I couldn’t have been more excited to become a full-time event manager after finishing graduate school in Rhode Island. The arena was close to my house, I was familiar with the responsibilities of the position and I looked forward to gaining a secondary family at work in America’s smallest state.
As I walked through the building on my first day, I quickly came to the conclusion that there was absolutely no one like me (a Black woman) working there. While meeting with Human Resources to settle onboarding, I had the inclination to ask about people of color in leadership.
“Would you say there has been a minority in a management role here in the past?” I asked her. The HR representative thought for quite some time before responding, “Ummm no, you’d be the first African American to work as a manager here.”
As I nodded along to her response, I held in bittersweet feelings, “Yes! I was the first Black woman to be in a leading management role at this facility—which has been in business for 30 years. Oh No! It is 2014, slavery was about 150 years ago and I’m the first Black person to be a manager here?”
As proud as I was to share it with others, I was quite embarrassed to admit it as well. Following this realization, I still experienced extreme microaggressions and separation from my peers and colleagues in the workplace (my office was in the basement).
I grew tired of the isolation from others, exclusion in office communications, and inaccessibility to growth.
Some of these recognitions are typical acknowledgments but because it is the first Black woman, it is constantly celebrated by our community to demonstrate how far America has come—giving people of color hope that there is progress.
For every moment I commemorate these milestones when I hear about them, I also tend to think about how it sucked being the first Black woman in my workplace.
So, let’s talk about it. Why does it suck to be the first Black woman to do something? Why aren’t we there yet and how far have we really come? Here are the four main reasons it sucked for me:
1. There are constant reminders
Black women receive daily reminders that they are not enough or deserving of anything; it’s’ no wonder, then, that when we get one of our own in a C-suite position, being rewarded for their work, or simply being magical for the first time, we hold these accomplishments high in efforts to show young women it can be done.
However, from the Forbes list of most powerful women in business—lacking women of color to boasting the title of most educated demographic in America—Black women in these first-time roles are told they are an exception to the rule.
Why can’t we just be great without you telling us that we are lucky to be here?
Dr. Cheryl Grills, a full professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California, was the first African American woman to be promoted to a full professor at this university. She was elated at first, then shocked to realize this is the world we still live in.
“When it first happens, you’re like ‘Oh wow, look at what I accomplished,’ but within the same breath, it’s like ‘Wait a minute. How in the world are we in the 21st century and I’m the first to do this at this university?’” Dr. Grills said. “It’s an immediate reminder of the context you’re dealing in.”
2. It can feel like a burden
Just imagine how excited you are to tack that ribbon on your shirt, but then you cut the celebration short when you realize you’ve now unexpectedly become a leader in the community because of this new triumph. Are your shoulders heavy yet?
In 2015 it was reported that Judaism is still one of the least racially diverse religious groups with 90% white adults identifying as Jewish.
Almost a decade ago, Rabbi Alysa Stanton was ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion as a Jewish Rabbi in mainstream Judaism. The difference between her and the rest of the 2009 graduating class was Stanton became the first African American woman to be ordained in mainstream Judaism.
As exciting as the recognition was, when Stanton learned from the media that she was the first Black woman to be ordained as a Rabbi, she became increasingly aware of what it meant to uphold such a notable title.
After serving at Congregation Bayt Shalom, a small majority-white synagogue for 2 years, she returned to Colorado. Stanton stayed away from interviews and other distractions in order to remain focused on her calling, not the title she was given.
“I didn’t apply to be the first and it didn’t make a difference in my belief system or values,” Stanton shared. “I wasn’t going to allow it to change that or my integrity. However, it did change how classmates and others perceived me—some were jealous and some were supportive.”
Rabbi Stanton, and so many other women including myself, never get to really exude joy for being the first. We battle with, and typically never get over the thought: ‘If its such an esteemed title, why do I feel this way?’
3. It feels like everyone is critical
Have you ever heard the saying “You have to work twice as hard to get half as far?” That is a phrase that the Black community lives by and is held over the head of first Black women.
When I was in that basement office talking to myself for eight hours a day, I thought about how I could be in a management position experience like this.
Even though I tried, I didn’t interact with other coworkers, I was not challenged, and I barely got the opportunity to share input on new events. How could my dream job have turned into such a nightmare?
Across academia, corporate, and other industries, Black folks are reported to experience anxiety, depression, and imposter syndrome as they see more success.
Dr. Grills did a fascinating TED talk called “Emancipation from Mental Slavery” where she lectured about Black people suffering from imposter syndrome at a higher rate than any other race because the world we live in.
Grills stated how Black women feel second-guessed and disrespected, are pressured to pave a path for the next Black woman behind her, and constantly question if the merit received was even warranted?
We can’t miss a day, we can’t make mistakes, and we absolutely cannot speak up. We’re the first and because of that, there many ways we are silenced.
4. It’s lonely
Typically, when you are the first one to do something, you are the only one for a long time. Your tribe won’t be there. You won’t see people like you. You will be by yourself in this win for the culture, but it’s not the end.
With a background in psychotherapy, Stanton recommends a solution to ease the burden of such triumphs and golden opportunities for minorities in the field. It was during her exit interview from Hebrew Union College, she expressed to leadership what it will take to keep diversity in the forefront and how scholars of color can excel in the future at their institute.
“The next time you accept someone who is considered ‘the other’ you make sure that you have support in place. It’s unfair if you don’t have support in place,” Stanton insists. “For those who say we embrace diversity and look forward to having a diverse community, it’s important to have that discussion, “What does that mean?” Because sometimes—many times—people are not prepared for what they ask for.”
There are so many more Black women like Stanton that become the significance of a load bearing wall in the Black community when they are the first to do something.
Film director Ava DuVernay has collected many firsts, including most recently being the first Black woman to direct a live-action movie with a budget of more than $100 million.
It’s a great accomplishment—much needed and deserved.
But, I agree with Zeba Blay at The Huffington Post, who calls it “the burden of expectations far exceeding those placed on many of [Duvernay’s] white, male peers, the burden of an individual’s failures being seen in some circles as pervasively revealing of blackness in general.”
One day soon, we hopefully won’t need to celebrate Black women’s first successes, because winning will be the norm.
For now, I’ll still celebrate because being the first will still bring an experience you will never forget. And, in the end, victory tells the next Black woman she can do it because another sister prepared the road for travel.
Ngozi IzE Ahanotu is an author, writer, and business consultant who specializes in reporting on women’s sexual health and wellness, alternative education options, and financial independence. A new voice dedicated to empowering women of color through refreshing profiles and the application of historical traditions to current lifestyles, her independent news work is a call-to-action for readers everywhere. Find more of her work at ngoziiahanotu.com.