The only one in the room — image by Marcus Parker
I used to loathe the end of January. Around that time, anxiety-ridden managers would start suggesting that I help organize the Black History Month activities for February. Bless their hearts. They either genuinely felt our staff needed to be more conscious of the contributions African Americans made to society, or somewhere in their manager handbook, this was mentioned in the cultural sensitivity part.
Growing up, I was always slated to read the “I Have A Dream,” speech in class or chosen to explain how the Underground Railroad operated without physical tracks.Back in 1st grade, when our progressive music teacher wanted us to learn about soulful pop music, she wrote a play and cast me as Michael Jackrabbit, the moonwalking bunny with a culturally ambiguous face.
All of this was a version of tokenism that I had become accustomed to before I even knew tokenism was a thing. Tokenism is race and gender agnostic. No one is safe. Consider the exemplary woman who has broken into the good ‘ole boys club of corporate America, or the lone gay man at a job brimming with tough guys and their laughable displays of machismo, or in my case, the prototypical black face in nearly every social group to which I’ve belonged. Anyone can become a victim of tokenism, but it will always befall the Only One in the Room, a phrase that I’ve borrowed from a recent NPR article. The article, “On Wyatt Cenac, Key & Peele, And Being The Only One In the Room,” describes situations wherein there is only one minority in a group, otherwise known as the last 20 years of my life. Life is hard for the token, and it’s hard for the Only One. When you are both at once, it feels like playing a game of chess while balancing on a high wire.
I know my teachers and peers were not willfully trying to make me a mascot for diversity or the defender of all things Black. Their behavior-—like all behavior—had a cause. They lived in an extremely homogeneous society and, save for the Huxtables, I was almost the only image of Blackness they saw, and I was certainly the only image they could readily access. They could literally feel my knotted hair, or gauge in real-time my reaction to comments about slavery. And since I have green eyes, blonde hair and tapioca-colored skin, I was all the more exotic, and a seemingly inexhaustible point of reference.
Growing up in predominantly white environments can be challenging for black youths. And as of late, we’ve seen that growing up while black can be dangerous. Anymore, one need only to be armed with a hoodie and a pack of Skittles to be considered a mortal threat when you have black skin. And in a time where Stand Your Ground has become a reasonable defense for justifiable homicide, the black experience in America is to live under constant fear for life and limb and a persistent anxiety about how your black body affects the public space around you.
The author as a young child — photo via Stacey Walker
I attended college at the University of Iowa, the largest public education institution in the state, boasting over 30,000 students. One would think that the law of large numbers would prevent me from being the Only One in the room, but unfortunately that was not the case. The University reported last fall that African Americans make up about 2% of the entire student body population. The law of large numbers notwithstanding, for most of my classes, I was often the lone brown face in a sea of white.
The largest gathering of African Americans in any one place on campus was not at a Black Student Union meeting, but rather on the sideline at Kinnick Stadium on game day—a fact that fed into the unfortunately pervasive and persistent stereotype that students of color were merely athletic workhorses, whose primary role was to secure Big Ten championships and help the university sell club seats to boosters.
Being the Only One in the classroom, or even at a bar, forced me to constantly calculate appropriate responses to a myriad of situations. It’s like having two processors in your brain, one for analyzing information just like anyone else might, and the other for analyzing information as a black person.
My college years coincided with the 2008 presidential race, and the prospect of the first African American president often meant I was the de facto authority on Barack Obama’s campaign, and Barack Obama the black man. Not only was I to know all of his policy positions in great detail, but I was also expected to know what made him tick; what went on inside of his mind. I was expected to know this not because I was a student of political science, but because Barack Obama and I shared the same race. In social circles outside of the classroom, I served as a guarantor of sorts, promising white friends that if elected, Obama would neither institute policies that would have punitive effect on whites, nor would he champion policies that showed favoritism towards blacks, and in no way would he force every American to learn the Electric Slide.
Being the Only One also means you become a spokesperson for your race, whether you want the job or not. As the appointed representative of your people, you must know every fact of history concerning your race and be prepared to answer any and all questions—no matter how ridiculous—as if you were presenting a dissertation you’ve spent your entire adult life researching. Anything less suggests you may not really be black, or, at the very least, you simply don’t know your own history, and isn’t that sad?
