When you’re the only person of color on a board, you feel like the odd person out

January 30, 2020

Thank you to Step Up facilitator Alia Stevenson for this Real Stories guest blog.

Board membership is a unique opportunity to steer an organization and its resources to advance its mission. Beyond its opportunity to make a difference, it is also an important tool in career progression through networking. With this level of responsibility and opportunity, anyone may feel a certain level of stress joining a board of directors. Now, imagine adding the stress of being the only person of color on the board.

As the only person of color on a board, we often feel both invisible and highly visible at the same time. Visible in that we visibly may stand out, and are seen as different or an outsider; and invisible in that we don’t always have access to the unspoken rules, language and experience of our white counterparts.

We also may feel like expectations are both lower and higher for us. Lower, as we are often seen as the token person of color to fulfill board diversity initiatives, and not subject matter experts or people with networks to leverage like our white counterparts; yet expectations seem higher for us if we want to be seen as equal contributors.

Folks of color in predominantly white spaces like Madison have grown accustomed to being the “only ones” in a room. We know our reactions and comments are often seen to represent an entire group. We feel obligated to disprove the negative stereotypes of our racial or ethnic groups. We have grown used to the inordinate amount of energy spent showing up in white spaces. We may keep our insights to ourselves or overthink about what words we should choose when we do share our ideas and opinions.

It doesn’t need to be this way. Here is what organizations can do to transform boardrooms:

  • Bring on a diverse cohort of board members at the same time
  • Ensure officer positions are diverse
  • Create shared leadership model

The board plays a major role in building a more equitable, inclusive, and diverse organization.