24

When You Are the Only Person of Color in the Room

Preface: I’ve gone back and forth with myself on whether or not to publish this piece. I’ve never been a person who focuses on race. As a matter of fact, I was raised to be oblivious to it in a community where the color of your skin was blatantly obvious. I’ve always excelled in whatever I tried to do because my mother truly empowered me to own who I was and own the room in the process. However, this is my blog and my place of growth. Since Educon, I’ve had these emotions brewing inside that represent a culmination of all the things that “we” never talk about. It’s 3am. I can’t sleep because all that I can think about is this piece. 

Growing up, I was accustomed to being the only black face in the room. I was in band, not athletics, after all. I was in “honors” classes, not regular. I grew up on a mixed middle class street, not across the tracks. I was “articulate”, as my first grade teacher said. (My mother handled that.) I could make friends with any one…any race…at any time. It was almost as if it were a gift (privilege) that I could travel between the self-segregation of lunch tables and not miss a beat. Not everyone could do that and it came at a price. I was called “oreo”. It was even commented to me that my white friends were somehow “blacker” than I was. When they spoke about other black students, they would immediately come back and say…”Oh, well you’re not really black.” Yes, this happened.

That was high school and as hurtful as that was it was even more hurtful to hear my black students speak the same sentiments. To them, my education made me “less black” as that is what they said. To add insult to injury, the intonation of my voice somehow sounded “less black” too. Wait…what? I didn’t choose my voice. I didn’t sit in a room and practice how to “blend” with the rest of the room. I am who I am. I sound as I sound. As I write this, I think that the bigger issue is that my students somehow felt that being educated meant being “white”. (I will be revisiting this in a later post.)

Anyone that says that they “don’t see color” is lying. If you say that…stop saying it. You do. Try placing one color of skittles in a bowl. Now place one skittle of a different color in the same bowl. Shake them up and I dare you NOT to see the difference first. That doesn’t make you racist. It makes you aware and that is okay. On the other hand, put yourself in the position of “the different skittle”. You are also fully aware that when people see you, they see that you are different first before really “seeing you”.

That is what it is like as the only person of color in the room.

As confident as I am in my own skin, for me…it’s still an alienating feeling. Don’t get me wrong. I KNOW that I am brilliantly creative and can command a room when needed but I am also human and that part of me is sometimes uncomfortable as the only person of color in a room. Yet, I also feel empowered to not fall silent because I understand that I have ideas that are of value and need to be heard.

A long time ago, a piece was written by a friend, questioning if social media had done anything to erase the racism that we are so accustomed to. If it has done anything, it has made people a bit more open to the ideas of others in a small way. Before twitter, I would sit as the only person of color in a room and wait on the right moment to speak if at all. With twitter, my voice has a reach that exceeds that room, therefore, giving me a pass into many conversations as @rafranzdavis that my “non-twittter” former self did not have.

I understand that my connected voice has opened doors within the edtech community that would not have been quite so “easy” to open without my connectedness. However, even after typing the word, “easy”, I know that this road…the one so dominated by white men…has been anything but easy. In most cases, I’m still the only person of color in the room and depending on the event, there may be 2-3 others…which really speaks to a greater problem at the school level in terms of racial diversity than that of the event itself.

Sitting at the table with Xian Barrett, Sabrina Stevens, Melinda Anderson and José Vilson at Educon was eye-opening for me in many ways. Talking to them was like lifting a ton of bricks from my shoulders that had been packed with layers of cement for years. I refuse to be silent on this topic anymore.

I am tired of being the only person of color in the room. 

As I’ve sat at an event, I’ve often scoped the room for more diverse faces and wondered…

Where are we? Why are we not here? Why are schools still struggling with employing diverse voices? Why are schools not sending these teachers to these events like TCEA and even ISTE. Why are we not submitting proposals to speak? Why are we not engaged within the “circle” that forms the edtech community? Why are we not seen as viable voices when it comes to selecting featured speakers? Why is it still exciting to see a person of color featured? (It is still rare.)

Why is this community so oblivious yet comfortable with the lack of color in the room?

There has to be a way to change this…

I welcome your thoughts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

.

 

Comments 24

  1. This. Is. Brilliant.

    And…perhaps the White people who visit your blog and who opt to read this will garner a bit of insight and appreciation. They won’t get it fully and completely. On the other hand, the Skittles analogy might make the point clearer to them.

    1. Post
      Author

      Thank you. The skittles analogy hit me like a ton of bricks. We’ve got to do better. Progress starts from conversation. I’ve learned that.

  2. Thank you for opening up the conversation. I don’t think this topic is spoken of often (or in the right settings) because addressing it means seeking solutions. Just know that your post will drive my conversations moving forward to make sure my voice is heard on every occasion. I will be brave and courageous and speak with compassion.

    1. Post
      Author
    1. Post
      Author

      Thank you for reading it Elaine. Now, here’s to hoping that we can work together to change what needs to be changed.

