On Being the Only ‘One’ at Work

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Right now, I’m the only person of color at my workplace. I had an ally for a while, but she left, and now, it’s just me, alone, fighting the good fight. Everyone I work with is progressive and socially conscious, which makes it easier. Overt racism isn’t an issue. I’ve never had to stand in the face of casual racism from someone I speak with every day, and stand my ground. Everyone else is tuned to the same frequency—a highly-sensitive, hyper-aware channel that forces them to check their privilege before they speak. I am grateful for all these things and know it could be worse.

Being the only person of color in the workplace is a sensation that’s hard to describe—a tightening of the stomach and a fluttering of the heart when something newsworthy that discusses race comes up, or the veiled bemusement cum irritation that presents itself when asked to explain something that could be solved by an easy Google search and five minutes. The staff I work on is comprised mostly of women who are socially conscious and progressive, but sometimes, those are the worst kind.

One afternoon, typing furiously into a Slack DM as a tense conversation raged on in the public chatroom, I told a co-worker that it gets hard being the only person of color on staff, and how it comes with an uncomfortable responsibility. She told me that she can commiserate—as a white woman who who once worked on a staff with all white men, she also felt like she had the responsibility to represent for people of color at work, too. While I understood and appreciated the attempt at commiseration, I still don’t think they’re equal, but it’s hard to tell someone they’re wrong when they’re patting themselves on the back for being so right.

I don’t often feel overtly uncomfortable. There have been no incidents of explicit racism. As the sole “other” in the room, I find myself feeling responsible for speaking up when it comes to matters of race. This is not a position that’s particularly enjoyable or pleasant. Recently, I patiently unpacked my feelings about the Asian fetish and its potential role in my parents’ relationship to a co-worker, who was simply asking out of curiosity. Her intentions were fine: she genuinely wanted to know if I had ever thought about that. She wondered if other biracial kids born of a white father and an Asian mother thought about this. I answered with honesty, but couldn’t help but think that that sort of question was, on some level, inappropriate.

As the only one on staff, I’ve learned to take deep breaths when diving into conversations about race. There are cultural differences between myself and my co-workers, and I have no problem explaining say, why my Taiwanese mother insists on a no-shoes policy in the house or working through why I feel it’s okay to say that something is FOBby, but would be upset if someone else did. What happens is that every moment ends up being a teachable moment and being the gatekeeper to knowledge that’s outside their experience puts me in a position I’ve never wanted to be in—and it’s a role that I shouldn’t have to play.

If these interactions were happening in real life, outside the workplace, I would have no problem speaking my mind. The co-worker relationship is more delicate. Something said in the heat of a moment with a friend can be smoothed out. Time very often brings a mutual understanding, a forgiveness, an apology issued with sincerity. At work, if someone says something sideways and then takes offense at your counter, you still have to see that person the next day. You still have to ask them to take a look at the work you’ve just done, or sit on a conference call and listen to them breathe. The literal time you need to fix these transgressions in the real life isn’t available to you. Sometimes, it feels easier to not say anything at all. But, if something feels amiss in a conversation, it feels like a betrayal to not speak up.

I’ve learned to keep my cool, but I often find myself in the role of racism police. If race comes up in the discussion, I find myself on edge, listening closely to the conversation, making sure that nothing questionable goes undefended. As the only one, it’s my job to represent. Wyatt Cenac, on Marc Maron’s podcast, discussed the notion of being the “only one” so well that it crystallized the entire list of experiences I carry around with me from this workplace and workplaces past, and sharpened it into a pointy, glittering spike.  

“I was the one black writer there, and so it was this thing where when you’re the “one,” whether you want to or not you wind up speaking for everybody. You speak for all the black people, but you also—at least for me—I always felt like I had to speak for all the minorities, because there’s nobody there speaking for them necessarily if something seems questionable.”

It’s been this way for most of my life. Aside from a brief blip in high school, when I removed myself from the very white and very small town I grew up in to go live with my mother in the Bay Area, I’ve been the only speck in a sea of white. When you’re little, you don’t notice it. When you’re sitting in a college classroom in your Asian Literature class, and your professor stares at you pointedly when discussing the intricacies of Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, it’s a little different. The eyes of a classroom full of people staring at you as you stammer out some incisive critical analysis about stereotypes with a “Mulan” reference thrown in for good measure feels very, very bad.

Being the only one is lonely. It’s isolating. Speaking up when something feels questionable is exhausting, and sometimes throws my own identity into sharp relief. How qualified am I to swoop into a conversation, crying “Not all Asians!” if I’m only half? What right do I have to try and gamely explain why something could possibly be racist against a race that’s not my own? If someone else were to overhear what I was saying, would I end up being the asshole?

Bearing the responsibility for representing for the entire spectrum is a burden that I don’t necessarily want to carry. But, sitting in silence without expressing some dissent feels worse. It’s better to speak and know that I’ve tried, than to hold my tongue and seethe. It is better to peel back the layers and reveal the gooey center, to expose it to the light and let it breathe. It is not my job, but that’s okay. I do it anyway.

 

Megan Reynolds lives in New York.

Photo: Howard Potts

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