Blakely Thornton on being a creative of colour in contemporary America

A close up portrait of a man's face

The Ludlow House member, CiViL Jewelry CEO and Slick Woods business partner shares his personal account of what it means to be Black in the current US climate

As told to Dayna Southall    Images by Tawni Bannister    Saturday 10 October, 2020   Short read

‘When we left 2019, we looked forward to a year that we dreamed to be filled with opportunities and growth. Instead, a pandemic riddled our nation with terms such as social distancing, quarantine and looming lockdowns. But while this plastered the headlines and became the focal point of every Zoom meeting and discussion, on 25 May 2020 all this changed. An African-American man walked into a store and was accused of paying with a counterfeit $20 note. Not long after, the police were called and things began to take a turn for the worse. Restrained and kneeled on like he was an animal, the man was suffocated for eight minutes and 46 seconds. He died at the hands of a White police officer and this man’s name became a headline everywhere. His name was George Floyd. 

‘The death of yet another unarmed Black man sparked outrage, anguish and devastation among the Black community and around the globe. It brought back the debate of racism found not only on the surface of society, but also hidden behind boardrooms and courthouses – and this needs to change. From when I first entered the world of business, I’ve always been the only person of colour in the room. And while the businesses may have changed over the years, the ratio and colours never did. I don’t see Black males and I don’t see Black dominance. Even though, as a man, I had more of a voice in the office, it wasn’t nearly as close to those of my White counterparts. Was it education? Was it our demeanour? No, it all boiled down to the systemic racism built and constructed into American society.

‘I’ve been reading a lot of books lately, educating myself on what’s been going on from an emotional level on both sides during this complex time. I grew up in Dallas, Texas, and went to prep school. I was for very much of my life the only Black person in White spaces. Racism has never gone anywhere, it’s just shifted to a more insidious thing. I often sit and look back to the 1970s and 1980s when it was OK to have some outward, blatant prejudice. And I think what people don’t realise now is that racism is not a conscious act of bigotry towards somebody that you say you hate. Racism is a system that is firmly ingrained into every aspect of American culture. We could be walking down the street or at work – wherever a Black man or woman goes we’re looked at differently and treated differently, and left questioning: why can’t we be treated the same?
A man sitting at a table with his arms folded
‘But as a young Black creative, it’s hard to be what you can’t see. We are starting to see more Black role models and slowly getting idolised with the likes of Serena Williams and Venus Williams dominating in sports. We’re showing young Black girls that they can do it – that there is space for them at the top. But in the same breath, there is a lot of representation in the media that tries to bring them down. The name-calling, the imagery; it all builds up, and leads society to belittle us for our achievements and drag us back to 50 or 60 years ago. But when we are celebrated and given the recognition we deserve, it’s almost as if we are supposed to be grateful for it. Grateful that our White counterparts gave us an opportunity and we succeeded. This is what I call the blindside. It’s where people subconsciously choose a Black person to make them feel good about themselves, to then turn to us and say, “Look we helped you”. But it’s almost a slap in a face. We see it consistently in the media, where Black people are portrayed as drug addicts or dealers in dark back alleys and living in the projects, and the White man will save them and provide them with a better one. But the reality of this is that we’re not all drug dealers with addicts for parents, and we can help ourselves. 

‘With the upcoming election looming, I hope Americans and society start viewing us as peers and members of society, and not someone who’s looking for a handout. In 2021, I hope people are going to see us as equals – not as someone to be helped. I would like to have a seat at the table, and if it is not going to be given, I’ll build my own. But with this election set to be one of the wildest ones for a long time, it’s imperative that Americans vote and see the importance of how the people in power can change the narrative, and build a space for Black people in society.’
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