A note from the editor: When I was up late one-night brainstorming topics for The BGG, I immediately knew that this was one the issues that I wanted to discuss on the blog.
One of the reasons why I started The Brown Girls Guide to Politics was because I always had women of color asking for advice. One of the things I was consistently asked about was “how do you deal with being the only person of color in the organization, meeting, event, etc.?”
From the very beginning of my political career, I have had the privilege of always having women of color mentors who've uplifted and supported me, helping me navigate predominately white spaces. Many of these women are trailblazers who opened the doors for me and other Brown girls to do the political work we are engaged in today.
Unfortunately, many women of color don't have this support available to them. They may be in a space where mentors are unavailable, because they are the one trailblazing and breaking down the door for others. Or the other women of color in that space may be unwilling to provide them with support. Sorry, but that's the truth. With this being said, I truly hope that women of color have been able to find useful advice in the Being the Only Brown Girl in the Room blog post series and through all of the posts on the site.
Now, onto my blog. :)
Despite knowing I wanted to cover this topic on the blog, I have struggled with writing about it. Not because I didn’t have anything to write about, but because there are so many instances where I could write about being the only Brown girl in the room that it has been hard to narrow it down. Many times each month I am in a room where I am the only person of color.
So, I decided tackle something that friends of color and I talk about a lot related to this issue. Something I have spoken up about consistently throughout my career: being the only person of color in the room when issues of race/diversity/inclusion are discussed, and the most racist, sexist, and plain f#$%!@-up things are said by so-called “allies”.
I recognize that the people reading this blog will be at different points in their career. But the fact is that you will have to deal with these issues throughout your working life, especially if you are working in predominately white spaces which most of politics is.
In the beginning of my career, I really didn’t speak up. I was a young staffer, new to politics and didn't really know what to say or how to address many situations. I remember vividly the first situation that left me in stunned silence. Someone I respected a lot referred to Black people as “the Blacks” while referencing voter turnout. This was a person that loved Barack Obama and raved about him being the first Black president, but “the Blacks?” Unacceptable. But was I in a place to tell them to do better? No. So I went to someone I trusted, told them the situation, and they talked to the person about it. It was the last time I heard them use the term “the Blacks” and they always went overboard after that incident to use the term “African Americans” whenever talking about the community. Fixed it? Progress?
Fast forward a few years to when I was mid-career, and I started speaking up, but would do so in a very nice manner as not to offend people. I was more concerned with the feelings of others than they were with offending me with their inappropriately racist comments or lack of cultural sensitivity. I also found that due to speaking out, more and more of my white colleagues sought out “my advice” on issues pertaining to people of color, difficult situations they were dealing with, or with helping recruit people of color to join their causes and organizations. It was then that I entered the Twilight Zone of both being the only person of color in the room, and because I was the only person of color in the room, I also got to tell everyone what other people of color thought and where to find them. After all, everyone knows that Brown people are just one giant monolith and everyone knows each other. It's mentality exhausting when people think you have all of the "people of color" answers.
I am now in the phase of my career where I am more established. Today, I call out the racism and bigotry. When people don't like that, my response is something to the effect of, “I spoke the truth and you don't have to like it, but guess what? It needed to be said."
Let’s keep it real. I still have to walk a fine line to not be the “angry Black woman” right? Still exhausting. But the fact is, I have learned that if I don’t say it, if I don’t say it firmly, if I don’t say it with conviction, then it won’t be said, and I can’t do my part to make things better. Do I feel that it is my job to teach everyone, no. But sometimes you are the only person of color in the room (or the only person of color they know) who's going to do it. I would rather be frustrated educating someone in that moment than to have them repeat the behavior and me continue to be disgusted about their vernacular or unacceptable behavior while nothing changes. Frankly, I am happy to speak to people who want to learn, improve, and do better.
Now, the tough part. While the truths that we speak at times will make people mad or belligerently angry, it is also important for those who are in the room with us to know what we are thinking and feeling. Our opinions matter. Our thoughts matter. Our presence in that room matters. If someone is wrong, they need to be called out on it. And the honest truth is that some people may think they are being an ally to people of color when they are actually perpetuating systems of oppression and stereotypes. Being an ally isn't what you say and do when I am in the room, it is what you say and do when I am not in the room.
Another part of the reality is that it is hard. It is very hard being the only person of color in the room. I wrote earlier in this post (kudos to those still reading!) about dealing with being the only Brown girl in the room throughout the different phases of your career. During each phase of your career, it will be challenging, frustrating, emotionally draining, and it is BS that we have to deal with it.
Have I walked out of rooms mid-conversation frustrated in tears? Yes.
Does speaking up change or have a negative impact on my relationships with people? Absolutely.
Do I regret it? Not at all.
One of my colleagues, a white woman that I adore, calls me a “badass truth-teller” because I don’t shy away from saying the difficult things. I don’t think she truly knows how much it means to me that she calls me this, or that she always backs me up when I say the hard truths. I have another white colleague that I adore who will speak up before I even have the chance because she is committed to letting other white people know that they need to do better. At the end of the day by speaking up, my hope is that I will be making change. Changing the minds in the room for the better. Changing organizations for the better. Changing things for those Brown girls that follow behind me, and hoping that they won't be the only.
A'shanti F. Gholar is the founder of the Brown Girls Guide to Politics.