Creating Her Own Space: An Interview with Erica West

By GIRLWITHABOOK Intern, Rosie Vita

This week’s interview is with Erica West. Erica is a rising senior at the College of William & Mary, where she is studying American Studies and Government. On campus, she is involved with the Lambda Alliance, women’s chorus, and Wesley Campus Ministries. She is the co-president of the William & Mary Public Policy Initiative, the VP Secretary of Diversity on the Student Assembly, and a SEED [Student Engagement & Empowerment through Dialogue] Dialogue Coordinator for the Center for Student Diversity. After she graduates next spring, Erica wants to take a gap year before going to Seminary to receive her Masters of Divinity.

RV: What is your family’s background? What environment were you raised in?

EW: Both of my parents grew up way below the poverty line. My dad didn’t have a bathroom in his house until he was ten. He split his time between the country and the city, in DC southeast. It was not a nice place to grow up. My mom grew up in the inner city of Wilmington, North Carolina. They both grew up with relatively large families.

My mom went to college. Luckily, Jimmy Carter was president, and he was like “okay, if you are below ‘this’ on the poverty line, here’s some money and you’re going to school.” She got lucky with timing there. She ended up going to three different schools for personal reasons, but she graduated from UNCW in Wilmington. She [studied] math.

My dad was enrolled to go to college but never actually went to class. He was in the military first; he enlisted, and decided later in life that he wanted to go to school. But then some things happened while he was living in Colorado here in DC with some family, which he had to come back for, so he never got that opportunity.

But, as Beyoncé would say, they’ve made some lemonade out of these lemons. My dad makes a lot of money for someone who never got a degree. He worked in the Air Force, and now he does intelligence for the DoD. I don’t know what he does for a living, but I’m not supposed to know. My mom does accounts receivable for a nonprofit. She makes way more money than her parents would have every dreamed of.

I’ve grown up upper middle class. I grew up in [Fairfax County, Virginia]. I live on a cul-de-sac it’s very suburban. A pretty diverse neighborhood.  I grew up United Methodist. I went away from the church for about a year when I was figuring out some things, like my sexuality, but I decided more than a year ago to stick with Christianity and a year ago to stick with Methodism. I actually want to go to Divinity School and get ordained. That’s a story for another day with the United Methodist Church. I decided to stick with them because that’s where I feel the need is the greatest. I could go to a more progressive denomination, and do wonderful things don’t get me wrong, and it might still happen, but for right now I see that it’s such an expansive, global denomination that there needs to be change happening there.

RV: What is your view of gender roles, and what has molded or impacted this view?

EW: I think that they’re dumb. I never really bought into them, because I’ve never really fit neatly into the stereotype of what a girl is “supposed” to be. Once I had the words to understand that gender is a social construct I was able to put words to the things I already thought. People need to disseminate responsibilities and things based on what their strengths are. My dad is very much a macho man, very masculine, and sometimes in toxic ways. I’ll pick up something that he thinks is heavy, and be handling it just fine, but he’ll ask me if [I] need a man to carry that for [me]. My dad, mind you, had a massive heart attack, so he doesn’t need to be carrying anything heavy. But he’s a man so he thinks he needs to do this. I am a healthy, able-bodied 21-year-old person; I can carry this by myself. So that’s one example.

I’ve definitely strayed from what I was taught growing up in churches led by black men. They always reinforced that men have their role, women have their own, and my parents really still do that. I challenge them to do something differently. But they’re not as bad as some people, and my church is not as bad as some places. My mom grew up in the South, so down there there’s definitely more of a reinforced “this is how it is” way of thinking. And my dad is a black man.

RV: What are you studying?

EW: I’m a double major in American Studies and Government. I hate Government and love American Studies. I call them my mullet majors; business in the front, that’s Government, and a party in the back, that’s American Studies.  My research interests have been in the role of the Black church in political movements in the United States, particularly in issues of morality politics. So all of the hot button topics. I’ve particularly focused on the LGBTQ community, especially in Maryland, and some referendums they’ve had there in the past that involve the Black church as a political tool. I’ve looked at the general progressive Protestant movement as it involves LGBTQ individuals. I’ve also looked into abortion and reproductive justice.

RV: You’re involved with Center for Student Diversity. Can you tell me about your involvement there and why it’s important to you?

