Over Being the Only One
I’ve spent much of my life being the only one. The only one in my etiquette classes, the only one in Girl Scouts, the only one in flag corps—the only black girl. This reality followed me to college where I was the only one in many of my upper-division Sociology classes, and the only one in student government; still the only one. I thought things would be different once I graduated and became a professional, particularly because I was moving to Chicago, a big city known for its diverse and international flair. But again I found myself the only one in my North Side apartment building, and the only one in my employee training courses. Moving to Atlanta provided a safe harbor where it was easy to identify like-hued professionals, but once my career advanced and took me to places like Webster Groves, MO, Muncie, IN, and now State College, PA, I have continued to find myself the only one.
When I was younger, it used to be sort of a thrill to be the only one. Before people were “woke,” I thought it was a compliment when someone told me “You're so articulate for a little black girl” or “You’re going to add such diversity to this team.” I also thought that being the only one around must have been a result of having done something more deserving; that I had worked harder, faster and been more competent than other black women, and that my reward was being the HBBIC (sound it out).
Part of the problem was my lack of awareness. There were systematic reasons for why I didn’t see anyone who looked like me in the rooms and positions I occupied, and I hadn’t come to recognize those reasons yet. Also, as I rationalized that maybe I had done something different or special, I had inadvertently made the assumption that other black people had not been as smart, thoughtful, or deserving as they needed to be in order to be included. That is when I began to realize more about the problem.
At this point in my career, I have amassed an expert level of knowledge in my field, the respect of my peers and the opportunity to lead and teach the next generation of higher education professionals. Despite all that, I am still too often the only one. However, I’m smarter now and I know that this isn’t a privilege or a badge that I should wear with honor, but a disgrace and a disservice to so many smart, capable black women who are not present in a field where they could truly add value.
I’m over being the only one and I’m dedicated to lifting as I climb. Whether it’s through mentoring, teaching, hiring practices, or spheres of influence, I’m committed to being intentional about bringing other black women into the spaces that I occupy. There need to be more of us; the talent, strength and light we possess is what the world needs more of. Through proactive advocacy, I think we can replace future groups of “only ones” by creating more spaces where black women thrive in the shared confidence and excellence of greater numbers.