Chicago Sun-Times
Discussions across the racial divide

The Only One in the Room

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After a day of workshops, I ended up at a reception being hosted by the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force.
It was pretty lively.
i spotted an empty chair at a table with the only two white women in the room.
I grabbed a seat and struck up a conversation.
Both women work for non-profits. They were at the NABJ conference scouting talent for fellowship opportunities.
"So how does it feel to be the only white people here?" I asked.

After the women finished laughing, one of them told me that when she told a relative she was going to a National Association of Black Journalist convention he asked: "So why are you going?.
There was an awkward moment when she walked into the sea of black faces. She realized then how black people must feel on a regular basis, she said.
The other woman went to NPR's Farai Chideya's 6:30 a.m. work-out session and she was the only white woman there.
"Actually, everyone went out of their way to make me feel welcome," she said. "They kept asking me if I was O.K."
Both women agreed the experience had taught them something about race-relations.
"Every white person ought to experience being the only one in the room," one of the women said.

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33 Comments

Been there, done that.

Been the only "snowflake" in the room.

Ultimately it all depends on whether you know someone there or not. If I'm with a friend/friends, I don't even notice it.

If I'm there not knowing anyone else, it does feel a little strange, but it's not quite the "learning experience" you make it out to be.

MITCHELL COMMENT:

Maybe for you it wasn't. But then you aren't the woman I spoke to, now are you.

Majority of American white males are NOT going to set foot in an all-Black establishment, notwithstanding the professional conferences and meetings.

I am talking about completely all nitty-gritty African-American locales, where the media has a tendency to exhort negativity of our culture.

Yes, white males will come to the Blues, Jazz festivals or nightclubs, but they are NOT the only one there, it's normally a mixed audience. At times a white fellow will be in one of the bands on stage.

For white people to understand this dichotomy, they must quit moving away, spend their hard earned dollars in our communities as we do in theirs, and sit down and have frank, honest, open dialogue with Blacks without fear something terrible is going to happen.

We don't like trouble believe it or not. Trust me, we detest it!

For those who are adventureous and brave enough to do this, the stares that you receive are more of curiosity and atonishment.

Think about it?

It's the same one you give from time to time when seeing a dark-complexion man or woman in a room of white people sticking out like a sore thumb. Nothing more, nothing less.

It would be nice,if blacks were given good treating and no-stares in an all caucasians setting. But,I am afraid that day will never arrive. Blacks are the only race that can look beyond a person color,and that is a good thing.

They kept asking the White women if they were OK?

I find this difficult to believe. Having worked in the Cleveland Public School system for over 20 years as a substitute teacher I was very often the "only one" in a sea of Black faces. Most of the time an effort was made to make me feel welcome. Never once in all the years was I asked if I was "OK." OK with what? We were in a professional setting, not on some street corner populated with crack 'ho's and drug dealers. Why would anyone feel I wasn't OK? Also, asking if I'm "OK" is suggesting some unpleasant things, such as these Black folks are so violent and unpredictible that I might not be OK. Or, that I'm such a head case I might assume I was in danger when I wasn't. None of the above happened Mary. Never, ever, in more than 20 years.

Furthermore, because of the demographics of all large cities there are plenty of "only" Whites out there in various positions and situations. It's time you started to get a broader view of the world. Your "Black only" perspective is not a 21st Century way of looking at things. You are simply perpetuating the old stereotypes of both Blacks and Whites. Maybe it's time to pass this column on to one of your kids.

Whatever the case, all this angst over something that no one can change (skin color) is a waste of angst. Use your angst wisely. Overuse gets boring and people stop listening.

MITCHELL COLUMN:

Sorry, you find it hard to believe. You worry about your view and let me worry about mine.

I don't believe you're giving white people, racist or not, enough credit. Unless a white person has lived in a vacuum and is bereft of even marginal common sense, he wouldn't need to experience being the only white person in a room full of blacks in order to understand the issue of race in America.

As for the blacks who made the white women feel comfortable, that's heartwarming, but really, what else would they do if they want whites to continue to visit the NABJ conference to recruit members?

I am doubtful that either woman would have told another white person that their experience taught them anything about race relations. The main thing that whites and blacks need to know is that whites are running the show. That isn't said to heap praise on whites nor is it intended as aput down.

