Janine Peacher is a professor at Lincoln College. This year, she became the first tenured Black professor at the college.
She 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.
When and how did you first realize the color of your skin was going to be a problem for other people?
I would have to say in Dallas. When I was educated, I was primarily educated in inner-city schools. So [fourth grade] through sixth, I was bused to a school in the White Rock area of Dallas. And that was a predominantly very affluent, Caucasian community, and the students let us know that race was an issue.
But I think my very first encounter was when I was in the girls locker room and I had asked the girl who, I thought was a friend, to let me use her hairbrush. And she said, “Well, you know, you have different texture hair and you know your skin color is different, so I wouldn't be able to allow you to use my hairbrush.” And this is somebody who at one point, believe it or not, we shared sweaters when we got cold. I don't know that we ever drank behind each other. But during that time, that was not that big of an issue.
But it was terrible. So then I think, looking back on it, she had other people in the bathroom. She and I, wasn't an issue, but I think around her friends, she wanted them to know that she was kind of on their team. So growing up, that was my first encounter and that was fifth grade.
And in Bloomington-Normal, what was that first time you experienced that?
As a graduate student at Illinois State, I went up to one of the stores right off-campus. And I was asked to provide ID because I was using a card at a time and I was asked for ID. And I had been, you know, behind several other students who did not look like me. And they were not asked to provide any sort of identification, when using their card. That became evident. And then if you want to fast forward to where I'm currently employed, it was the fact that for a long time, I was the only person of color here and just recently became the first African American to be tenured on this campus. So I think it was apparently clear at that point.
Looking back on both of those encounters, what was your reaction?
The one in middle school, this young lady and I, we were friends. So I think entirely it just allowed me to view friendship differently. I don't know that we ever rebounded from that. I remember coming home telling my mom about that. But ywe never rebounded from that. And I think at one point, I spent the night over her house. I mean, we, we were quite close. She's probably one of the few people that welcomed me to the school when I came there. I spent the night at her house.
I don't know that my mom ... she always kind of danced around having people spend the night at our house. And then I kind of understood a little later in life why that was, because she probably didn't want to see my feelings being hurt for the young lady not being able to come because of our area.
And then at ISU, it was a hello, welcome to the Midwest. I mean, being raised in the south, racism is very overt. It's very covert up here and I think it was a wake-up call because again, I was the only African American in the graduate program at the time. Then when I would go to different stores, I just had my ID. I sort of found a couple of faculty members of color at ISU, and just kind of began to talk to them about it, and they begin to give me a lay of the land and help me understand the dynamic of the town.
How did your parents talk to you about racism and how to navigate society?
My mother definitely is a product of the civil rights movement. She remembers the whole segregated movie theaters.
Here's an interesting digression: There's a theater in Dallas called the Majestic Theatre. And we were pretty much raised on public transportation because my mother didn't drive. And we would always pass by this one theater, and she every time they would be maybe a Tyler Perry show or on any other kind of show, and they were hosting it at the Majestic, she always said I will never step foot in that theater again. And she never did. I mean, that theater is now closed, but she remembers the side door of where African Americans at the time, that's the only way they can enter the theater. And at the time, they had just mainly covered up the door. But almost made it a window, kind of like a facade, and just became part of the aesthetic outside. And she always said that door right there and it's interesting, she thought maybe they wouldn't, you know, put a concrete slab over and so he just wasn't a reminder.
So, my mother was very angry, she's was very bitter. So when she was talking to us about it, we had to kind of know the area we can and cannot go into.That's primarily what was my decision for wanting to attend a historically Black college. I just wanted to learn a little bit more about my history, my culture, and felt like I could possibly get it there. She is a product of a historically Black college. That was part of our conversations of this is where I want to see you all go to school. That was probably the extent of it because she was very bitter, so there wasn't any really in-depth conversations as much as, "Here's your skin color, know your place, know how to behave, and when you get a chance, I need you to go to a historically Black college so that they can begin to help you and teach you how to appreciate being in your skin color.”
How did you navigate through environments like a predominantly white institution (PWI), and even now where you're teaching at Lincoln College?
I know when to temper myself a little bit. I would have to say that my historically black college, Jarvis Christian College, I want to say more so some of my classes at Jarvis was probably a lot more instrumental in helping me navigate through Illinois State. I still struggle. I felt just like a fish out of water when I stepped foot on that campus. So in a lot of ways, I felt like Jarvis did a phenomenal job. And in a lot of ways, I kind of felt like I wasn't ready. But I think then I came back home after graduating before I went on to graduate school, because I waited six months and went into the workforce. My mom just basically said, “I've never lived in the Midwest. I really don't know what to tell you and how to navigate.”
But it was mainly probably my Christian principles that really helped me to navigate that. So I really grew closer to God, because I really didn't have a sense of community up here, but I immediately joined the church. And I want to say that what gave me the ammunition to be able to navigate through this very complex world.
How has systemic racism impacted your life?
