My experience this summer has provoked me to think about what it feels like to be “only.” I have spent the past 5 weeks as an intern at the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice. Over the course of this time, I have made some great friends and met some incredible people, more specifically, some incredible women.
I work in an office where I am basically the only male. I noticed this quite early on in my internship. I don’t mean to suggest I was intimidated or discouraged by this fact, but more so aware of my position as a minority in this setting. Just today, I was a part of a presentation at the Pauli Murray Center’s Board Meeting, where I was the only male-identifying individual in the entire room. In situations like such, where you are “the only X” or an outnumbered minority, it can be incredibly easy to feel out of place. I was lucky enough to feel nothing of the sort. Barbara, Jamie, Suad, Mayme, Rachel, Emily, Sarah, Mary, and so many more, have all done such an excellent job of making me feel welcome. They truly were able to make me feel secure in my environment through their kindness, respect for my contributions, and non-differential treatment. I very soon forgot that I was “the only” anything and focused more on my identity as a member of the team.
I wanted to include this anecdote as a way of expressing my gratitude and showcasing the warm work culture, both at the Pauli Murray Center and the broader Franklin Humanities Institute, that I have had the opportunity to be a part of. However, I believe there is something more to be noted from my experience, specifically about this modality of thinking and feeling associated with being “the only X.” As a male, I have had the privilege of not experiencing such situations and associated feelings in many of the interactions throughout my life. There are many of us, just by the nature of our identity, who never have to feel like “the only X.” Unfortunately, this mode of thinking is extremely important and an integral part for general human empathy and understanding.
Sure, as I have written above, situations where an individual is “the only X” are not necessarily negative ones. Appropriate behavior and interaction can address the issues accompanying minority-status and even have the ability to foster diversity of a different kind: intellectual and emotional. However, we still have to think about what it means to be “the only X” and what we are saying when we create situations that are not truly inclusive. What does it mean when only 19.9% of Board Seats at S&P 500 Companies are held by women? What about when only 19.6% of the United States Congress are women? My purpose in this post is not to construct an argument about the under-representation of women specifically; you can consider any minority group you see fit.
We can all understand how difficult or intimidating it may be to be “the only X,” as I’m sure many of us have been in these kinds of situations at some point in our life. I want instead to raise a broader point about the importance behind recognizing the privilege many of us have, to experience being “the only X” in temporary, fleeting occasions. There are many individuals who have to experience this condition for much of their lives. Interestingly, it feels like this all comes full circle for me, as Pauli Murray was someone who dealt with being “the only” for much of her life. She endeavored to be the only African American student at the [then] all-white University of North Carolina… She was accepted as a Rosenwald Fellow to Harvard Law, only to be denied because of her gender… In 1977, Pauli became the only African American woman who was an Episcopal Priest.
The world is always changing, and we should always be putting forth effort to make our surroundings as diverse as possible. But, in the meantime, those of us who are lucky enough to be able to step out of the minority-role should continue to always engage in this mode of thought: “What is it like to be the only X?” This thinking will grant us the empathy and compassion to further motivate efforts to make environments inclusive for all, and remind us all of the merit behind treating everyone with equity, fairness, and respect.