It's fact.

Is it really the same kind of experience though? With whites, being in the minority is an unexpected and unusual experience. It's not the norm as it is for minorities. Mary, how do you feel when you walk into a room of white people? Do you feel welcomed or do you feel like you're on the spot?

I'm not sure how I would feel. I can't say that I'm great at group functions anyways. I always feel self-conscious and would be happier if I had Harry Potter's invisiblity cloak.

MITCHELL COMMENT:

Now I'm used to being the only one in the room. But in the beginning, I felt uncomfortable, especially at social events. I was always grateful when someone was kind enough to seek me out for small talk.

"Every white person ought to experience being the only one in the room," one of the women said.
I agree - but before you etablish an opinion on race, every white person should also experience:
- their mother getting mugged by a black man on 2 different occasions
- 3 family members being berated and abused every day with racial insults and slaps while taking a bus on the south side
- having their house egged and windows broken only because they were one of the last white families on the block.
White people can made to feel like a minority and get abused like a minority. Please don't make it sound like only blacks have entitlement to that. I realize it doesn't make news in papers like the Sun Times but it does happen. Many of these terrible things happening to black people also happen to whites.

When I was in the Army,in 1983,in Germany,there were a lot of situations where I would be the only black face.Being that I was a military policeman and only 19 that made it far worse than people can imagine.When I got there they embraced a white guy I came there straight from basic training.It took months until the guys were comfortable around me to take me out to their club.Lo and behold,if I wasn't the only black face with these hundreds of people around! That was 23 years ago and I remember it like it was yesterday. It made me aware and paranoid.But I never had anyone tell me I didn't belong.I had okay times when we went out.I never wanted to say I didn't want to go because it made me one of the guys but, gosh ,I know what they were feeling.

I have done that...still it makes me wonder what your point is???

MITCHELL COMMENT:

I got a feeling that you could care less what my point is so, please, move on.

I once attended a National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA)meeting in Chicago. I belong to neither group. It was an interesting and enlightening discussion. No one threatened anyone. But I may have been all alone in the crowd.

Ms. Mitchell: did you start this blog as a way, as you stated, to really discuss things? Or did you start it with the actual intention of giving us more of your ramblings on your myopic and obsessive views of race? I ask this because your retorts to legitimate and well-written concerns (like those of bogey and Susan McMahon)are becoming nastier and nastier. It's uncalled for and it's becoming a common occurence throughout your blog. Is it your intention to insult those who you have invited to participate in your blog? These are not nasty people writing nasty posts. Maybe this "honest dialog" thing really isn't for you and maybe this quest for "honest dialog" really is nothing more than "code" for a desire to preach to white people and in return , have them do or say nothing other than grovel and apologize.

MITCHELL COMMENT:

Dave, it is not my intention to insult anyone. But I'm not here to listen to anyone's criticisms about my perspective. Susan and Bogey or anyone else who has a problem with my point-of-view can take it up with my editors. This blog is for the community to discuss racial issues.

As for "preaching" to white people, I wouldn't bother. There are plenty of people who are truly interested in talking about race in a respectful manner. I respond accordingly. But I'm not here to be anyone's punching bag.

And when people get nasty with me...I get nasty right back.

I live in a very working class neighborhood in Joliet, and our neighborhhod is very racially mixed -- mostly white, but many black and hispanic families. I love my neighborhood. The kids (of all races) are nice kids. People take care of their property and have nice little gardens, etc. I used to live around Oak Park and would often go to rib places on Madison St. in the Austin neighborhood because the food was great. I was usually the only white face in there. Sometimes a few people looked surprised, but usually, no one batted an eye. I don't think my experience is typical for a white person. I think black people are less prejuduced than white people, based on my own experiences. Or maybe less fearful.

A few years ago, my boss had invited me to accompany her to a Christmas dinner held by a contractor that our company frequently does business with. The party was held at a beautiful resort in a suburban area. Being around a diverse group of people at previous events, I looked forward to attending the dinner. When we arrived at the resort, the dinner party was mostly, if not all white, with my boss and I being the only African Americans present. I felt uncomfortable for the first 5-10 minutes but after receiving warm greetings and introductions, I became very comfortable. It felt like I worked for the company. There was plenty of food and drinks, and the Carolers sounded beautiful. Each year after that, I looked forward to going their annual Christmas party.

