Friday, February 13, 2015

TOP STORY >> Miles to go before we sleep

By Senior Airman Regina Edwards 
19th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

Editor’s note: This is the first article in a two-part series that highlights the experiences of American Airmen who grew up in different areas, and how joining the Air Force gave these Airmen an alternative perspective on embracing diversity. The opinions expressed below are of the author and do not reflect the views of the Air Force or Little Rock Air Force Base. 

I grew up in Green Pond, South Carolina.  Based off the name alone, it’s a safe assumption that it’s the type of town with one caution light, one gas station and a 20-minute drive to the nearest Walmart. I grew up very sheltered and was raised in the church.

I went to a high school that was pretty much 51 percent white and 49 percent black. They were some of the best years of my life. The historically black college I attended taught me a lot about my heritage, but by the end of four years, I was dying for more diversity.

Surprisingly, living very close to Charleston, which is known for its historical moments in African American culture, I’d never experienced any type of racial discrimination in my life. 

It wasn’t until I left home to join the military that my naïve eyes were opened.

I’ve been labeled, stereotyped and judged, all because of the color of my skin. It amazes me at times that this is still a problem in the world. It’s disheartening when one of the first things you’re told when arriving to a new area is where you and your family shouldn’t go in daylight but especially after dark. 

So what do I do? Do I try my hardest to blend in? Do I avoid certain activities and places out of fear? Or do I simply be myself: Fearless. Proud. Strong.

I befriended a girl who helped me with the answer.

She’s different, and is not bothered by it. She moves to the beat of her own drum, and if you don’t like the tune, she keeps dancing anyway. 

Senior Airman Nikeasa Ward, a 314th Maintenance Group maintenance management analyst, personifies bubbly and outgoing. She’s the type who never meets a stranger. You know when she’s in the room; her magnetic personality attracts attention.

Nikeasa radiantly smiles and is animated in her conversations. She’s also not afraid to laugh at her own jokes. 

Growing up in North Pole, Alaska, she enjoyed fishing, hunting and snowboarding, and they are still some of her favorite things to do. As a metal head, the heavy sounds of Chimaira, In This Moment and August Burns Red, hype her up before a rugby match. And though she speaks with perfect grammar, she often gets subtle stares when she talks.

Nikeasa is a black woman, but has been labeled at times as “the girl who talks and acts white.”

But how does a “white girl” talk? What hobbies are “black hobbies,” and what interests are race specific?

I knew Nikeasa wouldn’t mind telling her story, and when I asked to interview her, she was excited to share.

“I was never treated differently because I was black in Alaska,” she said. “There are two huge military installations there, so even though Alaska is predominantly white, I had a pretty mixed group of friends. Our differences brought us together rather than separate us.”

It wasn’t until Nikeasa left Alaska in 2005, to begin her military career as a Reservist in Louisiana, that she realized, not how different she was, but how differently people responded to her personality and mannerisms. 

Nikeasa recalls being approached at a mall in Louisiana by another black woman telling her that she had a weird accent. When she asked the woman to explain what she meant, she was told the weird accent was her proper English. And that day, Ward learned she was talking like a “white girl.”

This was one of her first experiences with prejudice, and it came from someone of the same race.

“This was a shock to me,” she said. “I went from believing all my life that I spoke normally, to not sounding like I’m black? How does a black person talk? Was there a rule or guidebook I didn’t know about?”

As those types of comments began to increase, Nikeasa said she started to struggle with understanding what people wanted from her and withdrew herself from groups that thought she wasn’t white enough or black enough.

She didn’t withdraw because she was ashamed of who she was. She did it because she preferred to enjoy the company of those who accepted her as herself, rather than pretend for acceptance from a crowd. 

Nikeasa transitioned into the active duty world in 2012 and said though it’s not perfect, the military has progressed tremendously with celebrating and embracing diversity.

Little Rock Air Force Base will be participating in its third annual Diversity Day event later this year. Diversity Day honors all Department of Defense observances as well as encourages Team Little Rock members to venture out and learn something new about a culture they didn’t know before.

Nikeasa was an active member in both the 2013 and 2014 Diversity Day events. She was the co-chair of the Martin Luther King booth one year and the chair of the LGBT Pride booth the other. 

Doing something new, meeting different people and broadening her horizons, is a challenge she said she will always accept with excitement. Doing such things always brings an opportunity to learn and progress.

Nikeasa is now a member of The Little Rock Women Stormers’ Rugby team. She’s advancing in a game she had no clue existed a year ago, and she said she loves it.

“It’s all about knowledge,” she said. “I believe it’s our job in the military to embrace and educate ourselves about people’s different backgrounds and upbringings. We shouldn’t be afraid of or judge what we don’t know.”

Nikeasa said she still receives stares and is addressed with comments that make her eyes twitch, but now instead of withdrawing, she uses those moments as an opportunity to teach and enlighten.

“In a perfect world, everyone would be able to love what they love and not be judged by it, but this is not a perfect world,” she said. “I know I will continue to be asked, ‘where are you from?’ and when I say Alaska, I’m sure I’ll hear, ‘oh, that’s why you sound like that.’”

I often think about this phrase when I get tired of the stereotypes and labels, “It’s not what people call you that matters; it’s what you answer to.”

I answer to a lot of things: Regina, Senior Airman Edwards, and my favorite, Mommy. 

I agree with Nikeasa. We will never be perfect. Judgment of those who differ, whether it’s by race, religion, sexual preference, or geographic origin, may never end. But the influence comes from how we as a people respond because we are just one race, the human race.

As we travel this road together, I am encouraged that reversing course is not an option. We cannot fall asleep at the wheel. And though we are a long way from the starting point, there are still miles to go. 

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