S. Naval Surface Forces, saying sports were the best equalizers because a player is picked based on their ability, not their race. He could not have been more correct, because it is sheer skill and determination that will win the day. Leaders like him are a prime example of how the best rise to the top, regardless of any barrier that may exist. My NAPS roommate and best man at my wedding, Dana R. Barnes ’94, was an African- American Marine artillery officer and is today a vice president at Microsoft.

We need leaders like them to carry the torch and show our country that excellence and performance will overcome prejudice. Vice Admiral Curtis created the Naval Academy Minority Association, of which I am a proud member. NAMA highlights inspirational leaders with diverse backgrounds (race, religion, thought, experience) like Rear Admiral Victorino G. Mercado ’83, USN (Ret.), Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy, Plans and Capabilities, who have dedicated their lives to leading incredible teams.

Through these leaders, NAMA has been able to educate candidates and midshipmen about the various cultures that make up the world’s greatest Navy. Our Navy needs to take a bold step by focusing less on individuality and more on unity, the way we all learned during Plebe Summer. We want our sailors to think less on the heritage they received and more on the legacy that they leave behind. We need to embrace our country’s traditional motto “E Pluribus Unum”—”Out of Many, One.” We are one Navy, made up of all races, genders and backgrounds, dedicated to defending our constitution and our great Republic!


Gina (Hopson) Visor ’00

I am biracial. My mother is Asian and my father is African American. Although I was born in the U.S., I was raised in South Korea and moved to the U.S. in the fifth grade. Once I began schooling here, I realized how deeply embedded racism is in our culture. I was frequently called to the principal’s office, not for misbehavior, but for incorrectly completing racial demographic paperwork. I was “black” and should not confuse metrics by checking too many boxes.

To this day, I always check Asian and African American as my racial identity. During my time at the Naval Academy, I participated in many clubs and activities. I was doing well academically and decided to pursue a major in chemistry. During my plebe year, my roommate asked if she could study with me in Chauvenet Hall. We had a wonderful conversation on our way over. As we entered the large study room filled with approximately 100 midshipmen in dress blues quietly studying, my roommate froze in terror. In a panic whisper, she said, “Gina, I’ve never been the only white person in the room.” I turned to her and calmly said, “I want you to remember this feeling for the rest of your life. This is how I feel every day.”

I also had the honor and privilege of serving as the Midshipmen Black Studies Club president. During my tenure, we brought in a keynote speaker to encourage and motivate our club. Immediately, prior to him giving his opening remarks, he began openly weeping. Clearly, the speech was going off the rails and I asked if he was ok. He whispered, “I never thought I’d live to see the day.” His tears were falling rapidly now. The audience was rapt with anticipation and respectful of his silent pause. He stepped forward to the microphone and repeated, “I never thought I’d live to see the day when there would be this many Black midshipmen. I was the first African American to graduate from the Naval Academy. For four years, I ate alone. And now this.” My keynote speaker, Lieutenant Commander Wesley Brown ’49, CEC, USN (Ret.), paused to steady himself at the wooden podium.

Unfortunately, we live in a society that does see color and likes to fit people in boxes. We all have biases. My white roommate was terrified to be in a room filled with African Americans who were quietly studying. In her mind, she should never be in a situation where she is “the only.” Wesley Brown endured four years of pure hell at the Academy. When I compare my experiences to that, I have a lot to be grateful for. However, the mandate of the Naval Academy is not for African Americans to simply be grateful to have graduated, but to be treated as equal human beings.

This is a humanity issue.

The Naval Academy Alumni Association and the Academy need to partner together to offer more virtual and in-person mandatory trainings to actively fight against racial biases.  Success in this area will require active engagement, accountability, unequivocal leadership and full commitment from the highest echelons.  Every minority graduate has a story, and we can all become better human beings and leaders by listening and not dismissing the pain.

I am proud to have graduated with a bachelor’s in chemistry from the Naval Academy. I enjoyed serving as a Nuclear Surface Warfare Officer. It is my sincere hope that all graduates see racism as a blot that must be completely obliterated with the truth of our past acceptance of racism (e.g. Academy buildings or monuments named after segregationists, systemic racism, etc.) Otherwise, we are destined to repeat past sins.

A call to Action

Admiral Cecil Haney ’78, USN (Ret.)

The Naval Academy provides a unique and diverse environment, given that its candidate selection process ensures that all 50 states are represented in each class. It is of my opinion that this process cannot accurately assess all incoming midshipmen regarding their social beliefs on racial prejudice and biases. These inherit traits are in many cases shielded, cloaked and practiced for many years in the culture and environment that were cultivated prior to their arrival at the Naval Academy. The Brigade is a sampling of American society, and these traits are hard to measure.

