The only one in the room

Kirk Ray Smith, President and CEO, RCS Pinellas

Dear Editor:

As an executive who happens to be black, I cannot tell you the number of times I was the only one in the room or at the literal and proverbial table. Honestly, I was never nervous or uncomfortable in those environments.

I understood very early in my career that not many people who look like me were in management and leadership roles. There has always been plenty of people of color within the frontline ranks, but as one progresses to higher-level positions, those numbers thin out.

Although I was comfortable being the only black person in the room, I was never okay with it. I never had the feeling that I have “arrived” by serving in a senior executive role. This was due to this ever-present obligation to pull others along, particularly people of color.

Sometimes I would look around the room at the faces of my fellow executives and wonder what they are thinking when they see me; do they notice that I am the only black person at the table?

So now, I am carrying a burden from two different directions by questioning myself. Am I doing enough to help other people of color attain positions like mine? Does other staff of color look at me as someone who cares about their advancement? Do they notice my efforts? Do my white counterparts see me as an equal? Do they respect my abilities and recognize my skill sets? Do they ever question why I’m the only person of color in the room right now? Does it even bother them?

In addition to all these thoughts, I have a job to do. I must focus and be engaged during these meetings. I must produce and be results-driven to be successful in my role.

Because there is only one of me, I understood that my margin for error was far narrower than that of my peers. You see, this is the plight and silent struggle of a person of color when they are the only ones in the room.

If you are the only one in the room who looks like you, I understand your struggle, but I encourage you to be an educator of those at the table and those waiting for a seat. If you represent the majority in the room, open your heart and mind to the idea that that woman or man of color sitting across from you could use your help balancing the table.

Answer the call to the cause by understanding who is in the room.

I appreciate you!

Kirk Ray Smith, BHS, MHS
President & CEO, RCS Pinellas

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