Living Black In Bloomington-Normal: Lissette Hall | WGLT

Living Black In Bloomington-Normal: Lissette Hall

Jul 24, 2020

Lissette Hall grew up in both Chicago and Bloomington-Normal and is a graduate of Parkside Junior High, Normal West high school, and Heartland Community College. She studied at Columbia University, UIC, and ISU before becoming the first person to earn a bachelor's in comedy writing and performance with a minor in arts in healthcare at Columbia College Chicago.

She spoke with Darnysha Mitchell for the WGLT series Living Black in Bloomington-NormalContact us if you'd like to be featured in the series.

When and how did you first become aware that racism, the color of your skin, was a problem for some people?

OK, so let's talk about this question. This question is racist. Does anybody think that, the people who wrote this question?

No.

OK, so your series is called “Living Black in Bloomington Normal." And then you're opening these interviews with that question. The entire series is through a white-centered lens. And it's othering Blackness. And you're associating the concept of Blackness in Bloomington-Normal with racism. Like immediately. Does that make sense?

Yes. 

So my first suggestion for this project is that the title of it needs to be changed to “Racism in Bloomington-Normal” and that you're talking to Black community members about racism in Bloomington-Normal. My life in Bloomington-Normal is not all racism. You know what I mean? Like I have a joyful, wonderful Black life. And it's really unfortunate that white supremacy is so internalized in this area, that everyone agreed that all of that is OK.

This story was published as part of WGLT's limited series Living Black In Bloomington-Normal. Find more at WGLT.org/LivingBlack.

I definitely apologize for that.

Thank you.

So you grew up in Chicago and here in Bloomington-Normal. What was that like for you?

So I like to say I’m an Illinois baby. I was born downstate and then moved to Chicago when I was like one and was there until I was 11 or 12, which is when I moved to Bloomington-Normal. So the experience of 1 to 8 in Chicago was that of a modest family experience. And I'm excited that I get to say that I grew up like Michelle Obama, because my grandmother lived downstairs and my family lived upstairs. And we were homeschooled for the first eight years of my life. My mom was a teacher and living on the west side in the city. My mom thought it best to homeschool us until we were then sent to predominantly white institutions in the affluent suburbs of Oak Park and River Forest. We attended St. Luke's school, the Blue Ribbon School is my understanding. And you know, that was my first structured educational environment. And we definitely were one of two I think Black families at the time when we got there. The experience was fine and pleasant. I definitely didn't know as much about structural, covert or overt racism then I know now. So yeah, growing up, it was fine.

And so then in moving to Bloomington-Normal in junior high and becoming a Python at a public school. Personally, that was an adjustment because the education was not as rigorous. So it was fine. And socially I feel like I developed fine. I had friends. I don't feel like my race impacted my ability to have friends here much. I don't know. I mean, I guess there was some experience. Once I had a boyfriend and his mom picked him up from our house. And then she didn't shake my mom's hand or didn't like say hi to my mom. And after, the conversation it was like, “You realize that it was a race thing, right?” And I was like, Oh, no, I didn't understand what was happening at all.

So yeah, any real race matters or memories growing up here were mild. 

How did you get into comedy?

So I got involved in comedy in Bloomington in 2011. TheatersCool was a nonprofit theater, where I'd taken an acting class before. But in October 2011, I took an improv class. And it really helped my mood and functioning at the time and just really opened up life for me. And that's why I ended up getting my bachelor's in comedy writing and performance with a minor in arts and health care, because I'm really passionate about what the arts ... specifically comedy ... can do for the body, brain, spirit, if you will, you know, like human experience.

So it was an accident; all the acting classes were full. And the only option to do any kind of performance in town was just to take this improv class and I did. And I think the concept of depression is a lot more palatable, and destigmatized these days. So I don't mind sharing that I had been in a depression at that time of about, like eight or nine months, and a pretty deep one. But once I started doing improv, my mood elevated, and I was finally able to break out of that depression.

So that was a pretty significant event for me and why I am so passionate about improv as an art form.

Do you have anyone in comedy that you look up to?

I absolutely look up to John Hildreth. He's the most amazing teacher, mentor, friend that I've found in the Second City community. In terms of performers, I learned about and was lucky enough to have coffee with Tawny Newsome once. She's amazing. She's currently on “Space Force” and has a podcast called “Yo, Is That Racist?” (and) is doing all this cool stuff. She's in a cartoon right now like she's doing all the things that I think are super awesome. I think it's hard. It would be hard to be Black and Jewish and not look up to Maya Rudolph and she's amazing.

Other people I look up to, I guess, in terms of someone people would recognize, like Chris Redd, is one of the newer SNL people. He was at Second City when I was there, and he was a very inspiring person to me. And I feel really lucky and honored to have known him and to have been motivated by him in support of my talent. That's definitely an interaction that I go back to in my brain when I think about whether I should or shouldn't perform or what it means to me. 

