conference table in office

I had a conversation with someone a few weeks ago about the dynamic of being the only black person, or one of few black people, in a predominantly white environment. We spoke about how isolating it can be when there’s no one around who looks like you, along with the added pressure of feeling like you have to represent an entire race.

There were several references to looking at the upside of being the only black person in an environment, or using the more common phrase, “having a seat at the table.” The argument was that a seat at the table gives an inside look at what “they” are talking about, and how that can subsequently give leverage to underrepresented individuals who happen to be in the room.

I understand this sentiment, and it’s one I’ve heard many times before. From firsthand experience and that of people I know, there are instances comprised of fierce determination (and a little bit of luck) that lead to us getting that so greatly coveted seat at the table.

I can only speak for myself, but once I finally got to that seat, I expected something magical to happen. Surely, I thought, the others at the table would be awed by the blood, sweat, and tears it took for me to be there. They would recognize my brilliance, talent, and tireless work ethic, and quickly implement all the ideas I had to make improvements, which would hopefully pave the way for others like me to get to the table.

Imagine my disappointment then, when that magic ceased to ever materialize.

Instead, those who were at the table smiled and greeted me warmly, but never really acknowledged the fact there was no one around who looked like me. They asked for my feedback and input on what could be changed, only to continue on with the practices they already had in place. When I shared ideas, they spoke over me, interrupted me, or ignored me completely. Eventually they stopped asking for my input altogether.

This caused me to start questioning why I was so focused on being at the table in the first place. After years of denied opportunities and barriers that have been set for black folks long before I ever existed, what made me think it would all magically go away once I finally got in? How did I know if I was even getting a true inside perspective on what “they” were talking about? After all, wouldn’t it be easy to withhold information because “they” knew that I would feel honored just by being there?

Aside from the questions racing through my mind, I could feel the mental and physical exhaustion of being at the table but still feeling invisible. I began to wonder if I was really brilliant or talented at all. Maybe my work ethic wasn’t as great as I thought? After all, the only rewards for my contributions were microaggressions and more tasks added to the workload. Is this really what I had worked so hard to be a part of?

After years of working towards getting into the “exclusive” spaces that rarely make room for people who look like me, reality finally sank in:

They didn’t want me there.

And when I say they didn’t want “me,” I mean me as an individual. They certainly wanted a person of color to be there, specifically a black woman, to mark it off their diversity checklist. They were happy to have me while I displayed mannerisms that made them comfortable.

But they didn’t want me there if I asked too many questions. Or if I raised my voice. Or if I refrained from small talk because my mind was distracted by news of another black body being shot down. They didn’t want all of the parts that make me “me.”

So I left the table.

That decision could be right or wrong depending on who you talk to. However, I am of the mindset that one’s physical and mental wellbeing is a greater priority than proving their worth to outsiders. I am also of the mindset that black people are brilliant enough, talented enough, and creative enough, to build our own table. I no longer believe it’s necessary that we claw our way to a spot at tables still full of hatred and bias towards us being there. Our value is far too great to be limited by the spaces that are still unconcerned with whether we succeed or fail.

While these are my sentiments, I understand there are those still inclined to have a seat at the table. I do not fault them for it at all. Rejecting the table is a scary move to make, and one that holds an unknown amount of risk. With that said, I understand I may not get as far ahead as the ones who play the game and get to that table. But I would much rather build a table for others like me, than fight to get to one where I’m not wanted.


  • It’s a shame you had to leave, but it sounds as though you did what was best for your sanity. And that’s about the smartest thing you can do.

    I’m so sorry that you were dismissed and ignored. We still have a long way to go, obviously, before true equality is a reality. If that’s even possible, given the way society is structured…

  • Hi Abigail! You are so right, we do have a long way to go. I have to be honest and admit that it’s very disappointing and frustrating but I want to use that frustration as motivation to help others. Thanks for your comment!

  • Thank you for writing this. Important words. And the only way things change in a real way is if they’re talked about.

    • It’s not easy to talk about, but I agree it’s the only way change will come about (as slow as that change might be). Thanks for reading!

  • I too kept trying to get to the proverbial table and thought it was just me that experienced the exact same things you described. I often had to be the most well versed on the subject but was never asked to contribute unless it was already going down in flames. Then it was like “Oh you saved it…good girl.” smh….I don’t want to sit at the table anymore either.

    • Yes, it’s exhausting. I just read a really good article about black professionals leaving the corporate world for these very reasons. I think you’ll enjoy it:

      • Thank you for that. It is a great article!!! So this is happening no matter what our career path. 🙁 Sad but inspiring us to go out on our own.

Leave a Reply