EW: I started my sophomore year as a SEED Dialogue Facilitator. SEED Dialogue is not a debate because nobody is trying to win, but it’s not necessarily a discussion because we’re not trying to find common ground. It’s people talking about where they’re from, speaking with an I-perspective, and then sharing their experiences with one another. If people connect with them, they do, and if they feel strongly against it, they do, and at the end we all come away understanding more about the person we’re with. I facilitated my first one, that was sexuality and race, and then I became a coordinator. I did one on political correctness.

Why is it important to me? I came to college and I was “lost in the sauce” as I like to say. I did not know what was going on. I was not a feminist when I came to college because had been painted to me as bra burning lesbians. They were right about one thing—I’m a lesbian—but they were not right about the bra burning. Basically, it was radical, and I was like, “I’m not radical, these people don’t want to get anything done.” I knew about the [women’s] suffrage movement, but it was very far away from me, and did not feel applicable.

Then I got to school, thank God, met some people who were different from me, and they were so gracious and gave me a lot of space to say some egregious things. I defended some things I had never thought critically about because nobody had ever pushed me to think critically about it and it’d been constantly reinforced. They encouraged me to read, talk critically, and think logically. It took some time, a semester or two, but I came around and I [realized] I was a feminist for sure. My freshman year in the spring semester the Sigma Chi email came out, and I took Intro to Gender and Women’s Studies at the same time, so it was a perfect storm for me to become a feminist, an intersectional feminist.

I said all of that to say that I think it’s so important to create that space where they can say things that may not be quote-on-quote PC, or that may not be the “right” thing to say, but that they understand within their context. Because if no one had done that for me, I’d still be lost. I think that a lot of times, especially in activist spaces, people who tend to be more progressive and “get it” now become insular and don’t allow in people who don’t know how to talk about it because they might offend someone. I get that, but there has to be a space for education, and talking it through, and I think that [the Center for Student Diversity] is a really great way to do that.

RV: Why is higher education important to you?

EW: I really do see higher education as one of the keys to the kingdom, if you will. The reason my mom at least was able to access a lot of the things she’s been able to access is because she did graduate from college. She was the first person from her family to do it. My dad, he entered a very elite portion of the military and a really good branch, and was able to work off of that. Number one: you shouldn’t have to go into the military to have access to economic opportunity. Two: he got very lucky, because he’s a smart guy anyway. That’s also because for part of his life he was in a really good school system. That really influenced him; he talks about it all the time.

I see that, and as a black person, I think of ways I can help my people. I want to help ensure that we can build wealth and get away from poverty. Education is that way; college is that way. Economic justice is one reason that college is important and affirmative action is important. We need to make up for things in the past that have kept people from accessing  all these opportunities that other groups have been able to have. And if we can’t do it by direct reparations because slavery happened and that is traumatic and has had lasting impacts on this country, because of redlining—I could go on for days about policies that have screwed over black people, and indigenous people. [If we can’t have that], then we need to have affirmative action, because it’s been proven across many countries that [education] is the key to getting out of poverty.

RV: What do you feel are society’s expectations for you, and do they align with your expectations for yourself?

EW: No, they don’t align. I think that when anyone tells someone in the DC or mid-Atlantic area that [they] go to William & Mary, I think there’s a level of respect because it’s known as a good school, and you probably present yourself as someone who has a clue because you go to William & Mary and it’s taught you to some degree how to have a clue, hopefully. But it’s also interesting as a black person coming from William & Mary, people are always ridiculously surprised. They don’t see that as a place, even now, where black people, or people of color, go. For instance, when I go to Williamsburg in the greater city to get my hair done or go to a store, black people will talk to me and ask if I’m a student. Then they’ll ask I go to VCU, ODU, CNU, they throw in all the other ones. Then I go, “no, I go to William & Mary,” and they’re so impressed, they’re so proud. That always touches me, because most of the people I’m talking to did not go to school, and they’re in the service industry, for which I know they don’t get a lot of respect. I know, I worked in the service industry. So for them, they’re seeing someone who they think isn’t supposed to be in a space, thriving in a space, being there and doing something.

Society clearly doesn’t think that we, black people, are supposed to be at William & Mary, or making more than a certain amount of money, or being in social programs, living in certain zip codes. I live in a middle class zip code in a nice house, and when people come over to my house, especially if they’re white, they aren’t trying to be rude, but they don’t expect it. In high school, there was a sharp divide between [neighborhoods and race].

