Thurston Stevenson is a 28-year-old Bloomington native studying comedy writing and performance at Columbia College in Chicago. The Normal West grad is also in the Army National Guard and a member of the Bloomington-Normal advocacy group The Next Gen Initiative.
He 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: What early memories do you have of experiencing racism?
There was a time where I made a friend that was white and once his dad discovered I was Black and where I lived … the kid came to school the next day and said, “My dad said we can’t be friends anymore.” That was rough.
How old were you at that time?
I was in third grade … so what was I … like eight or nine?
Yeah, that sounds about right.
Yeah, so eight or nine. And so that that was rough.
How did you react to that?
I remember thinking that I wasn’t good enough and things like that. My mom reassured me that it had nothing to do with me because I was still the same loving kid she raised. There were times where we would do group projects. We went to Northpoint Elementary from like 3rd grade until 5th grade. They had us all drawing ourselves on this cardboard together … and I want to color myself brown because I mean, I’m Black but I’m not Black, you know, and the other kids told me that I had to color myself tan like them. And I remember just breaking down and crying and not understanding why they wouldn’t allow me to color myself the way that I looked. This is second grade.
When I was going to Irving (Elementary) I had a Black teacher named Miss Joyce, and I used to think she was really mean. And it got to the point where my mom came to the school and asked her why she was being so hard on me. And finally she said that she’s been hard on me because she knows that Black men in this country have it harder. And right now in second grade we’re kind of all on the same playing field, but the older that I got the harder I would have to work. And so that’s why she always pushed me so hard and grades my stuff so hard even in second grade because she told me that the reason that she pushed me so hard is because she saw greatness in me. And that Black men have to work twice as hard as anyone else in this country. And so, I wish I would have taken that a little bit more seriously … it still stuck with me and I still believe that to be true to this day.
Fast forward in a little bit. I remember being afraid. I was like 10 or 11 and I was in 5th grade and I was afraid to grow up because I knew that at a certain age like around 13 … that you know, I had learned that they treated Black teenagers and Black men differently than their white counterparts and other people in this country.
The police as well as just other white people … obviously not all white people … but I remember being afraid to grow up because I didn’t want to get accused of something or I didn’t want to mess up in some way that would send me the juvenile detention or go to jail. Around junior high I remember a time specifically my cousins came to visit and me. And the other kids in the neighborhood and my siblings … all African American … happened to be playing tag, and we just so happen to be a little rougher than normal. It was boys versus girls tag, as you can imagine middle schoolers doing. At one point when we had finished playing tag, my shirt got ripped because we were rough … and you know … you grab the shirt and I kept running because that’s just how we played. And the cops ended up coming. And this police officer asked a group of us … I was the oldest one out there. I was 14 at the time. He asked us if we were getting initiated into a gang. And I remember thinking how rude that was even at 14 … and I also remember wondering why he didn’t try to get our parents to talk to us. I never really understood why it’s OK for a grown police officer to question kids because a 14-year-old is still a kid at the end of the day.
There were several other occasions where I’ve been just walking home. It’s been a little late at night and I’ll get pulled over while walking and asked where I’ve been and what I’ve been doing. And I’ll tell the police, because I try to be respectful still regardless. They’ll tell me I fit a description that has nothing to do with me. I’m not 6 foot. Never have and never will be. It would be nice, but (laughs) I’m 5’7” and probably will be for the rest of my life. There’s been times where you know, the suspect they’ve been looking for has on a red shirt and I’m clearly wearing an all-white T-shirt. And they’re like, “Well you still have on jeans” and it’s like well that’s not really a fair enough reason to pull me over just because I have on jeans.
I always remember my mom and dad encouraging us to be respectful to the police no matter what. You know, not making any sudden movements … listening to everything they tell us to do … doing everything they tell us to do. “Yes, ma’am. Yes, sir,” things like that because things could go bad quickly. I consider myself a respectful person to begin with, but when it comes to police I always make sure that I’m extremely respectful.
I remember the first time I got pulled over the cop was more nervous than me, which made me nervous because, why are you nervous about pulling me over? Like I haven’t done anything. You said that the sticker on my plate expired, that’s fine. I have a month to get that change. But like I’m being respectful, got my hands on the steering wheel so I don’t really get what you’re so nervous about. Maybe it’s his first day, I don’t know (laughs). But in my life, I’ve been made to feel like some of the stuff that happens is just in my head … I’m exaggerating and so sometimes it’s kind of hard to tell.
