Updated: Nov 13
Set the scene: You’re wrapping up the first week at your first “big girl” job.
You get invited to join the company's “Fri-Yay” happy hour. As you enthusiastically step into the bar and take a look around….it hits you. You’re the only woman of color…. not just at the happy hour but in the entire office. *Gulp* What’s next?
If you’re a minority, it’s more than likely that you’ve been in a scenario similar to the one above. Whether in an academic or professional setting, there has been (or will be) a time when you are the “only” in the room. “Only” meaning the only woman, black woman, Muslim, Latina, etc. in a space.
Being the “only” can come with its own unique set of challenges; microaggressions, fleeting confidence when it comes to speaking up, feeling invisible when dealing with social justice issues….and the list goes on. So, how do you navigate being the “only” in the room?
Latisha Roberson, Accenture’s Inclusion & Diversity Strategic Partnerships Lead has been there, done that, and is ready to help. Throughout her career, Latisha has been the “only” in the room more often than not. As a black woman with a deep Maryland accent, Latisha has dealt with some of the toughest aspects of being the “only”.
Here are 8 questions with Latisha Roberson that will give you the 411 on how to navigate being the “only” in the room.
1. When was the first time you were the “only” in the room?
L: My very first job was working on Capitol Hill for a congressman from a southern district in Georgia (which was majority white). Before I even interviewed, I knew they were looking for a minority to fill the role. I was fully aware that I would be the “token” black girl in the office. Yet, I was willing to embrace it because I felt privileged to be referred to a paid job on Capitol Hill right out of college.
I developed tough skin in my first job as the “only”. I often had to listen and respond to people expressing racist concerns to the congressman. I’d hear everything from people wanting laws against black people to citizens feeling that there were too many immigrants in our country. I learned very early that I couldn’t take things personally.
As I progressed in my career, I often found myself as the “only” in the room. But, I’ve always found solace in finding a community of people who were also the “only’s”. We’d talk to each other about it and support each other. If you’re a minority there will be a lot of times where you are the “only” and you have to embrace it.
2. Minorities often feel they have to make others feel comfortable when they are in a group of people who don’t look like them. They often dampen aspects of their
personality or even assimilate to fit into the culture of their workplace. Why is that dangerous?
L: It’s dangerous for two reasons. First, when you focus on assimilating, you’re building a facade that you’ll always have to maintain. That’s exhausting.
Second, you should never feel like you have to change who you are to fit into a situation. It's not sustainable. You have to determine why you feel like you have to assimilate? What is so different about you that you feel you need to fit into someone else’s mold?
3. What are your top 3 tips for navigating being the “only” in the room?
1. Make your presence known for what you have to offer and not how you look.
Sometimes we play out the fact that we're the “only” in the space. People shouldn’t know you for being the “only”. People should know you because you’re the most prepared in the room or you come with the best presentation skills. Find whatever your value proposition is besides being the “only”.
2. Bring others to the table so that you’re not always the “only.”
Be intentional about letting other people’s opinions be known. You may be the only person in the room but you can bring others to the table by advocating for them.
“I was talking to _____ the other day and she had a great idea about _____"
3. Pay attention to self-care and wellness.
Early on in our careers, we may not prioritize self-care because our focus is work. But wellness and self-care help prevent burn out. If you have a clear mind and sense of purpose, you’ll be better equipped to handle those microaggressions and can focus on producing good work.
4. With all of the heartbreaking events that have happened in the black community in the past month, how do we navigate dealing with social issues at work?
L: Know that it’s okay to not be okay. If you need to take a day off because you are dealing with the burden of society, it’s okay to do that.
You have to be honest and a lot of times we aren’t. You have to let people know what’s going on so they can support you. If you are sitting in silence, no one will know. When the meeting starts and people are asking how everyone is doing, be honest. “Actually, I am not having the best week because there are a lot of issues going on in my community and I feel helpless.”
Not only are you being honest, but you are now bringing awareness to the issue and opening that space to start a conversation. If there is a social issue going on in the world that is affecting you and your ability to do your job you have to say something; otherwise people will make assumptions.
5. In Accenture’s “Career Advice for African American Women: Be You”, you gave the advice, “don’t be afraid to speak up with confidence.” How did you learn to speak up with confidence?
L: I’ve never had a problem with contributing to a conversation. But, I didn’t understand how to speak up with confidence until I saw a video of myself speaking.
While I was in government relations Accenture, we did a team building session where they brought in a Speakeasy coach. They had us all speak for 5 minutes on video. I was using terms like, “I think we should," maybe we can," and, "does that make sense?” I came off as unsure. Almost like I was looking for others to validate my statements.
I didn’t realize I was doing that. I thought I was doing okay because I was contributing to the conversation. But the problem was I wasn’t being assertive. So instead of saying “maybe we should” I need to say, “let’s do this” instead of “I think” say “I know”. I had to take the words that don’t exhibit confidence out of my vocabulary. Otherwise, a lot of what I’m saying is going over people’s heads.
6. What advice would you give to someone dealing with microaggressions at work?
L: You have to master emotional intelligence. When you witness a microaggression, you first have to think about if it’s worth addressing. You then have to understand your intent in addressing the microaggression. Think to yourself, “If I respond to this, what will be the outcome? Is my intent to embarrass or to educate this person?”
I don’t address every microaggression because they aren't always intentional. Don’t get me wrong, some microaggressions are unacceptable and you have to say something or else it can happen to someone else. But, it goes back to emotional intelligence, you have to understand when you should say something and when it’s not worth it.
You can’t just “pop off” because you’re offended. Unfortunately, stereotypes and biases are always going to exist, and you don’t want to become the stereotype. For black women, we can easily become that “angry black woman” which is why you have to think carefully about how to respond.
7. Is code-switching necessary?
L: It’s not and I don’t see it as code-switching. I see it as carrying yourself in a way that is appropriate in a certain environment. I am not going to have a conversation with my team in the same tone or language I use with my girlfriends at brunch.
There’s this negative connotation around code-switching. Almost like you’re changing yourself and can’t be authentic. You can be still be authentic when you’re talking to people; it’s all about balance and what’s appropriate.
We have to stop coining these terms because these terms only refer to people of color. Everybody does it; but for minorities, it has a label on it. When in reality, we are all adjusting our language and tone for the environment and audience.
8. Why should we be focusing on company culture when job searching?
L: Company culture is SO important. One mistake entry-level people make is taking a job just because it's a prestigious company or they’re desperate to get into the workforce. No matter how great the work is, you’re never going to be happy if you feel unincluded.
You have to go beyond surface-level when researching company culture. Talk to people who work for the companies that aren’t recruiters or talk to people who have worked for the company and find out why they left. You truly have to do your research on the company culture. Don’t just go where everyone else is going.
More About Latisha:
Latisha Roberson is a diversity and inclusion business executive that is driven by her passion to lead transformational culture change and improve opportunities of equality for all.
For over 15 years, she has incorporated her knowledge and experience into developing and implementing talent programs impacting D&I for non-profit organizations and Fortune 500 companies. Latisha is preparing to launch Lead with Latisha in 2020 in which she will focus on providing young professionals a supportive path into advancing their career journeys.
She currently resides in Washington, D.C. where she serves on the board for Parents Amplifying Voices in Education. Latisha holds a B.S. in Law and American Civilization from Towson University. In 2015, her leadership and exceptional contributions in business and to the community were recognized by the Prince George’s County Social Innovation Fund as Forty Under 40 awardee.