Bloomington native Jayana Fennell is a Normal Community West High School graduate. She’s currently a junior telecommunications major for video production at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. She’s also minoring in French. She spoke with Jon Norton for WGLT's series Living Black in Bloomington-Normal. Contact us if you'd like to be featured in the series.
WGLT: When did you first realize your skin color might be a problem for some people?
Jayana Fennell: I had mostly Caucasian friends and there would be moments when they would say stuff to me in high school. Mostly freshman year. I realized I was different because they would point things out in my skin tone or ask me questions that they wouldn’t ask other people. And they weren’t necessarily mean, but they weren’t necessarily something that you would ask anybody on a random day.
Do you recall how that struck you?
I know I asked my mom a lot of stuff because a lot of my friends are nice. It’s just that they would ask me questions that I didn’t think were necessarily appropriate, so it just made me … it made me feel separated from them because I never thought of them as anything but a friend; like I never thought of them by their skin color so it kind of made space between me and my friend group in high school when they would ask certain questions of me. Or they would say certain things and maybe I would say “maybe you shouldn’t say that to other people,” and they would get offended, and I’d be really confused. Because if they’re your friend … if you tell them that they shouldn’t say something because that could offend somebody else about skin color, you would think they wouldn’t get offended themselves, and they would say “I wasn’t even trying to be like that” and I was overreacting. So I would just feel separated and it made me not want to talk to them about anything that I was dealing with.
Has it been repaired at all?
One example was one of my friends that I ended up going to church with … it was repaired over time. At first, she grew up in a very conservative household. And so, we met each other at church ... she would ask me questions that should not be asked. And our friendship grew because she was willing to learn stuff. So that one was repaired because at first, I did not want to be friends with her because she would say stuff that was mean, but she didn’t know it. A lot of my other ones I think I would just let it slide but it would end up bothering me in the long-term knowing that they still thought like that. And if I ever said something to them, they would get mad at me for even saying something to them about it.
Yeah, most of them did or most of them would just apologize, but then it will come up again. But there is a select few that I remember that never apologized and would actually try to justify their reason for what they believe.
This is in context to the last person I talked with. He said he was always feeling like he had to try to fit into a white world.
I went to Bloomington Junior High and then we moved. Bloomington Junior High has a pretty big minority rate in general. So, when I moved to Evans Junior High … it’s a whole new world. So yeah, I did try to fit in. I changed my hair because I thought my hair for some reason would affect the way that people talk to me. I didn’t change my personality, but I was a lot more boxed-in … like I wasn’t necessarily one hundred percent me. That also translated to when I went to high school at Normal West because most people I was around were white. And whenever I did something that maybe feels like dancing or said a joke that they didn’t really relate to I would always get weird stares. I don’t feel like they did it on purpose and it wasn’t everybody ... but there would be times where it just felt so uncomfortable. And I would say something, or I would joke about something and they just looked at me like I was crazy. I understand that they’re not going to get every single joke, but to be stared at like you’re crazy or stared at because they don’t get it a certain way … it can come off like … unwelcoming. And I don’t even know if they realize that.
Can you talk about the conversations you have with your parents, and maybe how concerned they are for you?
Well … for me I was just always taught to do everything they (police) say and not to question … even though you have a right to. You shouldn’t do it because it can cause conflict and that’s the last thing you want. I mean they talked about it more with my brother than me because it affects Black males more than it does Black women, and so for my brother, he was taught to always have his hands on the wheel, to make sure nothing is in your pocket … to actually take your wallet out of your pocket before they come up to your window. So, there’s nothing that you have to grab that they can’t see. I know that was ingrained into his brain. My brother is a really good person, so you wouldn’t think that anything would happen to him. But you know ... things happen.
Do you mind talking about what happened?
Me and my brother are part of a Christian organization on (the Ball State) campus and he was going home from practice and I had already left. He had turned onto a road and had just happened to pass a cop and ... he looked at him and then the cop pulled him over and said that he hadn’t done a complete stop at the stop sign, even though I know where they turn out ... there is no way that he did that. Then when he (got) pulled over, he (the police officer) pulled him over on a major street. So, he asked if he could go into a parking lot. They ended up calling three more officers to the scene for a stopping ticket. I don’t know … like I know some people don’t think about it. But after he called me about that, I just think there’s … there could have been a good chance that my brother could have been gone.
And it’s a weird reality because I don’t always think about it. But it took me a second after that because I tried to figure out why he was so angry, and then I really sat down and thought about it. It doesn’t take three cops for a traffic stop and he wasn’t getting searched for anything; there were no drugs involved. I guess the cops felt really threatened by him and they needed three more cop cars there ... and it just makes it look even worse for anybody driving by because you just see that one Black male for a traffic stop and you see three cop cars and that never looks good. I just always think about … like … if he would have maybe acted differently, he could have been gone and it’s just so weird a reality that Black people have to deal with, and that’s why we’re taught the way we are taught. Because you never know when that moment is going to come, and you try to avoid it no matter what.
You hear from a lot of law enforcement officers to “just do what I ask you to do and everything will be fine.”