I've read through the comments and one in particular just really made me angy...I have to comment on the remarks made by S. McMahon.
She had me until the last two paragraphs. "A broader view of the world"? When did a view or perspective on a subject turn into a "view of the world"? That is the same notion as the action of one person defining an entire group.
As an African American female, I'm offended that she would minimize Ms. Mitchell's contribution to the discussion of race relations not only here in Chicago but in many other cities as well.
Ms. McMahon is naive if she believes a "Black Only" perspective doesn't exist. Hello, unless you are biracial (with exposure to both cultures), you're going to have one perspective or the other. Maybe perspective is the wrong word. Perhaps "life experience" more accurately describes what we're talking about here.
Surley, having one life experence or another should not prevent us from seeking an understanding or appreciation for that which is different from our own. Surely, that is what this forum is all about. If you can't admit or aren't aware that such a thing exists, perhaps it best to leave the discussion until that basic truth is crystal.
Lastly, I believe Ms. Mitchell is filled with plenty of "perspective" and "life experience" to keep us all engaged for some time to come. Shame on Ms. McMahon for suggesting otherwise.
Respect for one another is key when you're on a quest for understanding. Insults and disrespectfulness only undermines the process.

George, you descibed how "our" family was treated being the first "black" family in a white neighborhood in west englewood(we went through violence,hatred and eventually almost all whites moving out to suburbs to live next to serial killers and John Karr types) ,ms.mitchell(as far as I know)never stated that only blacks suffer racial prejudices,sometimes the ones who stay(in so-called "changing neighborhoods") suffer for the sins of the ones who left ,is it right? NO!,but it also wasnt right to be racist against others from the get go.I have always said that people who are racist should realize it will affect their children "negatively" also.Maybe since blacks are not slaves anymore most whites can't get over it ,not the other way around!

I am very aware of what "your point" is, your article doesn't address it. You tell me to "move on"
I think you are the one in need of "moving on".

It is not that big of a deal, I treat others as I would have them treat me. I don't care if I walk into a room and I am the only white person.

Everyone will turn and look, so what? Is that racism?
Because I may feel uneasy, does it mean that the others in the room are racist?
If they are staring at you, is it racism?

If you are told to leave, harassed or assulted that would be racism.

As I said, you didn't make an effective point. You were the one who noticed the non-black folks in the crowd. It doesn't really matter what they think about the situation, it is what the others in the room think.(the true thrust of your article).
Maybe you should have talked others about what they thought of the 2 white women in the room.

MITCHELL COMMENT:

I did not suggest that the interaction involved racism.

ms mitchell i readed your article about ms arellano and i found that you are just as ignorant as she is becouse you wast your time writing obout it you are not rosa parks ither, why dont you find out where you came from your own self? do not disrespect us please....

Been there done that too! I have a little idea of what it's like to be the only "whatever" in the room. Let me relay a little personal tidbit of my very own for you. I remember being the only white student, except for one white female student and a sissy white homeroom teacher who still lived with his mommy at the time, in a classroom at Fenger High School back in the fall of 1968, surrounded by about 35/40 black students, mostly male, but a few females. I don't think I have to tell you what happened next. Somehow, by the Grace of God and a little bit of my own tenacity and of course the natural will to survive, I, and that lone female student, are still alive to talk about it today!! When we finally made it out into the hallway, a bit cut up and bloodied but not life-threatening, I spotted a fellow football player, who happened to be black and who I mistakenly thought was my buddy, and he just shrugged his shoulders and walked away after I told him what was happening and asked him for his help. Yea, I know what it's like to be "the only one in the room" alright! And being a "white boy" attending both Leo High School and Fenger High School in the 1960's, that wasn't the first horrifying episode like that in my life, and certainly not the last; just the one that's easiest to relate. And talking to a lot of other "snowflakes" growing up in that era, I know what happened to me were not simply "isolated" incidents. Sorry to bust your bubble Mar, but it works both ways.

MITCHELL COMMENT:

Why do you think it is okay for you to call me "Mar?" What's that about--really?

Leave Mary Mitchell alone. She has a point and that is that.

