On Being “That Girl”

This, alas, is not a post about the wonderful 1960s sitcom “That Girl.” It is a post about being “that girl,” i.e., the only black girl in the room. Or the building for that matter.

Recently, I saw this article on the Atlantic site:


I’ve been in Boston since late August, working on a PhD at Boston University, ranked 41st in national universities and 32nd internationally. Various individual departments rank even higher according to the usual metrics. It’s a very diverse campus, especially in terms of Asian students. But in terms of black students, the numbers don’t seem to have unchanged since MLK was a student back in the early 1950s. Those few that I have seen tend to be from elsewhere: countries in the Caribbean and Africa. I can go into a classroom — and in fact, an entire building — and be the only black person. The only American black people I see on a regular basis are the people who drive the MBTA buses. Many black people, accustomed to being only around other black people, would balk at that situation, but for me, it’s just the way it’s always been.

While I was growing up, I was always in majority white schools, where I was often the only black person in the room. This continued in college, post-graduate education, and beyond. Once you’ve been “that girl” for 30+ plus years, it’s not even something you think about.However, if you live in a segregated black neighborhood, go to a segregated black school, and attended a black church, the idea of going from this to being in an environment where the only black face you might see is your own must be daunting if you haven’t been socialized to be around white people in any significant way. The article someone hints at that, but doesn’t go into it. This is one reason why school segregation is a problem, because if black and brown children aren’t socialized to be around white people and see them are equals — or better yet, as intellectual rivals they can beat — they’re never going to consider the possibility that they could one day grow up to attend a majority white university. These sorts of arguments are never mentioned in discussions about the re-segregation of public schools, only the “psychic benefits” that occur when children of different races mingle, which is probably why these conversations never go anywhere.

Of course, when you are “that girl,” it can be a bit confusing for the people around you, who don’t know what to make of you. When I was at Georgia Tech, a fellow student from South Korea asked me if I was Indian. I get that South Koreans don’t have a lot of experience being around people from other races, and to be fair, almost all the brown-skinned individuals at Georgia Tech were Indian. I want to say that this confusion wouldn’t have existed if I was darker-skinned, but given that many Indians are darker than so-called “black people,” probably not. But I guess this shows how in certain schools, black people just aren’t expected to be around.

Then a couple of weeks ago, I visited the Boston Ethical Community for the first time. One guy asked me where I was from, and I answered Atlanta. He followed that up with, no where are you from, which I recognized as a not so covert way to ask, “What race are you?” Since he obviously didn’t think I was black, I just said that I was a mix of various groups, which is true (a quick foray into geneaology reveals English, Germans, enrolled members of the Cherokee tribe, some people referred to in documents as “mulattoes,” but no Africans; I guess they’ll show up eventually). I suppose if your skin is light enough and you speak well, you can end up being “incognegro” even if you had no intention of doing so.

However, if you spend the bulk of your formative years as a minority in the middle of a cheerfully oblivious majority it can led to some unusual complications. Neither my brother (who is currently on the faculty of Harvard on the other side of the Charles River) and I have what outsiders would consider stereotypical black interests, as neither of us likes rap, hip-hop, Tyler Perry movies, or any of the things we’re “supposed” to like. It’s an odd trajectory that my grandparents lived in a completely black world, my parents partially in the black world and partially the white world, and my brother and I almost entirely in the white world. I think many black parents don’t like the idea of having their children be surrounded by whites 24/7, precisely because they want them to be connected to black culture and not view themselves as being tangential to the community.

The unspoken problem in the Atlantic article is about the complete failure to achieve school after Brown v. Board of Education. If you want blacks to apply to and be competitive in selective universities, they have to be socialized among whites at a young age, and many people black and white, balk at that, albeit for different reasons. We as a culture have a high tolerance for academic underachievement in general, and there’s not much desire to change this situation, especially when those affected are poor and non-white. I think school integration needs to be back on the political agenda, although I don’t see much change of that happening anytime soon.