Oh my goodness. Well, you can't be Black and say you have never experienced it. I think primarily, being right here in Lincoln, Ill., being at Lincoln College where it's just until recently have we sort of had an influx or, you know, just a few more people of color to join our faculty.
But systemic racism for me was just a way of life in Texas. There were stores that we could not go into. They will pass the town that we could not go into. There were conditions at our school. When you were bused into some of the nicer areas and you had an opportunity to see the conditions in which they were being educated, it definitely does impact you.
And I think it has sort of been the emphasis behind why I have to go through so many years of my life to higher ed, so that I help students to understand and prepare them for the world that awaits them. Many of them are coming from our inner city, Chicago schools, and will say, “Well, I haven't encountered it,” but maybe they just don't realize they have encountered it. But I think when they begin to see how ill-equipped they were for college, I think many of them begin to see that that was systemic, that some of the funding was not funneled to their schools. It was not funneled to some of the schools that I was a part of.
My high school was a little different. We were one of the first magnet schools in Dallas. So we had money that was poured into our high school to make sure that we were prepared for that particular area. And we were communication, humanities and fine arts. So we had a principal and we had directors that really found money that will prepare us so that we could be competitive when we went off to college. I hate to say it, but I'm almost immune to it. It's just been so much a part of me.
Has racism ever impacted how you view yourself?
Without a doubt. You begin to question your craft. It definitely shakes your self-confidence. In one way, it can cause you to close the door and have a moment. And then it has caused you to just dig really deep. And I just say I am forging ahead for those that have to come behind me.
So I have had my moments. One of the things that my HBCU, we always say we’re striving strong. I continue to read history stuff of just what my ancestors had to endure. And I look at what I'm having to endure and it doesn't even compare to what they had to endure. So they did it so that I didn't have to.I picked it up and I go.
It sometimes shakes your self-confidence. It does.
Do you have any non-Black friends, co-workers, even relatives that understand or at least try to understand what you go through every day?
Definitely. When all of this occurred with George Floyd, I had people reach out to me. My non-white friends, my non-white colleagues reached out to me, and basically just to say, "‘I have no idea what it's like, what you are experiencing."
I am the mother of two young African American males. They are in college. So my fear is for them. They say they try to understand, but I guarantee you some of the same conversations that we've had with our sons — my husband and I — are not the same ones that they've had with their sons.
I think I have lost some friends behind a lot of this. Because when the looting and the rioting became an issue, that seems like that was the focus. And I'm not saying that I was for the looting and the rioting, but it was definitely a voice of frustration. I don't condone damaging property. Nevertheless, I understand that that is the voice of the frustrated. And I think when a lot of my non-white associates begin to focus on that on social media, I had to cut ties. And for the ones who reached out to me what I always say, I didn't know what to say, but I did appreciate it. At least they made an attempt and that I came across their mind. They thought about me and I was very appreciative of that. So many people say that they empathize with us, but they, unfortunately, will never walk in our shoes. Nevertheless, I appreciated the empathy.
When you and your husband have conversations with your two sons about racism, what does that look like?
So our conversations have been, “We want you to come home. I want you to come back." As they relate to police brutality, if you comply, they will complain later. One of the hardest things that my youngest one asked us and it stumped us and I didn't have an answer then and I really don't have one now. But he asked us, "We do everything you tell us. And we end with our interaction with the police, with anybody in authority, with a 'Yes, ma'am, Yes, sir, No, ma'am. No, sir.' And we still don't come home. What happens if we do all of that and it doesn't really matter?"
And for a moment, your heart stops. You turn and you look at your spouse of 24 years and you go, “How do you answer that?” And I don't know that today we can give him an answer because he's absolutely correct. We teach them what to do, what to say how to act. And what if that's not enough? Why does somebody still feel like their lives are not worth it?
So we continue to teach them to be good men. We continue to teach them “This is how you need to dress. This is how you need to act. This is how you need to behave.” But we do that anyway because we are raising responsible young men who happen to be African American.
So the first order of business is your behavior is going to represent that which we have raised you today, and that's non-negotiable. Now society will begin to see you in a different light. And the only thing you can do is be your true authentic self. But we have to tell them that racism is alive and well. We live in an area [where] they have several non-Black friends. My youngest one has friends with don't necessarily look like him. But we have to quickly remind them that that is not representative of the whole world, that you will then begin to interact with people who will not resemble those friends that you've known for 12 years. So you need to be prepared for that. You need to be prepared.
My youngest goes to school in Arkansas. You need to be prepared that that is a totally different demographic of people with different thoughts, different political ideologies, and different ideas on race. You will probably encounter being at a restaurant where somebody may skip over you. We need to prepare you for that. But you're never really prepared for it until that happens.
I think both of them, unfortunately, have been raised to where they have heard someone use the N-word on them. That conversation was quite emotional. “Why would he call me that? I thought we were friends?” I didn't want them to experience it at that age, but unfortunately, that’s not going to be the last time. The music that they listen to and the friends they're around, I just tell them you know, be mindful of the company they keep because if you're around people who use certain words and other people hearing it, you're basically saying to them that it's OK if they say it.
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