Christopher Belt is an English teacher at Normal Community High School. The Normal native 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.
WGLT: When and how did you first become aware that your skin color could be a problem for other people?
Christopher Belt: I would say early grade school is when you get kids pointing out the difference in the way that you look. I'm from Normal … born and raised. So, I've been Black in a predominantly white area. So, the contrast is always pointed out. The earliest time I can remember being called the N-word was fourth grade. And I felt at that point, I understood being Black meant having a different experience already. You start learning about history and slavery in like second, third, fourth grade, so by then you already understand when someone called me the N-word, I knew enough to be angry. I can't remember not having the feeling of knowing that I was different and being affected.
What was the context when the N-word was first used?
It was like recess, and I think it was a sandlot football game and it was something the kid knew would get under my skin. You know, I just put him in a headlock and then everyone broke up the scuffle, but I remember going to the principal's office and all those little bits. I think another aspect of not realizing my skin color was a benefit was … honestly even younger than fourth grade, I would say. early grade school. I'm one of those nerdy people who is into fantasy and comic books and things like that. I think when you're into that, early on you yourself want to create, and I felt like some of the characters I created … I knew to make them white. It was the first characters I made. They’re all white. I didn't make any Black characters. I remember in making that design choice for a young author story I wrote for second grade. I felt like I understood my main character was supposed to be white.
Did you have an understanding of any repercussions that might have happened if you hadn't done that?
The story wouldn't be as well-received or received by as many people.
What does that do to you internally to know that at a young age?
The constant inferiority complex battle begins is what happens. You're constantly coaching yourself up and reassuring yourself that you're good enough, you're worthwhile, you're deserving of admiration. I do feel like it's a lifelong battle with an inferiority complex.
At that age, young age, are you having conversations with your parents about how you're feeling?
Yeah, constantly. I think like most Black families, it's a constant discussion in your household. You know, I come from one of those families where I was told explicitly from very early on that I'd have to work twice as hard to get as much and I'd be perceived negatively in situations. I've had the police conversation. I didn't have it when I was in second grade, but you know, junior high, yes, I definitely had the police conversation. You need to conduct yourself in this way because you might … who knows what might happen to you.
Now you have young children. Are you having any kind of similar conversations?
Not yet. My oldest is four. And then my youngest isn’t even one yet so their innocence is still intact. I'm in a mixed-race relationship. My wife is white, so my kids are mixed. So we already have … I wouldn't say discussions about race, but both the boys have that contrast in their homes. So inevitably, it's something that we have to talk about and discuss. And right now, it's all just fun metaphorical stuff. But it's clear that we're laying the groundwork for their perceptions of race to just be physical differences … and that's it … and not really have the connotations of social appearance. So, he thinks he's a chocolate vanilla swirl and dad is chocolate … mom's vanilla. So right now, you know, it’s interesting he’ll watch TV or videos and he’ll see a dark-skinned Black guy and he's like, "I like that Black guy because he’s dark like you." So, he's already growing up with a perception of having an affinity for dark skin people, you know, that's been ingrained in him. And then he has white uncles too who he loves equally as well. We talk a lot about how for him race just isn't a thing. It's just not a thing.
When you guys got together and it became apparent that you were going to be an item for the rest of your life, how did both of your families deal with that?
Part of the reason why we made the decision to marry is because both of our families did respond so positively. You know, I've been in multiple interracial relationships and that wasn't always the case. So that being the case was like, okay, that's a good sign, like her family's on board. They don't mind at all. And then, my family has been Black in a predominately white area and interracial relationships aren't new for our family. Growing up here, you learn how to navigate the world that you live in. When it has come up, it's come from strangers, and again, I don't want to overstate my negative experience because in all honesty, I feel like I've been fortunate that I haven't had to face some of the most egregious and overt forms of racism in my experience here. I have a friend in town who that absolutely is not the case. He has had multiple run-ins with the police.
