The Only One...
Updated: Apr 21, 2019
Over the last month or so, I have experienced that wonderful feeling of being "the only one". You're probably wondering, what I am referring to. Well, it's simple. I am referring to the feeling of being the only Black woman in the room while in the workplace. Some of you may have experienced this at some point in your academic or professional career. I don't know about you, but for me, it can be lonely at times or it can be extremely frustrating. And other times, it doesn't cross my mind, unless something happens and I am reminded that I am "the only one".
As a higher education administrator, I am often reminded that I am "the only one", when working within a professional capacity with internal and external constituents. A little over a month ago, I was leading a search to fill a vacancy in the department that I lead. The search process was going well, however, a member of my search committee attempted to challenge my authority to make decisions about various aspects of the search process. I quickly realized that I had to redirect his behavior and demonstrate that I was in control. In the back of my mind, I knew that this individual felt empowered to challenge my authority because of white male privilege.
I did not buckle under pressure. I rose to the occasion and demonstrated that I was an effective leader, capable of running a transparent and professional search process. I did not back down as this individual attempted to exercise a sense of power over me. I simply informed him that I was the director of the unit with experience in organizational change and talent management. I was unapologetic while demonstrating that I was the right person in charge and capable of selecting the best individual to work in my office. While I was the lone Black female director battling white male privilege, I was fortunate to have a "sista" on the search committee, who was empowered to use her voice to express dissatisfaction with the notion that white male privilege was acceptable. It's during times like this that we need an added level of support from those who have a shared-lived experience.
Sometimes I forget that I am not the only Black woman who has experienced that feeling of being "the only one". Unfortunately, when you've been the "only one" for so long, sometimes, you forget...it's not always about you. A few weeks after completing the search process for the vacancy in my unit, I extended an offer to one of the finalists. The young woman began working in my department, early April. It's important that I take a moment to put some things into context. I lead a diverse department. My team is comprised of individuals of various race and ethnic groups. I am the only Black woman in my building who holds a leadership role as a director. There are only two other Black women who work in my building, other than one member of my team and the young woman who was offered the position.
The new member of my team began working in my department, early April. On her first day, I took time to share information about all of the units housed in the office space. I also told her that I would take her around the office to introduce her to the other employees working in other departments. As we continued to talk, a young Black woman walked into the office and interrupted our conversation, and said the following: "Why didn't you take me around the office when I began working here?" Initially, I was caught off guard but then I thought, maybe she's joking...she couldn't have possibly wanted me to take her around the office building!
We laughed and I said "I didn't know who you were until a few weeks ago. I am sorry that I didn't take you around the office to introduce you to everyone. It was at that time that I introduced her to my new staff member and suggested that we schedule lunch one day soon. She smiled and thanked me and then returned to her office area. Little did I know that upon returning to my office a little later, that I would find a note on my desk from this young woman. She wrote the note below and left it in my office.
After reading the note, I had a myriad of emotions and thoughts. I was surprised, sad, and happy...all at the same time. I was surprised because I didn't find anything unusual or wrong about the young woman "interrupting" my conversation. I actually welcomed what I perceived to be a joking remark about me taking her around the office building to meet everyone. I was also sad because there are so few of us (Black women) working in higher education, despite earning more college degrees. I was reminded once again that it can sometimes be lonely when there aren't very many people with whom you can identify with in the workplace. I was also happy that she felt compelled to write a note and express her excitement about seeing more of us!
I immediately walked over to this young woman's desk and said the following:
"Are you serious?! Did you really write this note, apologizing for participating in a conversation? Please...there is nothing to apologize for. I am not one of those individuals who doesn't interact with other Black women. I welcome any opportunity to engage in conversation with other women, especially Black women, because I think it creates an environment where we can learn to speak openly, share our experiences, and support one another." We engaged in meaningful conversation for the next 15-20 minutes. We learned that we had quite a few things in common. We are both divorced moms...we have prior experience teaching in the higher education realm and we both feel that we are "the only one" in our current work environment.
I learned the following as a result of my encounter with this young woman:
It's important to display a positive disposition when interacting with colleagues or other individuals who may work in your area. You never know who is watching and how they may perceive you.
If you take time to talk to people, you may learn that you share more commonalities than differences.
As a leader, you should demonstrate that you are approachable. It's the first step to cultivating professional relationships.
Your experience is not yours alone. There are other people who may have the same experience as you. Find opportunities to support one another based upon your shared experiences.
Always make someone feel important - no matter what their position is. Don't ever treat a person less than, based upon a title. (I am a director and the young woman is a graduate assistant. I didn't allow our titles to dictate whether we could engage in conversation or interact with one another.)
As Black women it is important for us to empower each other. We must work together to support each other and develop a strong sense of sisterhood. When we work collectively as a unit, we create a bond of sisterhood that cannot be broken. It's that sense of sisterhood that we alleviate the feeling of being "the only one" - whether it's in the classroom or in the workplace. Remember: empowered women, empower women. Then and only then, can we Lead. Inspire. Transform.