TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – In middle school her classmates called her a monkey. She was bullied for how her hair looked and for the clothing she wore. Even after she joined the Air Force, she experienced racism in her hometown at one of her favorite restaurants.
“I was waiting for my food and I was wearing my Air Force uniform because I went home to support the recruiter’s assistance program,” said Airman 1st Class Alexandria Brown, 60th Medical Support Squadron personnel and administration services flight technician, from Newport News, Virginia.
“An older white man ordered food after me and something was wrong with his order,” she said. “He was upset and said, ‘You messed up my order, but you got this N-word’s order right,’ referring to me. I just grabbed my food and left.”
Brown, who is of Nigerian and French ancestry, said that experience had quite an impact on her.
“I thought, maybe, since I was there in my military uniform, he would respect that I’m serving our country. Maybe respect me, but he didn’t,” she said. “He didn’t look past the color of my skin. That moment made me feel like, even in my uniform, there will always be people who will never accept me. No matter what I do, there will be people who look at my skin first before they see me as a person.”
Brown said her mother taught her at a young age that she would have to endure some form of discrimination her whole life.
“But it shouldn’t be that way,” she said. “You shouldn’t judge people based on the color of their skin. You should judge people based on their character and nobody wants to be judged before they demonstrate who they are as a person.”
The Department of Defense has a zero tolerance policy regarding unlawful discrimination which includes discrimination based on sex (to include sexual orientation), religion, national origin, race and color for military members. Civilian employees are also protected against age, disability and genetic information discrimination.
Despite the zero tolerance policy, there are times when the U.S. military has experienced incidents of discrimination. The Equal Opportunity Office at each base addresses concerns and processes complaints.
Grayland Hilt, 60th AMW EO director, said everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and when that doesn’t happen, the Air Force’s ability to accomplish the mission is negatively impacted.
“Everybody has something to bring to the table and when we exclude people intentionally or unintentionally because of their age, gender, race, color or sex then we miss out on what they have to bring,” he said. “We miss out on what makes us the greatest fighting force in the world.”
In an effort to promote a culture of inclusion and prevent discrimination, Hilt said, his EO team engages in a variety of activities.
“We regularly visit squadrons and inform them of the rules and regulations, as well as the negative impact discriminatory behavior has on the mission,” he said. “We also interview squadron members so we can gain insight on what the squadron’s culture is like in regard to diversity and inclusion. We compile our findings into a report that we share with that unit’s commander and we provide him or her with strategies to prevent and address EO issues.”
The EO office also offers specialized training opportunities, a mediation program and conducts briefings stressing the importance of professional behavior for all Airmen shortly after they arrive at Travis.
“We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper,” said Chief Master Sgt. Mark Davis, 60th Medical Group superintendent and one of the senior leaders in Brown’s organization. “Airmen at all levels have an obligation to ensure that racism and discrimination have no place on our team. Transparency in all we do and how our units function is the best disinfectant for this abhorrent behavior.”
Davis said he and other members of the 60th MDG leadership team routinely meet with their Airmen and emphasize the importance of fostering a climate based on respect.
“Our teammates, like Airman Brown, must be shown that mutual dignity and respect between all members are catalysts to them realizing their full potential,” he said. “Ensuring an environment free from the shackles of racism and discrimination is essential and will help assure mission success.”
Hilt said, often times, people may not realize they are doing something that could be demeaning to someone else because of unconscious bias.
According to Vanderbilt University’s Office for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, unconscious or implicit bias, is prejudice or unsupported judgements in favor of or against one thing, a person or group as compared to another, in a way that is usually considered unfair.
Hilt said, this bias could lead people to engage in potentially discriminatory behavior and it’s something he has experienced personally.
“I dress professionally and normally wear suits,” he said. “A few years ago I was the executive director for all the Head Starts in Napa and Solano Counties. I was wearing a suit and stopped at a grocery store to get a few things. A white cashier said, ‘You look really nice today.’ I said, ‘Thank you’ and then she asked; ‘Are you a chauffeur?’”
Hilt, a black man, said he was stunned by the question.
“I asked her why she would assume that I was a chauffeur and not a business man or an executive and she just didn’t get it,” he said. “I then turned to the man who was bagging my groceries, who was an African American male, and he said, ‘Yeah, I’m trying to figure out why you’re dressed like that too.”
“In this situation there were two different races that both made the same assumption about an African American who was well-dressed,” Hilt said. “They automatically thought I must be a chauffeur and couldn’t possibly be an executive.”
While going through the Equal Opportunity Counselor’s Course years ago as a staff sergeant, Hilt said he was shocked to learn he also had an unconscious bias.
“I remember asking my fellow classmates, who were white, ‘How can you not know you are excluding someone and making them feel like they are invisible?’” Hilt said. “One of the four women in our group, a U.S. Army sergeant said, ‘Sergeant Hilt, you do the same thing to women. You exclude us and you don’t even realize it.”
“She had the courage to tell me about my unknown bias and gave me examples,” Hilt said. “That was the biggest eye-opener for me.”
The Army sergeant shared with Hilt how upsetting it was when he didn’t give women the same attention he gave his male colleagues.
“We could be having a conversation and if a woman was talking to me, and a man started to speak to me, I would immediately divert my attention from the woman to the man,” Hilt said. “That is a subtle bias. I was stunned to learn that I tended to give more attention to males over females.”
Hilt said he has a come a long way since that realization and became the EO director for the 60th AMW at Travis in November 2018. He has now served in the EO career field for two decades.
Fostering an environment of dignity and respect where all people feel included and valued is a must for any organization, he said.
“It’s important to have inclusion," Hilt said. "If you understand someone’s background and where they are coming from, it doesn’t necessarily mean you agree with them, but it means you have a deeper understanding; you’ve broadened your perspective and that makes us a stronger force."
“When people don’t feel like they are treated the way they should be it impacts their life, it impacts their jobs and it certainly impacts our mission,” he said. “This is not a white thing or a black thing; it’s a human thing and as military members. We need to carry ourselves at all times as the ultimate professionals. If we do that and we truly value diversity and foster an environment of inclusiveness with an open mind, our force will thrive.”
Brown may be a good example of what Hilt describes.
“You never know what someone else has gone through, so it’s important to treat everyone with dignity and respect,” she said. “Even after all I’ve been through, I accept everyone for who they are.”