My experience in being with an interracial relationship that I'm in now … people will stare at you. And a lot of times in public when you ... when you're kind of scanning the area in public and you catch someone's eyes, they'll soften their expression or quickly turn away but you know, there is a time here in town, actually, I was going to tell the Branson Missouri town story, but I want to focus here and now there's time here in town. When I was coaching with the girls basketball team at NCHS. We were doing a team-building thing and we went to an ISU (women's) basketball game … and she was my fiancé at the time. She came with me and I remember walking up to our seats and there were you know, a good amount of white faces who are doing the thing of staring, but they weren't softening their expressions and they weren't turning away. It kind of felt like they were expressing their disapproval about me being with my wife. And then when I sat down my wife was like, "were a lot of people looking at us because that felt weird." And I was like, yep, that confirmed it. She, you know, she saw it, too. She felt that too. And that doesn't happen a ton. But it has happened. And it's uncomfortable.
You talked about when you were really young, and how it affected even how you created characters for Fantasy games. How about now you're getting older? How did you view systemic racism as you're getting older? And how did that affect how you either viewed yourself or how you dealt with things?
So back to this idea of … I'm Black, I've grown up in a predominantly white area. So, I feel like I, as a Black American, have had kind of an atypical Black experience in America. You know, you grow up with the imagery and the stereotypes about Black people. And I'm someone who doesn't embody a lot of the stereotypes. So mainly first off, it's speech. I can speak the white folks English very fluently … I know to code-switch. And because of that, I'm oftentimes perceived as someone who's is white. I get told “you act white” all the time. And then my Blackness isn't affirmed until like, I play basketball. They're like, “oh my God, you're so good at basketball, okay, now you are Black.” Or if I get angry, then it's like, “Okay, now that you're mad, you're acting Black.” So, I've always grown up with this contrast of the way that I am compared to the stereotypes. And then for me, it's always been about …what about my experience has made me different than the stereotypes? It's not that the stereotypes are always true, but it's also the case that they don't come from nowhere.
So, I've grown up in Normal Illinois, this is not an urban city. That's not an inner-city. It's one of the nicest school districts in the state ... always has been. It's a safe affluent town. And I act like the other white kids who appear with access to all these resources and this privilege. So, going through school, it was constantly, you know, people being baffled that I'm intelligent, that I'm articulate … that I'm not physically intimidating. So that thrust me into a weird space, identity wise, because honestly, I would get the “you act white” from Black people and white people because I feel like even Black people are susceptible to the racist imagery we're fed all the time. So, I felt like I had this dual inferiority complex and I don't know ... like a misfit complex ... I don't fit in completely with the Blacks or the whites. I'm just in this weird in-between space. In my first three years I taught at Champaign Central and that school is predominantly Black … it's like 60% Black … it did have more of an inner-city environment compared to what I grew up with at Normal. When I went through high school there (NCHS) I was the only Black kid or no more than three non-white kids in all my classes. So that was my experience growing up. And when I went to Champaign, I would have classes that had three white kids in them and everyone else was Black. So, it was it was very different. But even in that environment, I had the Black kids who “acted white” come to me and tell me how hurt they were by those statements and how they were thrust in this weird place. Um, excuse me ….
(Belt paused intermittently as he recalled those conversations)
… but what kind of … what kind of threw me for a loop was I had Hispanic kids come and say that too, that they hated when people told them they acted white. And then I had a Korean kid say it.
(Belt again paused to catch himself)
So that and …
so that kind of gave me a greater sense of security with it.
But it took until adulthood to get there.
So, Chris, if you don't mind, I don't want to presume to understand why you're reacting the way you are to this. Could you give us some insight into what's going through your mind?
You know, just having time to reflect on it and just talk to different people in my life. The moment feels surreal, and that it seems like American society is collectively asking how I feel from my perspective in a way I thought would never happen. I never expected society to pivot like this so drastically, so quickly. And like I said, surreal, like, Whoa, people want to know what it's like to be Black in America like, unfiltered, straight from the source. So that is interesting. You know, some white people talk about ... to get rid of racism we need to just not talk about it. And I feel like that's something that's just comforting for white people because I've tried not talking about it, but it's literally unavoidable. If I don't talk about it, it's going to come up or be talked about somehow some way.
Your comment reminds me of a conversation I had with a man named Chick Willis. He was a bluesman from Georgia that passed away a few years ago now. He talked about playing in clubs where he had to enter and exit through the back door. And when I asked him what that felt like, he said “it was devastating.” And that nobody wanted to talk about it.
