I became conscious of my presence as a person of color in this world when I started high school. That's not to say that I was unaware of the fact that I am black, but it's to say that I never really had any qualms or struggles with that part of my identity until that time in my life. Suddenly, the world was not simply the black neighborhood I had grown up in or the black family and culture I was surrounded by or the black elementary school and middle school I attended. It had expanded and transformed into a world where people who looked like me were the minority. It felt as though everything had changed.
For the most part, this change is something that I still struggle with as I still find myself in spaces—both in academic and social settings—that include less and less people of color. I don't think many people of color who find themselves in all-white spaces are taught how to cope with it, but I have been able to learn through experience. Hopefully this advice can help people of color feel much more secure and comfortable in these spaces.
1. Take as much time as you need to process the situation.
When I enter into all-white spaces, I can feel incredibly lost and alone. Sometimes the first thing that I'll do is ignore those feelings because it seems a lot easier to pretend to be OK than to admit that we're struggling to reconcile ourselves in those spaces. People of color can oftentimes feel that they must hide their discomfort so as not to bring discomfort to those who don't feel the impact of this exclusivity and lack of representation. This stirs up feelings of guilt and shame because we feel that it's wrong to feel uncomfortable. However, acknowledging this is a great first step to handling the situation. It's very important not to trivialize the situation because the situation is actually a real and difficult change. Understanding that you are not comfortable and that that's OK helps you to adjust and adapt to the circumstance.
2. Accept whatever feelings may come.
During my first year at a predominantly white high school, I went through a whole range of emotions. I remember coming home every day the first week of school, crying my eyes out for an hour and scribbling down in my journal how much I hated the school. I allowed myself to hate it for some time, and I'm glad about that. Eventually I moved past all the hatred and could find really great things that made me love it there. If I didn't allow myself to express and accept my hatred for it at first, though, those feelings would probably have remained pent up inside and could have stopped me from experiencing what good could come of the reality I was going through. Of course, there were still times of anger and sadness, but there were also times of happiness and joy. You should allow these feelings to come as they come, and when they do, you should validate these emotions.
3. Try your best to interact and engage others in all-white spaces.
Sometimes when we're dealing with these very intense feelings, we resort to secluding ourselves from those in the space so that we can avoid feeling uncomfortable. We often do this as a form of protection, but it can result in making us feel even lonelier and more lost than before. This is as much a disservice for you as it is for them. What happens when we do this is that we forgo the possibility of forming very valuable and real connections with others in that space. It also takes away our chance to learn from and move past our own anxiety and worries about being in that space. It is definitely hard to put ourselves out there, so it is necessary to allow yourself the time to get there. Then once you do, see where you can give more and get more in that space to make it a worthwhile experience.
4. Find those who can understand your struggle.
As long as you remain in the space, finding those who will try their best to understand your struggle there can make the space feel much more comfortable. However, not all of us are so lucky to find people like that in all-white spaces. That's when you spend time surrounding yourself with other people of color outside in other spaces who can help to alleviate the pain and stress that you're experiencing. Finding support and guidance wherever you can is of the utmost importance.
5. Recognize the downsides of the space.
The biggest downside that comes with being in all-white spaces is that you're not surrounded by other people of color. Another big downside could be that you can, at times, be intentionally ignored and marginalized. There are a whole host of negatives that vary from person to person, so it's necessary to assess these and the effects that they have on you. From there you can decide whether or not you feel that you can survive in that space. Oftentimes we feel we must survive in these spaces to prove our strength, but there's no shame in walking away if you do not wish to handle it—you should not feel obligated to stay. The decision can only be made once you actively notice and mention what makes the space so uncomfortable for you.
6. Pick and choose which conflicts to address.
In order to survive and thrive in all-white spaces, we may be faced with a lot of ignorant, racist, and offensive behavior from others that makes it difficult. Personally, there are times when I see white people do irritating things like appropriate black culture as an attempt to connect with me or say insulting statements like, "You're not like other black people," as a means of praising me. Sometimes I'll address these things, and other times I don't. It doesn't mean I care any less, but it's a way for me to preserve my time and sanity because no person could make it through the day if they were to point out every offensive thing that white people do in those spaces. If you feel compelled to speak up about something, do so. If you don't feel compelled to, even though you know something's wrong, you don't have to, and you shouldn't feel bad for your choice not to.
7. Take lots of time out for self-care.
Self-care is something that we talk a lot about nowadays, and for good reason. Being in all-white spaces can bring about several mental and physical health complications for people of color. That's why it's a must to take time out to care for yourself. This means venting, dancing, singing, napping, or whatever else makes you feel lighter and happier in life.
8. Don't feel the need to change whatsoever.
I know the first time I found myself in an all-white space I was so scared of losing my black identity around others. I felt forced to "code-switch" constantly so that I could be accepted in the circle. It made me feel dishonest with myself, so I became super determined to distance myself from the white people around me by aggressively expressing contempt for them and subtly placing blame on them for their history of oppression against black people. It wasn't the best method, but it was the best way I knew how to preserve my identity in the space. On the other hand, being in all-white spaces can be so frightening that some people of color feel the urge to hide their differences in order to fit into the mold. That's not the best method either. When I started to allow myself to be as I am in those spaces, I started to actually expand my idea of blackness and learn how to express my blackness in ways that are authentic. What I know now is that there is no possible way for me to be less black in those spaces. It's something that cannot be taken from you.