Brandon Thornton is a teacher at Bloomington High School and is a graduate student (B.S. '11, M.S. '16, Ed.D '22) at Illinois State University.
He spoke with Darnysha Mitchell for the WGLT series Living Black in Bloomington-Normal. Contact us if you'd like to be featured in the series.
You talked about being the only Black person living on the block. Describe in three words what that experience has been like for you.
Honestly, awkward times three.
What makes that so awkward for you?
I don't know why it's awkward because I've always been the only Black person and it always used to be a joke. People will call me the token Black kid. And it used to be funny. It's not funny anymore.
It’s just awkward pulling in into my own neighborhood and wondering how my neighbors feel about it. You know what I mean? Like turning my music down as I get closer to my driveway, checking mail when it's not an opportunity for people to stare at me. Like it's a lot of the things that I think about and all people don't think about. I remember when the protests were first happening, and people were looting right at Target; I live in the neighborhood right across the street from Target. I sheltered in place religiously after that, because I didn't want my neighbors to feel uncomfortable around me. I was pretty much policing myself in my own house where I'm paying taxes. It was like, wow, I'm paying this mortgage every month and I don't feel comfortable living here.
And I've had just really bad experiences with one neighbor in particular. It started out as her just telling me to take care of my lawn with offhand comments over the fence. And then one day, she knocked on my door and I let her in, and we were just talking normally like, “Hey, how are things going?” And then she mentioned that she had fallen down, trying to put up borders on the fence to prevent my weeds from growing into her lawn. But first of all, I don't even have weeds by the fence. And was saying how we're friends, and how she stands up for me and how neighbors have been talking and they're concerned with the number of people I have in and out of my house. People will talk and they think you're dealing drugs. And I always tell them, “You're not, you're a teacher. But you know, I can make things really hard for you.” Is the exact words she said.
And I think after that moment, the anxiety was really high, because I'm not in a position where I can live alone. I have roommates. And so I was always, ever since then caught between this like, what do I admit to my roommates and try to make it work? So these rumors can stop knowing that I'm pretty sure she made those rumors. Like, people don't get around and talk about me that I'm a drug dealer. But she used that to kind of like, scare me really. And then her whole thing was as long as I promise to get someone to come look at my yard, she won't make things hard for me.
So now I have a weed man coming in. It's just like, wow, I'm spending more money that I don't have to please a neighbor who doesn't feel comfortable for whatever reason. She says it's because of my yard but like, is it?
What ran through your mind at that moment?
First it was anger. And then the fear set in. I posted about it right away on Facebook. And then it became fear. The words that like stuck in my mind and still stick in my mind: “I can make things really hard for you.” What does it even mean? What the heck. And so like everything I'm working for, like owning my first house, she could take that away from me. I still think about it. When I'm cutting my grass every week, I still think, "Let me make sure it's nice and tidy," and it sucks to feel that way.
After a long day of teaching, going home to a house that people around you could feel some sort of way about you. And I don't think that is true. Like I don't think the neighbors really get together like “I think they're doing drugs.” I think she fabricated that part to kind of have leverage, but it's still in the back of my mind when I go on runs, I'm still head down, looking straight ahead. I'm not making eye contact with anyone. So it sucks to feel that way my about my own home.
When she said, "I can make things hard for you," what do you think she meant?
In my mind, she's gonna call the cops. She's gonna call the cops and say, “Look, this person is against the Town of Normal ordinance. He has all these people living under his home.” Which is ultimately why I had to downsize in roommates. A lot of them had plans to move away anyways. But it was always in the back of my mind like, “Well, eventually I have to live alone.” Because even though I can't afford to right now, she could have that for a reason to call the police. And it's not like I'm afraid of Normal Police; my best friend is a police officer in Normal police.
But I still knew what those words meant. Pretty much she was saying, “If I don't want you in this neighborhood, I can make it so.” So I'm like, OK, great. So now what do I do?
You've talked about the financial impact that this has on you. What about the mental and emotional impact?
I don't know. I don't even think I could begin to unpack that. And I think that's the point of trauma. You don't know until you talk to someone. You're like the first person I've talked to about even feeling the emotional side of things because it's just like something that I've grown accustomed to.
I've always been the only Black person and all the things I do. And I always thought, “Hmm, that's weird.” And it wasn't until like recently where I started thinking, “What are systemic things that are preventing other people of color to do the things I'm doing” you know what I mean? Like, why am I the only Black person living on the honors floor at ISU? And I see why am I the only Black person in the math education major? Why am I the only Black person in student government? Why am I the only Black person going on this alternative spring break trip? I never thought about that then, I just thought, “Oh, I like things that Black people don't like.” Literally is what I was convinced was true. Because all my friends or messages from society pretty much said that. I have always been teased from very little. “Well, you're not really Black, you're pretty much white. You're an Oreo, you're Black on the outside, you were white on the inside.” So in my mind, all my interests were because they were white interests. Like “Oh, government and politics. That's my interest, that's white. Oh, honors classes, those are for white people. That's why I'm the only Black person.”
