MAKING BLACK LIVES MATTER: A Conversation with High School Senior Babette Thomas

Name: Babette Thomas
Age: 17
What I Do: Student

What does being Black mean to you? What does being a person of color mean to you?

For me, being Black and a person of color means being connected to a culture and history of a people who have continued to survive and flourish, despite being both abused and neglected. There’s something extremely powerful about that. It means that my aunt became a Black Panther in the 1960s to protest some of the issues that unfortunately continue to affect the black community today. For me, being black also means eating black-eyed peas to bring in the new year, as well as other traditions passed down through my family that continue to tie me to my culture.

Being black also means not necessarily having to fit in the mold that others have created for me. I love surprising people and just watching their pre-conceived notions about me crumble, whether it’s through the way that I dress or the music that I listen to. It’s really awesome to have role models like Solange, Erykah Badu and Amanda Stenberg who are masters of this “care-free black girl” attitude.

Do you like being a person of color?

Yes I love it!

What’s the worst thing you experienced simply for being Black/a person of color?

Because I’ve been so fortunate to grow up in the Bay Area (which is essentially a liberal bubble), I’ve never experienced any blatant acts of racism. For example, I’ve never been told that “I don’t like you because you’re black,” and I’ve never really been denied of any opportunities simply because of the color of my skin (at least as far as I know). However, I think racism is often a lot more subtle and insidious than that. I don’t have a #1 worst moment, but some of the most awful things that have been said to me were when I was super young. In kindergarten, a girl in my class started rubbing an eraser on my hand and told me, “I want you to be white and normal like me.” That’s bad, I know, but it actually gets worse. Once again, in kindergarten, a girl told me, “My mommy told me that black people are dirty so you must be dirty!”

One might say that these words don’t mean much considering that they came from the mouths of five year olds. However, that actually makes it so much worse because this shows that racist notions and behaviours are ingrained and passed down through families.

What does black history month mean to you?

In terms of what I do at school, Black History Month usually means a small, pitiful lecture on the importance of black history, usually done by a white teacher, as well as a 45-minute assembly put on by the Black Student Union. In terms of what I do at home, Black History Month usually listening to some of Dr. King’s speeches throughout the month. I’m not exactly sure what Black History month means to me personally. There are issues that i think about on a regular basis no matter what the month is. I know it’s really important to have a month to recognize to Black people in the United States because I think that visibility is really important, but I think I’m still in the process of defining what the month means to me.

It’s a time for me to reflect on strides the Black community has made, and what we as a community can do to continue evolving.

Do white people care about black history month?

No, I don’t really think so, but I’m sure it depends on the white person that you ask.

You are 1 of 5 black girls in your high school senior class of 91 students. Is it possible for white people to understand what it means to be in the minority in a school setting? If not, how can you make them understand?

I don’t think white people can really ever fully understand what it means to be a minority in a school setting, because they haven’t gone through the experience for themselves. However, I think white people can build empathy and at least try to understand what their minority peers might be going through. I think an effective way of building empathy is through storytelling. Not only can personal narratives inspire others to talk about what may be uncomfortable, but storytelling can also be therapeutic for the storyteller.

I believe it’s important for individuals in independent schools to form connections that are built off understanding. This past semester I took a Global Issues course in which I explored the self-esteem of individuals in minority groups at my school by recording their stories and experiences. My goal is to use the power of discussion to create an open and ongoing conversation about student’s experiences.

Have you ever been told “you aren’t really black”? What made people say that? What does a ‘real black person’ act and look like?

Yes, I have been told many times that I’m not really black. “You don’t really act black, you know?” “You’re basically an oreo!” I think the primary reason people think I’m not “really black” is because of the way I speak. My own father has even told me that sometimes my voice sounds like a mix of a valley girl and someone from Wisconsin. This is the way I’ve spoken my whole life (even after years of speech therapy), but for some reason it continues to bring my blackness into question. Another reason people might think I’m not really black is because of my preferences in terms of the clothes I wear and the music I listen to. My style is similar to one of a hip suburban mom, and although my iTunes consists mostly of music made by black artists, I do enjoy Fleetwood Mac and Led Zeppelin.

