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The Only Black Man in the Room

Philip Wilkerson | August 27, 2020 | 4 minute read

The Only Black Man in the Room

Philip Wilkerson | August 27, 2020 | 4 minute read

How often are you in a crowd and not a single person looks like you? 

Whenever I walk into a large gathering, whether it’s a work meeting or a conference, I count the number of Black people in the room. Much of the time, I am either the only Black man or only one of the Black men I can count on one hand. Unfortunately, this is all too common in higher education, especially at predominately White institutions (PWIs). Frequently, there are merely four or five of us at a 300- person conference.  Over time, that sense of “otherness”, and of “being the only” in these spaces not only becomes exhausting, but also begins to take a toll on your wellbeing.

 

 These recurring experiences often cause a state of hypervigilance – the need to constantly be aware of one’s surroundings, one’s behaviors, and how one is being perceived at all times. This inability to allow myself to just be, authentically, in predominantly white spaces produces an ongoing anxiety which contributes to a perception of self as imposter. I’ve written about this, at length, in the article, “Journey of an Imposter”. The fear that I might be labeled a fraud or found to be less capable than my white counterparts is challenging even though I know that I have earned my place at the proverbial table through hard work and dedication. 

 

To combat this cycle of conflict, I purposely seek out all-Black spaces to feel a sense of community and belonging. These spaces do, indeed, help me feel better. But what if you do not have the luxury of being in all-Black spaces? What do you do then? One technique I employ is finding shared humanity in all the spaces I enter. I got this idea while listening to an episode of the Greater Good Science Podcast,  Can You Humanize a Zombie?. The broadcast suggested using an exercise that encourages listeners to interact with someone, that on the visible surface, is different from them (it could be race, or it could be something as superficial as dressing in an unexpected way). 

 

We all have implicit biases and while some identities are visible, others are hidden and may only come up as we communicate with each other. This exercise helps us move past our biases to see what may be hidden.  The rules in this social interaction experiment are simple: When meeting someone who seems different, list what the two of you have in common. I practice doing this when I meet someone for the first time by asking questions. When I meet them, I try to guess commonalities before I even open my mouth. It’s like a game; sometimes I’m Sherlock Holmes drawing conclusions about their life based on their clothing or speech. Wear JMU or GMU gear and I am going to ask if you went to James Madison or George Mason universities or if you have family or friends who did. My wife can verify that I do this –in public – all the time. At the bare minimum, one commonality you can always come up with is “at this moment we share the same space”.  As you talk with them, you may come up with several more. 

 

Studies have shown that a sense of belonging and of community are essential to our well-being and attainment of happiness. In these polarized times, we need to find that delicate balance between respecting and celebrating each other’s differences and acknowledging our shared humanity and common goals.   I may continue to be the “only Black man” in many rooms but that does not mean I am the only person who cares about others, the only parent, or the only friend in those spaces.  Continue being your true self but fight “loneliness” or “otherness” by discovering what you and others have in common regardless of the spaces you find yourself in. 

About the Author

Philip Wilkerson works at George Mason University as an Industry Advisor for Media, Arts, and Design. He resides in Burke, Virginia. He is married to his high school sweetheart and father to two boys. He also hosts a podcast called Positive Philter which focuses on positivity and well-being in everyday life.

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