The problem of racism is it's a tricky thing to detangle, and as a Black person growing up in a predominantly white area … this is my thought process constantly. So to have this conversation, I'm just letting you in on how I'm constantly thinking … it never goes away. But as far as the blues singer talking about the devastation in that feeling … I think that's one aspect of racism that white people haven't fully confronted. Our society has never had a productive conversation about race in our country. I feel like we had like the civil rights movement, where some superficial laws and acts got passed. And they were largely symbolic. And I feel like we've gotten by on things that were largely symbolic, and since the most overt forms of oppression aren’t happening publicly, like slavery, and we're passing laws on the books … that's enough atonement for equality. Even Martin Luther King before he died he said … and that's the other thing: in this moment, a lot of people are posting his speeches from the last year of his life and he's like, yeah, the “I Have a Dream” speech was kind of superficial. You know, there's a lot of work to be done. And, you know, we're not quite there. And I feel like we kind of stopped there. He made that nice speech and we just kind of rode the wave of that speech for like, decades, literally decades. And I think Martin Luther King himself, like, historically, as a public figure, had the rough edges kind of shaved off of him. And he became this kind of comforting, anti-racist Santa Claus kind of figure.
And that's the other thing in the debate: a lot of people who are opposed to the demonstrations or don't see the point of them have used Martin Luther King's words. And it's like … at that time, he was widely hated. So that's interesting that he'd be used rhetorically in this situation. The devastation that feeling is … I feel like white people haven't wanted to confront racism as not just the systemic issue, but as a cultural issue, like racism is ingrained and embedded in white culture and there are cultural artifacts of that racism, like cultural practices. Like even though you're the focal point of this performance, we have to symbolically make you go through the backdoor so that you understand and that you're … lesser than everyone here … to understand that even though we're here to admire your talent, you're lesser. And I think that also gets at another psychological aspect of racism for white people. That racism is a manifestation of white people's inferiority complex. You know, I talked about how as a Black person growing up and learning about the history, and just seeing the imagery in society and watching a show like Cops and in seeing what type of images are on television shows or how limited the representation is. That gives you an inferiority complex. I think white people have an inferiority complex of their own. And like I said, it manifests in the form of racism for a lot of white people, I think.
So, as we're recording … this morning on Morning Edition there was a piece on a Black pastor. He was evangelical. And they talked about how, you know, maybe the evangelical church can help overcome racism by ... Black and white coming together, as opposed to being this separation. But he said, you know, even when we've done that, and there's a multicultural church, it's still filtered through a white lens. It's still white leadership or a white lens that's leading this thing.
Yeah, that's been my experience, too. I don't currently go to church a lot. But over the course of growing up here, I've been to both kinds of churches. I've been to predominantly white churches. I've been to the mixed churches. I've been to the Black churches. I've been to the same kind of set of churches in like the St. Louis area, the Chicago area and yeah, when it is a mixed church, that is true, it still is through a white lens. And that leads to another thing that I talked about when I spoke to my sister: Black people who … inevitably it extends to all minorities, not just racial, but whatever minority existed in a predominant culture … you learn to protect the comfort of the dominant culture. So, in that mixed setting, the Black people are aware if they get to the hooting and hollering like they like to do in their Black churches, it's going to make the white people uncomfortable. And they're not going to be as engaged in the service. So, you know, clamp that down.
And that's what I talked about with my sisters … as Black people who move in white spaces and who can do so successfully. Part of why we can do so successfully is because we know not to violate the code. One of the codes of whiteness is to insist on comfort at all costs. So, I know if I'm in a predominately white crowd or with white friends … even some of my white friends who I've grown up with who I’ve had really intimate contact with are reaching out and ask me about my perspective in a way that they never had. Because growing up, I knew in order to make sure things went smoothly … not to vocalize my personal discomfort, or to touch on issues that related to Blackness too much, or in a particular way, because it would put them off. And perhaps we wouldn't be able to have a friendship, or I'd become known as one who's constantly making waves. Like, “Hey, don't talk to Chris. He always makes you uncomfortable because he brings up the Black thing all the time.” Because again, if you're a Black person and you don't know how to protect white people's comfort, you're not going to get what you want out of white society. You're not going to get it. (laughs)
We’re living in unprecedented times when information changes by the minute. WGLT will continue to be here for you, keeping you up-to-date with the live, local and trusted news you need. Help ensure WGLT can continue with its in-depth and comprehensive COVID-19 coverage as the situation evolves by making a contribution.