There are MANY WHITE people who have never spent any time around blacks or any other minority! THAT'S A FACT. They don't have to.

For you white folk, even if you have "been there, done that," you haven't done it on a daily basis.

Lastly, one of the women attended a work-out session. Could it possibly be that that is the reason people asked her if she was OK???

duh

George A, truer words were never spoken. Lonnie Jones, "blacks are the only race that can look beyond a person's color". You are truly delusional because the opposite is the truth.

Bob - you can tell when you leave "Ms Mitchell (is that ok?) at a loss for words when she suggests a that a typo is insulting. COME ON BOB....DON'T LEAVE OUT THE "Y" in Mary!! Then again, based on many of her responses, leaving her at a loss for words, where instead her retorts are short and not too sweet, is not that great of an achievement. Occasionally Mary, you do need to recognize the shortcomings of your veiwpoints.

"For you white folk, even if you have "been there, done that," you haven't done it on a daily basis."


and how do you know that, again?

I think racism is on individual basis. Our experience and upbringing today differ a lot from times of past, when whites did what whites do and blacks did what blacks do and it was taboo to mix the two. Now we have blacks who only known whites as friends since childhood and can relate to whites more easily and we've obviously have the reversal. I believe we all have stereotypes and ideologies that we believe and only some are enlightened when the truth is revealed. I think what Ms Mitchell was speaking of with her writing is the obvious for some of us, that if you see a prodominately race filled room and someone of a different race walk's in it's noticable and one of the question that circulate in some of our minds is "How does it feel to be in that position"? My problem is when we feel the need to make one another feel comfortable because of our racial difference. We need to learn to embrace those difference, some we'll partake in some we probably just couldn't stomach, but it doesn't make us enemies. I learned to be myself around others, be it the same race or a different race and I find my dislike in them both. I'm truly aware that racism exist and sometimes I feel the need to check the person from whom it is stemming, but sometimes I realized that person's rasicm is harmless and shows' their stupidty, and I'm cool with that.

IM MEXICAN AMERICAN, SO WHAT IF WHITES DONT WANT TO BE AROUND BLACKS, GREAK FAMILYS DON'T LET THEIR DAUGHTERS DATE HISPANICS, WHY DOES EVERYTHING ALWAYS HAVE TO BE POLITICALLY CORRECT, WHY CAN'T WE JUST HANG AROUND THE PEOPLE WE LIKE TO BE AROUND WITH PERIOD. I DON'T HAVE NOT ONE BLACK, ASIAN, OF ARAB FRIEND DOES THAT MAKE ME A RACIST.

Whoa! I left the building for a few weeks to calm down and I come back to see things are just as rowdy as ever. What is up with all the personal attacks on Mary. Like she has walked up to your house and pointed her finger in your face. Commentary/blogging is an opportunity for people to express their views. We have the right to read them or not read them. If you don't agree, are insulted or offended - stop reading. There is no need to get personal. It IS her blog. And Mary - I know you read the comment posted by Ignacio. I give you much respect for not even BOTHERING to respond to that. It is obvious that Ignacio has plenty other issues he needs to concern himself with.

Bob, I am sorry that you got your butt whooped when you attended Fenger and Leo in the 1960s. Did u know that in those same 1960's we were getting attacked by dogs, sprayed with fire hoses and beat with billy clubs by the POLICE when trying to embark upon our constitutional rights to vote and to be educated in integrated schools. We were also heckled, spit on, had our hair pulled, were kicked, purposely left behind by the bus drivers and made to walk 5 and 6 miles home. I could go on and on, but you're right. It DOES go both ways. And just like you - our incidents weren't isolated then and they aren't isolated now.

It insults me when American citizens act as if race is not an issue worth discussion. Simply pretending like slavery never existed, or omitting the word nigger from your vocabulary does not erase the longstanding effects of Jim Crow in our society today. People tell us to "get over it and move on," but do you ask any other ethnic group to forget their history (with the exception of the Jewish(holocaust))? No, theirs is respected and admired, while ours slowly but surely being erased. I believe that all Americans are race conscious(not necessarily racist) whether they admit it or not. This is unavoidably due to our history as a nation. Jim Crow died only 40 years ago and the people who lived through it are stll alive to tell us about it.
We cannot bring an end to racism if the issue is not addressed and discussed. I appreciate people like Ms. Mitchell, who are willing to speak up about the ideology of race in a society that encourages us to forget about our history as a people in order to "sell" us equality.

