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Do you see me? Chief’s ‘true colors’ impart wisdom, enhance understanding

  • Published
  • By Christa D’Andrea
  • 37th Training Wing Public Affairs

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas -- She grew up in a small town 45 minutes west of St. Louis. Lost her mom at the age of 13 to a drunk driver. Raised her younger sister. Then, at the age of 18, decided it was time to leave the double-wide home in the country.

When Nicole Hicks set out on her adventure to San Antonio in an old Ford Mustang, she had no idea what was in store. She just knew she wanted more.

“I was so tired of not being able to be who I wanted to be and I knew there was more,” she said. “Moving to San Antonio was exciting, not scary. For me it was freedom.”

Hicks’s parents had met in the late 1970s. He, a Sanford & Sons Red Foxx doppelganger, and she, 13 years younger and a fair-skinned redhead, met while working at a cotton factory. Soon after, Hicks’ grandmother disowned her mom for “having gotten pregnant by a black man.”

“I’ve always known my dad’s side of the family,” Hicks described. “But it wasn’t until my late 20s that I learned why I called my grandmother ‘new grandma’ and my great grandmother ‘old grandma’.”

Hicks had always known her great-grandmother (on her mother’s side) since she didn’t have an issue with her parent’s relationship. However, she didn’t meet her grandmother, “new grandma,” until she was 3. The “old” versus “new” was her way of distinguishing the family relationships.

Hicks, from Pacific, Missouri, didn’t grow up with much. She said the trailer they lived in had holes in the floor and they ate squirrel and rice for dinner. “It was just the way it was.”

“My dad, who was an alcoholic, did what he could,” she added. “I had a godmother and godfather we stayed with during the summers so he could work long hours to make ends meet.”

Hicks described that when they traveled over the Poplar Street Bridge to East St. Louis to see family, her father would have her and her sister lie down in the car until they reached their destination.

“He would ask us to lie down so people didn’t see our fair skin,” she said. “The town isn’t like that anymore, but it was then.”

Hicks, a self-proclaimed “Mariah Carey fiend in the ‘90s” is biracial – half black, half white.

“I remember seeing Mariah Carey for the first time … because you know representation matters and I can sing. So just seeing her hair and everything that she was and that she is biracial meant a lot to me,” Hicks said.

She added that it “was the coolest thing” to see someone who is also fair-toned, be so successful.

But it was the adventure to San Antonio that would start Hicks out on her own path to success.

Today, Chief Master Sgt. Nicole Hicks is the Senior Enlisted Leader for the 324th Training Squadron at Basic Military Training.

Hicks joined the Air Force in 1999, inspired, in part, by her cousin who had joined the Air Force.

“I remember seeing her come home and she had a new car,” the chief described. “To come out of East St. Louis and to make something of yourself is a big deal. I just remember thinking … if she can do that, I can do that.”

Hicks’ father didn’t approve of her joining at first. In fact, his answer to her desire to join any branch of service was, “absolutely not.”

Hicks, who initially had wanted to join the Marine Corps, explained that her father had a “very different perspective.” He had said she couldn’t join any of the military branches because of racial discrimination he felt would occur. He was adamant that she should not serve a country “that doesn’t serve you.”

She also said he made her return her driver’s license once because she had selected to be an organ donor.

“He said you have to take that back because if you get in a car accident and they find you are half black, they will let you die and take your organs,” she stated.

That perspective has shaped this 23-year Air Force veteran in more ways than one. Hicks, now a mother of two, started off her career at the 319th Training Squadron at BMT where she was assigned as a personnelist.

Her perspective now is to always try and “really see people, not judge them by what they look like.” She strives to always help people understand that someone’s appearance doesn’t dictate who they are.

It’s a message as a female leader in the Air Force she wants others to hear.

“We need to be aware of our own biases,” she said. “We need to try and remove that bias and micro-aggression to understand. Understanding one another is important.”

In 2020, following the death of George Floyd, Hicks was feeling a range of emotions. So, she picked up a pen and started writing a poem about her own life experiences. The words naturally flowed:

Do you see me?
My ‘true color’ affords me to see your ‘true colors.’

Do you see me?
Depends on the viewer … depends on the brown paper bag test.

Do you see me?
My privilege, my un-colorized privilege.

Do you see me?
As you followed my ‘black’ husband around in the store … and you allowed me to peruse freely.

Hicks’ 22-stanza poem describes aspects of the various experiences she has had throughout her life where she had been judged by the color of her skin.

Do you see me?
As you ask me to prove my background with photos of ‘my people.’

Do you see me?
When you told me I could not run the squadron black history month committee because I didn’t ‘look the part.’

Assumptions have been made. Comments have been voiced. Questions have been asked.

She has had people ask if they could touch her hair … simply because they wanted to know what black hair felt like. She’s been told she sounded white, but asked “Do you feel black?”

Once, while singing R&B, she had a fellow Airman remark, “white people and black music … I’ll never understand it.” He then asked her why she would like rap if she was white and from the country.

Hicks’ response? “It doesn’t matter where I’m from, or what I look like. You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.”

Her perspective? “If it [comments and questions] sparks a conversation to raise awareness and understanding … let’s talk about it. I know that my walk is different than someone else who is darker than I am. I know that I can pass as white,” she added. “I want to be able to provide someone a safe platform to be able to ask me any question. I want you to ask me. That doesn’t mean every person feels that way as trying to navigate what’s appropriate to ask and what’s not is hard.”

The chief explained that when she was younger, the assumption, comments and questions would bother her.

“Not any more. Now I would rather educate you if you feel safe enough to ask me those questions,” she said.

According to Hicks, the Air Force is headed in the right direction in being able to provide safe platforms to have tough conversations and ask questions. The accountability piece is what she feels needs more attention.

“We don’t talk about it enough in the workplace. It’s a personal and sensitive topic,” she explained.

A couple of years ago she had someone ask her what she was cooking for Thanksgiving dinner. She replied, “collard greens” and they asked her what she could possibly know about “collard greens.”

“That’s micro-aggression,” she explained. “We don’t necessarily mean something by it but it can be offensive. If I don’t say anything, they think it’s okay. So I responded with something like ‘Why do you think it’s okay to assume I wouldn’t know anything about collard greens?’”

Time and experience have taught the chief how to take advantage of opportunities like this to help people become more culturally aware and to educate them on what’s appropriate and what isn’t.

“Sometimes people just don’t know,” she said.

Married to a fellow Air Force chief master sergeant, Hicks says “the Air Force has been very good to me. Now I’ve had a lot of experiences in the Air Force that weren’t good but holistically the Air Force has just been phenomenal.”

Since losing her dad in 2001, the “Air Force has been my family.”

Her advice to fellow Airmen? “Find the courage within yourself to ask the questions you wouldn’t normally ask … asking questions helps open perspectives. Also, remember that our approach matters. How you ask matters. The approach is the power behind your content.”

Do you see me?
My racially ambiguous appearance. My invisibly obvious blackness.

See me for me.
See you for you.
See us for us.