Air Force investigating racist text to airman saying he needed ‘white complexion’ for assignment

"I think the air force is looking for somebody of white complexion and with the image that the air force needs."
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Leaders at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona are investigating an incident where an airman allegedly told another airman that he was not being considered for a position because “the Air Force is looking for somebody of white complexion,” according to a text exchange shared on the popular Facebook page Air Force amn/snco/nco.

“We won’t be sending your name up for [redacted] at the squadron,” a White technical sergeant allegedly texted a Black senior airman at the 56th Equipment Maintenance Squadron on Wednesday. When the senior airman asked for a specific reason why, the technical sergeant said, “We personally do not feel as if you are a good choice for the squadron. You currently have a shaving waiver which isn’t a professional image, and I think the air force is looking for somebody of white complexion and with the image that the air force needs.”

“We can talk tomorrow to further discuss,” the text concluded.

While the Air Force prohibits male members from growing beards, waivers are issued to airmen who, for medical or religious reasons, are not able to shave in line with regulations. For example, Air Force doctors can allow airmen to grow well-kept beards if they suffer from painful razor bumps, a skin condition that affects many Black men. However, many airmen with shaving waivers have reported being prejudiced against despite their legitimate condition or religious beliefs.

In response, the senior airman said that “this is the third job that has been held over my head due to my looks, and that’s something based on personal preference. 

“I will not talk about it any further than what was just said,” he added. “I know the commander would not agree with this.”

An Air Force spokesperson said base leadership is looking into the matter.

“The 56th Fighter Wing is currently investigating the allegations of misconduct purportedly in a text message interaction between two Luke AFB Airmen published online yesterday,” said Sean Clements, chief of media relations for the Luke-based 56th Fighter Wing. “Without going into specifics of the investigation, we can categorically say that Luke Airmen are held to a high standard of conduct and that we maintain a zero-tolerance policy regarding acts of discrimination based on race.”

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A source close to the matter said that the technical sergeant was the senior airman’s flight production superintendent. One former maintenance airman explained that production superintendents oversee the planning and scheduling for a maintenance shop. The senior airman at Luke was applying for a Unit Fitness Assessment Cell position, which in Air Force regulations refers to airmen who conduct and oversee physical fitness tests.

According to the source, the senior airman’s chain of command and the wing’s Equal Opportunity and Inspector General offices started looking into the alleged text exchange soon after the screenshot was posted on Facebook. The senior airman has a good opinion of his leadership and of the Air Force, the source said, but being repeatedly judged for his in-regs appearance has deeply troubled him.

military welder
A 56th Equipment Maintenance Squadron aircraft metals technology journeyman welds pieces to a modified egress seat dolly stem, April 22, 2021, at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona (Senior Airman Noah D. Coger / U.S. Air Force)

No matter how the investigation turns out, the senior airman at Luke is not the only one in the Air Force to feel discriminated against based on his race and facial hair. A research paper published in July in the journal Military Medicine showed that Air Force regulations against facial hair disproportionately affect Black or African American airmen and can lead to slower rates of promotion and limited job opportunities in the service. While these issues affected airmen of all races who had shaving waivers equally, Black or African-American airmen made up the majority of the waiver holders and thus bore a disproportionate share of the consequences.

“[T]he promotion system is not necessarily inherently racially biased, but instead biased against the presence of facial hair which will likely always affect the promotions of Blacks/African-Americans disproportionately because of the relatively higher need for shaving waivers in this population,” wrote the authors of the study, a team of eight led by Air Force Lt. Col. Simon Ritchie.

Most airmen who have waivers are Black because they are more likely to be affected by pseudofolliculitis barbae (PFB) than White airmen. Commonly referred to as razor bumps, PFB is a skin condition that makes shaving painful and can lead to permanent scarring if the skin is not allowed to heal, which makes it a common reason for receiving a shaving waiver.

“This condition can appear in a person of any ethnicity but is predominantly seen in Blacks/African Americans,” study authors wrote.

Staff Sgt. Antoine, 13th Intelligence Squadron intelligence analyst, raises his head as Lt. Col. David Gregory, 9th Medical Group flight surgeon chief of medical staff, inspects his neck and face during a shaving waiver course at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., March 15, 2018. The most common reason Airmen request shaving waivers is due to pseudo folliculitis barbae, which is also known as shaving bumps or ingrown hairs. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Colville McFee)

In October, Ritchie reiterated his study findings and urged senior Air Force leaders to change the service’s facial hair policies.

“Members are sometimes ostracized from their units, looked down upon by leadership, questioned regarding their integrity, passed up for opportunities, or barred from special duties,” he wrote in an opinion piece published by Air Force Times. “We also see airmen who have a clear medical need for a waiver but refuse to take one because they are worried about how it may impact their career.”

A common argument in support of the ban against beards is that it prevents the proper seal of a gas mask, aviator mask or respirator, but the jury is actually still out on that, Ritchie said. Nobody has determined the minimum length of beard needed to control PFB, and therefore nobody has tested that length of beard on military masks.

“In our opinion as experienced military dermatologists, one-eighth of an inch of beard length is normally sufficient to control PFB and there is data showing that up to 98 percent of those tested for civilian respirator fit with this length of beard can successfully achieve a seal,” he said.

It would be easy and inexpensive to conduct clinical studies to substantiate data from the civilian sector, Ritchie proposed. The data from those studies could then be used to justify a new policy that makes sense and does not discriminate against Black airmen. To prevent abuse of the shaving waivers, perhaps the Air Force can drop its ban for “a narrow range of facial hair options” that maintain professional appearance, promote readiness and eliminate a source of racial discrimination, the dermatologist added.

“As the world’s premier Air and Space Force we cannot afford to overlook talent within our ranks, and we cannot afford to lose members to separation because of a regulation that may not contribute to readiness,” he wrote.

The focus on shaving waivers comes at a time when the Air Force is also reckoning with racial disparities in the service overall. In 2020, The Air Force published a sweeping review that found that Black service members are disproportionately punished and promoted more slowly when compared to their White peers. After conducting a root-cause analysis of the findings, organizations within the service decided to draft a Diversity, Equity Inclusion and Accessibility Strategy, establish offices with similar titles across the major commands, improve recruiters’ awareness and appreciation for diversity, expand partnerships with minority-serving institutions, improve reporting of racist behavior and other actions to boost diversity and awareness in the service.

Unfortunately, text exchanges like the one at Luke shows how some airmen still hold prejudiced beliefs that prevent others from reaching their full potential. But the fact that unit leadership is taking a close look at the matter could indicate that the wheels are moving in the right direction, the source close to the issue said.

Clements, the spokesperson for the 56th Fighter Wing, said that base leadership is taking the issue very seriously.

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