Elisha Coffrin is an Eastern Illinois University graduate and owner of Coffrin's ATA Martial Arts in Bloomington-Normal along with her husband, Corey.
Coffrin spoke with Darnysha Mitchell for the WGLT series Living Black in Bloomington-Normal. Contact us if you'd like to be featured in the series.
You come from a pretty unique family. Tell me about that.
My parents were an interracial marriage. And both of my parents were military brats, so we moved around a lot. But I actually grew up in a combination of both a small town and big city. I grew up in a suburb of Chicago, and then I also lived in Springfield, Illinois, for several years of my life and then went to college at EIU down in Charleston, Illinois. That's where I met my husband. My husband is white and he's also a police officer. So we're just kind of unique all around. We met in ‘94 and then got married in ‘96. And we have two boys. And then in 2008, my husband, he actually ran a karate school down in that area. And in 2008, my husband decided that he wanted to retire so that we could do the business full time together. I was doing karate school full time. And so in 2008, we moved to Bloomington. We chose Bloomington because it was a larger city and it was what we consider diverse because where we came from in Charleston, it was not. And then my husband retired from law enforcement in 2012. So, like I said, we have two boys, they're 19 and 21 right now.
So that's basically my story. I heard my parents talk about when they were in an interracial relationship and all the different stories and things that they went through when their relationship was new and having a interracial relationship and a biracial child in the 70s. I would have thought that some of those stories would be completely different than maybe some of the things that my husband and I have experienced. But I feel sometimes, like, we've experienced some of the same things.
We still get strange looks. Sometimes, when we go out to dinner, or if we go have lunch or something like that. We sit down at the table and we have a nice meal or whatever, and then the waiter or the waitress will come back to the table and say, “OK, are you guys are you together? Or is this separate?” And I don't know if that's like, just a normal thing that people ask. I don't know. But it just seems, it just seems like…. Well, don't we look like we're married? We sit together, we have conversation, maybe, you know, a kiss or hold hands or whatever. People always ask, "Are you together or separate?” You know what I mean?
My children have told me stories, or I guess not stories, but my two teenage boys (are) talking to all their friends and everything. And one of my sons constantly, when he was in high school, maybe junior high, would talk about his family. And he would say, “Well, my mom is Black and my dad is white,” and I guess kids wouldn't believe him. And when we go pick him up from school, or pick them up from sports, or whatever, he would always bring his friends to the door and say, “Yeah, this is my mom, and this is my dad, now do you believe me?'' type of situation.
So it doesn't really bother me, per se. I just think it's interesting that in 2020 we're still getting some of the same things that my mom and my dad experienced way back in the 70s, you know, after civil rights. But for me, it's always been the norm. I've always been a new kid. I've always been a kid that kind of stuck out. In my elementary school, I was probably the only biracial child and still to this day, even in the industry that I'm in, I'm usually the only brown face in the room. And, you know, it's just the things that I observed I guess.
Was there any advice that your parents ever gave you about being in an interracial marriage and how to handle everything that comes with it?
Um, I don't think so. At least I don't remember. I know that when I was really young, I did have issues making friends, just like every child or teenager does when they're trying to discover their own identity and trying to figure out where they fit in or which group of people they fit in with. I bounced back and forth between white kids and Black kids. White kids didn't accept me sometimes, Black kids didn’t accept me sometimes.
So, I had many conversations with my Dad. “I don't understand why don't kids let me play this? Why can’t I play with Mary? Why can't I play with Johnny” or whatever. And my parents would always say, “If they don't like you for who you are, then just don't bother with them. Don't play with them. Go and find another friend. Because there are plenty of people out there in the world.” And they always said, “You have such a great personality and you're a great kid. We love you so much and you’re special.”
That was what I thought of myself when I was little was the color of my skin. I wasn’t Black, I wasn't white. I was butterscotch. I would then lose friends and make more friends and lose more friends only because that's just the way I was raised. You know, somebody doesn't like you because of the way that you look, then move on and find another friend. When I started dating, same thing. If a boy doesn't like you because of the color of your skin or if that's a deal, then go find another. There are plenty of boys out there. And by the way, don't focus on boys so much; focus on your schoolwork, focus on your education and focus on getting a good job when you graduate from college and going out and doing your thing. My grandfather, especially (said) “Don't be dependent on a man. But find yourself a good man.” That was all he cared about. A good man, but don't be dependent on him.
Is it exhausting battling between being white and also being Black and just being in those identities?