I see all of that for myself, I see more than a suburb. I see being president. People have a lot to say about President Obama and his entire family, but he really does stand for something really important. I see him and I see myself. There’s not just him, there are a lot of other people who are in positions of power now, and he has helped make that happen but ensuring the White House is a much more diverse place.

RV: Have you ever felt discrimination in the classroom?

EW: For sure. I remember there was one time, in 9th grade; I was in advanced biology. Even though my school didn’t have a majority of any one race, but the advanced classes were mostly white. I was in class and we had to do a literature review of some sort of plant for a whole year. My reading comprehension is very high, it has been my whole life, and I sounded a lot older than I was in 9th grade [in my writing]. I wrote my literature review and turned it in. And my teacher circled a[n advanced] word and wrote “is this your word?” on the page. At first I thought maybe I’d spelled it wrong or used it out of context. But I looked it up and [I’d used it correctly]. I looked up the literature reviews to see if maybe I’d taken it from an abstract on accident, but I hadn’t, it was my word [choice] that I’d written. But my teacher, she thought I’d taken it, that I’d plagiarized. I asked my friends, of all races, if she’d said anything similar on their papers, [and she hadn’t]. I talked to my teacher about it, and she was a young white woman. I asked her why she thought I hadn’t written this word. And her explanation didn’t make sense. It seemed like she was trying very hard not to make it about race.  But at the end of the day I think she didn’t expect me to use that word, because why would I know that word if I didn’t grow up around a certain way of living or have access to things that would allow me to have that [vocabulary]. I remember it stinging because I really liked her, but in that moment I felt discriminated against because of my age and a hidden racism.

I had a Spanish teacher my senior year of high school who discriminated actively against people of color. She would call black boys in the class “boy,” which may seem like she’s just calling someone boy which is a little inappropriate. But if you think about the history of why black people, and black men particularly, get called “boy,” it’s to make them lesser than. And she didn’t call the white boys that. She sometimes called the Latino boys “boy” as well. I asked her why she wasn’t using their names—because they have a name, and it isn’t “boy.”  I called her out in class, [and I told her] that I didn’t think it was appropriate for her to be calling so-and-so “boy,” and I noticed she only did it to people of color. We had a long discussion where I told her why it’s wrong, and gave her the whole history. She said she would stop calling people “boy,” which she did for two classes, then she turned around and did it again. It made me realize that white privilege can come out [in many forms].

In college I haven’t felt it as much. I think mainly because I’ve taken a lot of Gender Studies and Women’s Studies classes, so you’re going to do pretty well in those classes in terms of not being discriminated against. I’ve taken a lot of American Studies classes, which are interdisciplinary and tend to overlap with Africana Studies so those are fine. I have one thing from college. This year I was taking research methods with a professor who is a white male. Towards the end of the year he gave us the option to take our final exam one of two days. I thought that what you had to do was tell him beforehand so that he had the right number of [test] booklets. I emailed him and let him know which day I’d be taking my final. He responded back extremely rudely, and said “I know you don’t come to class a lot, but you could at least try to pay attention,” and basically dug into me. I thought I was just doing him a favor by telling him which day I’d be coming to the exam. It was so bad that he apologized, sort of, within an hour. He was like, “sorry I was aggressive, but I do think that you need to pay attention in class.” My grade did not reflect that, nor my attendance record. I was mad. I went into my email and found every time I had emailed him because I was sick or out of town. I printed it out, then went to his syllabus and highlighted what his attendance policy was and compared the two. I went to his review session that night after emailing him telling him I wanted to talk about it. We went outside to talk in the hallway, and I read him his email to him. Then I pulled out my evidence and read him his attendance policy and the dates that I had been absent. At first he tried to protest, but when I pointed out that I had the evidence with me, he backed down.

I say all of this long story because I wondered to myself, as the only back person in the class and one of the few people of color, if I had been even a white female, would he have talked to me that way, would he have assumed I was a terrible student without even looking at his records to back it up. Part of me thinks that he wouldn’t have done it.

RV: We’re hearing a lot in the media that black women are the most oppressed group in the United States. Can you speak to that from your own personal experience?

EW: I have been pretty fortunate; I have been sheltered from a lot of things like sexism, racism, and homophobia in a lot of ways, but not every way by, being upper middle class. A lot of the things you face systemically happen because you don’t have access to resources, like monetary capital. Luckily my family does, to some degree.