I think when people think of what a black person acts and looks like, they usually fall back on stereotypes, forgetting the fact that blackness, like any race, comes in many different varieties.

How do black kids stop getting killed? How do you walk the streets and not to get killed?

Unfortunately, I don’t know. I think people’s immediate response is to tell black kids to “pull their pants up” or “speak more eloquently” and other messages charged with respectability politics. Even one of my favorite songs by Lauryn Hill, Doo Wop (That Thing), is filled with these kind of messages when you listen to the lyrics closely. However, we’ve seen plenty of examples of “respectable” black kids being killed and examples of ways mainstream media can twist the stories of innocent black children to make them look like criminals.

I think the only way black kids can walk the streets without being killed is if people stop killing black kids.

How do blacks become empowered so future generations have a better way of life?

Because many of the issues that affect the black community are institutional, and therefor mostly out of our control, I think the best way for blacks to become empowered is to practice and teach self-love. For example, I believe that it’s essential for black parents to constantly remind their children about their worth and importance.

If we are reminded of our value, we can become more aware of the various injustices that we face and we can then learn how to combat them.

How is self-esteem tied in with being a person of color and the feeling of being different than those around you?

When you’re a person of color in a situation in which you are constantly the minority, you can sometimes feel as if you’re going crazy. This is because there’s nobody around who can directly relate to what you are experiencing. Thus, you might feel as though you are alone in these experiences and that you are the only person thinking in the way that you do. This can ultimately lead to lower self-esteem.

It’s crucial for minorities to be able to voice what they are feeling and have people listen to what they have to say.

As a young black woman, what are you worried about going into your freshman year ofcollege?

Although I have experienced some micro-aggressions at the schools I’ve attended, I’ve never felt as though my safety has been legitimately threatened. This has made the process somewhat nerve-racking for me. However, I’ve learned to shift the lens through which I view this issue. I now look at my college experience as an opportunity to be part of all the conversations of race that are happening at college campuses right now.

However, in light of the instances of racism that occurred at the University of Missouri this year and the protests on college campuses that followed, I did become somewhat afraid of the possibility of feeling unsafe in my future college community.

In what ways has Black Lives Matter been successful? In what ways can they improve?

The Black Lives Matter Movement has inspired me by bringing to light the trend of racially based police violence in this country. However, I believe that this movement has ultimately failed black women. While I have heard and remember the names of countless African American men who have been killed by police brutality, neither the media nor the Black Lives Matter movement have focused on the names and stories of African American women killed through police violence. This is pretty outrageous considering the founders of Black Lives Matter were actually 3 women.

Black women shouldn’t have to constantly advocate for ourselves in a space that is supposedly designated for us. I often feel that African American women do not have a space for their voices to be heard and have been the ones consistently forgotten throughout history.

Does racism exist at the high school level? If so, what is an example?

Yes, I believe that racism does in fact exist at a high school level. Racism isn’t always such a blatant act, but can be small and discrete actions or instances. My school is pretty progressive and liberal; however, there’s always this discomfort amongst minority students at school dances. I have never felt more uncomfortable at a school dance than I did at my school’s Winter Ball this past January. All the black girls in my grade, including myself, glanced at each other throughout the night, as we heard way too many white people saying the n-word while singing along to Kanye. Meanwhile, one of the girls in my grade looked at me and said, “Please teach me how to whip!” assuming that I would know how to do this dance. I know these types of incidences are miniscule in comparison to what some minority students at less progressive schools have to endure. I know people who attend schools where they actively go out of their way to make fun of students of color.

Racism doesn’t just spontaneously come into the world as people graduate from college. Perpetuating racism is a learned behavior that starts even before high school.