A Love Letter to “the Onlys”: Underrepresented People Experiencing Tokenism and Isolation at Work

A dear friend of mine recently reached out to me via a text message:

“Hi love! Just wanted to share with you — I started my new job this Monday and encountered an unexpected thing — it turns out I am the ONLY POC [person of color] and LGBT person in my team and my floor. ”

“The twist — the only POC are support staff”

This is not an unusual experience for many people navigating workplaces and fields dominated by cis, straight, white men. Given Awaken’s extensive work in tech, our workshop rooms often include the “onlys” — underrepresented folks who are probably more nervous than the rest of the room about how this “diversity and inclusion” conversation is going to go, and how much additional emotional and educational labor they’ll need to take on either during or after the workshop. I know, because I’ve been there.

Despite the increasing demand for women’s empowerment and diverse representation, recent research by McKinsey and LeanIn found that being the “only one” is still a common experience for women, especially women of color and queer women (the study didn’t comment on or distinguish the experiences of trans or nonbinary folks, but we can safely assume the experience is likely worse, or similar at best).

The study also found, not surprisingly, that being “the only” results in a higher likelihood of being on the receiving end of microaggressions, having their abilities challenged, and sexual harassment. Women aren’t the only ones experiencing this — we know that anyone with underrepresented identities, especially visible ones (being Black or Brown, trans, genderqueer, nonbinary, Muslim, disabled, etc.) share similar experiences of hyper-visibility.

Being “the only” is exhausting.

Especially if no one around you seems to notice the unequal and unfair pressure to represent your identity group(s), speak up against bias, and educate others who “just want to learn” at the expense of your emotional labor.

The experience can feel isolating and threatening — while you are trying your best to show up as a positive, hardworking “team player, ” a part of you is in a constant state of censorship. You might be extra vigilant about not sounding like you’re “complaining” or too “aggressive” when bringing up concerns around workplace bias or diversity and inclusion.

Negotiating with yourself in order to survive the workplace culture filled with “well-intentioned” yet ignorant people takes a toll over time. You’re constantly performing, rather than just being.

So here’s my love letter to underrepresented people in the workplace who are experiencing tokenism or being “the only” at their company:

  1. You do not have to shoulder the burden of educating others on “Diversity & Inclusion” (unless you’re hired to do so) or your lived experiences.
  2. You are allowed to make mistakes, just like everyone else.
  3. You do not have to represent a whole community(ies). You represent yourself and yourself only.
  4. Establish a trusted support system at work and leverage the shit out of them. Especially when your voice needs to be amplified or when you fear unfair negative repercussions.
  5. You don’t have to be a martyr. Your existence alone is revolutionary. Take care of yourself. Don’t burn out.
  6. Your leaders, your company, your company culture, your teammates, and the systems need to change. NOT YOU.
  7. Don’t give into cynicism. Hang on to the hope that change is possible, even if it feels slow. BUT don’t lie to yourself about the harm you feel.
  8. You deserve joy and success. You deserve to feel valued.
  9. Pay attention to how you’re listened to and whether you’re given real power to make a difference, not just a “seat” at the table.
  10. Gaslighting is real and too frequent. Trust yourself.
  11. You are not alone even if it feels like so. Don’t suffer in isolation — you have communities of people who see you and have your back.
  12. Remember: You can leave.

After I tweeted this “love letter,” what followed was a whole bunch of validating and heartbreaking responses from the Onlys all over the world (someone translated the entire thread in Portugese).

Go ahead, read these tweets and feel less alone ❤

Send the love letter to someone you care about who may need the reminder today.

And, if you’re not underrepresented, take it upon yourself to share and review the list with your team — ask yourselves: “are we, by any chance, putting an unfair burden or additional scrutiny on underrepresented members of our team? What are some ways we can show up for underrepresented people? What more can we do?”