Let’s break it down. So, you’re a woman. I have excellent health insurance, but, there’s been times when our health insurance would shift and there wasn’t 100% certainty of birth control, especially before Obama Care. I’m queer, so I’m not out here trying to make any babies, and I’m not doing anything where I’m going to be making babies, but people use birth control for more than just not having children. For me, with acne problems and other hormonal things, birth control was what my doctor would put me on. But we weren’t always sure it was going to be covered. As a woman, any woman, that’s a hard thing to have to deal with all the time. It’s ridiculously expensive for something that’s essential. For a lot of black people, including people in my family, they don’t have health insurance. You have to find a way to get the things you need, otherwise things happen, like unplanned pregnancies, which there are a lot of in my family.

I think a lot of that can be traced back to lack of wealth and resource, and also knowledge, to be fair. I got a pretty good sex ed for the country—which is not saying a lot. A lot of people in the country don’t have that. A lot of people of color, including black people, don’t live in Fairfax County and areas of Virginia where they have [quality] educational access. You have the knowledge piece that’s missing. You have the socioeconomic, wealth piece that’s missing. And you have race on top of that. So as a black woman, you’re always hyper-sexualized, you’re always masculinized; you’re always seen as a little less of a woman than a white woman. When people think of a woman, they think of a white woman, they don’t think of a black woman. I’m always [called] a “black woman,” I’m never a “woman” by itself. I think when you look at it that why, there are a lot of issues just from health care access. Women are left vulnerable and unprotected by these measures, which is terrible.

I would also say when it comes to relationships, not just romantically, but even with your professor, I question if my race had something to do with it. If I was a white woman, who is usually protected; people go out of their way to protect white women’s feelings; if I’d been treated the way I was by my professor who is a white male.

Black women especially, if they have a “resting bitch face,” it’s held to a much higher degree of scrutiny than it is for any other people. They may just have a natural face that doesn’t look pleasant all the time, it’s just their face, but they’re scrutinized a lot for it. They have a nasty attitude, or they’re lazy and don’t want to work, they don’t want to be at their job because they’re a black person with bad characters. All of that is compounded by the fact that they’re a woman, and women are supposed to be genteel and always pleasant, and always ready to serve. When it comes to relationships and expectations of people, black women are often left unprotected. I’ve some of it where the expectations are that I’ll be the meanest person ever, like when I worked in food services, because I’m black. I had a number of experiences where people would call me stupid if they didn’t like the way I was doing something, even though it was something I had to do due to protocol.

RV: What do you think of girls’ education in America? What do you think of education in America? What do you think we as a society can improve?

EW: Girls’ education in America obviously depends on where you grow up. In Fairfax County, where I grew up, it was pretty exceptional. There was a lot of equal access to opportunity, and in terms of sexual education, which is so important; I think they did a pretty good job in the context of the country. I would say if you go down South, in places where you’re literally not allowed to say certain words in class, health education is lacking to give women and girls any sort of agency.

I think in terms of our representation in history in this country it’s abysmal. Even in AP classes. I come to college and realize that all these things they taught us were BS. For example, we talked about the [women’s] suffrage movement: Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton. But did we talk about Ida B. Wells? Did we talk about the racism in the suffrage movement? Did we talk about the fact that black women were fighting for these rights while also dealing with the realities of slavery just ending? We talked about Frederick Douglass a little bit, but he’s only one. I think Ida B. Wells is a big one, but we never talked about her, at least not in my school. I think about people across America and I think, what are they learning? When it comes to representation in history, things could be a lot better, and that’s just in general, but especially uplifting women’s voices and women of color. We could get into queer history and talk about the same thing, because we don’t ever talk about it in school, and we need to.

I think that there could always be more uplift of people of color, women of color, especially women in STEM. That’s the big push now, and we have got to note the women, the women of color, and the intersectionality there. No one needs to be left out, no one.

We have to read more women writers, we have to read more people of color writers, and we have to read more women of color writers. There are so many who are so prolific, and we don’t read them.

I’m not the biggest fan of representation as our way to freedom, but I think in the educational context that’s so important. You spend most of your life in school, especially through college. I think that we have to be cognizant of how we teach our students who matters, and whose voice matters in this country. The only way to do that is through representation of whom we read and whom we teach.

Thank you to Erica for being interviewed for this post. Check back in next Tuesday for another topic on girls’ education in the United States!

Erica West

Erica West