Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Being The Only Person In The Room

This is a guest post from Sparky, of Spark in Darkness.  Many of you are  familiar with him from Livejournal, as well as from his insightful and often hilarious commentary here. Each Tuesday, Womanist Musings will be featuring a post from Sparky.  

One of the most nerve wracking experiences any marginalised person can face is being the only “X” person in the room.

You know what I mean, being the only GBLT person in a room, or being the only POC in a room. That moment when you look around, especially if it’s a large crowd, and realise that you are the only one of that marginalisation in the room.

Especially if it’s a large crowd. If it’s a huge gathering, maybe a public event, or a party or something similar, then the feelings ratchet up to the max.

There’s that chill, that sudden realisation that there’s no-one here like you. You are the only one.

There’s that sense of not belonging. That sense of being the Other. That sense of being the stranger, in alien territory. That realisation that there’s no-one like me in the room. That sense that this is “not my space, not my place, not for me.”

You are the only one who has this lived experience. You are the only one who understands being X. You are the only one in the room without the blinkers of privilege – blinkers that make it impossible for people to understand, blinkers that will always leave ignorances.

And, let’s face it, there’s the instinctive fear. After all, marginalised people in a crowd full of privileged people have had plenty of reason to be afraid. And that’s an instinct you can’t just turn off.


And there’s the fear of what people will say – especially if you are recognisable as the person of X group in the room. Will they talk about it? Will they speak in clumsy, privileged terms? Will I be able to speak up? Can I do so, in this room, where I will be the only voice? Is it worth the risk? Is it worth the discomfort? What if I overhear something I can’t ignore?

It’s intimidating. It’s isolating. It’s deeply uncomfortable. It’s alienating. It’s nervous making. It’s tense and you can’t relax. It doesn’t feel safe. And it’s even frightening.

And, I hasten to add, this isn’t the fault of the crowd. Those privilege people who outnumber us several times over and make us the only one in the room. They can be the nicest, most tolerant, most accepting, most passionate allies mankind has ever seen. They could be living saints. It doesn’t change that sense of discomfort that comes from being the only one in the room.

Even if they are nice people, even if they do everything they can to be welcoming and wonderful as possible. Because it’s not about the individuals, it’s about privilege. It’s about societal forces. It is about a society that has branded us as other. It’s about history and context and a sadly messed up world that is so soaked in privilege and prejudice that just doesn’t go away no matter how nice the people are.

It’s a sense of not belonging that will not go away until we do belong – not in the crowd, but in privileged society itself. It’s a sense of nervousness that will not go away until privilege is not a threat or detriment to us. The people in the crowd cannot change that – society has to change to make that privileged crowd a comfortable place to be. The privilege has to be no longer relevant to our lives for that crowd to be our place.

It’s sad that many times marginalised people will not be comfortable in these crowds, that they will feel alienated, nervous, unsafe, ill at ease and out of place in a society that has spent so much time declaring us as other. It’s not the fault of the people in the crowd, it’s not them being prejudiced or bigoted or oppressive and it’s not the fault of the marginalised person being paranoid or touchy. The only way this will really change is when the privilege is gone – when we’re all just people and the marginalisation is no longer a cultural or societal factor.

And that’s not happening in any of our lifetimes.