Not too long ago … I won’t say the name of the store because I still like to go to it, and I don’t want any bad publicity for it. But I was in the store and I was walking around just waiting, you know, enjoy my last days. I’m in the National Guard … we went to South Korea … and so before I left, I just wanted to go to the store and kind of browse around and hang out with my brother. And it seemed like somebody was following me, but I didn’t want to assume that because I don’t want to be the guy that’s like, “Oh you’re just doing that because I’m Black.” I always try to give the benefit of the doubt to the best of my ability because I never want to be “that guy.” So, I walk away, and the guy is there and I’m like, “OK he could just be … you know. So, I do it a couple more times. I’m like, all right, I’m pretty sure he’s following me. But I still want to give him the benefit of the doubt. I sprint to the other side of the store to make sure he doesn’t see me … and I turn around and lo and behold there he is … but faking like he’s talking on his radio in his ear. And I say, “Are you following me?” And he stops and he puts his head down and said, “Yeah. I am following you. I thought you were another guy that came in here and was disturbing the customers. But as soon as I heard your voice, I realized it wasn’t you, or wasn’t him.” And I was like, “That doesn’t make any sense. I’m really offended. I’ve been coming to the store since I was 6. As long as I can remember my dad has been bringing me here.” And I went and got my brother and he followed me over there, and he was apologizing profusely.
It’s not a big deal. I don’t hold grudges, but I was just shaken up to my core because … what did I do to deserve to be followed around the store since the moment I got here? You know now I remember. It started with him asking if he could help me and I said “no,” which at that point he already heard my voice because I said, “no I’m good.” After that I realized he was following me through the rest of the store. I was there for about an hour or so and it … it just really made me uncomfortable and sad. I went and got my brother and you know, he (the store worker) offered to get me something for free. And I was just, "Nah, it’s OK, I’m just going to go.” That was just last year … that was 2019 and that really sucked.
Part of the problem today is that little micro things like that happen that people can say “that could have happened to anybody.” But it’s not about it happening to anybody because it didn’t happen to anybody. It happened to me and we all know the reason it happened to me. Because I fit the description. And the description … sadly … is just that I’m Black.
I’ve had a similar type of conversation with a few people.
And it just strikes me … they have told me that you just learn you have to stomach it.
And basically, just keep this inside.
That’s got to tear you up after a while. Doesn’t it?
Honestly, yes, it's honestly getting to the point in my life where I can’t stomach it much longer. And that’s not to say that I’m going to do anything crazy or violent, but definitely speaking up and not letting it slide, um …
I ahhh …
I guess I just …
I want to be the peacekeeper at all times. I want to be a good example. I want to let stuff go. But it’s kind of getting to a point where I’m over letting it go. You know, it’s wrong. It needs to be seen as wrong by everybody. You have to pick your battles, but at this point it’s kind of getting to the place where every time I face this battle I want to fight it because it has to change. Even little stuff like a lot of white people that I have never met before … joke with me like we’re friends and they tell all these Black jokes and things like that and it’s like, “Yeah, I have never met you. You’re not my friend and I don’t want to be your friend because you’re being ignorant in making these Black jokes.” Normally I don’t say anything. I just ignore it but it’s getting to the place where like, “Why do you think that’s OK?”
I hate to almost say this, but I feel like there’s almost nothing that upsets white people enough except to call them racist as far as jokes go. And so that’s kind of why certain white people don’t understand how inappropriate it is to tell those jokes, especially to somebody that you don’t know. Because somehow in a lot of their minds it seems that racism is so far removed, you can joke about and say whatever you want.
I feel like that’s part of the problem now. Because people think that is so far gone and people think that it was so long ago that they don’t realize that the way that they see African Americans portrayed on TV … the way their grandparents talk about African Americans … the way that their friends talk about African Americans … the way that their parents may even talk about African Americans is still subconsciously affecting them in some way.
You’re a relatively young guy. How did your parents or even your grandparents talk to you about how to deal with things … or maybe even how they dealt with things?
