In Conversation About Race, Air Force Warns Troops to Avoid Microaggressions

Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Sapphira Morgan
Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Sapphira Morgan. (Screenshot via U.S. Air Force)

As part of efforts to continue discussion of race and inequalities across the force, the U.S. Air Force has launched a new series of educational videos designed to promote understanding and meaningful dialogue.

In its first video installment of the new "Seek to Understand" series, Air Education and Training Command last week featured a senior enlisted leader discussing microaggressions -- seemingly innocent comments that contain an offensive message.

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"Microaggressions are everyday statements, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile derogatory or negative stereotypes of historically underrepresented groups of people," says Senior Master Sgt. Sapphira H. Morgan, first sergeant at the Air Force Personnel Center.

Comments such as, "You're so articulate," "You should smile more," "Your English is so good," or "What country were you really born in?" are some of the examples Morgan described as harmful and tending to reinforce negative stereotypes or isolate, rather than include.

Morgan also shared a personal story of a time when she and a spouse of an Air Force leader had a conversation about what it meant to be African American. The spouse told her that native Africans have a strong work ethic and family values, and that the term 'African' should not be associated with Black Americans.

"With others that he may share his thoughts with, it could create walls instead of bridges," she says.

While the concept of microaggressions is increasingly part of conversations on inclusion and diversity that take place on college campuses and in corporate settings, it remains controversial in some sectors, with critics saying it be applied to a wide range of innocently intended remarks as well as true offenses.

“The microaggression concept is so nebulously defined that virtually any statement or action that might offend someone could fall within its capacious borders,” The Scientific American wrote in 2017.

Since nationwide protests began following the May 25 death of George Floyd in police custody, the Air Force has stressed that diversity in the ranks is as important as inclusiveness and belonging, and has encouraged airmen to talk about race and inequality, welcoming potentially uncomfortable discussions if they promote communication and break down barriers.

Microaggressions often "cause ... damage to a person's self-identity and feelings of belonging to an organization, especially for our underrepresented airmen," Morgan says.

In June, the Air Force Inspector General launched an independent review into the service's history of racial inequities in military punishment and shortfalls in developmental opportunities given to African American service members.

Soon after, top leaders also asked airmen to express what they were feeling about the nationwide movement surrounding Floyd's death -- and some leaders spoke out about their own experiences.

Gen. Charles 'CQ' Brown, the 22nd Air Force chief of staff, recorded a video about his experiences as a Black man -- and a Black airman -- prior to assuming his new role.

"I'm thinking about how full I am with emotion, not just for George Floyd, but the many African Americans that have suffered the same fate as George Floyd," he said in a passionate video posted on social media June 5.

Brown, an F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot, described his military experience as "living in two worlds," with some questioning whether he even belonged in the ranks.

"I'm thinking about having to represent by working twice as hard to prove [that my supervisors'] perceptions and expectations of African Americans were invalid," he said in the video.

"I'm thinking about the airmen who don't have a life similar to mine, and don't have to navigate through two worlds. I'm thinking about how these airmen see racism, where they don't see it as a problem because it doesn't happen to them, or whether they're empathetic."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

Related: The Air Force Wanted Feedback on Racial Injustice. The Response Was Overwhelming

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