Black Faces in White Spaces | The only one in the room

KSN Digital Extra

WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — ­­America and Canada recognize February as Black History Month. It began as a way to remember important people and events in the story of African ancestors brought to the United States. 

Though it is a welcomed nod to a turbulent past and overcoming, African-Americans now are less concerned with what the history of being black looks like, and more about how its future will appear.

“Oftentimes, I’m the only one in the room in boardrooms,” said Joseph Shepard, Director of Multicultural Engagement and Campus Life at Newman University. “I’m the only one in the room in professional settings, and depending on who is in that room, I feel compelled and or forced, or obligated to try extra hard to appear to be articulate or educated.” 

Being the only “one” in the room, in regard to black professionals can make a person feel like they are indeed, alone. Shepard, 26, is a young, black, educated millennial. More African-American students than in recent history are seeking and attaining advanced degrees as higher education has become less of a hurdle than in previous generations. Following that pursuit comes the next phase, the workforce. 

Black professionals often echo the same concerns as Shepard. They’re elated to have climbed the ranks but disheartened by identity politics and bias that some say make them feel like their professional worth comes secondary to aspects of race, heritage, and culture.

“When I first began working in the field, I came with a lot of those preconceived ideas thrown at me,” admits Janice Parks, Licensed Specialist Clinical Social Worker. “You might not be good enough. You’re going to have to work extra hard. You have to make sure your hair is together. You have to make sure that you’re speaking a certain way.”

“I wasn’t comfortable coming in with my curly, coily, kinks,” said Danielle Johnson, Assistant Director of Diversity and Inclusion at WSU. “So for the longest time, I would flat iron my hair straight because I thought ‘this is the standard, this is the European standard’ and for me, that was a switch.”

The switch Johnson is talking about is “Code Switch” or, alternating between two languages or types of speech to adhere to perceived social norms. This is common, and often unconscious, in an age where African Americans make up more than 14.6% of the U.S. population.

Code Switch reaches beyond the African American community. Immigrant families from many walks of life find themselves reluctant to communicate with each other in native tongues in public for fear of acts against them. 

“I also think for other communities, our Spanish speaking communities, there are folks and students that have come to me and said they are uncomfortable speaking Spanish with their family outside,” says Johnson. “Or, their parents have said ‘Don’t because I’m afraid I’m going to get yelled at’ in a store, or someone is going to run up and yell, ‘Speak English.’” 

Over 150 years after the end of the American Civil War and almost 100 years of Black History Months, many in the African American community and other people of color still say they are seeing progress but continue to struggle to find roles in professional and business spaces and the sense of inclusion that comes with it.

However, there is positivity and optimism moving forward, even when feeling placed under separate scrutiny in professional spaces where some can feel overwhelmed and alone.

“So I came in with all those preconceived ideas. All I had to come in with? You love yourself,” said Janice Parks, LSCSW. “This is what you were created for. You find your purpose and you flow in that. You be kind, you love, and that’s all you need to do.”

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