If I had to describe my educational and professional experience in one word, it’d be “lonely.” Not lonely in the sad and gloomy sense, but lonely in terms of feeling alienated. I’ve been in plenty of rooms where I’m the only black person, the only woman, or (the most common situation) the only black woman.
One of my mentors introduced me to the term “Lonely Only” a couple of weeks ago. She used it to describe how she felt about being the only woman at one of her recent board meetings. After our conversation, I thought about her experience and how the term so perfectly encompasses the physical and emotional weight of being the only minority in the room.
Looking back, my freshman year of high school was my introduction to my status as the Lonely Only. Being the only black student in my Honors World History class, I began to experience symptoms of imposter syndrome, constantly questioning whether I deserved to be in this space and if my work had any merit at all. I wanted to believe that this was merely a coincidence, thinking the methodology that administrators used to put together schedules was outdated and that it couldn’t account for demographics, but I was wrong. While this was one of my first notable experience of being the sole minority in a space, it was definitely not the last. This unfortunate trend would continue throughout my time in high school and college and eventually into my professional career.
During my senior year summer of college, I interned at a technology company in an inside sales role in Atlanta, GA. I didn’t know that inside sales mainly consisted of sitting in a dimly lit cubicle, cold-calling unsuspecting businesses, and getting voicemails 90% of the time. I was also unaware that most of the people on the inside sales team in Atlanta were people of color. The office rows were filled with people who looked like me, and since I had nothing else to compare this to, I thought that this was representative to the entire the company. It wasn’t until after I accepted my full-time offer and moved into an outside sales (aka client-facing) role, that I found out how mistaken I was.
During our first team meeting in my new role with the outside sales team, I came to terms with the fact that my days as the Lonely Only were not over. I remember being so excited and anxious for the meeting; I got there early and watched my team members come in one-by-one. 20-ish people filed into this conference room, and I couldn’t help but look out for another person that looked like me. By the time everyone had made it into the room, I counted exactly zero additional people of color, and only one other person under the age of 40.
“Why am I the only Black woman that gets to be here?”
Even though I’m used to being in these types of situations, it always surprises me how many emotions I cycle through. First, there’s the immediate “F@$!” that goes through my head knowing that I’ll have to endure hours of dad jokes and old-school pop-culture references. That frustration is typically juxtaposed with a burgeoning feeling of pride because despite all of the forces working against Black women, I’ve earned a seat at corporate America’s conference room table. Unfortunately, once that celebration is over, I’m often left asking “why am I the only black woman that gets to be here?”
While these experiences are confusing, and oftentimes discouraging, I learn something new with each one.
You can always tell when people are surprised or intimidated about the fact that a black woman is finding success in corporate America. Whether it’s the not-so-subtle stares, or the condescending “I’m impressed you picked that up so quickly” comments, non-Black women always find a way to remind me that I’m not supposed to be here.
Though the microaggressions come in all forms, I’ve learned to let them fuel me. I find great joy in delivering a solid presentation or hitting a deadline because they’re not expecting it. White men have been so conditioned to believe that they are the end-all-be-all of the corporate world, that they are frequently shocked when people of color, especially black women, start to occupy the space.
Through my time as the Lonely Only, I’ve also learned that some people will take notice. Usually, when I am the only minority, I feel like all eyes are on me. And while this doesn’t mean that everyone in the room is staring me down, it’s not all in my head.
Since majorities are not accustomed to seeing black women in these positions, they often perk up when we have something to say, trying to see if we’ll meet their low expectations. When we as Black women succeed, most in the majority group will still push us aside, chalking it up to a one-time win, although a select few will acknowledge our good work and potential.
This was the case after I delivered my presentation at my first team meeting. A VP of one of our software groups approached me afterwards and was extremely complimentary of the work I had done. Being a woman herself, she recognized how intimidating it could be to present in front of men and even gave me some tips on how to calm my nerves for the next time. Since that day, we have been in regular contact and she has become one of my most cherished mentors.
From that experience, I learned the importance of supporting other minorities, and realized that it was something that I wanted to actively engage in throughout my career. I became the lead of one of my company’s ERGs — dedicating myself to helping our black and brown recent hires navigate their new found home in corporate America, and connecting them to some executives who are supportive of diversity in the workplace. I also found that this was a nice support group for me, as we all had similar stories as minorities in this space.
I’ve learned countless lessons from my experiences as the Lonely Only, but I think that my greatest takeaway is that I’m never truly alone. Somewhere out there, even if she isn’t on my team or even at my company, there’s another black woman trying just as hard to climb the corporate ladder. While we may not know each other, we know each other’s stories. So, if that’s you, just know that I am cheering you on. We got this, sis!