The human right to be seen, the responsibility to see

Facing Racism in Muncie, Indiana

Yvonne Thompson’s story written by Kelsey Timmerman

Yvonne is 58 years old

I had a two-parent home. I got to be a cheerleader. I got to be in the band. I got to do all those unusual things.

A lot of times I was the only black person in the organizations in school.  I thought they treated me the same, but when I look back, they didn’t. There are things I can see now that I see as racist. I remember being called mammy.

If I knew what I know now as the Executive Director of the Muncie Human Rights Commission, I would have been scared. I never thought racism was in everything. Now I see it. I see racism in particular police behavior. I see it in the school system. I see it in housing. Oh God, housing is bad. It’s just horrible.

I was shielded by my family and church.

When I wasn’t at home or at school, I was at church. Church influenced my belief in God, but also, too, my belief in people.  I think for a time I thought everybody was good. I was naïve. This job has been a rude awakening for me.

The things I have seen people say and do . . . Why in the world would you say or do that to another human being?

When kids are young they don’t really understand what racism is.

I had a friend who was my best friend in the world. She’s white. She showed me a lot about not being racist.  I could go and stay overnight with her and her family. I would go to her church; she would go to mine.  She showed me that things can be different.  Not, “You can only play with your black friends or white friends.” She has had a big influence on my life.

Both my parents were very hard working people. My mom worked outside of the home. My dad owned a filling station here in Muncie. He was an African-American business owner.  I had a good upbringing. I look back at it now, grateful and thankful.

Two of my uncles owned businesses. One uncle on my mom’s side owned a filling station.  All the businesses were on Broadway. I look at them today and see my family in those places.

They each had the chance to be people of substance.

Mom wanted me to learn how to arrange flowers. Honestly, I thought my goal in life was to work at the Muncie Mall. That was it for me.  I was like, “Yeah, that’s big time!”

My family thought I would stay in Muncie, thought I’d work at GM. My brother and sister tried their darndest to get me to work there. I applied and didn’t get the job. My mind was never towards working in a factory.

My parents were very upset with me in wanting to leave. They came up here to Muncie to find work from the South. They knew racism. They left their parents to come up here, but they couldn’t imagine me leaving them.

I wanted to see something different. I always thought my calling was to go to Oral Roberts University.  I went out to Oklahoma on a campus visit by myself. I was dating the man who would become my husband, and when I got back I prayed, “Lord, if you want me to go to ORU, you’re gonna have to work on Aaron’s heart.”

When I think about my marriage to Aaron, I think that is what I was really looking for–someone to get me out of Muncie. We had a daughter in Muncie, two sons born in Michigan City, we lived in Paducah, Kentucky, and eventually we moved out to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to Oral Roberts University.

God must have misheard me because at first it wasn’t me who attended class at Oral Roberts, it was Aaron. I held down jobs, took care of the kids. But fifteen years later, I did graduate from Oral Roberts.

My education in social work opened my eyes to the pain of people, what people go through, the expectations people have for their lives. The desire to always want to be something.

Everything was more appealing than Muncie. I think it was just nice to be somewhere different.  To learn different things, to see different people.

So it might surprise you that where I live right now is the house I grew up in.

When I came back to Muncie after getting my degree and a divorce, I was here to take care of my mom. When my mom passed, I knew I needed to make the decision about Muncie. My kids were grown; I didn’t have any reason to stay in Oklahoma.

It’s crazy. I came back to Muncie and was like, “This really is a nice place.” I started to go into parts of Muncie I had never been–parts of Ball State, Minnetrista.

As an adult, I had never been part of a community other than a church community, until moving back to Muncie. Muncie Black Expo was my first experience volunteering. I also got involved in Whitely Community Council, Motivate Our Minds, Habitat for Humanity. Dr. Maria Hawkins, Mary Dollison, Miss Foster, those women taught me to give back, to invest in this place.

I grew up in Whitely, Muncie Central, and the church. That was my sphere of living; that was it.

Everyone in Muncie has an opinion about Whitely even if they’ve never been there. That’s shocking to me. I don’t want to live anywhere else, and I could. I love Whitely. Everybody waves to each other. If you want a tour, I’ll give you a tour.

I used to wonder when I was growing up why people would stop me and tell me their stories.  And I would think, “Why in the world would they tell me everything. I don’t know them, never met them.”

I feel what people are going through. Now, that’s my job.

At the Human Rights Commission, we protect people. Protect their emotions, jobs, livelihoods, and their being. When a person feels discriminated against, it hits them hard. “They just said I’m not worthy; I’m not a person.”  It’s something to see a person shaken to the core.  We’ve seen it numerous times. We help that person gain worth and value again.  It means a lot to see that.

Usually someone comes in and explains how they have been treated differently. We then determine if it against the law and if it is a civil rights violation.

I’ve wept and cried about the injustices I’ve seen. It’s hard to believe that there are systems in place that hold people back.  People that gave their all, tried their best, people who wanted to pull up their boot straps, but something pushed them back.

I think I’ve grown up in that respect. Growing up isn’t easy, but I had to. We all have to. Kids don’t even know what racism is. You know something is pure and beautiful when there are no labels for it.  I’ve told students that if I could shield them from racism I would. But you gotta deal with it.

Right before I took this job, I read about hate crimes and thought, “Why would people do that to other people?”  I just never grasped that magnitude of hate and inequality. I wish I could work myself out of this, but it ain’t gonna happen.

As a naïve little girl growing up in Muncie, I thought everybody was good. As a woman, I don’t see it like that. Everyone isn’t good, but I believe that there is good in everyone.

People just want someone to notice them, to see them. I try to be that person.

Lord let me see people. See them in their pain and joy, in their hurt and in their shine.

This story originally appeared in Facing Racism in Muncie, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by R.A.C.E. Muncie in Muncie, Indiana.

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