Updated: Feb 13, 2019
“Uncommon spaces” is used here to refer to those spheres of influences and settings that have been or are often dominated by Whites.
I've always said that the minority experience is always accompanied with pressure, positive and/or negative. As a minority, I always walk into uncommon spaces with a burden on my shoulder. No. It is more like being pulled in both directions. The pull, on end is positive pressure i.e. it comes from those you identify and share mutual characteristics with, especially when they support and believe in you. There's always a ring in my ear, "...You're one of the few... Make everyone proud… Don't be a self-fulfilling prophecy..." (See article on Stuck: The Paradox of Confidence). The positive pressure is the "motivation" to always excel especially on behalf of the community and family you identify with. To represent my race and my people, in addition to representing who I am is something I am not sure will become less salient for me. This is a phenomenon I think some non-minorities will find hard to understand.
On the other end, is what I call negative pressure, where you are burdened to prove yourself right to the naysayers, doubters and skeptics. This is not mutually exclusive from positive pressure, and it is exacerbated when a minority finds themselves in uncommon spaces. Positive pressure is sometimes unsought motivation. Negative pressure is sometimes necessary burden.
Among many things, college opened my eyes to was what it meant to be a minority in America. I was not just black. I was a woman. I was not just an immigrant. I was a first-generation student from a low-income family as well. In several cases, I'd end up being the minority of the minority (See article on this here).
I have fond memories of moments where I was reminded implicitly, explicitly, clearly and vaguely that I was a minority in college. There was one time in my comparative Politics class, where we indulged ourselves in a simulation set during one of the World Wars (I think it was WW2). The professor broke the class into teams, each group representing entities or states. My group had three white males and two black females (amusingly, the other female on my team was also a Ghanaian). One of the guys volunteered himself as a team leader.
On top of the fact that the team leader did not seem to know what collaboration with team members meant (we'd "assassinate” him soon into the negotiation because, to say the least, he was a terrible team leader), I found myself in the stereotypical White Man's club. It was sickening to see how often they ignored the contributions of the two females in the group. I remember my female counterpart and I turning to each other in astonishment as they continued to alienate us from the internal deliberation. Some few minutes later, she would call them out. She had sown a seed in me then without her knowing.
At one point during the simulation, I remember making a recommendation for negotiation which was completely ignored (I was incredibly confident about my idea). Proven right, my professor eventually remarked that that would have been a very strong move on our part in the negotiation. I would go on to have similar encounters throughout my undergraduate years in many group settings: Suggest something to a group where I was a minority. Get ignored. Let it pass. End up being the most appropriate answer.
Then there was the other time where we were talking about affirmative action in one of my classes: I was one of three minority students. I forget what the prompt/question was, but many eyes turned to me, staring deep into my soul and expecting me to spit out a well-articulated and coherent response to the question. I almost blurted out, "Wooh! I'm as ignorant as you are on this! Chill with the stares!" And I was truly ignorant about affirmative action and the debate around it then. I would have many more moments like that, when people would look at you like you were the chief expert of all things minority-related, in and out of school settings.
I would go on to have similar encounters throughout my undergraduate years in many group settings: Suggest something to a group where I was a minority. Get ignored. Let it pass. End up being the most appropriate answer.
Maybe they were not doing it intentionally. They just didn’t hear me. Maybe they were so used to this dynamic that they did not recognize how their actions were being interpreted. Maybe in the heat of the moment, their competitive edge took over. Maybe I didn't voice out my opinion louder. Maybe, there's no foul play: My brain is just translating it that way. I was always caught in the "maybes" as a way to justify why these experiences I encountered should be overlooked or trivialized. I am still caught in the “maybes” sometimes.
But my response to these dynamics have changed. I have adopted two main approaches. The first one is to build on the principle of “assuming best intentions”. Now this is not to suggest that every encounter of microaggression and the -isms I experience is based on ignorance and innocence: This is what helps me keep my sanity as an optimistic, faith-filled person. The second mindset is best expressed by Michelle and Barack Obama’s “When they go low, we go high”. By adopting this mindset, I channel my energy into action rather than reaction, thus it helps me respond by meeting goals, rather than reacting.
How have you responded to microaggressions, implicit bias and other forms of -isms you identify in your own experiences? Please share below.