Updated: Nov 13, 2020
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.