It was jarring to start my current degree and find that I was one of two Black people in the entering class of 200. (Shout out to Michael. We’re holding down the fort.) But this isn’t the first time I’ve been one of the few Black people in a space.
I grew up in mostly white spaces where I didn’t blend in. In my first post I gave the example of my summer camp: Everyone was of Dutch or English descent (read: white). The only Black person there who wasn’t my sister, father, or cousin was a kid who was adopted by a white family and referred to as the “cute African baby.” Being the only Black person in the room isn’t new to me, and yet I’m still not “used to it.” That’s because being the only Black person in the room carries more weight than you would think.
You Notice It Right Away
I’m on a university-wide oversight committee. There are 10 of us at every meeting. I’m the only one who isn’t white. I helped host a reunion event earlier in the year. 300 people attended, but I was the only Black person in the room. The numbers matter, because you feel like you can’t hide.
You Feel Hyper-Visible
It’s nice to blend in sometimes. When you’re the only Black person in the room, you feel like you’re being watched. This goes back to the “being treated as the spokesperson for your race” thing. Whether or not they realize they’re doing it, people watch your reactions to things. Someone makes an offensive or borderline offensive comment, and you can feel people looking at you, trying to gauge your reaction:
Wait, was that actually offensive? Let’s go to Leah in the field. Her brow is furrowed…is she shocked by what was said or is she just on Buzzfeed in class again? We can’t be sure.
You Change Your Behaviour
If you feel like you don’t blend into the group, or that you’re being watched, you start to regulate your own behaviour, just in case. You feel like you can’t blend in so you feel like you need to be extra careful of what you do and what you say.
Did that comment sound smart? Wait, was my grammar too casual when I asked that question? Do I look approachable? Wait…have I been frowning this whole time?
It becomes even more intimidating when someone does make a racialized comment. You can feel people looking at you (they think they’re being stealthy). You feel like you want to say something to challenge the comment that was uninformed/ignorant/racist, because if you don’t, who will?
At the same time you look around the room and try to gauge what the response will be, to see if it’s worth making yourself more visible than you already feel. Are you outnumbered? Do you know anyone in the room who will back you up when you say something? Wait, is that guy in class today? The one who prides himself on playing “Devil’s Advocate?” You feel like every move you make carries so much more weight than usual, and that often leads to you not acting and not speaking up, even though you want to.
You Question Yourself
Many Black people grow up doubting themselves. When your history isn’t told, you don’t see yourself in media, and you face racism and micro-aggressions, you start to feel like you’re not that important. When you’re the only Black person in the room, you start to wonder if you’re supposed to be there. For some people I’ve talked to, it feels like a looming sense of unease. For me, it starts a downward spiral of questions.
Why am I the only Black person here? Do other Black people not want to be here? Is this not a good place for Black people? Wait…did I go to the wrong conference room?
It’s more than feeling like you can’t hide. It’s a deep sense of inferiority. It’s feeling like there must be a reason why there are no other Black people here. I’m struggling to put it into words, but it makes you feel like you don’t deserve to be there. Maybe it’s because of the microaggressions you tend to hear in predominantly white spaces. Maybe it’s because of the negative ideas you’ve been taught by a society that makes assumptions about what Black people are like and what Black people are capable of. But for whatever reason, it makes you doubt your right to be in a space.
It was so reassuring to speak to other Black people in my profession and find that they felt the same way in university and that they still feel the same way in meetings and in court. This sense of inferiority isn’t a weird “personal weakness” of mine. It’s a common response to being the only Black person in a space that was built by, and for, white people.
You Get Tired
It’s draining to have so many questions running through your head at any given moment. Being the only Black person in the room feels like extra work. You’re trying to pay attention in a meeting or a class but you have so much going on in the background. You can’t hide, and you can’t turn it off. Sometimes it becomes too much to handle. I avoid certain events and meetings because I don’t have the energy to be the visible minority that day.
This is why diversity matters. More and more Black people are breaking into careers and professions that were predominantly occupied by white people. But we’re still underrepresented. Look in the boardroom of most companies and organizations. Chances are, there are no Black people in senior management. If there is a Black person, there’s usually only one.
Diversity matters, not just because it looks good. Diversity matters for the future, if we want a world where all groups have a say in the decisions that affect them. But diversity also matters to those who are here right now. I don’t want to be the only Black person in the room, and I shouldn’t have to be.