Oh, they’re all over the place. All over the place. I grew up in the ‘80s. So my role models are the people that I looked at, you know, were people like Janet Jackson. I wanted to be Janet Jackson when I was a teenager because she had beautiful long hair, right? Jet black. She's a beautiful Black woman, but she had straight hair. So I wanted straight hair and I had curly hair, curly hair, and no matter what I did, I could never get it that straight. I guess my hair has always been a part of my identity. You know? It was always short through my younger years because my mom really didn't at that time, really know how to do it. So as always kind of awkward. It was curly and pushy and puffy. So my nickname when I was a kid was Puffy. That's what my dad called me. As I got older, and I'll be honest with you, probably not until I was in my 20s, I just realized I need to let go of it. If I can't make it a certain way, then you know what, I need to figure out a way to accentuate the things that I have and be the person that I am. And just don't try to change it. You know what I mean? At that point, I think probably my husband has been a really big influence on helping me discover who I really am. And that I can be anybody that I want to be, I don't have to be Black or I don't have to be white. I don't have to be in that role because I'm not. I'm different. I'm different than everybody else.
Why do you have to choose to be either Black or white?
I don't know why and I've never understood why I have to. Why do I have to choose? Because I'm, I'm perfectly happy being in between. I don't judge people on the color of their skin. And I think that's just the way that I was raised. I just want people around me and I want to surround myself with people that are positive and good people. I don't necessarily look at Black or white. But I think that as I was growing up, I think I was definitely made or encouraged to choose, by my peers, one side or the other? Yes. And I was ridiculed quite often, by one or the other. So if I chose to play with my white friends or hang out with my white friends, then I wasn't Black enough. And then if I chose to hang out with my Black friends, well, “I don't know what her problem is”.
Do you have these conversations with other biracial people?
No. I have a lot of these conversations with my husband and with my kids. Yes. Because I feel like sometimes my children sometimes struggle with their identity, at least at this time in their lives. I think they might be struggling a little bit with it. And trying to figure out who they are and what they want to be and who they want to spend their time with.
What advice do you give them?
I've tried to raise them to just be you, be independent. And if you are an amazing person, you will attract amazing people regardless as to what color they are. If you're a deadbeat, or if you are, whatever, then you will attract those types of people regardless of the color of their skin. That's just the way life goes and yes, sometimes you will be judged. But that shouldn't define you. It should not define who you are and who you want to become.
Because either way, I mean, I hate to sound like a commercial or whatever. But we live in the greatest country in the whole entire world, where you can become anything you want to be. Skin color is not a determinant. At least in my mind, I think that's the way that I was raised.
What do you think needs to change here in Bloomington-Normal?
I've always been the type of person that tries to look for the positive instead of the negative. I think I live a pretty good life. I'm college-educated. I have a wonderful marriage. I have two really great kids. My husband and I run three businesses in Bloomington-Normal. And I think we live in a great community. There are things out there, obviously, that could be better. I do believe that. But I don't think that some of the ways that people are going about some of these things aren't the most positive way to make change. Does that make sense? I don't agree with the rioting. I don't agree with it. I think that positive change comes from positive, you know, people getting together and doing positive things rather than negative.
Your husband has been in law enforcement for 24 years. What’s on that side of these things?
There's always two sides to every story. I can say that defunding the police is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard. Policeman and law enforcement families ... those men and those families, they put on their bulletproof vest to go to work every day. Their families say goodbye to them every day, hoping at least, this is what I thought every day when I would kiss my husband and he would take off in his squad cars, there could be a possibility that he won't come home. It takes a special kind of person. Not everybody can be a police officer. There's a reason why, as soon as you know, as soon as a policeman or somebody in law enforcement retires, they're dead within five years of retiring, most of them. There's a reason why the divorce rate in law enforcement families is ridiculously high. More so than any other profession.
When you hear people chant “defund the police”, how do you feel?
It makes me very sick. It makes me sick to my stomach and it makes me very angry, because I know the things that my family went through when he was in law enforcement, and I know the things that he went through. He's been spit on. He's been called a racist, which that's funny, by the way. He's been called names. He's been, you know, pig noises. Not to mention the fact that every time he steps out of a squad car, he's in danger. I mean, how does a person live like that? He retired in 2012. I am so glad that he is no longer in law enforcement. Because I see some of our friends, their husbands are still police officers. Still in the profession. I see the things that they're going through and I thank God everyday that I don't have to have that feeling anymore.
He would come home from work every day. He had a ritual. He would come home every day, he would pull up in the driveway. He would call out on his radio, he would unlock the door. He would get out, he would come into the house. He would sit down on the edge of the bed. And the first thing he would do, the very first thing he would do was sigh. That's pretty powerful. He would sigh every single day. Then the boots would come off. The vest would come off and everything else. But the very first thing he would do was sigh, whether it was a day where he would arrest someone or whether it was a day that he did traffic all day. Didn't matter. But it was the sigh. It was that release every single day. But then every day, every morning, seven o'clock, he would go right back to it. Because that's what he was born to do. He was born to be in law enforcement.
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