And so I really didn't start thinking about it honestly until recently. Eight years of my teaching, I was just like, it is what it is. I guess. So this is my first year where I'm like, why aren't there a lot of representation of people that look like me in honors classes? Like what? What's really going on there? Why didn't I meet other Black leadership at ISU until I was on homecoming court junior year? That was the first time where I saw other Black student leaders. It was the first time I was hearing about Black leadership. I'm like, why is that? And I know they were sharing their results, whether there's something in place where they were silent. The answer was, yes. We've learned recently with the whole homecoming drama.
Why do you think now you are finally able to come to the light and realize these things that have been happening for so long?
I think there's more visibility. More people are sharing their stories. And I thought that my stories are unique. Like I have normalized so much. I thought it was normal to get pulled over for a traffic stop, and for them to call backup for two or three squad cars. I thought it was normal to get made fun of for the way you talk. I thought it was normal to equate eloquence with whiteness. Which sounds silly as I say it now because obviously those things aren't normal, but in my life, it is the norm. And so now that more people are sharing “this happened to me,” and they're in different zip codes, they're in different states. I'm like, Oh, okay. And so I think that like points to the whole debate on systemic and systematic [racism]. People say it's not [real], it's not. Well, if all of us are spread across the country, and we're having these similar experiences, well it kind of is.
What does it say about the spaces that you’re in and the improvements that need to be made?
I think it says that we don't really understand. Like this is the first time where those terms are being thrown out on social media. They've existed within academic research for decades. But this is the first time where everyone of all ages are tweeting about it and making TikToks about them. And now it's getting attention. And I think institutions are going back and looking at ways they could check boxes and say, not us, when I think we should be moving forward and actively fighting against it. I think if we're digging back and saying, here's what we're doing, we're good. That's not enough. We need to be thinking forward. OK, you're saying this. So here's what we're going to do to actually combat it.
And I think that's where most institutions across Illinois, across the country are failing to do because that requires you to have difficult conversations like this and it requires you to be OK with people being mad at you for even saying institutionalized racism exists. Because you're going to have people say that's not true. Black Lives Matter is a communist movement, and now you support them. I don't want my kid to go into your school, or I don't want to give my tax dollars here. They have to be OK with those sorts of criticisms, and I don't think people are ready to make that leap yet because it's a PR nightmare. But to me, so is not saying we value Black lives and we are standing against racism. To me, that's a PR nightmare too. But I think that's easier to bounce back from because schools have their mission statements. And their action plan is to say, Oh, we do that. See? It says right here.
And one of the demands that students are making at these gatherings and at these protests is they want to see more of a thorough teaching of Black history in classrooms. You're a teacher. Are you being taught to only teach a certain amount of Black history?
Yeah. And that's another systemic issue. A lot of the provided textbooks have their own narrative of what was the civil rights movement. What happened in the classroom is exactly what the curriculum, what Pearson develops for schools to use. I wouldn't say that's true with Bloomington-Normal. I know a lot of history teachers ... kind of teach their own curriculum, and I know I can't speak for all the schools, but I know our department was planning a meeting this summer to talk about how they can implement more of a Black narrative into all other courses because we have African American history, but it's an elective that you take later on. But I remember growing up, you talked about the transatlantic slave trade happen. And then suddenly, we just jumped to Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King. And then that's it. We talked about the civil rights a little bit, but just ended in the 60s, like that's it.
How do you think that impacts non-Black people?
I think it impacts how every student, Black and white and everything in between, views Black history and Black advocacy and Black rights because we have this narrative now.
I didn't learn about someone named Bayard Rustin. Someone who helped him organize the marches, who was openly gay, and how Martin Luther King silenced him because he didn't want a gay face, and he was also of color. And I think about how powerful it would have been for me to learn about that in high school, and how that would have helped me reconcile my confusion with being Black and gay. And how others hearing about that, and how we silence Marsha P. Johnson and her contribution to the Stonewall Riots, and how not learning about that has shaped how people view Black trans women and Black trans males. And how fortunate I am that Illinois is now going to be teaching LGBTQIA+ history. But how, if you read any comments on social media people in our very own community are speaking out against it. And it's just like, learning about something won’t change you, right?
Every movie I watched had a heterosexual kiss in the end, and it didn't make (me) straight. So learning about Black history is not going to make you feel less about white people. It's going to help you understand the struggle and help you understand that Blacks have these qualities of advocacy, and leadership, and all these more positive qualities because I feel like all they're getting from the media is the bad things. It's up to schools to kind of show the complete story of Black people. The fact that people associate speaking well as not a Black quality when you and I both know that many of the Civil Rights Movement leaders spoke extremely well, to me is problematic. This means they haven't been exposed to that side of the Black experience.
In light of the killings of Tony McDade and Dominique Fells, there has also been a national outcry for not only Black lives, but also Black trans lives to matter. What do you feel like the Black Lives Matter movement should do to include and put an emphasis on the importance of All Black Lives Matter?