When talking about accurate representation of the Black community in the media, why does that matter for the Black community, especially Black youth? 

Because we have to see ourselves. Everyone has the capacity to be a visionary in some way. Some people literally can't see beyond what they see with their two eyes in their head. And regardless of how you see, it's important to see yourself in different roles, different environments, with different status. And it speaks to the structural, white supremacy and structural disadvantages that are created for Black people and the BIPOC communities.

The systems themselves are white supremacists in an effort to create disadvantages for Black people and BIPOC communities, the representation of the BIPOC communities needs to be there so that BIPOC youth can see that they can take up those spaces. So for example, it just came out this week that somebody thought it was a good idea to make a "Black Wonder Years" ... relaunched "The Wonder Years" with a Black family. And like, “Everybody Hates Chris” happened you know. And so that is a structural issue that isn't even acknowledging that Black art is comparable, that that already served the purpose of this new art that this person has decided they want to make. You know, so representation matters, because we had “Everybody Hates Chris.” Like, where were your audience members to step forward and be like, “Dude, we had this already. Please don't do that. We don't want a Black Wonder Years”? We'll take a new show.

I think it was really important for a lot of people, including myself, seeing Kamala Harris run for president and to possibly see her in a VP position would be a really amazing thing to see in my life. Black women are not often in positions of power like that. And we're not seeing our stories being told in a positive light. We're not allowed to have individuality in our stories. In an effort to combat the stereotypes of the “angry black women” you know, “welfare queens” and all the other “strong Black woman stereotypes” there are of us, now it's turned into all hashtag #BlackGirlMagic. And like, that's cute and all and I absolutely respect the lady who actually came up with that phrase. But now we've moved in the opposite direction to where now we're like we're creating a diminutive by calling ourselves girls. And then we're putting ourselves in that magical Negro category that we've seen so many times in movies.

And so, representation for me is someone like Bozoma Saint John, who just became the CMO of Netflix. Or Franchesca Ramsey, who is a content creator who's really amazing and also an activist. That's the type of representation that I've found for what I need, but without those people, I wouldn't be, maybe as outspoken as I am or interested in engaging in social justice and anti-racism, and the acceptance of pro-blackness like that I think we need.

Alluding back to Black girl magic, the strong Black woman narrative, and the “angry Black woman” stereotype, how do you feel when you see that portrayed in the media?

It's really harmful, actually. And if you want to Google it, Taraji P. Henson, she just made a really great statement about this very topic. So I'm sure whatever she said is better than the small thing I'll say here. Setting up the strong Black woman narrative puts us in a position where everyone just assumes that we can do anything. I mean, which is true. But that ... takes away our ability to create boundaries. And that's why radical self-care especially for Black women is so important. Because if we're not making sure that we're taking care of ourselves 100%, absolutely no one else is doing that for us. So that is what that makes me think of. So the strong Black woman narrative I feel like it is in opposition of self care for Black women. It tells people that we don't need it, we're so strong. But again, refer to what Taraji P. Henson said. She's way, way better at this than I am. 

You've studied media, entertainment, film in your education. Expand a little more on why the portrayal of the Black identity or the concept of Blackness through white-centered views in TV, news, and more is detrimental.

So that's the point. We are whole human beings who have whole stories and we are fully capable of telling them ourselves. Yet the powers and the systems in charge of telling anyone's story, Hollywood, all that is controlled by old white dudes. And ultimately it's had to have been said that “Look, as content creators we can't care about the old white man audience anymore and whether he'll get it. So that means we're not going to win Oscars” you know. But the work still needs to be done in authenticity because of the other makers that need to see it because it's the audience and the young people that need to be inspired by that work so that they can create work. We all have work to do regarding dismantling our own internalized white supremacy and so Black stories and BIPOC stories need to be able to have that freedom to just be what they are and not have to adapt to what has generally, and still is because it hasn't changed yet, [criteria] to be marketable you know, or acceptable for all audiences.

The individuals in charge of coming up with concepts, writing stories, directing, rating content, selecting Oscar nominations, and determining who wins Oscars, are predominately white. What needs to be changed?

That's a great question. And I think it starts with values. The definition of values needs to be expanded, because who has value, what is valuable? The lens through which those definitions have been informed have all been basically, hetero cisgender, white male, old. So, the concept of value needs a humanizing lens to truly be more inclusive of what an American audience looks like or, you know, different global audiences. A value assessment and willingness to update the value codes and mission statements and teams, like people have to step down from their job to literally put Black people and women and BIPOC individuals into the actual seats of power that makes these decisions. And so we're seeing that a little bit. But I think I think that's what needs to change.

What can be done in the Bloomington-Normal community in terms of promoting anti-racism?

