A White Girl Like Me
By Dr. Amy Laura Hall
Associate Professor of Christian Ethics
Duke Divinity School
I am a woman. But this long story very short begins when I was a girl, a white girl. I was raised with an inkling of a clue, but protected from gaining more.
There was a hint that beloved neighbors didn’t have an easy time as a “mixed” couple in small town Texas. But it wasn’t until much later that I had the categories to get this. There were evidently open conflicts in my extended family over “mixed” dating, but the sketches are almost erased by hush now, one of the elders involved too-long-gone and venerated.
A few stories stick. In one, I am a mostly clueless 13 year old, in a rental van, traveling to Arkansas for a youth conference. I can’t remember now if we were all white kids, but we were definitely mostly so. One woman in charge was mostly Black. We stopped for gas in a trifling town. We piled out of the car with our carefully pre-teen selected Ocean Pacific t-shirts, sunglasses, and knowing sneers. (Looking back, this is absurd, as we were small town kids ourselves.) I laughed out “Hey, Girls! Look at all the hicks!” Claudia stopped me, brought me around the other side of the van and “clued me in.” Are you crazy? Do you have any idea how much trouble you could get us all into? Do you think a Black woman with a van full of white kids drives through here every day?
I like to think now that I was responding to some ghastly display of the confederate flag, but, I’m probably wishful thinking, and clueless thinking. Because that wasn’t the point. The point was that I had the freedom to display mock-superiority. I could opt in or out of having a clue. Claudia couldn’t.
This may be what scared me most about Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. Most other novels I had read allowed me to opt in or out, trying on different moral masks. Good old Atticus. I could be Scout. Huck? Probably not. Toni Morrison does not make it easy to “try on” brown eyes. She later wrote that “many readers were touched but not moved.” I think I was tripped off kilter. Every time I put the book down, Toni Morrison had made it woundingly obvious that I was able to put the book down.
Director Kiri Davis didn’t make her film, “A Girl Like Me,” for girls like me. A student recommended I use it in teaching. Maybe she also wanted to help me get a clue. I sat there in my Duke office with tears of angry lament. Two students knocked on the door. I was caught crying, even sobbing, by two white boys. Good white boys, but, still, sobbing isn’t done. I said later to a friend, “That is it. No more. I am happy being white. I don’t want to be this angry. I don’t want to be so cursedly moved. Forget about it.”
Here’s the thing that made me write. This stuff is annoying on all fronts. Black people still know I have about a quarter of a clue most of the time. As the only white girl in Emory’s Voices of Inner Strength, as the white teacher who tries to teach Womanist texts, as the professor who weeps in lament, I opt in or out as I want, as the “spirit moves.” But I am learning that a white person with a bit of a clue is even more annoying to most white people. What is up with her? Mid-life crisis? Desperation for friendship? Too many sociology classes at a young age? (Or, my favorite, a particularly cruel reference to Spike Lee’s Malcolm X.) Why does she always have to bring up race? She is not Black.
True. I’m not Black. But I am part of a Body that is. Some day Christians will all be opted in.