Our First Interview: With Erin
Interview with Erin
Interviewer: Jenn Harmless, Assistant: Matt Koch
Photographer: Craig Newton
First of all: Why do you want to be represented as part of this project?
I kind of want to serve as a liaison between people like me and people who aren’t comfortable feeling what they feel in their skin.
When you saw us on the Volunteer Network, what about this project really resonated with you?
It kind of reminded me of Humans of New York, so I was like maybe a Humans of Bloomington kind of thing. But, just being a small girl from a small town, I wanted my story to make a big impact on a lot of different people.
So how do you self-identify?
I identify as a bi-racial cis gender woman. Let’s see, I’m 21 years old. I’m able-bodied, but I do have asthma so I only have 40% usage of my lungs. I was born three months early. When I was on the rim of the volcano in Ecuador I had a really bad asthma attack, because it was about 13,000 feet above sea level, so I almost passed out, and we just had to turn around. So that’s definitely something that’s impacted me a lot, is having asthma and not being able to fully commit to things because of not being able to breathe. And as far as race, too, I’m African American, Native American, and European.
How would you like to be seen by society?
More by my character than by my skin color and appearance. I’m definitely someone who is ambitious and driven, and I’m not going to let anything kind of define me.
Driven towards what? What would you say that you’re really striving for right now? What gets you up in the morning?
Just trying to help other people and figure out the best way I can make an impact, whether it’s big or small, emotional or physical on someone else. I’m driven by seeing other people be happy.
Yeah, I can definitely relate to that. I’m one of those people where if other people in my life are happy then I’m great. If they’re not then I’m like ‘what can I do? How can I help?’
So how do you think you are seen by society?
I mean, so for me because being more than two races, there’s definitely like that binary, like I’m seen differently by African Americans than I am Caucasians. So I guess as far as African Americans, throughout my life I’ve been told I’m “white-washed,” like I’m not really black. So that’s kind of been a negative thing on me. But, as far as hanging out with Caucasian people, they say things like, “you’re not really that black, or you’re not as black as you could be,” there are all these stereotypes and I’m thinking, “I didn’t know that there was one black experience.” I’ve been treated very well throughout my lifetime, but there has been those few people that make me believe I am inadequate.
I grew up in a predominately Latino and white community, so then everyone was fine with everyone, but coming to IU was definitely the biggest thing because it is a predominately white institution. So just trying to find my place, it doesn’t feel like there is a puzzle piece that can fit me in it.
Yeah it seems like, well part of it is, our brains; we do want to categorize people because that’s easy. It’s easy to say well you’re this, and you’re that, and you’re that, and now I have all of these expectations about who you are and what you like and what you don’t like. It’s a ridiculous shortcut that doesn’t work in reality.
I really like the Bucky Fuller’s “I’m definitely not a noun, I seem to be a verb.” I come back to that on the regular because it’s just like no, no, you’re a work in progress.
Yeah, I have a few African American friends and one of them grew up in very white suburb. His family really just focused on education. And as he was working on his college degree a lot of his friends from back home would ask him, “why are you speaking like that? Why are you dressing like that?” So he had a lot of conflict with that as well. And his whole thing was he just wanted to get an education and get a degree so he could help other people. Now he’s doing social work, but he had that struggle with “you’re not acting like who you ARE.”
“I know who you’re supposed to be better than you.”
It’s definitely a really difficult thing to go through from all different sides. How people are “supposed” to act and talk.
I think the hardest thing for me is I wanted to talk to my parents about it, but they still wouldn’t understand, because they were still seeing it from their perspective. And they would say, “Why can’t you just do this? Why can’t you just hang out with these types of people?” But I’m thinking, “How am I supposed to get there?”
Have your actions or words ever been misinterpreted by people from different backgrounds, or even from your own background?
Yes. So I’m in an organization that’s a predominately white organization here at IU. So I’ve gotten a lot of flak from the African American community saying, “You’re a black woman first, why aren’t you joining our type of organizations?” And like, “how does it make you feel knowing you’re the token black person?” I mean I never meant for that action to be like a sense of rebellion. I just did it on my own, because I wanted to. But I’m never open about it. I don’t usually tell people I’m in this organization because I don’t want them to have the other stereotypes like “she’s dumb” and “she parties,” but I’m not. I’m smart, and I don’t party too much. Yeah, that’s a big action I felt. It had a repercussion I didn’t think it would have here.
My dad grew up in Kansas, so he’s sort of from the country side. He’s the African American part of me. He kind of explained to me his identity crisis. And tried to find a way so I wouldn’t have my own. But I was going to have my own, inevitably. He was just saying how it was harder for him, because he went to a Catholic school, and people would say, “You’re black, why aren’t you Baptist or something like that?” Because people make their own decisions. So, I didn’t think, I don’t know. It’s just been different I guess. There’s not really one word to describe how people have reacted to me as a person, I guess.
