The thing about being the only woman of color in the room is that sometimes I forget that this is not how it has to be.
If I am just hanging out with my friends, sitting with the fellow interns or meeting with my superiors at work, it is easy to forget about race and diversity demographics. In the same way that you might forget about a distinctive feature on a friend (like brightly dyed hair) or in the way that I don’t notice my mother’s Chinese accent, familiarity with the individual has a way of making us forget our differences and see through to the person.
That’s not to say I forget who I am. I value my heritage greatly. My sisters and I will often remark that we are thankful that we are not fully white (as mixed-race people are often just identified with their non-white part). But as a biracial person, I can also often pass as white or at least be seen as a stereotypically non-threatening minority, and this may contribute to my ability to not constantly think about my race and feel relatively comfortable in spaces without much diversity.
But the thing about being the only women of color in most rooms is that it can become so normal — until you realize it is not.
My office (which is otherwise wonderfully welcoming and amazing) has only a handful of people of color working here — two of which are interns. When I am sitting with my bosses (two white men) or with the other interns, I sometimes forget that I am the only woman of color voice in that room. I don’t feel uncomfortable or like an outsider — I am just a team member.
But there are other times when I sit in our large conference room in a meeting with half the staff, and staring at me from the other side of the table are dozens of blue eyes with blonde hair and the room starts to feel warm and almost suffocating in its whiteness. Instead of focusing on the presentation at hand, I can’t help but count the people of color in the office and in the room, wondering if they are thinking the same thing I am.
These feelings manifest themselves in different ways, too. One night I had the opportunity to hear from a panel of former Barack Obama White House staff members who were all women of color, and it was uplifting to see people from such diverse backgrounds have a major influence on policy. The audience was also filled with more women of color, and I felt overwhelmingly at peace yet also excited to see so many young professional women of color succeeding in Washington, D.C., where too often we are surrounded by white men.
Another night, in a very different context, I was drunk at a bar and met an Asian man who had recently moved to the U.S. He talked about how he was having a difficult time finding community here. Overflowed with emotion, I hugged him and sobbed uncontrollably for the next hour. It struck me then that I also had not found an Asian community here, and I could only imagine how much more difficult it was for him as an immigrant who was new to the city and country. The encounter reminded me how much I value my family and community at home and how much I missed that bond.
So, when I say I forget about being a woman of color when surrounded by white people, it’s not that I forget that I am, in fact, a woman of color. It’s that I almost suppress those emotions and forget how much I value those connections in order to find new ways to bond with white people to succeed in the in the world they rule.
I’ve learned about sports that I don’t care about so that I can chat with my boss about the latest college football updates after the weekend. I hold my tongue when my superiors talk about China and policy and marketing projects there because it is not my place to criticize their strategy as the intern (even if I lived there and have family there and understand the culture way better than they ever could). I pretend it is normal to be the only person of color in the room.
It can seem like everyone with any power is a white man in places like D.C. or in the corporate world sometimes. That every room you enter you will be the only person of color. But at other times there will be glimmers of hope when you hear from successful people of color who build each other and their communities up with them. Or when you attend an event aimed at your community and you finally feel at home.
It is sometimes easier to forget when you are the only woman of color in the room — easier to try to blend in and make people like you — but that doesn’t mean it’s right.