I can share places that I'm familiar with and people that I'm familiar with, for example locally. You know, kudos to everyone that was involved with the NCWHS rally in March. I feel glad that that was well received. So I think it's important that we continue to listen to the president of that Black Student Union, Jasmyn Jordan and Justin Turner, the vice president. As far as the town goes, it's important to listen to Linda Foster of the NAACP as well as the leaders of the local Black Lives Matter chapter. At a very individual level, when we hear people talk about Black Lives Matter in a negative way, or saying that it's too political or that it's problematic, we each have to be willing to say something. You know, like that is a simple anti-racist action. That, you know, isn't as simple as it sounds, but or it's simple and heavy, I guess.

As a Black woman, do you feel burdened to educate people on things like covert versus overt racism, white privilege, or white supremacy? Do you feel like it’s Black people's job to do the educating?

I do not. We're at a point like, we're in the 21st century. You know, technology is ubiquitous for people with a certain amount of privilege that I imagine anyone who's going to hear this has that amount of privilege. And so there's no excuse for not choosing to educate yourself on your own, completely independent of the Black people that you would put this towards because it's not like they're your friends. If you don't know the things yet, I'm not sure that you've made the step to where you're making sure that you have Black friends, or BIPOC friends or LGBTQ friends. 

So do you think more exposure to people of color would help?

Absolutely. Absolutely. Exposure is another form of agency. People have to make sure they involve themselves in actually culturally diverse environments. And I realized that Bloomington-Normal doesn't necessarily make that easy. But it can totally be done, especially with the right intentions.

You mentioned you experienced being muted as a Black woman. What was that experience like?

This started because a friend of mine reached out and said, “Hey, you know, I know you, you do social media and I am thinking about helping and becoming a moderator for this Facebook group. Would you mind taking a look?” I didn’t mind. So I went to the “Making A Difference In McLean County Area And All Over” group. And this was the week of the rally at Normal West. So there was a post about the rally at Normal West. And on that thread, there was overt racism. To the point where a number of people were responding on this thread and informing a woman that she was being racist. She was defending herself. We have learned throughout this conversation her defending herself is continuing to be racist. And there was no admin activity on this thread at all. So I just popped in and being who I am ... and it kind of speaks to your question about whether I feel burden to educate ... like, I don't feel burdened, I have boundaries, but I choose to educate when I want to. And so in this case, I chose to say, “Hey everyone. She is being racist. Here are some resources about what it really looks like to be a white supremacist and what racism is, and what anti-racism is.” And those seem to be well received by the members of the group. 

At some point, the group admin (the administrator), privately reached out to me with a message about how if I had a problem with a group, you know that he offered people to be moderators. And why didn't I reach out about that? And so the problem that he was talking about was after I posted those resources, I submitted a message to be shared to the group to just let everyone know that this group is called “Making A Difference In McLean County Area And All Over.” There are no admins of color in the past three years. There's overt racism being allowed on the page. I don't really think this page is doing what it thinks it's doing.

And so first, he denied that comment to be posted, sent me these private messages. And I shared them with my friends who I was under the impression was having a conversation with him later to potentially discuss her working with him, you know, to help clean up this Facebook group and you know, make it what it can be, since we all want to make a difference in this county. So later in the thread, he tagged me in some posts publicly in the group and was then referencing private messages that he sent me which included some kind of invitation to speak with him or meet with him and hear him out. And I don't know this person. So it's very uncomfortable to receive private messages like that. And I was happy to address what we needed to address in the public sphere. So I posted that I felt it was super awkward and felt very performative for him to reach out to me in this way. And I noticed that he didn't approve my concerns as an actual post in the group. 

And so since he did refer to them now, I shared with the group that I said this group is garbage because there have been no POC as an admin in the three years the group has been active, you're allowing overt racism in this group and not monitoring it at all. I went on to say that it's clear that you're making an effort to improve the environment here as of the past few days. But it's an uphill battle with a group of 4,000 people in this area, and from what little I've seen you do here, it's clear you lack the leadership skills to accomplish that task. Per your message, no, that is not a task I'm interested in. If folks in this group are anti-racist, and pro-Black and really want to make a difference, let's drop a petition for activities that need to be addressed in town, perhaps.

So I posted this comment that outlined what I just said. And he blocked the comments due to lack of kindness. And when my friend and another woman who was recently made a moderator in the group came to support my voice and tell this person that he really was mishandling the situation, that his white fragility was showing, and that he was weaponizing his whiteness against a Black woman, all three of us were blocked from the Facebook group. So that's probably the most racist thing that's ever happened to me in my life.

What were your thoughts at that moment?

I mean, not much to be honest, because it was very clear that this person was trying to matter in a way that he doesn't. And so it didn't really get under my skin. It just took up some of my time. And so I obviously in the end was advising my friend not to be involved with this person in any way.

... I don't think a person like that should have positions of power and asking those questions in our communities are the hard questions that we all have to address right now. Because these are people we know. I am talking to a radio station that knows the person that I'm talking about. And people that know him are going to hear this and he's going to hear this. And what is this community going to do?

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