Erica Thomson is from Malawi, which is a country in Southeast Africa and works at Maranatha High School in Pasadena, California. She was born and raised in Malawi and lived there until she was sixteen. She graduated high school early and moved with her sister to Cairo, Egypt. She stayed there until she was about eighteen and then came to the states, on her birthday. She went to Citrus College, where she studied computer science and then worked at a software company for about 14 years. She then had the opportunity, a few years ago, to work at a high school as an administrative member. She got the job and that’s how I got to know her myself. I went to the high school she worked at and was able to talk to her often throughout my time there.
She talked about her life growing up in Malawi and how close her family was. She said how they would spend a lot of quality time together and it was everything to her. She was close with her cousins and grandparents and would always go to their home for holidays and vacations. She mentioned how adventurous she was and how she was kind of a tomboy as a kid. However, in high school, she was rebellious and went out quite often since there were always gatherings and parties. But she ended up graduating high school early at sixteen years old and got up and moved to Cairo, Egypt. She stayed there for about two years, and then right around her eighteenth birthday, she called her parents to tell them she was moving to the United States. She said they were cautious at first because they thought it was dangerous and would listen to the stuff they saw on the tv. But she decided to come anyway.
Immigration/Changes in her Life
Within two weeks, Erica got her visa and moved to the United States, but it wasn’t until three, four years ago that she became a legal citizen. She also mentioned major differences between living in these different places. She was talking about how in Malawi, it was all about her family and friends and how you would just walk into your friend’s homes and not have to call. She didn’t have to tell her family and she just spent time with her loved ones. She said in Egypt, they are very fast-paced and there is a lot to do compared to Pasadena, but over time it has become her home. Something important to note is that she mentioned how her parents taught her how to speak to others. She said,
“My parents always raised me to treat people with respect, no matter the age. Talk to people the way you’d want to be spoken to, just because you’re in a higher position that does not mean you are better than the person below you, we’re all equal.”
The immigration process is different for everyone and I learned about some terrible things that happen at the borders of certain places. A lot of women are treated terribly, many are sexually assaulted, especially women of color, and also transgender, non-binary, gender non-conforming people. Erica got her visa rather quickly and said she didn’t have much trouble, but others don’t. She mentioned though at the time it was easier compared to now. Coming to a new place can be difficult but she made it work for herself. It helped her become strong and independent.
We were talking about microaggressions and how often people of color receive them, due to the fact we have learned more about it this semester. In a case study we read by Ellis et al at UNC, called “Examining First-Generation College Student Lived Experiences With Microaggressions and Microaffirmations at a Predominately White Public Research University,” starts by saying, “Everyday discrimination is daily and chronic experiences of unfair treatment due to a person’s racial and gender identity”. This is important to note because it is often not addressed or pushed back. In the interview, Erica mentions the amount of racism there truly is in Malawi. She says,
“You’ve got the dark-skinned. And then you’ve got the light-skinned. And then the dark-skinned people always say, “You light-skinned people go back to your country, you don’t belong here.” Even though you’re born and raised there, they’re like, “This is not your country, it’s our country, leave.”
This reminded me of part of a story we read about how Asian-Americans treat dark-skinned Asians. In Hopes for my Daughter by Rosalie Chan, there was a quote near the end that says, “In the Asian American community, in our attitudes and in our language, we demonize darker skin, and we need to do better. In the United States, we also need to do better. Vilifying dark skin must stop” (Chan 87). It is crazy that in certain communities, where you would think there would be more inclusivity there is still racism towards those who do not fit the exact stereotype.
In the film called, The Illusionists, “where it talks about beauty standards, more specifically in Japan, where dark-skinned Asians would buy skin whitening products stores would sell and apply it to their face to appear lighter” (The Illusionists). It was because the conventional stereotype was fair-skinned, straight hair, and society made them feel like they had to change because they weren’t beautiful enough. Like Erica said, in Malawi, people who have darker skin tend to be racist in their daily life towards people with lighter skin, even though they are all from the same place. I personally had no idea this happened there and Erica mentions how it was deeply normalized back then. She doesn’t know if it is the exact same now, because she hasn’t been back since she left, but she remembers it being a constant issue.
Something else she mentioned, were her personal experiences here, at her jobs. She explained by saying,
“a student who’s a junior right now told me to speak English please, at my desk. While, while all her friends were talking to me. Yeah, so two of her friends were talking to me, and then all of a sudden, she just randomly looks at me and goes speak English, please, and I was like what the heck. But eventually, she apologized. Yeah, well the dean of students made her apologize actually.”
She said that was the only time something like that happened at her current job, but I went to that school and there were some students there who made similar comments about other people. It always rubbed me the wrong way, but I rarely said anything because I wasn’t sure what to say at the time. I knew it was wrong, but I was scared. I’m glad that now I am more confident, rather than being a bystander, in those situations. Often when people stand up, others try to fight back or even sometimes assume you are doing it for the wrong reason. I did that once and someone was acting like I stood up for something only for praise, which wasn’t true, but was obviously still upsetting.
Being an Ally
She said the best way to be an ally when it comes to racial inequalities, and having specific movements like Black Lives Matter, is to just be supportive and listen. She says often people will try to give their opinions back quickly, but she said personally she thinks that sitting down and just listening is best.
