Wyatt Cenac

On Being the “Lone Representative”

NPR's Gene Demby writes on Wyatt Cenac, and the unique pressures of being the only Black person in the room

Wyatt Cenac

Wyatt Cenac

The Stewart-Cenac exchange illustrates what those of us who are often The Only One In The Room tend to know: It sucks. But it turns out that being The Only One isn't simply burdensome and annoying on an individual level. There's evidence that when people feel like they're The Only One in a group, even a group that professes to care about diversity in its ranks, it actually gets in the way of everything said diversity was supposed to achieve in the first place.

Not long ago, I spoke to Scott Page, a professor at the University of Michigan who studies how people interact in teams and organizations. His work on a mathematical formula to show how greater diversity makes organizations more effective has been explored in The New York Times. Page told me that while there's been a lot of conversation lately about increasing the numbers of non-White, non-male people in various companies and sectors, it's left open the question of how many folks those organizations are supposed to be aiming for. Is one enough? Is 10 too many? Can you fiddle the dials to calibrate some sort of ideal workplace diversity score?



Page says it all depends on what you're trying to achieve. If you simply want more women in the room, that's easy enough. Hire a woman and stick her at a desk. Your room has, indeed, become more diverse, numerically speaking. Time for happy hour. But if what you're going for is bringing new perspectives into your organization, and getting people to actually think differently and come up with new ideas, then a different calculus is needed. "One question you can ask is how many people of a particular group have to be in a room for them to speak," Page said. That is, having a woman in a room doesn't affect a whole lot if she doesn't feel comfortable speaking up. And while he has found that the presence of just one member of a minority group in a room can positively influence the rest of the group to be more cognizant of their own language and behavior, that's different from actually hearing out that person's ideas.





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