secret society

Brown Girls Club: On finding solidarity at a mostly white school

Erendira Mancias/FUSION

There were five of us at my Catholic high school, of different ages. We called ourselves the “Brown Girls Club,” and held “meetings,” where we’d really just hang out.

One night we went to a party thrown by an Indian-American student society at the local university. The ivy-choked campus was historically a kind of holding zone for the dimmer sons and daughters of the city’s rich white set. Because of this, a radical tinge ran through the proceedings, as if we were stealing the mating rituals of a warring tribe: awkward dance circle, cheap rum sloshing in plastic cups—held, though, by brown hands.

For BGC members, the novelty of moving through instead of around a party thrilled. Afterwards, we huddled in the parking lot to trade stories of the boys we’d spoken with. A photograph exists somewhere of this moment, our faces captured with a disposable held at arm’s length by the eldest girl in the club.

Our ages decreed separation during school hours. Into the herd we slipped, running for elections, playing sports, making our schoolmates laugh. A chance meeting at the cafeteria could feel like a union of countrywomen in a faraway land, bonded over the task of fitting in.

Tribal radar pulses through every higher institution in America. I have felt its pull in colleges and newsrooms throughout the country, but the BGC felt particularly revolutionary by context. We lived in Texas. For decades our private high school reared women with long roots and not far to go. A graduate might marry a boy from that local university, buy a two-story nearby and a plaid skirt for her daughter when the time came. We signified disruption. People left a country to bring us here, and we might leave again too.

I’d come explicitly for lack of a better option. My public junior high school had a bad reputation. A network of gangs ran through it, bearing childish names based on Disney movies. Some months before I left, a Lion King boy wearing metal cleats kicked the forehead of an Aladdin kid. One night I dreamed of the injury, holes pocking a young stretch of skin like hoofmarks in the snow. I awoke in acceptance of my parents’ decree: it was time to leave.

We signified disruption. People left a country to bring us here, and we might leave again too.

My new world held narrow religious principles and sophisticated educational ones. In theology class, the teacher, a Jew for Jesus who’d converted into intense Catholicism, told us the ones unbaptized would go to hell. She sported long dresses that covered her neck and arms, and a head of what one girl called “fundamentalist hair,” tapering nearly to her knees.

I was the only Hindu in the class. There was also a Muslim girl, parents from Iran. Occasionally she joined BGC meetings as what we called an honorary member. We made friends with compliments predicated on what set us apart from our schoolmates. She liked my black hair; I, her green eyes.

Privately we mocked our teacher, who was too shy for eye contact. We felt superior to her. I think we sensed that she was actually more of an outsider than we were. The world belonged to people like us, people whose secret societies expect members to feign normalcy during working hours.

My Iranian friend shot her hand in the air. She quizzed our teacher on the dimensions of heaven. Was it finite? Able to hold only a certain number of bodies, then? We led the conversation into talk of animals. We coaxed her to admit the end didn’t look good for dogs and cats, unbaptized as they were.

Finally we struck resistance. A buxom brunette known for a cruel sense of humor and an orange tan piped up that her dog was going to heaven right along with her no matter what the Bible said. Others called out variations of the same. In later tellings we remained proud of this rare daytime rebellion, though it was the souls of everyone’s sweet dogs and cats and not Hindus or Muslims that carried the conversation until the bell rang, our teacher standing helplessly in silence at the front of the room.

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