The Only and The Other

Imagine landing on an alien planet (yay space travel, someone funded you!), filled with humanoid creatures with green skin and electricity instead of hair. But your spacecraft is out of fuel, so you’re going to be here for a while. You learn to communicate with the aliens, are curious about one another, and they’re obviously quite interested in you. After the initial period of “newness” wears off, you settle into life on the alien planet. You need to survive, so you get an alien job at the bioluminescent research center. You make some alien friends. But everywhere you go, you’re the only one that looks like you. There’s no other humans to talk to, no one who understands your Earth references. When you walk down the street, the alien hatchlings, fresh from their shells, gawk at you.


Sun Ra, the original alien.

This is life on Earth for Black people (if a lot of the aliens questioned your right to exist and were actively working against you much of the time).

This is the reality. Chika Stacy Oriuwa, the only Black person in her class of 259 medical students at the University of Toronto, describes:

In undergrad, I was the sole Black person in my graduating class. In medical school, I was ready to meet individuals with a shared identity, and was eager to make a good impression.

As I arrived at the venue for the social, my anxieties surrounding the perfect attire for the evening slowly gave way to a sobering realization.

I was the only one.

Jessica Esquivel, a particle physicist, felt similarly isolated in her classes as the only woman, the only Black person, the only Latina person, and the only lesbian:

When you are the only Black person in the room, or the only human on the planet, the weight of “acting as the representative” of your whole group comes down on you. Earning a master’s degree in sociology, Amanda Cross felt it. “One of the hardest parts of being a minority student was trying not to become a stereotype,” she writes. “I didn’t want to raise my voice, get too loud, or argue too much. I didn’t want to be labelled just another angry Black woman.”

This issue of being “the only one” reaches far beyond the classroom to all sorts of interactions and gatherings. It is particularly insidious at work. In The Psychic Stress of Being the Only Black Woman at Work,” Maura Cheeks writes:

In the office, we’re not really supposed to think about race, unless it’s part of our job description. But for Black women, that’s almost impossible. Being Black is a core part of our identity, and it colors the way we see the world and the way the world sees us. I have had a colleague make jokes on my behalf about eating fried chicken for lunch (I’m a pescatarian); I have had to answer questions about my background in professional settings — not as small talk, but to explain why I deserve to be in the room in the first place. Being Black and female at work means navigating insensitivities with dignity and assuming that most people are not ill-intentioned.

Heben Nigatu sums up a number of other things you have to deal with when you’re the only Black person (from accusations that you were only hired because of affirmative action to offensive comments to corny slang) at the office with gifs.

Adia Harvey Wingfield, a sociology professor and author, summarized research in 2015 about being Black in the workplace, but not “too Black”:

Carbado and Gulati also note that minority professionals tread cautiously to avoid upsetting the majority group’s sensibilities. Put simply, they can be visibly Black, but don’t want to be perceived as stereotypically Black. As Carbado and Gulati write, a Black female candidate for a law firm who chemically straightens her hair, is in a nuclear family structure, and resides in a predominantly white neighborhood signals a fealty to (often unspoken) racial norms. She does so in a way that an equally qualified Black woman candidate who wears dreadlocks, has a history of pushing for racial change in the legal field, is a single mother, and lives in the inner city does not.

If you’re a white person reading this post, please don’t take this as an invitation to ask your coworker how they’re feeling about being the only Black person at the office today (you’d think we wouldn’t have to say these things, but we do). Yes, while you should a) strive to understand what people of color in your spaces experience, and b) rein in the impulse to do any of the nonsense described above, understand that what truly needs to change is not just your individual behavior, but the structures that create isolation for Black people to begin with. Last year, we invited readers to look at the spaces they are in (whether it be your workplace, or someplace you go out to socialize) and notice whether those spaces are predominantly white. This year, we invite you to take a critical look at those spaces again, and start thinking about what you can change– whether it’s your hiring practices, the kind of media you consume, or otherwise– to be more inclusive, welcoming, and supportive of Black people in that space.

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