Tonikia Steans’s story written by Anna Groover
Tonikia is 41 years old
I was born and raised here in Muncie, Indiana, and it has been my foundation for most of my life.
I’m a licensed insurance agent and a certified life coach.
The way I was raised wasn’t black or white, it was individuality. Racism was never really a topic of discussion growing up because we have all nationalities in our family. I’m a black American.
My grandparents felt that white people were superior to black people. My grandfather would always tell me, “You always are going to have to work for the white man. You always have to work for someone white.” I was just like, why do you always say that? Because I always wanted to run my own business. And he always said, “You will never run your own business. You will always work for somebody white.” That always rubbed me the wrong way, because it’s just not true.
I had a job when I got out of high school at a chair factory. There were people there who didn’t take too kindly to black people, I remember. I can walk into a room and get along with anybody, but that was the first time I was faced with someone who didn’t like me because of my skin color. I moved up to supervisor, and some of the girls didn’t like that too well because they didn’t move up. I never thought it was because of anything other than my work ethic that got me moved up. I don’t remember any words, it was so long ago, but I just know the treatment and the shortness and how they acted toward me.
For me, racism is subtle things that you realize but can overlook, like being passed up for certain positions or told that you’re not ready for a position when you have way more qualifications than someone else who gets the job. Or being told amongst white counterparts that I’m the whitest black person they know because of the way I talk and act–as if being intelligent is only a white thing. Truthfully, I’ve never used race as a reason to say that I’ve been hurt or shunned. I’ve never looked at it like that, because I’ve always tried to see the bigger picture. If there’s something I want to do, I’m capable of it and I have just as much right to do it as anyone else.
Sometimes, people tell me to “calm down.” I am calm. Do you want me to whisper? You know, like black women have attitudes or they’re going to get all snippity-snappity. I’m the only black person at my job, and I think that makes a big difference. At work, for instance, there’s a white girl there who is really out of control. She yells at people, she confronts people, the whole nine.She gets away with murder, and I don’t even think they realize it. But if I say something back, I need to be talked to. Not only that, but I had to have HR come in and talk to me and ask me if I felt like I had self-control.
I did have a lady one time who called in because her daughter, my client, was stuck on the highway. Her daughter and I had a really good customer-service agent relationship. Anyway, her mom called me, so I said, “Okay, let me see what I can do to help,” and she just started yelling at me for no reason and even used racial slurs against me. At that point, I was just like, “Okay, ma’am, I was trying to help you here.” I still tried to help her. Later, I got to talk to her daughter. I told her what had happened, and she said, “I cannot believe she talked to you like that because my child is black.” She has a black grandchild, and for her to say something like that . . . it’s devastating. It shook me up a little bit, because there’s no reason for that.
I have a step-son, and he’s 20. He’s a very good kid, but he has braids in his hair. I’ll never forget the neighbor that lived across the street from us when he was younger. She would treat him like he was a little thug. He was very respectful, but because he had braids in his hair, she was looking at him like he was something that he’s not. I didn’t appreciate that, because she didn’t know this young man. She didn’t know his character, what he is really built of, but because of an outward appearance, she automatically assumed that he was bad. Why does it have to be that someone’s skin color defines how they’re going to act?
My daughter is light skinned and she has long hair. She goes to school, and she comes home and she’s like, “Mom, am I mixed? Am I Mexican? People ask me every day what color I am or why my hair is long.” And I say, “Your grandmother is five shades darker than you and her hair is just as long as yours. I mean, that’s just the type of hair you have. You got it from your dad’s side of the family.” Why does this have to be an issue? I don’t agree with that. It’s disheartening.
I tell my daughter, regardless of what anybody says, you have to love yourself. And nobody in this world is better than you are. She loves everybody, and we try not to live in a world of “white people are bad” or anything like that because I don’t necessarily think that’s true. I don’t think that white people are bad. I don’t think that black people are bad. I think that there are people who do things that are bad, and there are people who do things that are good.
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.