Ms. Mitchell, I'm sorry for taking the liberty of using a nickname for Mary to address you. It won't happen again. But I must say that whether you realize it or not, your response to my little contribution to your blog speaks volumes about the state of "the community." I might have expected a "Gee Bob, that must have been a horrifying experience for you." Or maybe something like: "I'm glad you came out of it okay." But you chose to evade the real issue altogether & divert the focus to the friendly little nickname that I referred to you as. It is a story that happens all too often, most recently reminding me of all the hysteria about the 14 yr. old who pulled a gun on the police and got shot for it. The focus was diverted from why did this 14 yr. old punk have a gun and aim it at the police to the policemen are the bad guys because they shot him. It's a topsy-turvy world out there, Ms. Mitchell, and these kinds of responses just exacerbate a grave situation. But we shall continue to carry on. Thanks for your time, Ms. Mitchell.

MITCHELL COMMENT:

My question was why do you feel it is appropriate to give me a nickname?

Thank God your self-esteem is where it needs to be. I live in a small town in Texas(by way of Chicago)and live to read your column on-line as often as you write them. Racism sucks and does tremendous damage to this great country. Please continue to hold intellectual discussions on race and any other subject you wish to pursue. As long as people are talking about these issues, there's hope. Keep on doing what you are doing!!!!

I have been at a house-warming party were I was the only white person present. I was treated ok. Nobody went out of their way to start conversations with me but nobody antagonized me either......As far as looking beyond a person's color I'll just say most folks in ALL races are decent, but yes, there are people in ALL races who do have a problem........As for HANNIBAL's comment that whites are running the show, I wish he'd elaborate further. I suppose HANNIBAL you mean the 'purse strings' as they say. To that I support there some truth. Example I suppose being Rev. Jackson's trip to Syria to meet with Assad to try to end the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict. Somebody is paying for all his trips all the time. Chances are its some filthy rich white guys. HANNIBAL, I suppose thats what you mean.

Mary,
I enjoy your writing, which is thought provoking and well-balanced. I would just advise against "getting nasty right back when people get nasty." All that does is lower you to someone else's level. If the comments are nasty, why leave them up in the first place?

MITCHELL COMMENT:

Gary, I'm human. I'm not here to be a whipping post for white people (or black or Latino). Serious inquiries deserve a serious response. You are forgetting that I have to wade through these comments whether I publish them or not. And frankly some of you guys really tick me off.

I grew up in a suburb where 'the colored people down the block' were a Japanese family. My first job after college was with the Chicago Board of Education, where I was the only white person in my department. I hated that job, but I'm happy I had that experience.

Ms. Mitchell, great to have you back! To answer your question, I feel it is appropriate to call you by a nickname because I always thought that's what friends do. We are buds (a nickname for buddies, or friends), ain't we Ms. Mitchell? We don't have to be so formal all the time, do we? I have an aunt named Marianne and everybody has called her "Aunt Mar" our whole lives. It just sounds so friendly and homey-like. Sorry if I insulted you; as I said, I will not take that liberty again. But you shrewedly still evaded the REAL point of my posts! Hope I answered yours.

I live in an all white neighbor hood and the indifferences prevails instantly. Meaning, majority of caucasions live to impress and live above their means. However, we as an educated african american family live below our means on day to day bases which makes life simpler and debt free. We do not try to keep up with the Jones and we do not compete with landscaping and we do not create privacy with large wood privacy fences we use shrubs which is more inviting to our neighbors, but on the other hand caucasions put up a privacy fence before moving all their furniture in and before pouring a patio because of the african american family on the block.What I'm trying to say is, I do not blame ignorance on racism, I blame ignorance on an individuals lack of knowledge. Yes racism still exist, and no blacks are not the only ones that can see and think beyond color. There are some who displays human characteristics such as empathy and respect regardless of race and culture. We are all right no one is wrong for feeling the way that we do due to our prior experiences or our present trials which will soon past too. I like your blog Mary.

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This page contains a single entry by Mary Mitchell published on August 18, 2006 9:36 PM.

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