I just look at the news and you see so many examples of how law enforcement cannot protect people like you. You just see how many times it happens … like it happens too many times for it just to be a coincidence. It happens too many times for it just be the person's fault, especially the people of color. I personally still believe that law enforcement is there to protect. I just believe that you have to be cautious because you never know who is a bad person, and you will never know. I mean overall, I know that they’re good people, but sometimes there’s so many it only takes one person to mess that up.
When George Floyd died in police custody and with all of the protests going on right now, how have you been processing all of this in the last couple of weeks?
It’s been really hard to process because when the George Floyd killing happened … it was like one thing happened right after another and there’s like four more things that happened after that. So, it’s a lot of things coming at you at once. Processing it was a lot, especially with social media because there was so much on social media. And it was so confusing because the information people were handing out … people bringing up different cases that happened years ago to try to add more to the fire. And it was just a lot … to the point where I just didn’t want to go on social media anymore. But I found a lot of my friends that were not of my skin color were also supporting me and calling me, which had never happened before. People that I didn’t really talk to that much reached out to me, which meant more than they will probably ever know, and asking me if I was okay. All I could tell them is that I was good for what was happening right now in the world. It was just so much to process that I didn’t even know whether to say I was fine because I thought I was fine. But I was just feeling almost to a point like I was numb to the stuff that was going on.
Why does this time seem to be different?
I was talking to my friends the other day about how things have changed. It might not have been a change in laws, but I think there has been a lot of change in heart. A lot more people saw evidence about what was happening to African Americans or people of color when it comes to police brutality because they’re on Facebook. They’re on YouTube, and when you see that you can’t really ignore it anymore. And once you see proof, you’re like “Well I’ve never been treated that way and no one should ever be treated that way,” and when you see someone treated that way, you want to do something about it because you now see proof of somebody who did absolutely nothing wrong and they get attacked because somebody felt threatened by their skin color. And they’re like, “that’s not right.”
I truly believe social media has helped some of my white friends see or some people that are just older than me to show proof of what actually happens in the world. And now they see it … now they can physically see it. And now that they physically see evidence, they’re like “we need to change this because it shouldn’t be going on.” They didn’t see it before, but they see it now. There’s a lot more support now for things like the Black Lives Matter movement than there was in 2014. The growth that I see in people supporting Black lives or minorities, in general, has grown so much from what I’ve seen in my years that I have seen a change in that. And when that changes, laws have to change because when so many people support something has to come of that.
You’ll hear from white people that you’re playing the race card when someone brings up a legitimate issue. What does that do to you?
It degrades everything because I know that I’ve earned stuff in my life and there are people that believe the only reason I got it was because I was Black. I was a mentor … I was a leader in different things in high school and college and people have told me that the only reason why I got is it was because they needed to check off a box. And I just think that’s so degrading because I work two times harder than most people to get what I get in life because there are so many things that go against me … so many things that I went through when I was a kid that I still fight through today. And people like to degrade that fact by saying, “of, it’s because you’re this.” Or when it comes to playing the race card, "you’re just saying that because you’re Black and to get attention."
If you were in charge of framing the conversation that we seem to be having finally on race, is there anything you would do differently or how would you do it?
I would be open to any questions to make sure that people of color and people not of color feel welcome to ask questions that they have. That’s a big thing that I’ve done with people that were too scared to ask questions ... they’re actually wondering about ... and they felt that they would get attacked. And honestly, they would get attacked for some of the questions that I’ve been asked. I just think people of color have to be willing to answer questions that we might deem as “you’re just not smart,” and realize that people actually have those questions because I definitely have been asked stuff that I didn’t think anybody would ask, but in reality, they actually wanted to answer that question.
Can you give me an example?
Some of the things about my hair. Like there was a time in high school when somebody actually touched my hair without even asking me, and then came back at me like I was crazy. A big one was in high school. Somebody asked me why African Americans get an award for being African American and graduating high school. And when you look at that question, you would probably think that’s really not a smart question to ask but if you really think about it, she was actually wondering. Everybody was yelling at her, but she truly didn’t know. After we had our conversation, it was completely different because I told her that Black African Americans depending on where you live didn’t graduate - you didn’t go to college. The statistics are really low on African Americans going to college.
I was trying to explain to her that it’s not necessarily just for them, but you’ve got to think their grandparents might not have graduated high school, and now they get to see their grandchildren graduate. And now they’re getting honored for that because their grandparents didn’t get the opportunity … maybe their parents might not have received the opportunity. And when we go to college, you’d be surprised at how many people you meet that are first-generation college students. So, when they get that little ribbon, maybe just a little ribbon to some people ... or the ropes ... it means a lot to be an African American graduating high school … knowing that some of my family won’t graduate high school …so my family won’t even go to college. Getting that recognition gives me more confidence or inspires me to continue my education and continue to grow knowing that I’ve gotten this far ... to give me an award recognizing me for overcoming the odds for my skin color. And so, after we talked about that she was like “that makes a lot more sense.” But instead of yelling at her and saying that that question was dumb, they deserve to get a ribbon. She now understood the background of it, and that opens her eyes to what she didn’t see before.
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