Black Lives Matter: The cumulative effect of racism
It was Sydni Thomas' freshman year at Marquette Catholic High School.
She was sitting in the front row behind the home end of the court at the Scholl Center, doing what most kids do at a basketball game.
Later that night, Thomas was on Facebook when she saw a post complaining about the disrespectful behavior of the Blazers' student section.
"I was one of the only blacks in the group," Thomas said. "The post said, look at that brown girl in the front row."
While Thomas admits the moment, in and of itself, may not be the biggest deal, there is a cumulative effect of this level of racism that continues to affect her.
"It's three years later and that had enough of an impact on me that I still remember it," she said. "It's a little thing, but if you keep stacking little things on top of other little things, then it can become a big thing. No one's complaining about it except the people who realize it. They're dismissing like it's not a problem. It's still something thousands of kids have to deal with, and no one's taking that into account. When it happens over and over, it becomes a part of them. It takes its toll."
An A student who has ranked at the top of her class all of her academic career, Thomas will attend Purdue University and eventually plans to go into Civil Engineering. She wants to return to her hometown of Michigan City after college and help address the issue of affordable housing. She looks at infrastructure issues like the ongoing lack of clean drinking water in Flint, Michigan.
"I have a passion for community service, social work," Thomas said. "I want to help those in need. I want to make a change in my community. I believe that's what I was put on the Earth to do."
Consider that statement and try to imagine what it would be like to go into a drug store or grab some dinner with a friend and be looked like with suspicion in parts of her own racially-mixed city.
"I can't walk around a store without being followed around and asked, 'Can I help you?' every five seconds," Thomas said. "My sister, who's about 20, is mixed and has lighter complexion. When we walk into a store, I get looks that she may not get. I go into restaurants and I get a different look. I can be anywhere, with a group of people, black and white, with friends, and they'll be looking at me. That's wrong, but that's not the worst thing. It's on the low end. I have to recognize my privilege as well."
Thomas comes from what she considers a lower-middle class family, typical to Michigan City. An only child on one side of her family, she is the youngest of six on the other side; three of the siblings black and three of them mixed. Her parents are black and her step-mother is white. She lives with her biological mom, Stasi Benning, and while they have not been poor, she appreciates the value of a dollar and a dollar earned.
"My mom has always given me the talks about how you have to act around certain people," Thomas said. "She'd say I know it's uncomfortable, but you have to listen, you're probably going to be the only black person in the classroom, so they have to listen to you. I've had to change who I am because of what people think of me."
She attended Saint Paul Lutheran before coming to Marquette, and has always been the minority in largely white student populations. The high school's enrollment of 231 includes 31 blacks, a number that Thomas estimates to have dropped since she was a freshman.
"I have a fair share of public school friends, but I've never had the opportunity to have that experience," said Thomas, who missed her senior tennis season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. "There was a slim amount of black students and we stuck together. I'm friends with everyone in my class, but it's strong with that community because we have that in common."
Having been in the upper percentile of her class, Thomas often found herself as the only black student in a group of whites. It was never overtly prejudiced, but she still felt the pressure of being a teenager sticking out in a crowd.
"I'd not only represent the opinion of an entire race, I'd face the backlash of whatever opinions they've had cast on me because I'm the only one there is to cast them onto," she said. "It doesn't start and end with Marquette, it's been my entire life of education. I didn't even get the same education. I'm in my own safe space there, but I was not given the same voice I should have been given that my peers were given. My mom's always made education a priority. As a result, I've made sure my grades were excellent enough that I could get (scholarship) money."
Having a voice has become especially poignant in the last week to 10 days in the aftermath of George Floyd's murder. A white police officer was charged with third-degree murder, which was raised to second-degree Wednesday in addition to the three other officers on the scene being charged with aiding and abetting. An independent autopsy ruled that Floyd's death was a result of asphyxiation caused by the officer's refusal to remove his knee from Floyd's neck. Protests, both peaceful and violent, have taken place in all 50 states with impassioned cries for justice while the president, in turn, responds without a hint of compassion.
"Black voices need to be heard, now more than ever," Thomas said. "I never took an interest in politics, but soon realized that politics took an interest in me. Everything is political in the fight for civil rights. I want to say that we've made progress, that I've lived through progress, but there have been countless black murders. The people in power see us as less than them in so many ways. It's so unfair. They're murdering us, but they're not just murdering us. We can't get the same health care, the same education, the same civil rights. Murder is the extreme, that's the top end, but there are so many forms of oppression for every black, every person of color, in Michigan City, in Indiana, especially the Region. That's how it's set up with the politics."
Thomas, who works as an attendant at Washington Park, has been unable to attend any of the rallies in Michigan City, though some friends did.
"Obviously, there are always negative results, but I think the response was pretty good," she said. "I'd like to think it was positive."
Floyd's death has brought the Black Lives Matter movement back into the spotlight, though the reality of it is it has never gone away.
"The movement has always been there, it's not just when something goes bad," Thomas said. "It just dies down when it's not being highlighted in the media. I blame the media for being inconsistent. In some circumstances, everyone keeps sharing, posting things, but so little change occurs. It was the exact same situation four years ago (with Eric Garner), but no one's making that comparison. My dad has two black sons. My mother has a black daughter (myself) It's scary having black children in this country, in this city. It's terrifying. Unless you deal with it on a day-to-day basis, most people don't realize it. If you're black, you have to fight for black rights every single day."
Marquette Catholic's Sydni Thomas talked about the ongoing need for societal change and how her experiences with racism have impacted her life. The 2020 graduate will attend Purdue University and plans to go into Civil Engineering. (Photo provided)