I also believe that despite the tremendous efforts of the Naval Academy to foster teamwork, it is hard to completely transform all midshipmen during the four years there. Yes, some midshipmen are transformed but we have to expect that some will graduate with these undesired traits in their psyche. We must understand this as a given and something we must continually address.

Even today, as I enter a conference room to discuss issues of national security or some other strategic discussion, I know that while most I know in the room have dignity and respect for all human beings, I suspect that there may be a small number that are in the same frame of mind that one of my midshipman classmates was in when in front of others (who did not challenge his beliefs), he stated that I was only there because I was a part of some quota system. That comment continues to reverberate in my mind every time I enter a room of people I have not worked closely with, and especially when I am the only person of color in that room.

You might think that was a long time ago, but today we see fresh, blatant examples, even from at least one alumnus, which invites the question if that individual intentionally derailed careers with his mindset. This is just another reminder that some finite number of Americans in this country dislike me and disrespect anything I accomplished simply because of the color of my skin. It is the reality that my parents warned me about.

As I look back on my days at the Academy, I am prayerful and thankful for the experience. I had wonderful roommates, some of whom had very limited experience of being around a person of color. Some even refreshingly talked about how I could not meet face-to-face with their grandmother or some other family member because of their racist beliefs. What was neat was that we were able to have meaningful conversations about this and some came home with me for a meal and got to meet my family. They were able to see: (1) that even though my dad had served in World War II in the Army during immense segregation, he welcomed them in; (2) even though both parents had no college education, they were in tune with current events and the history of our nation; (3) they were hard workers and caring parents even though they were part of a different race; and (4) that they required grace before meals, given their Christian faith.

So, I would ask all alumni to look closely at this period of social unrest with an understanding that a lot of work remains to carry out the intent of our Constitution. Just as we alumni work to support the Academy, let us also support communities to help bring together unity in this country so that together we can be a catalyst for change to get others to respect and provide opportunities for all fellow Americans, including those of color as a main thing.

We need to get this on the right course and not look at it as something that requires a simple fix but one that requires continual attention. We must passionately work to eliminate to the highest degree possible hatred and disrespectful attitudes toward fellow human beings. Failure to get at this will, in my opinion, cause others around the world to question the true ability of democracy to let freedom ring and will stifle our growth and capability as a country. This is a call for alumni action!

To read the complete call to action by Admiral Cecil D. Haney ’78, USN (Ret.), visit


LT Britt J. Campbell ’12, USN

When I heard the comments of the 1980 graduate, I, like many, was disgusted and angered but unlike many, I was not surprised. Language that conveys that men and women of color do not belong at the Naval Academy is not foreign to men and women of color at the Naval Academy. When I read the board’s response to the comments, I was disappointed by the Naval Academy’s role in a continued reluctance of the Navy to speak honestly about its own history with race.

It is a history that influences our midshipmen today as it influenced our retired naval officers who attended in the past. When I checked onboard my first ship in 2015, my captain, an Academy graduate, proudly proclaimed “I do not recognize White sailors, Black sailors, Hispanic sailors, Asian sailors, I only see [Ship Name] sailors.” His sentiment was innocent and in good faith. He repeated the rhetoric during presentations celebrating the cultures of the different sailors we had onboard as a caveated reminder that differences in privilege based on ethnic backgrounds will not be tolerated in the military.

In the Navy, being a sailor first is what unites people from all walks of life from around the country into a combat team comprised of members who can depend on each other for their very lives. Nevertheless, applying the “I don’t see color” mantra in the context of racial equality is a convenient catchphrase that overlooks the stark reality of our Navy’s history.

Almost 70 years after Henry Flipper graduated from West Point, Wesley Brown was commissioned from the Naval Academy in June 1949. Perhaps in our pride over Army, we omit that embarrassing fact from our teachings about Wesley Brown’s incredible accomplishment. We pay the price for that exclusion today—West Point’s Class of 2023, which is 15 percent Black; considerably more reflective of the diversity of our country’s populace than the Naval Academy’s Class of 2023 that is 7 percent Black. I have found that this statistic often sparks a racist and offensive conversation about lowering Academy standards for Black applicants rather than a discussion about creative ways to appeal to the talent of Black students in America.

