The Burden Of Being 'The Only…' Person In The Room

He was only 41 when he committed suicide

Alan Turing, played by Benedict Cumberbatch looks pensively at his invention
Source: The Imitation Game movie (2014)

I watched The Imitation Game today. I’m still reeling from the fact that a man who shortened the Second World War and laid the foundations of modern computing, was persecuted for being gay, subjected to chemical castration, and driven to commit suicide.

How does culture reduce a genius war hero to a helpless pitiful shell of a human being?

How does law decide that being homosexual is reason enough to mark someone as rotten or a second grade person?

How burdensome it must feel experience it - constantly judged by an imperfect world that is ill-equipped to understand a person who is way ahead of his time.

What happened to Alan Turing is a grave tragedy. Yet there are many things that exist even today that exacerbate the burden of being different or unconventional.

Have you ever felt the discomfort that engulfs you when you are:

  • The only person of your race in a room
  • The only woman in a room
  • The only millennial in a room
  • The only LGBTQIA person in a room
  • The only person with a disability in the room
  • The only one of your 'kind'

The understated assumption that you're only in the room because of a 'diversity quota' hangs in the air.

You feel like you have to do more than your privileged peers to be seen or heard. Making mistakes feels costly because on a subliminal level you wonder if the price for your mistakes will extend to your entire community.

Depending on how progressive your ecosystem is, you may or may not feel the discomfort.

However, we can all agree that there's more we should be doing to make the world a bit more inclusive.

As an Indian millennial woman, I've been 'the only…' in a lot of rooms.

Here's a list of things I wish someone had told me so I could prepare for it:

Your opinions and your achievements are your own. Do yourself a favor and stop wondering if what you're doing is 'a good look' for the community you belong to. When you're in a room, or in a forum, you're there on the strength of your ideas. See everyone as an equal and step up to contribute to the agenda. Ideas matter far more than who they came from.

Being the only millennial in a meeting had me wondering if I should speak in a lower register and use 'official' words just so I could be taken seriously. Honestly, I couldn’t keep that up for very long. 2 minutes into my presentation, I broke character and used references to Harry Potter and Lord Of The Rings to get a technical point across. This helped the audience understand me better. I earned some points for simplifying a complex concept. Remember that the definition of 'normal' and 'appropriate' is subjective. As long as you’re being respectful and sensible, don’t dull your inherent charisma. Own that sh!t

"Talking back to elders is bad manners", "Being friends with so many men when you’re a woman is inappropriate", "Being so emotional as a man, makes you a pu$$y, don’t let anyone see you like that". There’s enough of these unspoken rules floating around in the world. You’re not immune from baseless criticism in the name of culture or societal rules. The one thing you can do to rise above it is to ask yourself - is this a one-sided rule or a universal one. "Be kind to people" is a universal rule that applies in all situations, whether you’re a minority or not, whether you’re young or old. But one-sided rules only apply to specific groups, "men can’t be emotional but women should be". That’s an unequal, one-sided rule. And I’ve noticed that such rules are usually BS. Call out BS and use your own conscience to do the right thing even if it’s considered 'wrong' according to culture / customs.

When you're subjected to a lifetime of resentment and unfavorable prejudices, it's easy to become cynical and write off people who don't have the same challenges as you. The ironic side effect of having experienced so much prejudice is that it colors your own judgment. A gay Indian man expected his parents to disown him if he ever came out to them. But to this surprise, they not only accepted him but also held a traditional Indian wedding ceremony marrying their son to the man of his dreams. You have to risk vulnerability and show others who you are before you assume they won't understand or support you. It's amazing how many allies you'll find in unexpected places.

It's exhausting to be the only person in too many rooms. Sometimes you want to crawl into bed and disappear for a bit. I get it. And yet, it's a lot like the red pill, blue pill conundrum. The blue pill might mean showing up to places where you may or may not make a difference. The red pill might mean you didn't even try - it closes off the possibility of something good happening. Even if you don't feel like it, even if it won't make a big difference, I implore you to show up. There's a seat waiting for you. We've come a long way from a time when you had to bring your own chair. There's a lot of work to do. And it all starts with one step - showing up.

The reason you're in the room today even though you're the only person of your race/community is because someone cleared a path a long time ago. The goal is never to remain the only person in the room. The goal is to make sure the room has the best and brightest minds from everywhere. Clear more paths so that you're not the 'only' person in the room for too long. Don't just pass the baton, create more batons, make it a larger playing field. That's how you change the world for the better.

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Author of 'How to be a Lighthouse'. I write for those pursuing excellence and meaning.