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Let’s talk about race: One conversation at a time

Staff Sgt. Shonte Small, 15th Medical Support Squadron laboratory services noncommissioned officer in charge, opened up about the racial inequality and discrimination she’s faced as a Black Airman in the U.S. Air Force and her hope for a better tomorrow. (U.S. Air Force courtesy photo)

Staff Sgt. Shonte Small, 15th Medical Support Squadron laboratory services noncommissioned officer in charge, opened up about the racial inequality and discrimination she’s faced as a Black Airman in the U.S. Air Force and her hope for a better tomorrow. (U.S. Air Force courtesy photo)

JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM, Hawaii --

JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM, Hawaii—


Since the senseless and tragic death of George Floyd, many people from different backgrounds feel a burning outrage, anger and a sense of defenselessness toward racial disparity.

For some, it brings up a very dark reality of what it means to be Black in America.

The Air Force culture is often referred to as a subculture or melting pot of cultures from around the world. Although, on the surface it sounds like a beautiful tapestry of fine art, for some Black Airmen, that’s not the painting they see every day.

Staff Sgt. Shonte Small, 15th Medical Support Squadron laboratory services noncommissioned officer in charge, opened up about the racial inequality and discrimination she’s faced as a Black Airman in the U.S. Air Force and her hope for a better tomorrow.



Q: Did you grow up seeing racial issues? How has that impacted your career?

A: Yes I have. I was born and raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The location of the Black Wall Street Riot (1921). We moved to a smaller town outside of Tulsa, where I was one of four Black students in my graduating class.

One memory that I have is of a white friend of mine who wanted to take me to the school prom. A few days after asking, he came back to tell me that his parents were against it because I was Black. His parents threatened to take away his college fund and his truck if he took me to prom. At the time, he did not agree with his parent’s views. However, 14 years later, I saw him posting opposing views on Facebook about the Black Lives Matter movement. In my opinion, it shows that racism is taught and passed down through generations.

Seeing different instances of racism in my hometown reminds me that the military is diverse. We have Airmen from all over the world embedded within our Air force. It’s a constant reminder to watch out for myself and accept the reality that someone could be working alongside me every day that doesn’t see me as equal.


Q: Can you recall a moment in your career where you dealt with racial discrimination?

A: Yes, I’ve ran into a couple of instances where I believe I was being racially discriminated against. The first time it happened was at my first duty station. It seemed that no matter what I did or how much effort I gave, the officer in charge was out to get me. During my going away dinner, the same officer gave me a card and shared how she was a bit envious of me because I was 22 years old and made staff sergeant on my first attempt. I believe all of the paperwork I received while under her leadership was due to the jealousy she had toward me and my success at a young age as a Black woman. At my second duty station, I received numerous Letters of Counseling/Letters of Reprimand for minor mistakes within the duty section. My fellow white counterparts committed the same infractions; however, they did not receive any administrative paperwork for their actions.




Q: How has the lack of diversity in your career field affected you mentally, physically, and socially?

A: The lack of diversity in my career field and the Air Force has affected me mentally because I feel like I’m not allowed to voice my opinion or have a different viewpoint. The moment that I share my outlook, I am perceived and treated as an angry or confrontational Black woman. Honestly, the amount of physical stress produced by this has caused me to break out in hives. Socially, I’ve been discriminated against because of ethnic hairstyles and nail colors just to name a few. I’m happy some of the verbiage in our dress and personal appearance instruction have changed to include a broader scope and is more inclusive for women of color.



Q: How are you viewed as a Black female Airman in the Air Force?

A: As a Black female Airman, I believe I have been portrayed as having an attitude or being unapproachable at times. There have been times when co-workers have said they did not feel comfortable approaching me or that I harshly communicated things. If you aren’t smiling or bubbly all day, then that could be misconstrued as being unapproachable. In my case, I was just shy and stayed to myself.


Q: What would you say to Air Force leadership about the impact of race in the military?
A: I would want Air Force leadership to realize that racism is alive and well. We should continue to have briefings and open forum discussions on the topic well into the future, not just during these challenging times.


Q: What keeps you going despite the racial challenges in the Air Force and the nation?

A: I keep going for my three children. They’re my motivation above anything else. Just as racism is taught and passed down through generations, I teach my kids the exact opposite and hope that there will be a change by the time they reach adulthood.


Q: What is your hope for future Black Airmen in the Air Force?

A: My hope for future Black Airmen is for them to keep pushing forward to break more barriers. I would like to see more Black Airmen across all career fields. I also want them to feel empowered enough to speak up when something seems wrong.


Q: What would you say to new Airmen coming into the Air Force?

A: My advice to new Airmen coming into the Air Force would be to keep moving forward toward success despite the challenges you have to overcome. Also, seek out mentors outside of your unit/duty section and even retired members. They have a wealth of knowledge to share with you that your supervisor might not share because of their hidden racism/views.


Q: What impact does racial discrimination have on the Air Force core values?

A: Integrity First: Members who continue to discriminate against others based on their skin color are not holding themselves accountable to do what’s right. An example of this could look like someone excluding an individual from an award or duty related opportunity based off of race.

Service before self: Some individuals at times use their personal desires and beliefs in a negative way against Airmen. In behaving in this manner they’re applying this core value in reverse order.

Excellence in all we do: To achieve even greater accomplishments in the Air Force as a whole, we must first come together to overcome discrimination. We must be relentless in our pursuit to eradicate this problem.

Q: What is your biggest fear in the Air Force (as it relates to race)?

A: My biggest fear in the Air Force relating to race is that it becomes extremely difficult to trust or know that your supervisor is not using race as a factor when it comes to EPR ratings, decorations, awards, and professional development opportunities.


Q: What barriers have you seen in the Air Force that constrict Airmen from talking about racial discrimination?

A: A barrier that I’ve seen when discussing racial discrimination in the Air Force is the lack of rapport between leadership and their people. In my opinion, few superiors have enough rapport with their members to encourage these types of discussions. However, if leadership is uncomfortable having these discussions or are choosing to ignore it, then it would be perceived that they do not care about the Black Airmen they’re charged to serve alongside and how race affects their lives.

Airmen who would like to share their experiences with racism, should contact the 15th Wing Public Affairs office at 808-449-1522 or 15wg.pa@us.af.mil.