In the last 10 years of my work, more often than not, I am the only Brown girl in the room. I am also often the only female. It is in these moments when I often become as much of an observer as a true participant. I find myself carefully balancing my reactions, picking my battles instead of aggressively pursuing a point because I’m watching and waiting for when those points I wish to make are going to be most likely heard and respected.
Perhaps, I am not the best person to provide advice on this practice since many women would react negatively to my perceived lack of feminist valor and many men might say - “well, you had your chance and you blew it.” The point is, when you’re the only one demonstrating a perspective, sometimes the wind gets knocked out of your sails and you’re just left standing there.
When important decisions are being made about the future - of a program, a movement, a piece of legislation - and you are the sole representative, you have to be prepared. You have to find your allies in the room. If you’re the only one representing and presenting a perspective, even if you are an eloquent orator, you may not have the opportunity to be listened to so the timing of when you speak becomes critical - not just how you speak. The men - in the case of women - will often cut you off and “mansplain” to you what you should be thinking because their perspective is ever more wiser than yours. They may even roll their eyes when you do interject. Often in their eyes, you are just there to make it happen - to implement it. You are the window dressing, not the intellectual architect. They still see this space as their domain. And, this dynamic becomes more acute when it’s a group of friends, buddies, bros - call it what you will - because it is likely that they are meeting extracurricularly to have a drink, play basketball or tennis or golf to talk about whatever it is they talk about.
Now, having said this, it doesn’t mean it’s impossible to take ownership, quite the opposite. For often without you, nothing happens and they’re just hearing themselves talk, which means you have to actively listen. So, my advice is to practice patience. Think through your timing. Don’t rush to hear yourself talk but don’t sit back and wait either. Keep a cool head and try, try, try not to feel insulted when invariably they are going to say something really stupid about your color, ethnicity, immigrant status or gender. They can’t help themselves. It doesn’t mean you laugh and go along with it, but how you react and call out is important too. Otherwise, you risk being called a naysayer, intransigent or obstreperous - not a team-player. You risk being isolated, even when you’re right - sometimes, especially when you’re right.
Group dynamics evolve over time and the first forays out into the fight can be daunting. As you find your voice and express it, as you analyze what are the best ways to solve a problem, as you find your place within the political space you wish to practice, try not to be discouraged if it doesn’t work out right away. If you fall, get up. It is from your failures that you learn as long as you are willing to. And, if it does work out right away, don’t let it go to your head. That can be equally harmful, sometimes more so. Being obnoxious may get you attention, but it doesn’t necessarily get you respect. But, that choice is ultimately your call.
Lastly, your viewpoint is critical to the future of this country. Your viewpoint is special and worthy. It is because of your viewpoint that problems are solved and new pathways are explored. Your viewpoint can make the difference between a project being highly creative and effective versus just “meh.” There is however, no magic potion that is going to make every situation “equal.” True equality requires a lot of hard work and positioning, but you have to stand as a player. Gloria Steinem says that “power can be taken, not given. The process of the taking is empowerment in itself.”
This type of work is not for the faint of heart. There are those who will call you names, talk about you behind your back, and misrepresent you. If you want to see change, then be prepared to fight and please, don’t stand alone. Reach out to those who support you and lean on them. We’ll be there for you. See you out there in the fight.
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