Being the Only Minority in the Room​

(Deep topic, long post that’s worth the read)

In the wake of the turmoil and sadness surrounding the death of George Floyd in 2020 every American is thinking about racial disparity and how they may be impacted and how they may be part of the problem or part of the solution. Good. We all should take a long pause and reflect on how we can make this world a better place, indeed a more just, free and equitable place. That equity being sought for minorities (and frequently women) is in every area of life and community, including the workplace.

If you are part of a minority group and a professional, then you (like many others) may find yourself being the only representative of that minority in the room or at the table in a company, organization or other professional groups, like local bar associations. Perhaps, if you are female, Black, Latino, from a different nationality or ethnically diverse from the majority in your workplace, you may have experienced this professional challenge first-hand.

Yes, you or someone close to you may know exactly what it feels like to be one-of-a-kind or at least a member of a small group in a prep school, organization or field of practice in your community. It can be uncomfortable, unsettling, even intimidating. However, with education, intentionality and sensitivity, it doesn’t have to be a bad experience. Truth is that it is the painful reality for so many minorities and women. I’ll admit that I am an eternal optimist and I truly believe that things can and will get better, but first let’s take a look at some specific circumstances, data and solutions. Please keep in mind that this article is NOT an attempt to bash or shame anyone, but rather to identify a real sociological challenge and find best practices and attitudes to overcome it.

The Current Condition:

So often, the higher minority professionals go in any organization or company, the more this “being the only one in the room” occurs. In fact, this is even more true if you may fall into multiple minority categories at the same time. That was my case. I personally know what that’s like as a black female. You see, I was the first Black Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney for the County of Albemarle which is in (Photo cred: Wikipedia) my hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia – an area with a storied past (a mix of both good and bad history) and the place of the awful white supremacist Unite the Right rally that took the life of local resident Heather Heyer on August 12, 2017. That was an event which our entire community still mourns and laments, but by which we refuse to be defined.

In over a decade of public service as a prosecutor there were never more than about five or six actively practicing African American attorneys in our entire legal community with me, which is quite large, (as lawyers seem to love Charlottesville)!

I transitioned from the courtroom to the boardroom in a career change that took me to Northrop Grumman as a Senior Business Management professional in the military defense industry. The absence of diversity relative to Black females was even more noticeable in the field of military defense which mostly male dominated. I am compelled to say that I rarely felt looked over, undervalued or ostracized because of my race or gender, but that was in large part due to the fact that I am intentional about being bold and confident so as to been seen, heard and given opportunities to perform and obtain upward mobility. I definitely had to learn when to fight for such opportunities and when to simply let things go for one reason or another.

The Statistics:

In July 2011 Diversity Inc published an article which emphasized the fact that there are very few Black, Latino, Asian and female CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies in the United States. At that time, Blacks comprised only 1.2%, Asians 1.4%, Latinos occupied 1.2% of the top corporate roles and women topped the list at 4.2%. The article also highlighted some of the top 50 companies that have a strong showing overall in diversity in the CEO position. A few of the companies and CEO’s were:

Black CEO’s:

Kenneth Chenault of American Express (whom I have personally met)

Kenneth Frazier of Merck & Co

Don Thompson of McDonald’s (Wikipedia photo right)

and Ursula Burns of Xerox

There were and are now others, but the list remains short, even though there is no shortage of talent to fill the positions.

The Challenge:

Being a senior or high level minority professional in your company or field creates unique challenges. By the time you are the CEO of the company those challenges are perhaps completely overcome, however, they likely still exist within the industry at various levels beneath the C-Suite level. When you have not quite risen all the way to the top there are probably still obstacles to overcome.

Work as a minority professional is somewhat of a sociological experiment for each person. Since people naturally tend to associate with others like themselves in appearance, background or beliefs, when someone who is different for whatever reason shows up on the scene, there can be an unspoken chasm between that individual and the rest of the majority group. In today’s environment this isolation tends not to be as overt as in decades past (think of the movie Hidden Figures) and may in fact be unintentional. Nonetheless, this separation is a natural social phenomenon that is harmful at work.

The good news is that this silent division can be overcome in most cases, and must be overcome in the workplace to foster unity, productivity, innovation and a happy, healthy “home away from home” where every employee feels welcome and valued. Creating an inclusive work environment is not always easy, but it’s definitely worth the effort!

5 Unspoken Do’s and Don’ts of Diversity and Inclusion: These keys will help to make your professional experience easier a minority professional. And, oh yes, if you’re not part of a minority group and you took the time to read this post and/or talk about it with your work team – Thank you. Bravo for reading and for caring about your amazing minority coworkers whom you can help to feel welcome at work!

1. Confidence counts. As a minority in the workforce, don’t lose your confidence or think less of yourself in comparison to others in the group simply because you look different and are not a carbon copy of the culture of the majority. You must recognize that you are in the room because you are value-added. You would not even be there if you did not bring skill, talent and expertise to your team. They need you there.

2. Be open. Try not to take the initial feeling of separation so personally. Remember that everyone involved must adjust to working with people who do not look, sound or perceive the same way that they do. The good news is that over time with the right attitudes of and strategies employed, you and your coworkers can grow to develop trust, friendship, mutual respect and admiration.

3. There are no cookie-cutter fixes. Don’t feel the need to always be defensive or to overemphasize your differences thereby antagonizing other coworkers in your group. By allowing yourself to let your guard down a bit, you just might see that you have more in common than first meets the eye. If you do encounter instances of prejudice and discrimination, decide what you are comfortable with in terms of the best way to handle the situation for redress. Sometimes you might choose to have a candid talk with the individual offending colleague, but at other times you may need to raise the issue to higher levels of leadership and/or Human Resources. Do what you feel is best for you. Not every circumstance will be the same. As with most challenges in life, you’ll need to choose your battles and remember that every conflict is not always about race. You may just work with an “equal opportunity jerk!”

4. Break stereotypes. Do not settle for being “the best in your minority group.” Instead, set your goal to simply be the best. Period! I like the statement of Danica Patrick, the female race car driver who in the last few years became the first woman in history to obtain the top spot at NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series race having qualified at the Daytona 500 International Speedway and topping speeds of 196 MPH! In a statement to the press Danica stated, “I was brought up to be the fastest driver, not the fastest girl.”

5. To quote legendary singer Billy Joel, “Don’t go changin’!

Never, never, never try to change to be like anyone else in order to fit in. Sure, there is organizational and corporate culture and there is nothing wrong with embracing that so long as in doing so you do not sacrifice the essence of who you are as a person. That includes standing by your values, and to a certain extent, your own personal culture – the very thing that makes you so unique, awesome and a diversity gem on your team! Do celebrate both your similarities and differences between you and your colleagues. Above all, just be who you are and bring all of your wonderful talents to the table each and every day.

Cynthia Murray is the CEO of Cynthia Murray Enterprises LLC and has more than 20 years of experience leading in local government, corporate America and with her own international non-profit organization of which she is founder and Executive Director. She is a published author and sought-after keynote speaker. Cynthia teaches, trains and speaks globally and is expert in leadership development and team-building.

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