First in your family to go to college. First generation American. Only one who grew up bilingual. Only one who moved away from the family. Only one to earn more money than your parents. First one to break barriers as the only woman or person of color to succeed in all white male spaces.
When you are the First or the Only, you carry that with you. It is part of your story. You may experience it as a source of pride or pressure. Within your loving inner circle, it may create closeness or separation. Eventually, your First or Only status is integrated into your sense of self. Unless you choose to share it, these signifiers are invisible when you wander through the world.
For people of color and women, who are frequently the Only and/or the First, there is no such thing as invisible. Gender and race can’t be tucked away only to come out by choice. As these people wander through the world, they are immediately categorized as “other” because they don’t look like the dominant group. This may cause rejection, derision or worse.
And yet, people of color and women feel invisible at work. Their “other” status creates a paradox. On the one hand, they are often passed over for opportunities because they are different. And on the other, they are expected to fit the norms so their distinctions of non-white or female are ignored, not heard and not seen.
The dominant group wants it both ways—for minorities and women to be visible and invisible. When it comes to opportunities or challenging conversations you are different but when it comes to peaceful coexistence you are one of us.
If we are going to move forward in meaningful ways around diversity and equity, the first step must be for members of the dominant group to turn inward. Remember times when you were the Only or when you yearned to step outside expectations that were imposed on you. Recall how it felt when you didn’t fit neatly into the norms. Now consider that what you felt occasionally in your life is a 24/7 existence for the “others”. Tap into your empathy and humanity and know that all anyone wants is to be heard and seen. Start there.