My grandmother honestly grew up in the South. She was born in 1945. And so, she grew up in the South during some of the worst times to grow up in the south. In a way, it is not OK, but she has a reason to feel the way that she feels towards white people. I’m not saying that that’s OK because I believe that you should forgive and move on. But some of the stuff that she said throughout my life has subconsciously gone into my head. So, to try and pretend that some of the stuff that she said hasn’t affected me in the way that I view white people at certain times of my life would be asinine for me to try to pretend that that’s not the case. Because she’s my grandmother, I respect her, and I listen to what she has to say. And so, I still subconsciously … in my mind … and sometimes not so consciously … view white people in a certain way. So, it would be ridiculous to say that white people, regardless of how they feel about Black people, or say they feel about Black people, to not experience the same thing.
I think that we really need to acknowledge this issue and that it’s not so far gone that people try to make it seem. And that it’s not OK to keep doing these microaggressions because I honestly … as you can see all over the country … people are fed up and people aren’t going to keep accepting it much longer. It’s frustrating and it’s really hard to keep having to stomach this … and keep having to be the bigger man.
You’re part of the Next Gen Initiative, which is a young adult-led advocacy group for the Black community … to strengthen the Black community through political change. And I noticed one of the next things you want to accomplish is to educate people on how the different levels of government work so you can affect change that way. Let me ask you about the education angle. What are your thoughts on maybe what can change there?
We had a question at the panel. They said, “Do you think that African American history should just be taught in American history?” And I said, “Yes, but I also think that it’s important that in our school districts we teach African American history within American history." But I also think there should be a separate class because it’s been neglected for so long. The true heritage and the true history of the African American people. And so one of the things that we want to do is get African American history as a requirement in each and every school. Maybe not each year. But each like grade level like elementary, middle school, and high school should get more in-depth with what they can’t handle. Because obviously elementary kids can’t handle as much knowledge as middle schoolers and so on.
That’s a really interesting idea and it’s not instant. That would take decades to really come to fruition.
But at the same time, isn’t this part of our problem that we don’t understand our history? How can we move forward until we do understand our history?
Yeah, absolutely. So, I think part of that is like you said, it’s going to take decades. I think part of that is being willing to listen to each other. And I feel a big problem right now is that a lot of Americans aren’t willing to listen to Black America right now. They see the looting, they see the rioting, and that’s what they’re focusing on. And they’re not understanding why we can’t do things peacefully. But if you look at three or four years ago when Colin Kaepernick knelt during the national anthem, they were complaining about his peaceful protest as well. So, no matter how we seem to do things, it’s never good enough.
I think the biggest issue right now is that Americans need to listen to Black America. I look back over my life and all the people that I’ve met and honestly most of the people that I’ve met in my life are Caucasian, which is fine, but they all tell me how much they love me and how much they care about me and how much they appreciate me. And I see some of their posts on Facebook and I hear some of their conversations in real life. And I know that they see what I’m going through right now and they see how I feel about the issues and they say how much they love me and they say how much they care about me, but they’re not even asking how they can better understand what I’m going through … one of the only African Americans that a lot of them know or have a personal relationship with. And they’re not even checking to see if hey … Thurston is actually passionate about this, so how can I better understand? A lot of a lot of them are just going off of their beliefs or what they’re hearing on the news or whatever, and so it’s just frustrating that a lot of Americans right now are not trying to understand the issue.
Let me see if I am understanding what you’re saying. People you do consider your friends may have views different than you on how to move forward with race?
Absolutely. A lot of them I feel don’t think there’s an issue. A lot of them say things like, “Oh well, we go through that too.” Or “I’ve never experienced white privilege.” Which I’m not even to talk about because I don’t know enough about it to talk about it. But it’s just frustrating because it almost makes me feel as if they’re calling me crazy … I’m making it all up, you know, and I think the answer to that is looking it up yourself while we wait for these opportunities for these classes to start and these classes to be formed. Because all of this is happening so fast and people expect us to just … and I’m not talking about just Next Gen, but the African American community as a whole has been ripped down for so long. You know … any time we’ve had a prominent leader, they’ve been murdered. They try to separate families even now. With the welfare … if a woman goes in with a man, they say, “If you leave him behind, you’ll get more money.” And so, they’re still trying to separate families. They’ve been doing it for years and it’s just … they need to give us a chance to regroup. Because we’ve never had a chance to regroup.
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