The first time I can remember being the Only Black girl in my class was gymnastics. My parents started me in gymnastics when I was 3 – they were determined to make me the next Dominique Dawes. I don’t remember much about that experience except that I hated gymnastics. My teacher – who was a white woman – was so hard on me. I remember one time when I was probably about 5 or 6 years old, I burst into tears because the teacher pushed me to do an umpteenth push-up. I was tired. The teacher told me to stop crying because my parents were not paying to have me go to gymnastics and cry.
The second time is dance. I have spent more time in dance than any other career in my life. I was a professional dancer from 3-15. Professional means – I spent on average 4-5 hours a day at the dance studio, traveled across the country to participate in competitions and won enough trophies to cover an entire apartment. My entire career at the dance company I danced with, my sister and I were the only Black kids. This meant exposure to extremely harmful language like – a white girl, who was my classmate, telling me that she was Blacker than I because she was better at dancing Hip Hop than I was (!!!) This also meant the mundane things like trying to get my hair in a bun or choosing “nude” tights were more complicated. So I was constantly negotiating with myself and others how I was “allowed” to operate in this space.
The third time I can remember was in the National Charity League (NCL). It was one of those high society organizations that my mom somehow got me into. I don’t know how because we didn’t live in or near the same zip code as anyone else in the group. The group was all white girls. They lived in North County in places like La Jolla or Del Mar or Rancho Santa Fe ( if you know San Diego, you know these are the rich places to live). I lived in a weird part of the city that was standardly middle income – our neighbors were teachers, doctors and a guy who ran a dog sitting place (he was the coolest!). NCL became a place where I turned into a full-time observer because it was made clear that I was an outsider – most discussions inevitably turned to conversations about friends of theirs who went to the same Montessori middle school. So at every NCL event, I felt like the purpose of my presence was to be their audience.
Throughout college, I was the “only” a few times. A few classes at Duke, a semester abroad in Scotland, nothing really to write home about. And after college graduation, I went into the public sector where I was surrounded by an amazingly complex set of people who came from all walks of life. It’s only recently that I realized how rare that is. In the public sector, I never really feared for my own safety and I always felt taken care of. It wasn’t perfect (if it was, I’d still be there!) but I think back to that experience as extremely formative and without it I’d never be where I am today. I was forced to consider every angle of every policy – it was invigorating and played to my strengths (I am a deep thinker and love that about myself). And constantly asked to build policies that focused on the most vulnerable first. I loved that work and I was only able to do this deep thinking effectively because I was in institutions that invited vulnerable or minoritized populations into them. I was never an “only”. I was in the public sector for about 5 years before returning to school. I went to Berkeley-Haas for my MBA in 2014.
After business school, the number of times and spaces where I existed as the “only” grew exponentially. I can’t even count the number of times I have been an “only” after arriving on campus. I hadn’t given myself the space to reflect on who I become when I am the “only” until recently and I realized that I should outline exactly what the costs are to being the “only” so that I can remember them and so that others can understand.
Being the Only Black girl in places comes with a set of serious risks. The most significant one for me is – you are highly visible. Visibility is not great because it usually comes with tokenization. An example of tokenizing behavior is when the people around you no longer expect to be held accountable to individual racist acts they perform because hiring you or being associated with you absolves them from any wrongdoing. (to be clear, we live in a country where white supremacy is extremely pervasive, we all need to be vigilant against racist behavior because it is everywhere and in everyone) Instead of receiving protection yourself, you are being used as a shield to protect others around you.
Additionally, when you are highly visible, your moves are more public. Your mistakes are often more public too. You are less able to enjoy the anonymity that is sometimes required for you to have the courage to get back up after you fall down – if fewer people see you fall, there are fewer judges around to tell you how you should get back up. Because most white people live segregated lives, I assume that when I’m the only Black girl in a place, I’m also the only Black girl these white people know. That triggers, for me, a complex layer of processing I can’t fully describe; I feel an intense expectation to then become a representative of my intersectional identity instead of an actual human. A human with human emotions, wants, needs, expectations, worries, anxieties.
Work that inspired this/ vibez with this one:
- Economic State of Black America
- “We reject pedestals, queenhood, and walking ten paces behind. To be recognized as human, levelly human, is enough.” – The Combahee River Collective Statement. I love this because I think a lot of people think that being “the only” comes along with the assumption that you’re “the best”. I don’t think I’m the best and think there are a lot of people just as great. Why would I want to be somewhere that puts me on this pedestal? And doesn’t putting me on this pedestal just make it easier to fall off?
- “won’t you celebrate with me” – Lucille Clifton
- “Cluster Hires” – I don’t want to offer any broad takeaways or, “here’s how to fix this” statements, but this is interesting research.
- Nikole Hannah-Jones’ epic statement.
- The work of Heather McGhee. You can check her out by reading her book.
- The White Space