Chicago native Aubrey Barlow believes COVID-19 has given white people a small glimpse into what it’s like to be black in America.
The now Bloomington resident spoke with Ariele for the WGLT series Living Black in Bloomington-Normal. Contact us if you'd like to be featured in the series.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood in Chicago. I went to a definitely predominately Black high school. So my first interaction or real contact with people of another color or white people was when I came to ISU. I had never been around that many Caucasian people before, nor had I ever interacted with them. So, it was definitely a culture shock and a difference for me to be in a town where I was the minority, when I came from a place where in the area I was in, everybody looked like me. So it was it was a lot different.
When you say different, were you treated differently?
And that's one of the things. I don't think I recognized it at first … that I was treated different. I guess as years passed, and as I witness more things, I could see that I was treated at more of a distance. In my case, since I am a taller, larger, Black man, I have more people fear me than really act out in racism to me. So, I don't really get a lot of, I would say, people coming at me. But as far as law enforcement, oh, I've been pulled over, I've been watched. I’ve been … I can remember a time when I was walking, going around in the bars in downtown Normal, just with some guys. I had never been a big drinker ... but the police actually came into a bar and pulled me out.
When was this?
Oh … this was back some time when I first got here. There was a murder in Bloomington. I think a guy, I can't remember, but I think he shot somebody in a daycare or something. This guy must have been like 5-foot-8, 180 pounds and I haven’t been 5-foot-8 and 180 pounds since my freshman year in high school. So, I'm about 6-foot-2 and I probably was about 220-230 and the police came and got me out of the bar, because I was wearing a hat. He told me the reason he pulled me out, started searching me and patted me down. I asked him, “Why would you patted me down?” He said, “Well, there was a report that there was a Black gentleman with a hat on who could be the killer from that incident.” I said, “Well, I don't fit that description at all, so why would you pull me out and then pat me down for that?” And you know, after that, I started thinking, yeah, all it takes is the color of your skin to be identified with something of a person doing something wrong.
I mean, it's unfortunate that you have situations like that. There have been a lot of times, you know, I'll be going to a store … somebody is watching you or you go walking in the mall … you got people watching you and following you know, seeing if you're going to steal and those type of things.
So, being Black in America is a challenge and definitely in Bloomington-Normal, where we have a lot of people … what I found out is a lot of people here have never been around Black people. A lot of people grew up in certain little areas where there weren’t any Blacks, so they don't know how to respond to how Black people think … how people talk. And I noticed when I first came here, there was difficulty trying to connect with people from other races.
Why do you think that is?
I think being different … to come from different backgrounds … different experiences.
It goes back to you mentioning culture shock. Do you feel like that happens if the tables are turned, or has that happened with you, when people are trying to get to know you as a human as opposed to, I don't know, just, that's a Black man and we don't want to talk to him?
No, I don't think so. And it's so funny you asked that question because I actually had this question posed to me similarly at work and I was told … I've been in a place I work it for 25 years, and I still have people who come in … new people come in … work there two or three months, and then they'll come back to me and say, “You know, when I first started working here, I was afraid of you.” And my question is “why?” I mean, I don't talk a lot, I don’t say a whole lot. I keep to myself. I mean, the only perception I can grab from that is that I'm a big Black man. And why would you be afraid of me? You know … you wouldn't get afraid of somebody else who's white and the same size. I've never heard that, but I've had many people come to me to say they were afraid of me.
Where do you think that comes from?
That's my question. Where did that come from? Why? Why? Because I'm different? I'm not from what you're used to or used to seeing or used to being around. Like you say, people don't take the time to get to know you before they start judging you.
Yeah, I have always wondered, and I have not found someone to give me an answer of why. Some people to get to know me, they know I'm probably the kindest guy, but yeah, I have a lot people say that they fear me. Well, to me that sounds like a personal problem that they have. I'm just trying to be a regular person just like everybody else, but you are treated as seen different if you're black in Bloomington-Normal. That's definitely the way things are here.
How can you thrive in Bloomington-Normal?
I don't know if you can. It definitely takes time, it takes patience, and it is not on their part. It's more so on our part because it makes you frustrated. You can get upset easily. Someone can say the wrong thing, which people say the wrong thing a lot, because like I say. they don't understand your culture and the type of things that you are used to hearing or things are being said.
Some of the jokes I hear, I've been around guys who say some racist jokes. You know, I don't find that funny … but you know, you find people that they do. To me, it’s is all the Willie lynch Mob is what I call them. I just don't … you know, things that are not American or safe for all races, not safe for one person to say. So, I don't know if there’s a way to get a fair shake sometimes here in Bloomington-Normal because that's something you want to deal with first. Race, your performance, things … and what I found out that a lot of times is that white people are afraid of what you may say … what may come may out of your mouth. I know there's been many times I've wanted to speak in our staff meetings and so forth, but my supervisors wouldn't let me speak. I'm realizing now that they weren’t sure what was going come out of my mouth. I think they're afraid what may come out, because I try not to be very vocal, I try to keep to myself, and because I don't … like I said, a lot of things about their culture I don’t understand and a lot of things about my culture, they don't understand. You know, I don't say a whole lot, but when I do have some things to say, I'm going to say them.
Can you be afraid of what they're going to say?
Well, and that's what we live with, I live with every day.