But I guess the other thing, too, there’s been an obsession lately with mixed babies. Everyone is saying, “Mixed kids are the cutest, with blue eyes brown skin” and it’s like. “We’re just human, we just have different genes.” And people say, “You’re mixed, that’s so cool” and “oh, let me see your hair, it’s so different from other black people,” and yeah, it’s just a tad bit different, but it’s not like I’m a dog or anything.
So that’s been strange, too. Because I never want to correct people, because I’m not that type of person, but I want them to receive some sort of education to know how to respond to people. I feel like it is my responsibility, but at the same time…
It shouldn’t be on your shoulders.
You shouldn’t have to do that all the time, every day. You should be able to take a break…
Yeah, stop making my racism about race, what is wrong with you?
How do you want to improve your community? Bloomington as a whole? Or even in a broader sense? The state or the country or the world?
I guess, I’ve been to a few different countries now, and just seeing how others react with one another. Like in Ecuador everyone says “hi” and everyone says “bye”. But here it’s like you kind of want to sneak out of the party, or you don’t want to acknowledge someone. So I guess probably honestly just acknowledging that other people exist. Because that’s a thing, I kind of feel like were isolated from one another here. We don’t just talk, unless something is planned. And I guess making things not as taboo. Like interracial relationships. People still say things like, “my son can’t bring home a black girlfriend.” And I don’t understand what’s makes us so different. We’re probably honestly closer in genes than you would think.
Do you think being aware of micro-aggressions makes them easier to deal with, because you can say in your head, well that was a micro-aggression, or do you think in the past when we didn’t talk about those, we didn’t recognize what they were, do you think that would have been more difficult to be like “well I don’t know why this keeps happening but it keeps happening”?
I think it’s bad and good. The good because we are more aware of it. You can figure out a way to say how you feel. But the bad part is sometimes it just kind of consumes me. Well, these people think this about me, or they said this and I feel sad now, or something. So when I was growing up there was so much innocence. I didn’t know that people thought of me differently, or that my life was going to be the way that it is now. Knowing is a blessing and a curse I guess.
It seems like people being aware of micro-aggressions mean at least the problems are being addressed. I mean at least sometimes. To make a problem go away you have to address that there is a problem. So maybe in the long-term it’s hopefully going to be better.
The flip-side to that is that is something that anyone who doesn’t agree with that point of view can put in a box. You’re a special snowflake with your micro-aggressions. Easily categorized is also easily dismissed.
How do you feel about the future?
I was more hopeful before Trump’s presidency. That’s a good question, as far as the future of the United States, I think that people are getting so mad that they are going to come together, hopefully. I think people are focusing so much now on their differences that they are hiding and suppressing all the similarities that we’ve ever had, like with relationships nationally. And I think people are just, “this country’s this way and this one’s that way, so we can’t talk to them, or don’t go there because they do this.” But we both do this. People are definitely trying to figure out their differences instead of their similarities.
I think that’s kind of always been a thing, but I feel like that’s maybe a little bit more prevalent now. It’s hard for us, it’s hard for Americans to separate a country’s government from its people. And I know we’ve always struggled with that, but I felt like for a while our relationships with other leaders were a little bit better so we were more open to how the people actually were, and now that that has kind of broken down we’re back to just categorizing all the people as being sort of against us.
So, if you had one message that you could just put out there, what would that message be?
I heard this a while ago, from a Holocaust survivor. And she said, “Leave this earth better than you found it.” So that’s something I definitely live by every day. And I mean whether it’s a little thing or something big I try to make an impact on people’s lives. And I mean, I don’t know, there’s so much in the world that you can help do and you just don’t do because either laziness or boredom or fear.
I think a lot of times it’s fear. I mean that’s just me, but…
Fear of rejection or judgement or just ambiguity…
Yeah, sometimes it’s hard to know… if I try to help this person, are they going to think that I feel sorry for them? Or do they want help? Or if you try to help somebody and then they turn you down, then you feel weird about that. I think a lot of that is just fear, or not knowing how to help. I think I’ve gotten little bit better about this. I think I’m just a little bit less self-conscious. So now if I see someone struggling I’ll just walk up to them and say, “Can I help you?” And I’ve noticed that even if they don’t want help, they’re usually happy that you asked.
That someone cares.
But just getting over that hurdle of how am I going to be interpreted if I try to do this thing, or what if I do it wrong and I make it worse? I know that’s something we definitely struggle with.
Finally: What do you think your biggest contribution has been thus far in the world? To your community, or your friends and family? However big your world is?
I guess just giving a different perspective. People are so set in their ways, and then if someone asks me something honestly, they’ll think, “I never thought about it that way.”