  3. I understand your point and it is a discussion that needs to be out there. As a Hispanic and a male K teacher I often look around and wonder some of the same things. My concern is that you used an example involving how you perceived others to feel about a situation without talking to any of them. For that I am upset and disagree with you. Deciding how others feel and putting words in peoples mouth is exactly what you are speaking out against and you did the same thing in this post.

    Matt

    1. Post
      Author

      Wow. First of all, the situation that I observed was as I observed and had a conversation about at an edcamp months ago. Not one time did I say how “she” felt. What I said was that “I imagine that she felt” based on her actions as I saw them. Often times, we just go with a situation because “it is what it is” instead of dealing with it because dealing is a lot harder than letting it go. Her words…”that’s them”…”I don’t care”. Truthfully, she may NOT have cared but the fact of the matter is that she was just as much a part of that group as the rest and like it or not…it was divisive. Even as done unintentionally, it was still divisive.

      I am sorry that you are upset but I stand by my words and experiences as I lived AND observed them.
      Thank You

  4. Thank you for letting us in and for being a voice for so many others. We’ve never met, but because of your raw and thoughtful posts, I feel like I actually do know you. I love this piece and it’s something that really hit me as I heard conversations during Obama’s first election. This is definitely something we need to change and continue to discuss, despite how uncomfortable it may make some people.
    One of your recent posts described a student of color who felt like they were only recognized based on what they contributed as an athlete. That person is worth so much more than that and it is a great reminder that we need to be more conscious of how we value people and communicate that to each other.
    Thank you!

    1. Post
      Author

      Thank you Amanda. It’s funny that as I was talking to that athlete, he had to stop and think. He had never been in a position to describe what he felt. These discussions do need to happen as most teachers that he had did not know that he felt that way. Sadly, it happens often where we live.

  5. Thank you, Rafranz, for doing some heavy lifting on my behalf. I, too, lived that “Oreo” childhood and was told by my black friends that I talked “like a white girl.” So many years later, the intertwined topics of voice, presence and identity still have the capacity to perplex me in both subtle and not so subtle ways. My learning in this area is ongoing. Your contribution to that learning is deep and wide; your example, an inspiration.

    1. Post
      Author

      Thank you Sherri. It’s something that has continued to my own daughter and niece. It happens in schools to this day and often goes unnoticed. I wish that I had all of the answers but I don’t. Awareness is a positive as maybe we can have more of these conversations which spark us all to think.

  6. Thanks for the thoughtful post. It comes at a time when I have been thinking about race and privilege much more during the last couple of months. It’s a topic that needs to be surfaced for more discussion and it’s exciting to see numerous blog posts and twitter hashtags out there.

  7. Thank you for this post. I am white, and do not fully understand your experiences, but do know that I have had many friends throughout life of color and have loved learning from them. I too would love to see more people of color in all the rooms I have the privilege to occupy and will continue to pay attention, listen and learn.

    1. Post
      Author
  8. Rafranz,
    I so appreciate that you are voicing these important concerns. Clearly, as a white woman, I cannot know how it is to be the only person like me in a room.
    I do, however, question myself often, digging in to my own assumptions, trying to reverse the brainwashing from childhood etc and try to be mindful and aware of my thoughts and actions.. it’s not a perfect process..

    Here’s something I grapple with, (your last question):

    “Why is this community so oblivious yet comfortable with the lack of color in the room?”

    Yes, as a whole “many” are oblivious, and many must be comfortable with the lack of color in the room, but not everyone. .. not me.. for sure, and if I speak up, speak out, in advocacy for representation of color, I am looked at like by people of color and not of color with: What do you know, middle class white girl?

    And with that.. I say…I would really love to be a part of the conversation and the action that leads to change. I am happy to be learning with you here and appreciate your thinking aloud.

  9. Great post. I work in a community with a large Asian population. For years, only white teachers taught there. As I look around now, I see a nice mix of color to match the students, including some black teachers to match the few black students we have in the community. I know this has happened because we made a point of trying to find good role models for all our children. Is it the right way to do it? I don’t know. Especially since most schools are not mixed. Perhaps we need to solve the problem of segregation of communities in order to solve the problem of segregation and silence of teachers. You have given me lots to think about. I hope that you are presenting at ISTE this year.

  10. Rafranz,
    As white person of privilege and comfortable socio-economic status, what you write makes complete sense, however difficult it is to really understand. Being married to a wife who certainly wears similar shoes as yourself helps me understand it a little more. It would be far too easy to just say, “Do something about it… speak up, present at conferences,… you know, grit. As messy and problematic the concept of grit is, there’s a glint of truth to it. It’s risky to speak out when you don’t feel like you are on an equal footing as those around you – even though one has every right to feel that way. So, I applaud you for speaking out here. Yet, as you self-identify, you do come from somewhat of a background of privilege – at least as socio-economic status and education is concerned and all that comes along with those. So, I can only imaging how much more difficult it is for those from circumstances of less privilege who do not to conquer these same demons of which you write. Your voice has the chance to spur others on in the same way, and that is so great.

