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'We’re Fed Up': Normal West Students Protest Racism, In-School Bias

Students outside Normal West
Tiffani Jackson
Normal West's Black Student Union organized Monday's rally and march, supported by the Bloomington-Normal branch of the NAACP.

The first day of Jasmyn Jordan’s sophomore year in high school was memorable. As she entered her history class at Normal West, she had her first racist experience.

“Two white student teachers made a seating chart and sat all the Black students in the back corner of the classroom,” said Jordan. “They didn't know us, they just saw our skin color, judged us, and put us in the back."

Fueled by the experience, Jordan founded the Normal West Black Student Union. After witnessing very little change since, Jordan and her BSU members led a protest on Monday to share their experiences and demand action.

Supported by the Bloomington-Normal branch of the NAACP, more than 100 participants marched from the school to nearby Parkside Elementary, chanting “Black students matter!” and “No justice no peace.”

“It saddens me as a parent to know that my children won’t be judged by their accomplishments, but by the color of their skin,” said Tameka Thompson. “It pains me to know that there are peers who want to do harm to them just because they’re brown.” 

Crowd at West
Credit Tiffani Jackson / WGLT
The crowd listens at Monday's event at Normal West.

Monday’s event came in response to several racist social media posts from late April—before George Floyd’s death—that have recirculated over the past two months. The posts, including one image of a white girl in blackface and another with the N-word, traced back to three Normal West students and another from Normal Community, according to Unit 5. 

Unit 5 said disciplinary action was “challenging” because the incident didn’t happen on school grounds or on school-issued devices. The district’s director of safety and security spoke to each student’s family, and each student showed remorse for what happened. 

“There was discussion with the families about a public apology, but at that time the students were receiving death threats regarding their comments, so it was determined that further communication should not occur,” Unit 5 said in a statement. “The fact that the incident spread so far and resulted in threats added to their understanding of the seriousness of their action. Had this happened at school, consequences would have been given.” 

Normal West is the least diverse of Bloomington-Normal’s three public high schools. It is about 28% students of color, compared to 50% at Bloomington High School and 34% at NCHS. 

In a statement, Principal Dave Johnson condemned the “thoughts, words, and actions that were contained in the posts.” He noted that Normal West supports groups such as Black Student Union, Not In Our Town, and Pride, and the school’s freshman mentoring program is in place to “make sure every student knows the expectations of the school and how we treat each other as Wildcats.” 

“It is because of this program and our philosophy that we have a positive culture. Unfortunately, even a positive culture is not perfect,” Johnson said. “There are times when the actions and words of our school do not match our philosophy which is why we are constantly working on improving what we do to make our school better.” 

The Unit 5 school board said in a statement Monday that it “stands with the Normal West Black Student Union in condemning racism in our community and in our schools.” They noted that new Superintendent Kristen Kendrick-Weikle, who begins Wednesday, is “ready to bring new energy to this task” of promoting diversity and inclusion in Unit 5. 

“In Unit 5, we want our Black students to know that their lives matter. We will continue to work to build a school community that supports their success, because it is our mission to educate each student to achieve personal excellence,” said board President Amy Roser.

For Normal West grad Caleb Mangruem, the social media posts were not surprising.

From being told, “You're the whitest Black person I know” or “Good thing you're not one of the loud ones” when he was a student, microaggressions and a lack of inclusivity were issues in the classroom that recurred.

“I'm ashamed to say, but it's almost like I had to assimilate to another culture,” said Mangruem. “I didn't feel like I could be myself around certain students based on the things that they would say.” 

During those moments, Mangruem said he was too scared to speak up about his experiences. Now that he’s older, he hopes to help others whose feelings can relate.

“I did not have the courage to reach out to anybody and it was wrong. I feel like that's the case for other Black students too because they can’t be themselves and if they are they get belittled for it.” 

Incoming senior Aniya Thompson said this moment is different because as racial tensions escalate, she’s begun to fear for her life. 

“I was 100% not surprised by it at all, which is sad,” said Thompson. “I shouldn’t be scared to go to school with people and I shouldn't be scared to sit in my classroom and have fear that I'm going to get stabbed in the back because a white person doesn’t like me due to the way I look.” 

Hoping to end the cycle, Mangruem wants to see more initiative. He said seeing the school adopt more inclusive policies is the first step to bringing real change. 

“I’d like to see initiatives happening to educate students on nonwhite culture and I'd like to see an increased focus on trying to get more specifically educators of color,” he said. “ I feel like it's like the classroom is one of the prime places where we can start to make a difference.” 

Moving forward, Armon Brock from BSU said he wants the school board to take action. He said nonwhite students deserve more than an “it was wrong” response.

“I hope people realize that we're not taking it lightly anymore and we're fed up,” said Brock. “I hope the administration hears us, makes stricter changes, and if it's happening either on or off school grounds, I want school penalties to still happen.”

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Tiffani Jackson is a reporting intern at WGLT and a student at Illinois State University's School of Communication. She started working at WGLT in summer 2019.
Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.