I never know if I'm called into an office or called to a meeting, and someone's addressing me, like I explained before, I don't know what's coming out of your mouth. What are you going to say? What you might accuse me of. I mean, it's instant fear, because I don't know what's coming out of your mouth. I don't know what you're going say, what you're going to address me for. What I did … what I did wrong. A lot of times, they don't even ask you, “Well did you do this, or do you know about this?” They’ll say comments like, “why did this happen” or “why did you do that,” not even asking if I did it. So, that's the fear that we do live in as a Black man.
What do you think can come of what's happening right now, with the protests and the activism?
It is definitely opening a lot of eyes and ears for people. For years I've always heard Caucasian people say that didn't happen or if they would have did this, that would have never happened to them and so and so, but I tell you this is eye opening now that they're getting to see some of the things that happen I've been seeing all my life.
What's going on now is not new. The only thing new about it is you're getting to see visuals of it now, you're actually getting to see it on tape. Police brutality and those type of things have been going on, I known ever since I was a little boy. Now this grabbing and choking and those things, the only difference now is it’s being filmed and everybody's able to see it.
They are really seeing what Black people have been dealing with for years … years … and there are things that we've been screaming … fighting for … talking about … that they are actually starting to see the reality of it.
What kind of change would you like to see in Bloomington Normal?
In Bloomington-Normal, just for example, the law enforcement. They have to put some people of color on the police force. They have to involve people of different races and cultures, in every aspect of what goes on in this town. Diversity on how things are handled, how things are perceived, how things are presented. So, it's not only Bloomington-Normal; the world has to change. They have to make change to include people of different races and colors and that includes the leadership. The leadership has to make some changes and diversity is probably the first step. Getting more people involved within the companies that they work in … and we got to make some changes that benefit the whole, not just some people.
You stayed. Why did you stay?
Bloomington-Normal is much slower, much more laid back, and I started getting used to that type of lifestyle. Now it took me two and a half years to get used to it … yeah … it took me took me a while because when I first came down here, I was going back to Chicago every weekend. After two and a half years I slowed down … it kind of slowed my life down. And I know I just started thinking I'll probably live longer being here.
I had some very interesting friends in college who were on the edge of starting race wars, and then I had guys who were just calm. So … you know, I was around a lot of different people. I learned how to adapt to a lot of things, so it was it wasn't as bad as I thought. I always figured, I'm not too far from home so I can always go back home if I needed to.
In college, it was it was much worse. The police were always harassing Black kids, Black students for sure. I mean, I know I use to hang around a lot of athletes and I know sometimes we’d be just driving around town, just say …. we went to McDonald's and there’s four of us in a car, there's a 90% chance that there was going be a police officer following us. If somebody drank something from a cup, there was another 90% chance that we’d get pulled over and be checked to see what was in that cup.
And that used to happen a lot around here, where we would be in a car and we'll get pulled over and police would ask, “What do you have in a cup?” And we will see him behind us, so I know a couple of times we’d be like “watch this.” And they would see someone drink out of the cup … and here come the lights. And this is mostly during the daytime. Nighttime, Normal was not a good place to be for people of color.
Do you think it's changed?
I really don't know, because unfortunately, knowing and going through those types of things, I stayed away, I try to stay away from Normal at night. So, I don't even try to go in there to find out if those things have changed or if they're still the same.
Unfortunately, now the agency that I work with … I do work with some Normal policemen during the day, doing some certain actions that happen at work. Sometimes I wonder if it’s after work and I get pulled over and those same cops that I worked with … I always wonder how they would treat me after working with me all day … with the people I work with … and now you pull me over for a traffic stop or something. How would you respond to me? Would you act like you didn't know me? Would you act like I've done something criminal? You see all these things on TV, I don't know. They pull me out my car and slam me … well, they aren’t that big to slam me, but yeah, I don't know.
I really don't know, because I guess I really changed my lifestyle to be not to be out too much at night, especially in Normal due to the history of being pulled over and sometimes just harassed. And like you say, it's not real blatant, it's just subtle things. Pulled over all the time, or lights, or you can be stopped somewhere and the police are going to stop and “hey, what are you doing over here,” “what are you doing over there.”
And same thing like for parties. These white people have parties, they’re all on the roof. Black people have a party in their basement and they’re coming into that basement. And people drinking … there’s supposed to be a law about not drinking outside.
Any last things you want to say, Aubrey?
I think things are getting better here. I think what's going on in the world and in society now has opened a lot of people eyes to see that some of the criminal behavior that has been mentioned and talked about for years are truly going on, and people are starting to sway their opinion or their thought process about … especially about Black Lives Matter. It kills me when people say, All Lives Matter. Yeah, they do, but all lives are not being treated just like Black Lives Matter. I don't see too many white people being killed and beaten by the police like Black people do. It's all eye opening I guess to people now that they are really seeing what we have been fighting for and what we've been living through all our lives. And the struggle that black people have, the struggles that Black America period is, is what you see now. I think the white people started getting a little taste of what … what we we've been going through for years.
You know, people really don't realize what white privilege is, until it's taken away. And I think with this COVID-19, a lot of that white privilege was taken away. You were treated and you were told “you couldn't go here; you can do this.” And a lot of people took that personally. First thing they holler, “well, this is America.” Well, it's been America for black people for forever. But there's a lot of things that have been taken from us … even our lives. We didn't ask to come over here.
COVID-19 is given the world a time to reflect and to see that everything is not equal.
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