Tough conversations; addressing the past to improve our future

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Cederic Hill
  • 614th Combat Operations Division

As I look back on the past 20 years, I realize, of all the mentors I have had in my career only one has looked like me.

This is in no way meant to belittle the mentors I currently have because I have the utmost respect for them. I do, however, believe I would have been able to find my voice as an Airman and NCO much faster if I had more people who looked like me to guide me along my path. 

The fact of the matter is when we are forced to confront issues of race, bias, or other important things that impact our community, it is difficult to voice our feelings and get advice from others. It is difficult because it is hard to know if people in leadership positions will truly understand what you’re going through because their reality of life in America is different from your own. 

I have received a lot of great advice from the leaders in my squadrons over the years, but when I think about it, I have never laid it all out to them completely. As a black man in America, I sometimes find it very hard to try to talk through issues that have to do with racial bias, misconceptions or prejudices because we are often told the three things you don’t talk about at work are race, religion and politics.

As an instructor, I found that more young black Airmen came to me with issues than my white counterparts because I understand the struggle they face each day. I believe more minority leaders within the Air and Space Forces will be greatly beneficial to the young black Airmen and our service branches.

I wish I knew the best way to attract other minorities to the Space Force. I believe if we want to make this happen it is important for the minorities currently serving to have a positive experience. If not, then why would they encourage others to volunteer? 

I believe having robust outreach and mentoring programs for minority groups would help plant the seed in young minds. Reaching out, mentoring, and opening the eyes and minds of young people in communities is an important step. We need to reach out to communities and schools to mentor and showcase our missions to the demographic we seek to add to our ranks. 

People forget the power of seeing someone who looks like them in a role other than the one they always see in the different forms of media. Maybe if I were that regular mentor to a group of young black kids, it would be the image they need to believe they can be more than they have been shown. 

One thing I would like to see the Air and the Space Forces focus on as we build a new force for the future, is allowing black people to tell their stories.  In my career the Air Force always encouraged us to host events that celebrate diversity, and that is a great thing. In my career, I have unfortunately felt limited and constrained when I have wanted to share the history of our people. I often received push back when I attempted to tell our complete story. I have seen commanders give reasons why we can’t celebrate certain figures within our community or in the history of African Americans. 

Figures such as James Brown, Jimmy Hendrix, Jay-Z, Malcom X and others weren’t included because they were viewed as too radical, they did bad things in their past, or some other irrelevant reason. When you are told you can’t discuss or showcase influential and celebrity figures that played a significant part of our struggle, it is very discouraging. 

In one instance, another NCO and I fought to have “We come from Kings and Queens” as our theme for Black History Month. Unfortunately, we lost that battle. From our point of view it seemed like someone became offended by a theme we felt was uplifting. When things like that happen, it is discouraging, and it makes you feel like you can only celebrate well-known figures and events they believe are pertinent to you as a people. 

We must acknowledge there have been horrible things that have happened to African Americans in our history. If we can talk in great detail about world events like the Holocaust, then we must also talk about all parts of our shared history. 

In 20 years, I have never seen a base celebrate Juneteenth, and that is a significant holiday for many black people in the nation. If we genuinely want to grow as a force, I believe it is important to not sugar-coat history. If we genuinely believe in diversity, we should take time to address it at different times of the year, not just the “traditional” one or two times it is mandated. 

To truly succeed, the Space Force must help people find a deeper understanding of who they are, who their fellow service members are, and their struggles. This will only happen with open and honest discussions about all facets of our shared history.

In this time of unrest, there have been many hard questions that must be asked and discussions that must be had in the nation, the Air Force and with each of us. As a black man in America, I’ve have leaned on friends, family and mentors to answer some of the questions I have about myself and the feelings I have towards the events from a personal standpoint. 

As a Senior NCO, I have spoken with Officers, NCOs, and Airmen to explain my experiences in the Air Force and the black experience living in America. Some have come to realize their own personal biases, while others still live in disbelief they exist. 

As I reflect on the love, hate, discrimination, friendships, my fellow Airmen and the experiences that have made major impacts on my life, I ask myself many questions. When I was a boy, I asked myself, “Why do people hate me for looking different and why do they call me those names?” As a teen, I asked myself, “Why did a police officer pull his gun on me for just sitting in the back seat doing nothing?”  One night coming home from work, I asked myself, “Why did it take six police cars to tell me my brother needed to wear his seat belt?”  When I was in basic military training, I asked myself, “Why was I subjecting myself to it when I didn’t feel like the nation wanted me to be a part of it just a few years prior?”  Going through my career, I asked myself, “Can I speak out against the things I feel are unfair and not be labeled the ‘angry black man’ or accused of playing ‘the race card?’”  As I saw people who looked like me shot dead on video, I asked myself “Why was the victim demonized in the media?”  Progressing through my degree courses I had a personal awakening, and in this moment, I asked myself, “Why did I have an unrealized hate for my own skin color?” 

One of the hardest questions came after I had to explain to my brother twice, before the age of 15, why society would see him a certain way as a black male. This hard question was, “What have you been through to tell me ‘I don’t want to be brown’ when I explain the realities you will face as a man?”

The realization of my own unconscious hatred for my own skin and seeing that same image in my brother brought me to tears. With all of this, I would say an important question I’ve asked myself and others have asked me as I have become more outspoken on diversity issues is “Why do you serve a nation that has caused you self-doubt and self-hate?”

I’ve thought about this question for years now. I serve because I have come to truly believe doing this is a calling. 

In recent weeks, I have had the privilege to have the hard discussions we all must have with a crew commander that is willing to acknowledge his own biases and misconceptions he has had in his life and how he has overcome them. Because of this, I serve for all my brothers and sisters in the Air Force and the military.  

I sometimes watch the protesters push for change, and I’m proud they are fighting to change the things they feel are unjust. As I see more and more people speak out against the hatred and bigotry I suffered under as a young man, I see change coming. When I see more people who look like me become the leaders of the officer and enlisted corps, it gives me a feeling of pride. As I have grown and learned a higher level of self-love and cultural pride, I realized an answer to my question. 

I serve because I see a change on the horizon. I do it because I have to be strong for my family and those who look to me as a mentor and strive to be something different than what society tells them they are. 

Most importantly, despite my life experiences, I do it for what I know America can become.