The Only One
Have you been the only Black woman at work?
Been there, done that, will NOT be doing it again.
I worked full-time jobs for 14 years.
In my first role, there were 3 other black women in my department. Within a year, I was the last one standing. I was there for nearly six years with two promotions and a few awards under my belt.
In my second role, my safe place was with my team (direct reports). Nevertheless, I was often the only Black woman in the room. In meetings with other people, the discomfort was stifling. The rare times another Black woman was present, it was obvious that people were uncomfortable. The looks, smirks, changes in body language, etc.
For a long time another colleague and I were racially profiled, often subjected to constantly being asked where the other one was … with the expectation that we were automatically supposed to know! In addition to that, I was harassed, lied on, overworked, targeted … the works.
The HR manager at this same job said to me, “Black women just aren’t qualified to work here.” When I handed in my resignation letter, she said, “I can’t believe you’re leaving us.”
I was there a little more than six years with two promotions, dozens of awards, several new credentials, and the joy of working with an amazing team of creatives. I would also leave work sobbing on the phone to my mother. My work life became the center of my therapy sessions.
On my last day at this job, the same HR manager told me there would be cake in the dean’s suite. She’d placed the order. It read, “Good luck DAIVA.”
I started my last full-time role in 2019. It was the first time I wasn’t the only Black woman in the room. In fact, it was the most diverse place I had ever worked. Nevertheless, I left after less than 3 years … more to come on that.
How It Feels
Being the “only one” is often very isolating, and misogynoir (hatred of Black women) can be very loud. From openly accusing me of having information “in my head”, calling me unprofessional when a white male yelled and cursed at me, to being labeled “scary and intimidating” while I was in a meeting intently listening and taking notes … it’s exhausting. And, when you speak up for yourself, you’re labeled angry. Or you’re told that you don’t smile enough. And you’re never believed when you say you need help.
Also, there were times when I couldn’t find my voice because I’d given up … or HR blamed me for others’ behavior.
There are other times, however, when I can remember mustering the courage to say something. Like when I was called a “whore” by someone who thought it was funny because he spoke to his wife that way. Trust me: I had a lot to say then.
It hasn’t always been easy, but finding my voice has been priceless. Even when implicit bias and microaggressions were not part of my vocabulary, I still used my words to defend myself and others. I definitely learned to put things in writing. If “as per my previous email” was a person … Hello, nice to meet you!
Listen: Timestamps, details, and paper trails can make a world of difference. (More to come on that, too.)
Now, I am unapologetic about advocating for myself and others. And nothing is going to get in my way.
Tell me: What have your experiences been like? Have you been the “only _____” in your place of work? Fill in the blank and comment below or email me at email@example.com.
I am SO GLAD you have found your voice. I am equally sorry that you didn’t have a voice for so long. I can’t even imagine working under the conditions you described for as long as you did. I also know you still have a rough road. It will still be hard to express your voice. You must use your voice, both for yourself and for the long line of other WOC who are in your shoes and will be following you. I wish there were a magic wand to wave to accomplish cultural attitude change quickly, but we both know that isn’t going to happen. I hope you are part of a good support group to encourage each other on this important and challenging journey you are on. Know that I am in your corner.
I love what you said about the long line of women of color who will be following me: It’s so important for all of us to continue to do the work that matters in order for those who follow us to be in better positions to thrive and pay it forward.