This reminded me of the book Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid, and how Kelley always tries to prove to Emira he isn’t a racist by constantly getting defensive and helping her when she says no the first time. In the novel, he pressures her into posting a video of her getting discriminated against in a fancy grocery store by a security guard. She doesn’t want it out in the public, but he thought he knew better at first. When they were having an argument about a woman Emira worked for he said, ” ‘And I know I said I’d drop it but I swear to God, if you released that video from the grocery store..’ ‘Now you wanna use this video to shame Mrs. Chamberlain?’ He said, ‘Alex shouldn’t be able to get away with this shit’ ” (Reid 190). Now, not that wanting to help is a bad thing, but pressuring someone into a situation where it can have consequences for the other person isn’t right. Emira needed support from her boyfriend, but he wouldn’t just listen. I think this is important right now for so many because this is a time for standing up for what is right, no matter your race, age, gender. But if you are trying to be an ally, giving your opinions left and right on something that doesn’t necessarily affect you isn’t the way to go about it.
With everything that happened in the past year with the BlackLivesMatter movement, many have spoken out against police brutality and the systematic racism this country is built upon. However, it can be hard to separate the performative activism from those who truly want to help and educate themselves. I was posting stuff and giving my opinions online, but I did it less, because I realized I wasn’t learning as much as I could. So instead, I starting watching the documentaries people recommended, and books. I signed petitions for those who suffered from police brutality, and listened to their stories. Also, being willing to learn and grow as a human is what’s important when becoming an ally.
Feminism/Being a Woman
Throughout this interview I learned more about the places she lived. She mentions how in Egypt, it is typical that the men are in charge and are the dominant ones, and that women have to be submissive. Erica and her sister were at the pyramids one day on a weekend and happened to see the men there putting their hands up the women’s skirts and shirts. She realized she had to get out of there because of what was going on. Another thing she mentioned was how in Malawi, when you call 911, they don’t come rushing to you, they ask to be picked up. And she brings up how much safer she truly is here, because she told me how right after she left her home, her parent’s house got broken into by 40 men with guns. She said,
“And the sad thing about Africa is when things like that happen and to actually succeed and break into your house. If you’re married, your wife, your wife or your daughter, automatically going to get r*ped, and there’s nothing you can do, nothing. So, you have to think about getting r*ped. You have to think about the fact that AIDS is huge because they don’t believe in protection. So, you worry about STDs, and all these other things”.
This shocked me, and not because of what happened, but I think hearing it. We talked about gender-based violence this semester and how often it happens, but we do not hear about it sometimes because of who it happens to or where. In the U.S., Indigenous women often are sexually assaulted, especially on the reservations, but we don’t hear about it, because of the isolation they are in, but also it gets ignored.
Being a woman in this world can be difficult, for many different reasons, but I asked Erica about her experiences as a woman and how they have shaped her to be the woman she is. She mentioned how graduating, and moving without her family at a young age, made her become independent and strong. We talked about advice she would give to young girls, especially those coming from a different country perhaps. She said,
“Follow your instinct, follow your gut. Go for it. Um, a lot of people have opinions, don’t let their opinions affect whatever decision you have. It’s your life, do what makes you happy. Just go for it.”
It can be difficult I think as women to put yourself out there, with the fear you might be shut down. But it is helpful advice to live your life and not let others’ opinions affect your decisions on what you do with your life. Society has installed ideas in our heads of who should be doing what and how and when; but I think part of the feminist movement is to be able to show our leadership capability and how we are able to do whatever we like. The feminist movement is sometimes seen in a negative light because people tend to believe it is about being superior to men, while it isn’t. It is about having space to share our stories and experiences with one another. It is to show our support for each other’s decisions when it comes to our reproductive rights. It is to show our support for our fellow LGBTQ+ members, it is to show our love to women of all ages and races, and to show how we deserve the same respect and treatment as men do.
Learning more about where Erica is from and her perspective on her own experiences was interesting because I have never asked questions like these before to anyone I really know. I was shocked by some of the things she has just been told, and you can hear even more things in the full interview below. I think it important to learn about these issues to become more aware of the things that may happen around you, but you may not know about it because it isn’t truly affecting you.
I learned so much about a country I knew absolutely nothing about before. I listened to her stories of traveling and experiences of being a woman. I felt empowered after hearing Erica’s advice and grateful for being able to educate myself. Also, even though this was only a thirty-minute interview, I learned more about a woman I already had much respect for. I’ve only known her for a few years and she has been nothing but kind and generous towards others. She is a strong, independent woman who is determined to strive for what makes her happy. She is an amazing person.
Listen to Full Interview Here: (2 Parts)
Chan, Rosalie. “Chan: Shai Hei.” Whiter: Asian American Women on Skin Color and Colorism, edited by Nikki Khanna, New York University Press, 2020, pp. 84–87.
Ellis, James M., et al. “Examining First-Generation College Student Lived Experiences with Microaggressions and Microaffirmations at a Predominately White Public Research University.” Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, vol. 25, no. 2, 2019, pp. 266–279., doi:10.1037/cdp0000198.
Reid, Kiley. Such a Fun Age: a Novel. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2019.
Rossini, E. (Director). (2015). The Illusionists[Video file]. Retrieved April 28, 2021, from https://theillusionists.org