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A Skin Condition Makes It Hard For Some Black Men To Shave And Get Ahead In The Military

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Some Air Force members say they're facing discrimination because it's hard for them to shave their faces daily. Many have a skin condition that's especially common among Black men.

Speaker 1: 00:00 So air force members say they're being discriminated against because it's hard for them to shave many, have a skin condition that's especially common among black men. And they say it's preventing them from getting promotions and awards. Carson frame reports for the American Homefront project

Speaker 2: 00:17 Tech Sergeant Joshua Nixon joined the air force at 19 in hopes of becoming a recruiter like his older brother. He excelled in training, won awards and never got in trouble, but he struggled to keep up with the air force requirement that he shave his face every day.

Speaker 3: 00:31 I was getting so many bumps into where even, you know, you pick at them, you try to get the hair out and they leave like a little dark circle.

Speaker 2: 00:40 A doctor diagnosed Nixon who was black with pseudofolliculitis barbae or PFB, it's a skin condition that causes painful bumps, which often scar creams and new shaving techniques sometimes help. But the only real treatment is not to shave so closely. The air force, granted Nixon, a shaving profile, a waiver that allowed him to wear short facial hair. But because of that, he found himself out of the running for certain opportunities, including the recruiting job he wanted. So badly

Speaker 3: 01:07 Commander was like, yes, you will be the perfect ideal. And you're great with people, but I was turned down because I had a and waiver and that's what kinda made me, uh, look at everything like kind of different because on paper, I'm the perfect airman. But because I have this medical diagnosis, I can't represent the air force. And that aspect, according

Speaker 2: 01:29 To a recent study from the journal military medicine, other airman was shaving profiles, share Nixon's frustration in a survey, some said profiles, disqualified them from prestigious positions, leadership opportunities or awards. Others said they were looked down upon by commanders and colleagues. 63% of those who perceived a negative bias were black. Dr. Emily Wong and air force dermatologist at joint base. San Antonio was one of the surveyors.

Speaker 4: 01:55 Fortunately I do believe there is a history of people who do not understand that PFP is a chronic medical condition. And that perception is sometimes that those members are not trying, or they're not conforming, or that they're just lazy and they don't want to shave the

Speaker 2: 02:15 Airman. In this study said they were barred from positions where facial hair isn't an impediment like recruiting, teaching, or playing in the air force band. Others said they couldn't join the honor guard in elite unit that performs drill routines at high profile events honor guard policy allows airman was shaving profiles to serve, but they still have to shave before ceremonies. In other words, it treats shaving profiles as temporary, like a broken finger or other injury. Lieutenant Colonel, Jason Woodruff heads, the organization,

Speaker 5: 02:43 It's really a uniformity thing and it's a medical profile. And just like every other medical profile, uh, the expectation is they're not going to be on that medical profile for our long period of time. They're striving to get off that profile

Speaker 2: 02:57 Until a couple of years ago, the honor guard kicked out people with longterm medical shaving waivers. Now Woodriff says it tries to work with airman and their dermatologist to find a shaving regimen they can manage. Even if that means shaving only a few times a week, he adds that 27% of airmen in the honor guard are black. The air force recruiting command also has changed its policy. It started accepting people with shaving waivers in 2019, Dr. Wong, the dermatologist credits air force commands that are trying to understand the issue, but she's still concerned that the honor guard treats shaving waivers as temporary. She says that could cause airman distress.

Speaker 4: 03:32 There is a spectrum and not everybody's going to be able to maybe meet those standards, um, or they might feel really pressured to deal with pain or flares from shaving because they don't want to bring it up.

Speaker 2: 03:49 The air force is now conducting a larger survey to learn more about the effects of shaving profiles, including whether they impact promotion rates, especially among black men. Um, Carson frame in San Antonio.

Speaker 1: 04:01 This comes from the American Homefront project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans it's funded by the corporation for public broadcasting. Yeah.

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.