On this 155th anniversary of Juneteenth, we commemorate the ending of slavery in the United States as of June 19, 1865. It is also a time to reflect on the work still needed to be done to address the lasting consequences of systemic racism.
A professor once asked me this after I pitched an op-ed on the importance of the New Pittsburgh Courier to Black journalists and communicators.
I wasn’t surprised at all by the question because for nearly all my life I’ve been an ‘Only.’
I was given the designation in elementary school and I’ve upheld the position ever since. I’ve become very familiar with those kinds of questions, and I knew they were saved specially for people like me.
The answer to my professor’s question simply lied in the lack of diversity in the room.
I was the only Black person, and I’d be the only Black woman to receive a broadcast reporting degree that year.
That meant that I was the only one who truly understood (and feared) how immensely difficult it would be to become a Black communicator in a city, let alone a country, that actively works to silence voices like my own.
I’d have to work ten times harder than others ever would because of the color of my skin – and I’d have to do it alone.
We need to know there are organizations out there like the New Pittsburgh Courier that amplify Black voices and experiences, and have long recognized that they mattered.
What it Means to be an ‘Only’
According to “Women in the Workplace,” a study conducted in 2019 by McKinsey & Company, the impact of being an ‘Only’ is a phenomenon affecting 20% of all women and twice that for women of color where they feel uniquely alone in the workplace. They are more likely to experience racial discrimination and microaggressions. These include comments or actions that dismiss or downplay their experience.
As an ‘Only,’ you learn to navigate your workplace with hesitancy because you are outnumbered.
We perform a daring balancing act of staying true to our own identity while prioritizing the comfort of our white counterparts – it’s called the art of being Black in white spaces.
We become agreeable and assimilate to white expectations of appearance and conduct.
We avoid coming off as “too black.” We code-switch. We straighten our hair every day.
Personally, I’ve learned to always keep my voice low and calm so as to avoid being labeled as the ‘Angry Black Woman.’
‘Onlys’ experience explicit but almost always covert racism – the subtle innuendos and backhanded compliments that are wrapped in pretty bows.
Like when I receive the most shocked faces when people find out I’m the one behind my company’s blog and social media accounts as if it’s humanly impossible for a Black person to do such a thing: “Wow, you have such a way with words. You’re so articulate, too.”
I’ve been interviewed although I already had the job, facing relentless questioning from white colleagues about my new initiatives. I’ve recited my resume too many times to count to prove my competence and capability, but the same was not required for them because management “trusted” them.
Just last year, Pittsburgh was labeled the worst city in America for Black people by local writer Damon Young and the worst city for Black women to live in by the city’s Gender Equity Commission so it’s not surprising that the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey found that Black people are rapidly leaving the city.
The Problems of being an ‘Only’
It’s not surprising why I’m an ‘Only.’
In the workplace, my singularity often puts me under scrutiny as a representative of the Black community. It’s actually one of the biggest tasks of being an ‘Only.’ You become the token Black person, the go-to for any and all questions pertaining to the Black experience because your employers and colleagues believe just your answers alone are enough to paint the picture.
But now is the time this changes.
Countless stories, unique perspectives and brilliant ideas are going unheard, more often ignored.
Contrary to popular belief, no two Black people are the same. We each have different lived experiences and insights to offer and they all are valuable, and we deserve to share them. Our uniqueness unlocks innovation.
We have concerns for our personal safety both inside and outside the workplace. We are filled with anxiety and grief. We are traumatized. And if an employer truly cares about their employees, the care shouldn’t stop at skin color.
Us ‘Onlys’ come in to work every day with a tremendous amount of pain — and on top of that we tolerate racism and discrimination and microaggressions. No one would ever know, though, since we do it all with smiles on our faces — because there is no one around us who truly understands why we’re upset in the first place.
It’s Time to Take Action
Employers need to become anti-racist and anti-oppressive.
It’s time to prioritize the marginalized.
We need more than just statements against racism, digital black boxes and donations. We need policy and procedural changes — because Black representation everywhere should’ve always been a requirement.
We need to create safe workplaces where every employee of color feels comfortable, supported and able to thrive and succeed.
Black storytellers are valuable, and our voices have the power to fundamentally deconstruct the way things are.
That’s why I’m using my platform to inform and inspire other similarly situated BIPOCs of the Pittsburgh community to share their experiences as professionals.
I hope that by elevating our stories, people in power will have to start to make the changes necessary to eradicate systemic racism.
So, if you’re an ‘Only’ like myself, I’m excited to meet you and I’ve been looking for you.
Now flood the comments.
The views presented in this blog post are entirely my own and do not reflect the views or opinions of my employer or affiliated organizations.