Being The Only One: Acknowledgment and Positionality

Photo is of an orange butterly.
Photo from Flickr

Have you ever been the only one with an identity or group membership that nobody else around you has? If you have, what was your positionality within the settings where you were the only one? If you have not, what factors have contributed to you leading a life where never being the only one is possible?

You might not know what positionality means. As I type this term in this blog post, the gods of WordPress have underlined the word with a red squiggly line. This is what happens when a platform thinks you misspelled a term. The fact that the WordPress gods do not recognize this word in itself demonstrates that more people, including those who design website platforms, need to understand the concept of positionality and that it is in fact a real word. You can learn more about what it means by doing your own independent research, but here is the Postionality and Intersectionality webpage from Indigenous Initiatives at the University of British Columbia’s Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology.

I am challenging you as my readers to write your answers to the questions I posed above.

Whether or not I intended it to be this way, I have lived and continue to live a fascinating life. Naturally, I am inquisitive and introspective. Writing is one way that I practice inquiry and introspection, and I wish that more people partook in that practice. We would live in a world where people were more aware of both others and themselves.

If you are someone who regularly reads my posts, it should be pretty obvious by now that I often navigate settings where I am the only one of something. A piece that illustrates this is A Different Boat. In this piece and many of my other writings, I focus on my identity as a cancer survivor and being the only in the room on many occasions, including my professional life. Something that I did not highlight in A Different Boat was how my racial and ethnic identities intersected with scenarios like the one I describe in that blog post and others.

Although I do not always explicitly mention race and ethnicity, know that they are underlying factors that inform so many interactions that I have on a regular basis. Even if you read A Different Boat before, read it again. When you read it, keep in mind that I am not just the one Filipino in my work department, or just the one Asian, but actually the one person of color in that setting.

If you are someone who has been paying attention to the news, you know that Filipino American nurses are part of an overlooked community hit hard by COVID-19. By the way, this article and video I just hyperlinked for you is the first time in my life I saw a mainstream news outlet like ABC highlight Filipino Americans, and realizing that this was the first time my community was being nationally recognized for our contributions to the United States filled me with ambivalent emotions. Then of course there is the broader COVID-19 anti-Asian racism, which is the focus of articles like Covid ‘hate crimes’ against Asian Americans on the rise. Does anyone else notice how hate crimes is written in quotes? Yeah, I do not think I will get started on that because I might not stop. So yeah, then there are the broader racial inequities, of which there is endless documentation of racial inequities in articles such as Analysis finds racial disparity in pandemic unemployment benefits, Combating Racial Disparities in COVID-19 Vaccination, and The Pandemic Led to the Biggest Drop in U.S. Life Expectancy since WWII, Study Finds.

Now you might be thinking to yourself that you know other people with similar identities, and they seem to be okay. Here are my thoughts on possible reasons for this:

  1. You do not know them that well. They might be your professional contacts or acquaintances, and you simply might not have enough rapport to hear how they truly feel.
  2. If they are someone close to you, they might not have the mental and emotional capacity to teach you what they already know you do not understand.
  3. They may have shared how they really feel with you, but you responded in a way that minimized or glossed over what they shared with you because you truly do not have the mental or emotional capacity to understand them.
  4. People have different ways of coping with challenge, and some ways are rewarded more by society than others. Sometimes people throw themselves into work and activities as a way to manage grief.

To my first point about you not knowing them well, I have met my fair share of people who have lived to portray themselves as the model minority. One of my former colleagues mentioned how much a common professional contact of ours has been speaking up about racism in light of the events in 2020. In my mind, I was laughing because I remembered how that common professional contact used to talk about how they have been able to adapt to any challenges that were put in their way, and if they could do it, so should other people of color. Now depending on how you read this statement, you might think it was intended to be an inspirational statement, but it was not in this conversation that I witnessed between this professional contact and another person of color. Basically, the professional contact highlighted individualism over systemic change in combating racism. While I do believe in the agency of an individual, I also think big picture and know that no amount of individual adaptation can replace the lack of systemic change in combating racism or any other inequity. Now that it is “trendy” and “okay” to discuss systemic change in combating racism, I am not surprised that this professional contact changed their tune. It would be horrible personal branding for that person; therefore, it would no longer make them the model minority. It takes courage for people of color to establish boundaries in professional settings. If you want to reimagine healthy boundary setting in the workplace, check out this clip from black-ish when Bow and Dre Realize Others Need to Help Carry the Load of Breaking Barriers.

To my second and third point, I think both could be true simultaneously. These are not always either/or situations. A colleague did try to have a dialogue with me about different racial issues. On one hand, it was nice of them to initiate the dialogue, and at the same time, I realized that I would have to explain more things than I would have had to do with another person of color. For example, this person shared a story of someone they knew of who was being deeply impacted by this wave of anti-Asian hate, and they used the word “paranoid” to describe this person’s response to it. I repeated multiple times that this person was not “paranoid” given how much anti-Asian hate has risen during the pandemic. Then I got to the point where I realized it was no longer healthy for me to repeat and defend the Asian person who was labeled as “paranoid.” There are tons of resources out there to educate people on anti-Asian hate both in the past and present, and at least those resources were created by people who were ostensibly paid to educate on anti-Asian hate. Last I checked, nobody was paying me a stipend for to explain these trends. The experience reminded me of this video of W. Kamau Bell on #BlackLivesMatter & The Importance of Showing Your Work on Conan. If you hit minute 15:37 of the video, Conan and W. Kamau Bell discuss this ongoing dynamic of Black people (and also other people of color) being asked to educate White people on racism when racial tragedy happens. They joke that asking people, who have experienced racism, to explain racism should count as billable hours for which they receive an extra stipend at their job.

With regard to my fourth point, we can admit that different people cope with adversity in different ways. We tend to think people who “thrive” through obstacles are the most productive. You do not believe me? Well, I am an avid reader of memoirs. If I look at my bookshelves now, I see those from Michelle Obama, Rosie Perez, Gabrielle Union, Jose Antonio Vargas, and Stacey Abrams to name a few. Why did I choose books by these authors? It is because they were already famous and successful for other things. When I think of Rosie’s and Gabrielle’s stories in particular, they both spoke to getting more helpful support for trauma later in their lives, well after they had reached major benchmarks of success in their careers. So what does this say about me? Although I intellectually know that success does not equate to mentally and emotionally overcoming adversity, memoirs by people who attained success, often before true healing, are the ones that I follow for examples of dealing with demons. I am not buying the memoir of the person who prioritized their mental and emotional healing, but gave up traditional markers of money, success, and fame. Am I not buying those books because they do not exist? Am I not buying those memoirs because they could not get published? Am I not buying them because they are published, but do not have marketing campaigns strong enough to reach me? All I know is that these are the stories of overcoming adversity that our society values, and those values show in the book sales. If you find a memoir by the everyday person who decided to forego success for health, feel free to share it with me.

Now you might be reading this and wondering, well, does this mean that my colleagues are not nice? … Umm, all of the issues I mentioned earlier exist in environments regardless of how “nice” people are. Niceness is an individual quality, and I am talking about issues that are more complex and require nuanced solutions that transcend niceness … And you know what, if that is something that requires more explanation for you, then you can read other resources that discuss these topics. Hopefully, those people have lived experience in these matters, and hopefully, they have been paid equitably for their labor.

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