By Dr. Angelle Khachadoorian, Air Force Culture and Language Center’s Associate Professor of Anthropology
/ Published April 28, 2020
The Air Force is blue – a crisp, bright lapis. If an Airman’s blue hue fades a bit or gets “rusty” from too much time in a joint assignment, it is recommended that they reconnect with their Air Force community and their identity as an Airman. They must, like a weapon that has lost its protective oxidation, “reblue.”
Color evokes emotions, affects psychological states, indicates group membership, and symbolizes everything from the cardinal directions to abstract concepts (such as the colors of national flags). The culture we live in shapes much of how we see and respond to individual colors, and every culture assigns its own meanings to each color. The bright red that denotes danger and urgency is the same red that indicates joy and celebration, depending on the culture of its viewer. In English, we use color terms to describe emotional states such as being “green with envy” or saying someone was so enraged that they were livid. Intriguingly, colors can have conflicting meanings even within one culture. In the U.S., blue can be loyal (true blue), sad (the blues), emotionally chilly or frustrated (until blue in the face).
Historically, wearing certain colors indicated an individual’s power and wealth. Difficulty in attaining, making or stabilizing some pigments meant that only the elite had access to these shades. Famous examples include cochineal red, royal purple, and ultramarine. (These books are fascinating histories of color: Color: A Natural History of the Palette by Victoria Finlay or The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair). (Oh, and don’t ask about the origins of Mummy Brown, especially if you’re eating as you read this…)
The color blue is a recurring theme in all things Air Force – on the seal, on dress uniforms, in songs. Air Force blue, also known as Pantone 287, is so meaningful that it’s trademarked. Like many culture groups, the United States Air Force uses color as a powerful symbol of its organizational identity. (The other services do this as well – think of little green Army men the color of forest camouflage, or how the Navy uses “blue water” and “brown water” to distinguish between saltwater and freshwater naval activities.) Other services fly, but only the Air Force officially lays claim to “the wild blue yonder.” Becoming an Airman means choosing to become blue. Accessions programs like Basic Military Training (BMT) or Officer Training School (OTS), turn civilians “blue” through classic Rites of Passage – the trainee faces a series of challenges, successfully completes them, and re-enters society in a different status – that of “airman.” This trial by fire, much like bluing steel through heat or chemical oxidation, changes the fundamental nature of an individual.
But what happens if an individual’s career path has taken them away from uniquely Air Force jobs? How do they regain their Air Force identity? They need to “reblue” – they must be re-immersed in the unique cultural milieu of the United States Air Force. Reblue is a common and widely understood Air Force culture term, even being used by Air Force Chief of Staff General David L. Goldfein when he spoke with Air War College students last August. He asked that they take their time at the school think about their identities as senior leaders, question everything and to “reblue.” (https://www.maxwell.af.mil/News/Display/Article/1930870/csaf-shares-insight-expectations-with-au-students-faculty/ )
Anthropologists have always been interested in the cultural meanings behind colors – even asking whether color is a culturally or a biologically defined artifact. The “father of American anthropology” – Dr. Franz Boas – shifted from physics to anthropology after he wrote his thesis in 1881 explaining how people perceive the color of sea water. Brent Berlin and Paul Kay proposed in 1969 that since all humans are biologically similar, all human cultures would develop color terms (single word colors, not compound terms like “red brown”) in the same predictable order. They argue all cultures first develop terms for black/dark and white/light. Over time, cultures would then typically add color terms in the same order (after black and white comes red, then either yellow or green, then blue etc.).
Blue is everywhere – the sea, the sky, the shimmer of a flame at high heat. For the Air Force, blue is a symbol, a visually inspired form of shorthand for all of the uniquely cultural, organizational and social aspects of working and living in the Air Force community. The possibility of losing one’s “blue” is a powerful symbol of diverging from the group. An Airman that reblues is being encouraged to reengage in an Air Force cultural environment, with its shared history, values, heroes, slang, and personal and professional connections. Those airmen, as they reblue, are shaking off the rust of lost identity and being welcomed back into the collective culture of the Wild Blue Yonder.
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