The beginning stages of being the first and only — whether in a profession or politics — is usually a celebratory experience. Companies and institutions congratulate themselves on breaking ceilings and records, on making history. Then the novelty wears off, reality sets in and you have to make tough decisions, provide leadership or speak before Congress.
You never lost sight of the fact that you are, say, Black and female, but with a few missteps, you are under intense scrutiny and surveillance rivaling that of a specimen in a petri dish. Radiated pride and joy is now redacted. You are abandoned as quickly as you were embraced. There seems to be no room for grace or forgiveness. Such attributes can be fleeting and elusive when billion-dollar endowments and profit margins preoccupy and prevail decision-making.
Being the first and only is a heavy burden, because on one hand you are opening doors for others and at the same time, trying to prevent the doors from closing on you. It can be a very trying, lonely and isolating experience.
It is a hollow and gut-wrenching feeling when the people who look like you and are of your community are silent. The silence is eerie and uncomfortable. All you can do is sit in it, pray and wait for someone to come to your rescue, defend you or say a good word. On some level, you understand the silence, because if they speak up for you, they can be reprimanded, retaliated against or fired. But as you wait, the wound of disappointment deepens.
Those who looked up to you now look away from you, avoiding eye contact or any affiliation with you. Those friendly conversations of the past now have no currency. They don’t know which team to choose. Standing up for you is risky. Standing against the institution is riskier. So they fade into the background and remain silent, neutral and invisible.
Some of the people you thought were in your corner remain on the sideline participating in the whisper campaign. Speculating. Wondering. Sitting in the balcony as the drama unfolds below.
There is a litmus test, and everyone knows the rules except you. Everyone has a copy of the playbook except you. Everyone knows the code except you.
Often, you find yourself poised, professional and polite, but holding your breath, with a lump in your throat and a prayer in your heart, guarded for the next attack, because there will always be a next attack. When it happens may not be a surprise because you have become conditioned to it, but who attacks and how they attack continues to blindside, bewilder and hurt you.
Sometimes your competence, education, experience, title, pedigree, charisma and accomplishments are discounted, diminished and dismissed, because you are the first and only. It is because you are the first and only that people may size you up as someone who has no covering, someone who is vulnerable, defenseless and maybe even naïve. Like piranhas and sharks swirling around prey, they speculate on your downfall and demise.
How dare you enter a preserved space and be different, shake up our norms and challenge us to embrace you? How dare you be you and not assimilate to who we are and adopt our ways? How dare you present yourself with confidence and strength? Why don’t you flinch when we challenge you? How did you escape the trap we set for you? Why didn’t you leave when we attacked you the first, second, third, fourth and fifth time?
What they don’t know is that as a Black female, you have been battle-tested. You have the scars to prove it — not scars of defeat, but scars of endurance. Your race and gender may be a target for them, but it is ancestral armor for you.
The first and only will need an internal and external support network to undergird their survival as well as their success — and to ensure that they won’t be the “only” for long. A chorus of Claudine Gays would agree. Ask me how I know.
The Rev. Theresa A. Dear is a national board member of the NAACP and a Deseret News contributor.