“Well…here I am again. The one AND only. Time to push through another day.” If you’ve ever had those thoughts go through your head, then we probably share something similar: we are THE “representative.” Now, when I say “representative,” I mean that we are the person in our workspace that holds one or more identities that no one else shares on our professional team. As someone who is biracial, in the LGBTQ community, and Jewish, I have run the gamut with being the “representative.”.
In these moments, I consistently notice two ways in which my status as the “representative” has taken a toll on me: professional pressure and a lack of community. Professional pressure brings that feeling of high expectation and all eyes looking at you. This pressure can leave you feeling exhausted and nervous if you aren’t 100% on your game every day. Being the “representative” also means your communities of support are comprised of mostly, if not all, allies rather than those who share your identities. For me, some shared-identity support networks are regularly non-existent, and I have never found a network that comprises all three – if you know anyone who can “check all the above,” let a guy know!
This experience is not higher education specific as sources from Forbes (2021) and Harvard Business Review (2022) talk about the exhaustion and exclusion that can be felt in fields where someone finds themselves to be the “only” person, the “representative” of an identity group. Being the “representative” can also have an impact on professional growth regarding mentorship since any supervisors or other role models would not share salient identities. One of my best supervisors in my short career was also a man of color, the only time I have ever had a man of color in that role. Up to and since that point, I have never had a professional dynamic where I felt understood and poured into in that way, something I remind him of regularly.
So, this all begs the question of how to navigate being the “representative” when you are by yourself. My hope is that some or all the strategies I have used throughout my time being the “representative” can help you too:
Develop Adaptive Coping Strategies
Many higher education professionals are familiar with adaptive coping strategies as we often talk about them with our students. Activities like exercising and resting can be helpful, but I find that, when I have a need to bring more culture (if you get what I’m saying) into my day, I will listen to music that speaks to an identity area where I need fulfillment. For example, I like listening to music in Hebrew or from my favorite Jewish song writers to feel connected and grounded. Coping strategies that speak to both your wellness and your identities can be powerful resources when being the “representative” is too overwhelming.
Set Professional Boundaries…Out Loud
Being the “representative” daily does not mean you also need to be the representative every day. Speaking about one’s experience or knowledge on topics so personal and ingrained with who a person is must ALWAYS be a choice made by THAT person. It is important to talk openly, proactively, and candidly with your supervisor or someone in your leadership to make sure you stay as much in control of how and when you choose to represent at work. I will add that this one has an asterisk or two associated with it. It assumes that you (1) have a workplace where you can be fully open, and (2) have leadership that supports you holistically. If you aren’t finding that safe (or brave) space in your office, then try seeking help from another trusted leader or an HR staff member.
Build a Timeless Support Network
My professional career has been spent in residence life which includes a live-on capacity. Staff who live-on have the potential for their work colleagues to also became a main social network, meaning that being the “representative” in the office is reaffirmed in a personal setting. So, I make sure my network extends beyond my physical surroundings – I like to think of it as timeless. My timeless support network includes friends and colleagues who relate across my salient identities and come with me (in spirit) no matter where I physically live. Even if they don’t have the context on exactly what happens in my work, they can still understand the struggles of being the “representative,” making their importance timeless to me.
Being the “representative” can innately be a lonely experience. With your own assortment of strategies for managing that experience one way or another, my hope is that you never feel alone…if so, I’ll “represent” with you.
Author: Michael Thompkins works as an Assistant Director of Residence Life and Jewish Life Coordinator at Ursinus College in Collegeville, PA. Michael is also Co-Chair for the New Professionals and Graduate Students Steering Committee in NASPA. Michael’s professional passions include developing equity-minded practices, training & strengthening leaders, and enhancing the new professional and graduate student experience. Michael is also an avid kickboxer and enjoys performing through theater. Michael earned his Master of Arts in Higher Education and Student Affairs from the University of Connecticut and a Bachelor of Science in both Mass Communication and Psychology from Towson University.