Quiet for Poc: The Power of Introverts of Colour in a World That Can't Stop Pointing out Your Race
Updated: Jan 10
Recently, I've observed that people of colour talk a lot about the experiences of being the only person of colour holding space.
Take Liv Little, a founder of gal-dem, who wrote recently in a letter to announce gal-dem 2.0, that she founded her media company as a direct response to 'a feeling of isolation and hopelessness that often comes with being the only person of colour in the room.'
Or Reni Edo-Lodge, author of multi-award winning book 'Why I'm No Longer Talking To White People About Race,' who recently opened up in an interview about being trashed talked in feminist circles by high profile white women, which led her to write the book.
Isn't that what being a Good Immigrant, a term popularised by Nikesh Shukla's book of the same name, is all about in the UK? As some of the chapters in his book point to, it's living in an 'Ungrateful Country,' going through the 'Airports and Auditions,' being the ever-suspicious 'Wife of a Terrorist' and receiving the routine 'Shade.'
"As people of colour, with the rise in popularity of books about race, class and belonging it seems we're increasingly trying to reflect on our experiences in Britain and on what it means to be Brit(ish)."
When I reflect upon school, my neighbourhood and work experiences that focus on race with another person of colour; we'll almost always share and highlight the normative demographic experience of usually being one of only a handful of other minorities in our classes, on our street and on the staff team. I spoke with a black bi-racial womano on Reddit after I posted the question 'feel like imploding?' in the r/mixedrace subredit. She said her 'hs [high school] literally had 30 black people.' Initially I thought wow that's a lot because I was one of four black people in my whole high school of 600 students, but of 30 you're still a minority (and I later discovered her school half 1000 pupils). And still as Zora Neale Hurston penned in a poem called 'How It Feels to Be Colored Me', 'I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.'
These experiences are for the most part negative, until eventually we can have a sense of humour about it because the more it happens, the more ridiculous it becomes. Despite laughing it still leaves me feeling isolated, alone, angry, stressed, exhausted and marginalised.
As people of colour, with the rise in popularity of books about race, class and belonging it seems we're increasingly trying to reflect on our experiences in Britain and on what it means to be (to use Afua Hirsch's book title) 'Brit(ish)'. I think this mass creative reflection in the form of fiction and non-fiction is allowing us to just 'be', it's giving us space to vent, and it's enabling us to develop a stronger group identity/voice.
I say reflection is helpful because William Cross a black psychologist (who developed Nigrescence, a theory for racial identity development) discovered through his work on ethnic identity that, 'racial identity has more to do with how people reflect on their experience rather than the experience per se'(1).
I don't live by personality tests nor do I think my Myers-Brigg personality type defines me as if it were a middle name at social groups, i.e. Hi I'm Oliver INFJ Taylor. However, Extroversion, which is one of the big five personality types makes sense to me.
Susan Cain has a fascinating book on introversion entitled, 'Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking.' The book has been doing the rounds for a few years now, but if you haven't read it, it's worth a read. At its core, it highlights how western culture is not designed for introverts and how it heavily favours extroverts, which leads to, as Susan writes in her book, 'a colossal waste of talent, energy and happiness.'
I mention introversion because I think it can be a helpful add-on lens through which to understand minority ethnic alienation in white spaces. Extroverted society overlooks and undervalues introverts, and white society also overlooks and undervalues people of colour so if you're an IPOC you're even more likely to experience being overlooked and undervalued.
This probably isn't surprising if minority stress theory (I mention this in a previous post about working in white spaces) is a phenomenon too. I think what we describe as isolating, marginalising and alienating as an ethnic minority also interlinks with our personalities and affects us the more introverted we are.
If you're an introvert, like me, you no doubt prefer quiet, less stimulating environments and perhaps tend to avoid large social stimulating situations which drain the life out of you. Similarly being the only person of colour in whites spaces is often an exhausting experience, right?
Going to an overwhelmingly white social event (every event I go to) as a black introvert can lead to lower functioning due to both the disproportionate whiteness and high activity which can then cause us to withdraw quicker. As Youtuber Irami Osei-Frimpong describes the impact of whiteness on blacks, 'whiteness is an ideology of Black degradation.'
Being an introvert in social spaces is a drain, being an introverted person of colour (IPOC) in predominantly white social spaces is a double drain. How to cope?
For me, it began by seeking advice from supportive people of colour. I heard that burning some bridges (and the toll booth and the road lol), i.e. cutting people off was commonplace and the most liberating feeling ever.
It is early days, however, finding a supportive group online (Biracial Conversations and Support Group) and later disengaging from white social groups and events predominantly I used to attend has liberated me. That's the important part, whether you do it all at once or gradually, is to find connections with other PoC.
Do you feel the need to burn some bridges you have to white spaces? Perhaps, where you've felt exoticised or criminalised, i.e. alienated? I have felt marginalised at a local all-white men's faith-based public social group. One particularly painful memory is an older member of the group publicly touching my hair and saying (as an introduction) that I am 'the exotic member of the group.'
Putting your psychological well being first makes a huge difference!