The mental calculus is exhausting at times. When someone you know shares a racist joke, you find yourself wondering whether to bite your tongue or speak up. Heaven forbid you get cast as the angry black man, or risk harming your relationship with that person by speaking up. Rarely does speaking up result in fruitful conversations that lead to more understanding or reconciliation. People don’t like hearing that they’ve brushed up against society’s boundaries on race.
Nearly every institution of consequence in this state is filled to the brim with people of caucasian descent. In a lot of these institutions we’ve achieved more gender diversity, which is a great thing, but we’ve got a long way to go on racial and cultural diversity.
Our schools, our school boards, our city council, our corporate leaders, our police departments, all are institutions with significant influence in the community, and all are nearly completely white. From my cursory research, the Iowa City school board is leading on the diversity front with three women, one of whom is a person of color, and one African American man. In instances where there is a minority or two in these powerful institutions, I can guarantee you that they are also playing chess on the daily, being strategic about their every move, playing the long game. These institutions are the backbone of our society. The people who make up these institutions make budgetary decisions, pass ordinances and react to the needs of their constituents. If there are few to no people of color at the highest levels of our community leadership, who then will be our advocate? Who can skillfully articulate the concerns of black America when necessary to ensure equitable decision-making at the highest levels?
Iowa City has just one person of color on its city council. Our capital city of Des Moines which is also the largest city in Iowa, and Cedar Rapids, the second largest city in the state, have no members of color on their respective councils. When issues with clear racial undertones come up for discussion before the council in Iowa City, must this lone member become the natural advocate? Is any position he takes on the matter automatically compromised vis-à-vis some sort of implied racial bias? Does Councilor Kingsley Botchway’s skin color—an unchangeable fixture of his identity—constitute a conflict of interest? Does he let down his people if he does not champion a cause they care about?
Again, the calculus is menacing. People of color try mightily not to be accused of playing the race card, the quick rebuff often used by those in the dominant group to dismiss our claims and concerns. The fear of dismissal is balanced against the soul-crushing charge of “selling out,” and being silent too often. It is the classic catch-22; a terrible drama that plays out in our heads while we sit in classrooms and serve as mediators during conversations about race, when we hear white folks express disgust at the “singular,” focus of the Black Lives Matter movement, when our faces turn to stone after hearing the joke that begins, so a Mexican, a Jew, and a black guy walk into a bar.
As the students return to campus from the gilded suburbs of Chicago, from Iowa’s many towns and cities, and as first-timers come too, one of the things they likely won’t be concerned about is how it feels to be the Only One in the room. That feeling, if it exists at all for them, lives deep down in their psyche until it is jolted out by circumstance.
My hope is that as a community, we can raise our collective consciousness about race and the challenges posed to minorities and communities by too little racial diversity. Even if our community leaders cannot see the long term benefits of addressing racial disparities in our institutions straight away, surely they can understand that in the short term, this effort will make our society more inclusive and understanding; two key ingredients for progress.
The greater Corridor area is generally forward-looking and its cities are anchors for the region. However, we can be even better. Our students on campus can strive to make more meaningful connections with their peers of color, not as token gestures, but in an effort to broaden their understanding of different people. Our companies can be intentional about grooming minority employees for leadership positions so that over time, corporate culture and governance can be more inclusive. Our police departments can work a little harder to understand the root causes of crime, which lays like a thick fog over economically depressed and heavily minority neighborhoods. Only then can they work on preventive measures to address crime before it happens. And if education is the great equalizer, the University of Iowa can play an outsized role in addressing racial disparities across this state, perhaps beginning with a renewed effort to recruit more minority students and faculty, and then providing both groups with the tools and resources they need to be successful. Perhaps the University will go so far as interviewing a minority candidate as it searches for a new president.
A good friend of mine told me that to win a chess game sometimes takes up to 50 good moves. However to lose a chess game may only take a single misstep. Addressing racial disparities in this community will take time and great effort. It will take many good women and men who are wise and steadfast. It will not be easy, but it is worthy of our efforts. Now it’s time for us to start playing to win the long game.
After college, Stacey Walker worked in Washington, D.C. at the Stephen and Jean Case Foundation on the social innovation team. He has since worked on several political campaigns at the congressional, gubernatorial, and presidential levels. He currently resides in North Liberty, Iowa. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 182.