SWANTON, Ohio - During the fall semester of her sophomore year in 2016, just back from basic military training, Airman 1st Class AnnAleada Whitehead became a member of the U.S. Air Force.
Surrounded by color and culture, she was proud to be a black woman in the military.
Always doing her best work, she noticed that her grades were lower than her peers. On group projects she would receive a lower score than her counterparts even though the answers were the same. Then came a realization.
"I was always the only black person in the room," Whitehead said. "I took the initiative to talk to the dean of the college, set-up a hearing to fight for academic honesty and to fight for my voice to be heard in a classroom where race seemed to be louder than education. I won the case and got all of my points back."
Whitehead, a human resource specialist assigned to the Ohio Air National Guard's 180th Fighter Wing, has faced prejudice and discrimination throughout her life due to the color of her skin, but finally feels at home since she joined the military.
"The term a lot of people use for the color of my skin is ‘light skin,' said Whitehead. "Some people don't even qualify me as a black person. They assume just because my mom is white that there is no way that I can be black and there's no way that black history month applies to me.
She always struggled growing up with people telling her who she is versus her identifying herself.
"That has opened a lot of doors for me because I've seen both sides of culture," said Whitehead.
Her parents, who both served in the Ohio Air National Guard, got married at a time when interracial relationships were not as accepted and her mom was kicked out of the house for being with her dad, because he was African American.
"I'm thankful for that because that has always opened up my eyes into my relationships with friends, family members and peers, that there is more to offer than the amount of melanin in your skin," Whitehead said.
Growing up she has always felt isolated.
"I remember in elementary school I was the only black student in my class of 60," said Whitehead. "And in sports, I was the only black person besides my sisters."
"In college, I am a small statistic of black people who are studying pre-medicine sciences and want to go to medical school," Whitehead said. "A lot of people don't believe me when I tell them I want to be a medical provider because they just don't expect that of me."
She tutors chemistry and biology at school and out of the 116 tutors she is the only African American, and at the pharmacy where she works, she is the only black employee.
"I've always been the only black person in the room and I've always felt very segregated and at times discriminated against," said Whitehead.
Things started to change when she joined the Ohio Air National Guard and left for basic military training in the May of 2016.
"When I got to basic training and looked around, I wasn't the only black person in the room," said Whitehead. "My military training instructor was black, my sisters in my flight were black and even my roommate in technical school was black."
Being a part of something so small, the less than one percent of the U.S. population who serve the entire U.S. armed forces and only about 106,000 serve the Air National Guard, had such a big impact on her life. The military was the place she could finally call home.
Out of all the places she has been and cities she has traveled to, it is in the military that she felt like she was one with everyone else.
"With black history month, a lot of times we celebrate how far civil rights have come, but I didn't really feel the expansion of civil rights until I joined the military," said Whitehead.
Finally, she did not have a certain expectation or standard because of the color of her skin and no one treated her differently or expected less out of her, explained Whitehead.
"That was a game-changer," said Whitehead of joining the Air National Guard. "It changed my confidence and the way I look at black history, because I started to realize the impact that it has. That black history and civil rights didn't show up in my civilian life, but in my military life it was very present and I'm thankful for the opportunities the military has given me. I don't think I would be where I am today or have the opportunities that I have without feeling the confidence of being black in the military and appreciated despite the color of my skin."
"First, I'm proud of AnnAleada because she is part of the one percent that serves this great nation of ours," said Col. Lindsey Whitehead, AnnAleada's father and retired 180FW vice commander. "Secondly, and more importantly, I am most proud of her because of the young woman she has become since joining the Air National Guard and what she represents as an African American female. A person of diversity is particularly important in our business in the military and I'm just so happy, honored and blessed to have AnnAleada represent the ideals of what we have so generally fought for throughout our lives. The month of black history is most important because she is a shining example of what could be and what has become. I think AnnAleada is the epitome of what it is to be a proud Airman in the Air National Guard and as an African American."