    There is one point that you make that doesn’t sit quite right with me. You ask, almost as an indictment, “Why is this community so oblivious yet comfortable with the lack of color in the room?” Are you implying that the opposite would also be true – that the community would be uncomfortable with a greater proportion of color in the room? To me, this is simply conditioning. We have largely all grown up not being challenged to make diversity a sincere priority and likely don’t have a great deal of experience living in such diversity. I know our own church, for example, often talks about the danger of becoming to homogenous on all kinds of dimensions: social, economic, racial, beliefs, lifestyles… and yes, it is far easier for the privileged to have this conversation. For me, it is “normal” to be surrounded by people similar to myself. That’s just how I grew up. I don’t see it as wrong… and I don’t think that I should. That doesn’t mean that I treat those who are different than myself any differently and I’m certainly not surprised when those who are different than me are in positions of equal power or greater power. Maybe that comes from my position of relative privilege/education as well. But more to your point, perhaps I DO need to be more uncomfortable and sensitive to this when in educational settings and settings that have the potential to bring more power to those who have less.

    And, at this point, I know I am rambling… and that’s because I’m really wrestling with all of this. So, thanks for sharing your experience and thoughts regarding all of this and making me think. There’s no doubt that those of privilege should always be reaching out to extend a welcoming hand to those of lesser privilege… and this includes educational gatherings. We should be uncomfortable when we see those of privilege with greater opportunity and power not actively looking for ways to broaden the same opportunities for others. Otherwise, the long developed cycles of cultural, political, educational, economic… segregation will change far too slowly, if at all. But, that takes education toward this end, doesn’t it. I think we teach more tolerance than we do the importance of actively seeking diversity and equality – and the reasons for doing so.

    So, let me conclude my far too long winded and rambling response with a question. What action(s) do you suggest event organizers of conferences like ISTE, EDUCON, or any other conference, take to move this conversation forward – to live these ideas, to be sincerely uncomfortable with too much homogeneity? How do we transform the notion of affirmative action into principle over policy?

  11. I appreciate your thoughts. It’s important that people, especially educators, hear different perspectives. I agree that when a person is different from everyone else in the room, it is uncomfortable. I was the only white girl in my 7th grade gym class (1970’s). Yes, the locker room and dressing out for class was uncomfortable.
    I am uncomfortable to be the only female in a room as well. It isn’t that I am racist or a feminist; it is as you said, when you are different from everyone else it is noticeable.
    I am concerned with the idea that being educated means being white. We must meet this head on. We all know there educated, intelligent people of every race and color. Our challenge is to find role models, examples, motivation, etc, so our students can envision a future where they can all aspire to follow their dreams.

    1. Post
      Author
  12. Great post and great replies by everyone. First, people of color are still minorities in this country and minorities in the teaching profession. So just based on sheer numbers there will be less of us. Second, the issues of race, class, and hopelessness are so pronounced in the day to day for people of color, it overwhelms our consciousness and distracts us from moving forward in many ways that we should. Also, the people that organize these events (again because of white majority privilege), don’t usually have friends of color and therefore don’t invite them to present or speak. Opening the conversation like this post does is a good start. I would love to continue the convo and begin to address these issues head on.

  13. Pingback: Sunday Salon: A Round-up of Weekly Reading | the dirigible plum

  14. I seem to always attend events and I am the only Black in attendance or competing. It’s been an interesting life. Starting as a field grade military officer and commander of hundreds of troops. When I sat in my own office, soldiers would tell me I should not be in there because that was the “Commander’s Office”. I was the only Black college graduate in my class from Kansas State University. I attended a Country Western concert and a Chinese Classical concert recently and was the only Black in the crowd. I compete in racquetball and bike racing and rarely find another Black competitor. I feel whenever I compete, there is this hidden agenda to beat just me. White people have to be so careful and tip toe around what they say if I am in the room. They think I am the unabridged Webster dictionary on all Black subjects. Everything I do or say is over magnified in other cultures because a lot of them lack being around a real live breathing Black person. They generally get their education from the stereotyped Negro they see in mass media. Most of the time, I feel like a Martian from outer space. I can’t do a damn thing on this planet without somebody making an issue about my Blackness! On top of that, I was born and raised as a Catholic! Once again, I am sitting in churches and I am the only Black in the cathedral. I am an artist. I paint. So I go to a lot of museums to admire art and get ideas. I see hardly no Blacks. I sail sailboats. You can find me sailing my small yacht all over the place and to Catalina Island. Do not see any Blacks sailing on the ocean with me. I am in to electronics, science, math and theory, politics, economics, Coast to Coast, hiking and camping. I am the only Black in these rooms. Now I am from Compton. I met Serena and Venus when they were little girls playing on a tore up tennis court across the street from the Compton Airport. I filmed them for my public access television show called “What’s Up!” , that aired for forty seasons. So I was a producer and was the only Black in the room. Now with all this violence going on and Black males being shot, I am a little bit more careful being “the only Black in the room”. I do not want to be a target! So my philosophy for now is to not sweat the small stuff. I am like a bee and I am going to sample as many flowers that I can and enjoy “The Nectar of Life!” Enjoy it while you can. Never stop learning and experiencing new things, even if you are the only one like you in the room!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *