On being the only Black person in a room

Photo courtesy of Blake Israel

Being the only Black person in the room. It’s not a life-ending experience, but when it happens nearly every day in the majority of your social settings, it can be life-changing. 

When it’s just one day or one social event, it can be a good chance to get out of your bubble; an offhand remark can just be brushed off at face value. But when you’re constantly having to brush off your shoulders, a callous forms.

I grew up in a predominantly Black area; actually it was almost exclusively Black, but we didn’t make it that way. In the 90s and early 2000s, families like mine joined the emerging Black middle class, moving up out of the ghettos and into metro Atlanta’s suburbs. 

“Our families had fought for so long for equality and it’s like we were the first generation to really peek our heads over the curtain and get to see what was withheld from us,” I remember my Uncle Ben remarking during one family visit. At any rate, when we moved in, the white residents moved out, and my community was formed.

Our schools and infrastructure weren’t the best. I am regularly reminded by my classmates about how underfunded my school system was as they remark how “interesting” the data is for their research projects. 

But what we had was community and I learned early that the strength of the community lies in the community — the emergent properties that result when groups come together.

When our school system failed us, we carpooled to be bussed into a higher-performing school outside of our immediate zoning. When the housing market collapsed in 2008, churches opened food pantries and provided breakfast before the service. 

When we were lacking support at home, our educators guided us. It was not always perfect, but for our existence in this country, that’s how it’s been.

I provided background because the explanation of my experience can’t be told without it. What it meant to me to be separated from not just my community, but from community in general.

Being the only Black person in the room on a consistent basis removes you from that sense of community. Of course you try to connect: you start watching different TV shows, you listen to different music and you might even change your accent (code-switching), but ultimately, there’s an inherent ostracization, even when people mean their best.

After I first transferred to Tech, it felt like there was a glass wall that I couldn’t quite break through. It was a little bit like being the friend that was always on the outer edge when you walk together; no one stops for you when you pause to tie your shoe.

From my perspective, it’s an uncomfortable build-up that forms over a period of time. No one here looks like me; I have features that people think are “weird” or “unattractive.” 

People stare at my hair a lot. Not only that, no one has had my experience, when I jokingly refer to a song that taught me how to spell the word “independent” as a child, people stare at me blankly; they don’t get the reference. 

No one here expresses themselves like me. I’m no stranger to policing my tone, although I still get described as “aggressive.” It’s a constant reminder that people think I’m different.

The worst of it comes from the “jokes.” For example, I had a professor who took the liberty of sharing their thoughts on my hair one day in class. The other students thought it was hilarious, erupting into laughter before our professor finished their remark. I felt humiliated. 

Everyone was staring at me thinking it was so funny that I “look like I braided my hair once and never touched it again.” From my classmates’ perspective, my professor had not made that comment because I was Black, they simply made the comment because I had bad hair.

That experience was the third or fourth of the sort that week. I was tired of being myself in the environment I was in. I thought of ways to change myself. 

Maybe I would just start wearing my dreadlocks pulled back in a bun or covered underneath a scarf or wig. I had been growing my hair out for about five years, so it was pretty long. Maybe I was the problem.

Giving up on myself and my identity was a difficult pressure to resist. Ultimately, I decided to continue wearing my hair as I normally would, but I was and continually am very conscious about it.

However, when you are the only one in the room, you learn to adapt. Within my major, I feel as though I’ve been very accepted by the South Asian community. They make up some of my best friends, we listen to each other, we provide perspective, we care for one another, we acknowledge that our experiences are different but parallel to one another. 

And above all, we support one another — they don’t know it but they played a huge role in easing my burden of resisting. I have no doubt that if needed, they would carpool my own kids to school if ever asked to in the future.

As I stated earlier, I am often the only Black person in my classes — not on the entire campus. In an odd way, scarcity unites us. 

An informal system of communication, “the nod” allows us to acknowledge one another in passing without saying anything directly. 

Throughout our time in this country, nonverbal communication has been a vital tool in resistance strategy: through drums, through braided patterns, through weaved cloths, we found ways to acknowledge each other in our experiences — “Hey, I see you. I’m out here too.”

This article is specially dedicated to Sabat Siddiqi, 4th-year PUBP, Iman Emdad, 4th-year PUBP and Afshan Hasnain, 4th-year PUBP.