The dictionary defines phenomenal as “extraordinary” or “remarkable”, and what better words could describe the only Black woman in a room? A room like a high school calculus class. A room like a medical school class. A room like the boardroom of a fortune 500 company. A room like the computer room at NASA headquarters. A room that most likely you too have entered and known here I am again—the first, or the only, Black woman.
Even though it’s 2023, I can’t believe how often we are still hearing about Black women firsts.
If you have read any of my previous blogs, I discuss growing up in Rockford, Illinois, and attending private Catholic schools through the majority of my primary and secondary education. I was one of about 10 Black students at my elementary school and one of two Black girls at my high school. Almost every day of my life, for years, I was the only Black woman in the room.
I think this is where my feeling of “representing the race” came from. I knew that for almost everyone I encountered, I was the only Black person they knew. And while many people don’t see the need to represent the race, I always had an intrinsic belief that I was representing my people in the rooms that I was in. If I got poor grades or misbehaved, maybe the nuns would feel that I didn’t belong there, or that they [Black people] can’t handle the rigors of the school. So I got good grades and followed the rules. I was in the band and played flute. Other than that, I stayed under the radar.
When I was raising my daughter, I raised her the same way. I sent her to the very best school we could find, even moving to another district to do so. She went to a computer magnet school for elementary school, Catholic school for a couple years of middle school, and a large public high school. Even in high school, which was in a suburban area of Indianapolis with a large diverse population, she was often the only Black girl in the some of her classes.
We know the feeling of sitting in history class when the lesson turns to slavery. We know the feeling of reading the n-word in a book that’s called “literature” in English class. That feeling is compounded when not only are you Black in those classes—in that moment, but you’re the only one in the room.
And it wasn’t (and isn’t) just in school. In many industries, this only-ness persists through our careers. For me, even into the late 90s, one colleague and I were the only 2 Black female educators out of a faculty of over 130 at the high school where we worked. My daughter, a dentist, often talks about how only 3.8% of all practicing dentists are Black. Through Instagram, I met Jessica Nabongo, the first documented Black woman to travel to every country in the world. From social media to STEM, even though it’s 2023, there are so many places where we are the only Black woman in the room.
It takes courage, fortitude, and strength to be the only Black woman in the room. To be present when people think you are there because of the color of your skin. To be humble knowing your resume is just as impressive as—if not more than—your colleagues, and not saying about it. And the flair with which we do it all.
If you enter a room and you are the only Black woman in the room, don’t leave the room. Don’t complain about the room. Be in the room knowing that throngs of your sisters have gone before you and encountered what you will encounter, and maybe they even encountered worse. Be in the room—and change the room.
We are remarkable. We are extraordinary. We are that phenomenal Black woman in the room.
Have you ever been the only Black woman in the room—what was it like for you?Leave a Comment
Alfreda Goods says
Yes, I have been the only black Roman in the room on many occasions when I worked in the technology field. I also felt I was representing my race and I was very careful about how I wore my hair and dressed. I had to fit in to belong and be accepted. I was often in a position where I was the most qualified in a particular area. I must admit, back then in the 1980’s, 90’s and early 2000’s racism was in the room and I did experience it.
Sharon O' Connor says
I’m retired now from corporate life. I was ALWAYS the only women and the only person of color. No one understands the work you must put in to make sure you are respected and heard. Although it was exhausting I have no regrets.
Carla Slaney says
I work in Funeral Services and I am the only Black woman at my Mortuary. The majority of the staff is Latino with a few Caucasians. I carry myself with confidence and a positive attitude even when I don’t feel welcome and Spanish is often spoken in my presence because they think I don’t understand what’s said me being black. I have no problem being the only Black woman in the room.
Veronica Garrett says
Reading this blog inspires me. I’m the only Black woman in the room in most group meetings at my job. This blog encourages me to not just be in attendance but be present and use my voice. And that I will definitely do! Thank you!
Inspired that is how I felt when I read this blog.
Brenda Jubilee says
All your points are well taken, nice to read your personal experiences. I myself, spouse and daughters have experienced the same thing in our careers and travels. What makes the difference is that we have a strong sense of self, know our history and know all about people of other races. We belong!
