Brianna Rivera-Thompson was born in Galesburg and was raised in Normal. She attended Unit 5 schools and will receive her master’s degree in speech pathology from Illinois State University in December. She and husband Andres met at ISU and were married in December 2019.
Rivera-Thompson spoke with Jon Norton for the WGLT series Living Black in Bloomington-Normal. Contact us if you'd like to be featured in the series.
When you wrote into us, you said you didn't even realize you were Black until a little bit later?
Yeah, I mean, obviously, I knew I had a different skin color. I mean, that's obvious, right? But I was never raised to see color. I wasn't raised, feeling like I was the "outsider" compared to my family members. And so, it just has been the last couple years that I really think it's an identity thing. I really started to identify who I am. To say that I didn't know that I wasn't Black sounds kind of silly, but I think it’s kind of a little bit true. I didn't know my Black side. I had close relations with my grandmother, my biological father's mother. And so obviously, I knew she's Black. I know that side of my family is Black, but I didn't have as close relationships with them as I do with my white side.
When did you begin to want to explore your Black side?
Honestly, it's gone back and forth. I feel like I was maybe … I was scared. I think I was scared or …
Scared of what?
To get to know that other side. I feel like I was maybe raised to be kind of scared of those that look like me. I know that sounds … I don't know how it sounds, but I felt uncomfortable being in a group of Black people. I felt like I was the outsider when in fact, I probably blended in just fine, but I felt like I did not belong. I felt uncomfortable. All my friends are white. I had 12 bridesmaids in my wedding. And outside of them being related to Andres, or some sort of affiliation with my husband, they were all white. That's no problem to me. But until recently when things started happening around the world, my eyes have become completely open to the idea of how I was raised, whether good or bad … how I want to raise my children going forward, and there was just a lot of learning and education that I still needed to now take upon myself being 27 years old and learn.
So you said recently.
What does that mean? Like in the last year, six years ago, 10 years ago?
Well, I've been dating my husband now … in August it'll be eight years. We met at ISU and he is Black and Puerto Rican. He's not the first Black man that I've dated. I dated Black men in high school. But being around him … being around his social life … going to maybe different functions held on ISU’s campus that I probably wouldn't have gone to if it wasn't for him. That is when I really started to open my eyes that, OK me feeling this anxiety … me feeling this way that I do towards Black individuals, which was … I'm better than you … I don't identify as you kind of situation, which is not how I think I should have ever thought, but feel like I was raised to feel that some sort of “better than you” personality. That is not me at all. And so to your question, I would say it's been evolving over the last eight years, but it's really started to hit just this last couple months when I'm starting to accept that I was wrong in my thinking and educate myself and change. I want to be a new person. I want to have a new light on what I've been thinking for the past 26 years.
This is interesting. What I have learned personally through a lot of this over the last few years is that we all have been socialized to think of race in a certain way.
Yeah, it’s completely about your environment and how you're raised … 100%.
You said it was an evolution. Were there some markers in there … where you went, “Oh, my goodness, the way I've been thinking … I have got to rethink how I think about things”?
I think it's just … a light bulb went off. I've been listening to podcasts, Brene Brown. She's amazing. And I've been reading more. And a light bulb just went off. I can't say that there was a certain instance or certain thought other than I need to re-think the way that I'm thinking. Because if there's any sort of me raising any sort of kids in the near future, I need to get myself aligned before I even think about being able to raise them properly.
You were raised a certain way …
To think of races a certain way. And you were raised by people of a different race.
What are the conversations been like now since your evolution has brought you to where you are right now?
They've been deep. They've been heavy, they've been tearful, but they've been positive. I have felt nothing but love and support from my family. But there's still a lot of conversation that needs to be done. You know, automatically “race has nothing to do with it” is the responses that I'm getting or “We're not racist, we have Black, this, that and that,” and I feel like more conversation needs to be had because the idea of Yeah, OK … you're not racist, but there has to be an underlying reason why I was raised to think the way that I was. If there wasn't something underlying, if that makes sense. So again, it was positive, but a lot more conversation still needs to be had.
So how have you evolved through those conversations themselves?
I think I've become stronger. I have always been a take the bull by the horns type of gal. And as long as I can do it respectfully, that's what I've been raised … to use your voice as long as you can be respectful. I feel like I have a new identity. Not only with evolving with education within the last couple months … two years … but recently getting married. Again, being born and raised in Normal, I've been Brianna Jacobs. That's who I am. I'm Brianna Jacobs and I'm a coach. I'm a friend. I'm an ally. I'm a sister, a cousin … all those things and now I'm a wife. And so, I've always wanted to leave my footprint so to speak. I went to Normal West … wanted to leave my footprint there. Went to Illinois State University … want to leave my footprint there, whether big or small, and here I am now. Brianna Rivera-Thompson. Proud, holding my head high that I want to be a better person. If I can speak on something as strongly as this or something that I have a strong relation with, I'd like to leave my footprint with Bloomington-Normal and just know that I'm trying to be a better person to then help those that are close to me be better.
You brought up the term “we don't see color.”
And you hear that a lot.
And I don't agree with it anymore.
Do you feel that hurts the conversation by not acknowledging that, of course, we see color?
Yes. And that is something that I have learned listening to podcasts and reading is … I always thought that it was appropriate because that's how I, again, was raised to say, “Hey, I don't see color.” And that was kind of my way of … my hands are up right now. Like, hey, we're cool. no judgement. I don't see color. But in fact, with what I'm learning and what I'm reading is yes, that in fact, saying that is more hurtful than saying, “Hey, I acknowledge that you and I are different, let's go forward with that.”
Why is it hurtful?
I think it's because they're not … those that say that they aren't willing to stop and realize that it's OK to see color, in the sense of not being judgmental … seeing you for who you are, and you're seeing me for who I am and then realizing that there's a history behind each of us that makes us who we are. By saying that you don't see color is … you're just another person that I'm going to respect but I don't know why I'm respecting them or I don't know why I owe you … yeah, any sort of any sort of respect.
You said you're a coach.
What age group are you working with?
I am with high school right now. I coach at Normal West. Girls basketball.
Do these conversations happen at all with the kids that you're coaching?
This is only my second season … hoping crossing fingers that we have a season this year. I am proud to say that Normal West has … maybe we haven't touched on diversity itself. And something I think we definitely should and can do. But we have done a good job of … especially through this pandemic … of having a book club … talking about how we view the world how we want to be better people. And now tying in this piece of diversity, I think would just make it all go around.
I want to go back to your family. How willing is your family to have these conversations?
No initiation on their end … initiation on my end. For me, I was a bubble waiting to burst. I had these feelings building up that I needed to … I needed to let these feelings go. I would say they sit, they listen, they're open to conversation. They're accepting. Possibly a tad defensive … just a little bit which is only natural. But I feel comfortable that I am definitely going to be having a lot more conversations because they are very receptive. I ultimately have just felt like I am 27 years old and I'm just now starting to feel comfortable with the whole me. I know everything about my white side, family heritage, all of that. And I'm sitting here at 27 years old, getting ready to want to start my own family asking questions about health and all of those things, and realizing, I don't know that much about my Black side at all. Why is that? That's the question going through my head. So that's what I'm trying to determine right now. I don't want to dig too deep back into the past where it can be hurtful. But I want to know just enough so that I can then move forward and know how to properly again raise my kids and how to move forward positively in this … in this world.
What will you tell your kids?
Oh, boy, that's a deep question. I don't know if I have that answer yet. Other than “you are loved by both; you're loved by all. But here's what's important. Here's what you need to know. Here's the tools that we can give you to move forward and bottom line again. What was ingrained in me is, family is number one, we will always have your back unconditionally, no matter what you do."
You were raised white.
And you were discovering your Black side not that long ago.
So when you're discovering this side, what are some of the surprises that you ran into you went, Oh, that's cool.
Just getting to know my family … just getting to know my biological dad. Like I said, I have a good relationship with my grandmother, his mother, but asking questions that I just … I don't have anything exactly other than our relationship is more open. I can be myself; I don't have to be scared or have anxiety take over or be timid. And I'm getting to see these family members for who they are outside of what I was taught to think and what I was taught to view these individuals as. And I'm now getting to know them for who they are right now. Not about the past. The past makes them for who they are right now. And that's what I think the beauty of all of this is right now.
Your husband is a police officer.
A large part of the conversation we’re having is how police interacts with people of color in the country. What are the conversations like in your house about that? There's got to be some interesting conversations, right?
Yes, definitely interesting. It's a whole bunch of different feelings of being angry, being disappointed, being embarrassed and embarrassed because he does wear a badge. But ultimately, he takes off that badge every day. And he is a Black man living in the world right now. That's what's hard for us to swallow is … that people are being treated this way for their race. And it's been hard. It's been hard for him. It's been hard.
And at the same time, as you pointed out in another one of our interviews, another woman's husband is a police officer and he comes home … now he is white ...
So, it's a little different dynamic, but still, he gets called all these names, but you know … a police officer’s job is a difficult job. And he comes home. he's been called these names and all these assertions about him. So how do you navigate that, “Yes, I'm a police officer, but I'm also a man of color.” And there's a lot of people who have problems with police officers right now ...
That are people of color.
Yeah, actually, yes. He's been navigating it by being that voice for his department. Being that … standing with his head held high and still being that voice of education and diversity within his department. And I am … I'm speaking for him, but again, based off our conversation, I know this is all facts and safe. His ultimate goal is … he's here for this community. He's here to be a leader, to provide safety. And that's his one-track mind that he does have. And one track mind being … that's a positive thing … being that he's just here to keep the world safe.
And I know that that is hard for people to understand. But, you know, people say, “Well, I am tired of hearing that police officers say that not all police are the same." Well, it's true. Not all police are the same. Just like not all Black people are the same, or not all white people are the same. It is the same thing. But I know when we see the videos and the things I'm streaming on the internet; it makes you sick. I honestly can't even watch them. I can't because it makes me sick. But then I also have so much fear every night that when he leaves, that he's not going to come home. Or that something's going to happen.
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