Thinking about it locally and the two student-led marches that I've been with in coordination with Black Lives Matter and NAACP. They've mentioned these Black trans people of color, or Black trans males and females in their chants. And to me that's already important because it gets people to want to go home and look it up. And they mentioned, why don't these people have hashtags? The last one organized by Not In Our School, most of the chants was saying these people deserve hashtags. And they listed the 27 trans people of color who were murdered, and who sometimes deaths are ruled as not a hate crime. That to me was powerful just showing up. Because those are names I hadn't heard of either. And so I think that's what needs to continue to happen. Just include them in the narrative, because it's gonna get more and more people to kind of understand that this is a population that's also being prejudiced against.
Why is "speaking well" only attached to whiteness? Why can't it be given or shown in Blackness?
That's a good question. I think it goes back to the way we first had understanding of Blacks when they were first forced to come over here. Scientists said Africans have smaller brains. And we know it's not true now, but I think some of those stereotypes we still hold true. Like, “Oh, what's this Black person doing here? He must have had he must be here for affirmative action.” Like, what, how? And I think Black youth hear those messages. It's reinforced in media, when Black characters are cast as supporting actors, or they're only there for comedic relief. And so they’re growing up thinking, “I don't want to be a doctor because I'm not represented like that,” which is shifting.
Now, there's a lot of shows where a Black person is at the front. Black medicine. Black lawyers. But that wasn't how it was for me going up. And so, to me, certain careers were out of reach. I never dreamed about being an astronaut. Because I'm like, “Black people don't fly spaceships.” "Hidden Figures" didn't come out until I was in my 20s. And now all of that is new knowledge to me, all of that. So I think it's something that's reinforced, and we grow up thinking it's true, and we just accept it. And I'm done accepting it, especially because I'm in a position of influence. So it'd be silly for me to just lie down and just expect this is how school is. People graduate and some go on to do good things. And some don't know.
I think we should all be expecting our kids and putting them in positions where they can discover that they can also do these great things.
Do you feel like a possible solution could be for more neighborhoods to be more diverse, for schools to be more diverse, for more spaces to be more diverse, so that way people are more exposed, especially people who are in predominantly white communities, to Black people or other people of color?
Yeah, kinda. I think exposure is the only way where you change your opinion about people. There were things where I was uncomfortable with at first when I was reading demands of Black Lives Matter back in June, and it wasn't until I went out to a protest and listen firsthand to people speaking. Where I'm like, oh, my God, I can relate to that. Oh, God, I get it. Yes, these are reasonable demands. And so I think we need more of that. And I think Black Lives Matter Blono specifically has done an excellent job of having these open forums that come out and listen to us. And I think we just need more communities to want to leave their comfortable neighborhood and go out to these meetings.
And I think that's the biggest breakdown. I never have to worry about waking up to gunfire. And, none of my neighbors has ever worried about that. And so I think it's very easy to disengage, and sit on your social media accounts and say, racism is not real. You guys are just being violent. It's very easy to say that because you don't experience it firsthand. But if they would just come out to one meeting, I think that will be enough to get them to see it. And if it's not enough, they need to reflect on how they might be racist, or what is what is holding you back from accepting that Black people in your community are hurting? What is the big breakdown? Like? I think I think that needs to be the next step. And I know some of them are just trying to march through more fluid neighborhoods. And we saw what happened with that in St. Louis, where they came out with their gun. And so I think honestly, more of that needs to happen. We need to be marching through these safe neighborhoods and so they can see and then pause and give our speeches there. Because people aren't reading the news articles. They're not watching the videos on there. They're not even reading and I know they're not because they're going straight to the comments and writing dismissive things.
So we need to bring the message to them. And the reason I think schools have a good opportunity to do that is because that is a meeting [place] of all of these different backgrounds. Regardless of what neighborhood you live in, you're all reporting to your school in August, whether that's in person or remote, you're all going to meet. And I think the kids are ready to form their own opinions about everything. And so I think that needs to continue.
What advice would you give to your younger self in regards to racism, based on everything you've experienced?
I would tell him to stand up against those comments like you're not really Black, you're white. I would tell him to not be proud when he hears that statement. I would tell him to not wear that like a badge of honor. And think that made him better. And I would tell him to really reflect on why he thought being equated to whiteness was a good thing. And I would encourage him to lift up others who weren't given the chance to take honors classes in high school, in college. Who weren't given the chance to do a lot of these experiences because they weren't uplifted by their teachers like I was. My teachers always put me in positions where “Hey, stay after class and help this student.” I would encourage him to lift up other kids too. And not feel like it is what it is.
Is there anything else you would like to touch on or express?
I guess people who know me, I want them to really not fixate on the words. If they're feeling any guilt, I want them to move to think more about why I felt afraid to even do this interview, why I felt like I should email and cancel last night. Why I felt like maybe I should watch my words because I don't want to offend my white colleagues or my bosses. I want them to reflect on, do they ever feel that way when they're giving interviews? Do they ever change the way they speak, dress or carry themselves when they enter a new space?
Rather than feel hurt or shame, use those emotions, to kind of hear what I'm saying, to hear what students are saying at these protests and marches, and to kind of re-center themselves and how they are going to help elevate the student voice. Because everything I'm saying, I guarantee they can find another student of color to back it up. And so don't fixate on my story. I want them to use this to kind of reflect on the kids that they're going to see in August.
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