Adrienne Street says
This article was inspiring,and encouraging. I was the only Black female in my department for Years. I also felt responsible for how they saw us,or what correct knowledge they gained by being present and engaging. I felt like a teacher of our culture. My coworkers were ignorant on so many levels. The Dentists I worked with gained respect for me because I was professional, capable and kind. I didn’t realize how loved and admired I was until I decided to retire. Some days I felt like I was the only one in the room. Its good to connect to sisters who help you navigate and change the room’s we enter. Thank you!!
Denise Marcia says
Being the only black woman in the room had consequences for me, even in the Gospel music industry. I stood my ground as an executive challenging racism on the executive level and was subsequently “transferred,” “downsized,” out. It took a ‘minute’ to understand what was really happening, since I had moved into the South, but I got it! I realized I had to change my strategy.
Joan Rhodes copeland says
I was the only Black woman in the room for many years in corporate America I. Nyc. I learned to always speak up and made sure I was together—dressed appropriately and totally ready for the meeting. It was always a challenge but paid off in the end. Also gave me the opportunity to open the door for other African Americans.
I am, have been, for the past 27 years at the place of my employment, the only black woman in my field. I have experienced racism, sexism and trwated as though I didn’t exist nor mattered. I’ve work hard to gain respect and dignity on my job. I’ve stood by and watched the men on my job pass me by to as one of the other men for information that they needed, only to be led back to me. My experience’s here have only made me lift my head a little higher, keep my back straight and continue to be the blessed black woman that God has made me. Peace and blessings my sisters!
Sherrill Martin says
I can wholeheartedly agree with everything that was said. I experienced being the only Black person in the classroom during high school and college. On the job I have been the only Black professional or one of just a few. I was the first Black person in my Woman’s Club as well as it’s first Black member of the Board of Directors. My children have experienced the same things–being the token Black person. But we survive and excel.
In the 80’s and 90’s, it was very common to be an “only”. The micro-aggressions were more blatant then, so imagine the pressure to “represent” while constantly having to pretend that you didn’t notice racism because you knew that the white person in HR didn’t have your back! I’m semi-retired now, and hopeful that the perseverance and resilience of my generation has made it easier for this generation’s “onlys” to not only excel — but to open more doors and include more seats at more tables.
Even in my place of work in my field, I am the only black woman in the room. One of my mentors, who is in fact a black man who is also an executive, shared this same sentiment with me. I’m so many words he stated to not be so focused on being the only one in the room, but to focus on being the best in the room. Thank you for sharing this and for helping me broaden my mindset even further: to be in the room and change the room!
Linda Fox says
We have a store in my community that serve homeless and underserved families, everything is free of charge to them. Most of the time I’m the only volunteer that looks like me. Sadly most of those served do.
Alice M Clash says
I worked in a company where I was the first Black Trainer in North America in that particular field of work . Initially I felt pride, then responsibility to prove that I belonged there, We belonged there. It was a burden and a source of pride. I soon grew tired of being reminded of my “firstness” and began to let other’s how it made me feel. Now I look back with pride and realize that I did make a difference for other’s that came after me.
Tena, The Wine Whisperer says
I am a wine enthusiast, known by several friends or associates as The Wine Whisperer! In a recent dining seminar, I was seated with 2 vanilla women. One was so fascinated with me, our convo ranged from finance to wine! I like you feel the responsibility to represent. I am often approached about my hair, sparkle fashion, whatever! Others appear genuinely interested! I take the opportunity to have a conversation but know when to exit!
Shari Clarke, PhD says
Love this very true sentiment. Unfortunately, this experience is extremely real for Black women. This message is motivational and inspiring. It feels as though you are taking your strength along with you in the room with this card. Thank you!
Great article Auntie Charlotte, and I have most certainly been the one & only; even in my career I’ve been singled out as being different, when in fact, I’ve just been give an opportunity that perhaps others haven’t.
Danielle Nottingham says
Every day at work and it’s been like that almost my entire career. *sigh*. Thank you for sharing!
Katrina Stubbs says
Yes, I have been the only Black woman in the office. Often times, we are second-guessed and co-workers are surprised by the knowledge we have…saying “Who told you that?” as if we don’t have BRAINS!