An apology that describes the actions we will take to heal from those comments without taking responsibility for the Navy’s influence on his views is not an apology. I believe we are facing a critical opportunity to demonstrate the character of our school, just as the Naval Academy taught me that my integrity would shape my character as a naval officer. Having honor means holding yourself accountable for your actions as you implement measures to correct your course. We cannot take steps to correct the narrative if we cannot even honestly admit that the Naval Academy is not immune to the potency of that ideology that has shaped our alma mater and the midshipmen who have attended.

This letter in no way reflects the views of the United States Navy.


Daron Fullwood ’90

Are young women and racial minorities at the United States Naval Academy safe and supported under the entrusted leadership? Why are so many minorities ranked in the bottom of their companies and peer groups? Why is the feeling of exclusion so prevalent in our nation’s best and brightest? Do a disproportionate number of minorities leave the Academy under circumstances where others do not?

Why have so many minority midshipmen taken years to get over the pain and hurt from the isolation they experienced? I know this to be true, because one of those midshipmen is me.

My name is Daron Fullwood. I am a Naval Academy graduate, Class of 1990, and I am Black. I am equally proud of both facts. When I heard the vile private comments recorded on Facebook Live, I was very angry. I mean, shaking, watery-eyed, steaming angry.

Then, a strange thing happened. A sense of calm came across me. The calming agent was the validation and confirmation that “this is what some think about you…”

Maybe I feel a bit differently than my other Naval Academy shipmates and alumni, but I am relieved the 1980 graduate told the world what he thinks about minority and female officers, midshipmen and prospective midshipmen. It confirms for me long-held perceptions of how Black midshipmen were systemically viewed. That is, we were at the Naval Academy by virtue of stereotypical perceptions such as affirmative action, sports, somebody’s pet project or some combination thereof.

The best part of the recording is the opportunity it presents for an overdue conversation with senior Naval Academy leadership about Academy culture from the perspective of minority midshipmen. Here is the question we must somehow muster the strength and courage to ask: How many of our leaders, trustees and others in positions of authority and influence harbor these same discriminatory and disheartening sentiments? To insinuate that this is an isolated incident is an insult to isolated incidences. The only difference here is that this person was recorded.

According to the Chief of Naval Operations, silence is no longer an option. We all must speak out against such vile attitudes. It is time for accountability! That is what the Naval Academy taught us. Accountability is shown in one’s actions, not words. So, “For the Good of the Service,” silence, by our leaders, will only subliminally teach our future leaders that this is ok: Well, it is NOT ok. In an open letter dated 10 June 2020, the Chairman and Trustees of the Naval Academy Alumni Association pledged to “Learn from this incident of bigotry and actively lead to restore the trust and hope of our diverse alumni.”

I am caught in the middle of that hope and history. Hope, because I have truly benefited from being a Naval Academy graduate. In fact, I would assert that I am the beneficiary of a certain privilege reserved for a certain segment of our society. My silence has afforded me that privilege. However, when multiple current midshipmen called me on Saturday, 6 June, expressing great concern and hurt, over the broadcast comments, history took me back 30 years. Their plea for a voice reminded me of when, as a senior, I was asked to stand tall, as I was trained to do, for a minority plebe (freshman) who was being racially targeted by his squad leader.

I went to see his squad leader, given that we were in the same class, to ascertain the issues. The next morning, I was awakened at 5 a.m. and told the Deputy Commandant of Midshipmen wanted to see me right now. With only 45 days or so until graduation, the Deputy Commandant told me, in no uncertain words, that my actions were “mob-like and thuggish” and that if I wanted to graduate, I had better fly right and be quiet. So, I chose to be silent; I deserted that young freshman in order to graduate, and I have regretted my silence ever since.

I pledged to myself then, that no other midshipmen would suffer alone in silence. Thus, for the last 25 years, I have passionately devoted a tremendous portion of my life to guiding, mentoring and providing educational assistance, career counseling and real-life opportunities for underserved midshipmen. I do this because I am grateful for the support I received when I was there, and I am paying it forward. I am thankful to those minority midshipmen who came before me, who dedicated themselves to inclusion and acceptance, a role that our great institution should have provided. This network, known as the 7th Battalion, was the “underground railroad” of support networks at the Academy.

This underground network of minority midshipmen took care of each other and provided underclassmen the support and protection from discrimination they needed to survive. Had it not been for this network known as the “7th Batt,” I would not have survived the Naval Academy. The need for that support network today has not changed; only the years have changed. Today, that support network is known as the Middy Mentor program. The difference today is the support network should not be in the dark. The results of the 7th Batt and the Middy Mentor Program are nothing short of exemplary, yet what remains is that our great institution is still woefully lacking in embracing the networks necessary to support and defend all of our female and minority future leaders who are entrusted in its care.

Source: September 2020 Shipmate