The Only Norm is Onlyness

“There are people in this world who have the full rights of citizenship, in our communities, our countries and around the world. And then there are those of us who, to varying degrees, do not. We don’t have equal access to education, to healthcare and some other basic liberties like marriage, a fair voting process, fair hiring practices…”

Those are words Kerry Washington said recently at an awards gala.

Washington continued. “Now, you would think that those of us who are kept from our full rights of citizenship would band together and fight the good fight. But history tells us that no, often we don’t.

“Women, poor people, people of color, people with disabilities, immigrants, gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, trans people, inter-sex people, we have been pitted against each other and made to feel like there are limited seats at the table for those of us that fall into the category of ‘other.’ As a result, we have become afraid of one another. We compete with one another, we judge one another, sometimes we betray one another. Sometimes even within our own communities, we designate who among us is best suited to represent us and who, really, shouldn’t even really be invited to the party,” she said. “As ‘others,’ we are taught to be successful we must reject those other ‘others’ or we will never belong.”

As I listened to Washington’s moving speech, I am reminded of how much belonging matters. We all need to be a part of something. A sense of belonging is perhaps one of the most fundamental human needs, equivalent perhaps to the need for food, water, and shelter. When we don’t have it, we feel like we’re dying. Because it is through belonging that we see the value we bring to others, and it is only in that reflection that we feel seen.

The problem arises when you’re the ONLY one in the room that is different than the rest. If you are the only woman engineer in a room for full of men, you’re likely to down play or deny your femininity. The biggest tomboy alive can suddenly feel like Programmer Barbie if her surrounding context is male enough. If you’re the only man not interested in sports in a room full of jocks, you will put on a facade to pass. Why? Because you’ll feel like you’ve broken a sacred “man law”. There are similar stories for people of color, people of different sexual orientation. You can probably think of a time when you were the only one, and what it felt like.

Too often, you end up conforming when you’re the only one, because you so urgently need to belong.

That’s why I ended up with the term Onlyness.  Truth be told, I hate making up words. The people who often make up words usually for content-strategy reasons, not for a sake of a clearer distinction. But I knew certain words didn’t apply in this situation. Like Talent. Being defined as being talented is too often about having a certain credential or fitting into what someone expects. I specifically didn’t use the word uniqueness, because being unique can also be isolating. You can be unique and also the ONLY one.

Creating the word Onlyness is taking something that is negative (being the only one) and making it a positive. I want us to celebrate that thing each of us brings, not cause us to give up ourselves to survive, to belong. What you bring — your history and experiences, visions and hopes — matters. It is the path to new ideas, new solutions to age old problems, and even new inventions we can’t imagine. If we deny onlyness, we deny progress. For ourselves, for our communities, for our economies.

The majority narrative today doesn’t include onlyness today, it celebrates homogeneity. And fitting in, and sacrificing our dreams and hopes to belong. While it may not be killing us literally, it is certainly killing new ideas.

“We must see each other — all of us — and we must see ourselves — all of us. And we have to continue to be bold and break new ground until that is just how it is. Until we are no longer ‘firsts’ and ‘exceptions’ and ‘rare’ and ‘unique.’ In the real world, being an other is the norm. In the real world, the only norm is uniqueness and our media must reflect that.” Washington closed her remarks asking that our media including uniqueness.

I’ll close mine asking that our world include, and celebrate onlyness.

1 Reply

  1. Belonging is a gift we can extend to others. If we choose. That this is too often the case is a reflection of an unsafe world. Where we lack safety from each other we search for identity in opposition to that which is making us feel unsafe.

    Fear fuels ignorance and the tragedy for the bigot or hypocrite is that they take themselves further away from their humanity as they alienate and isolate the different. The struggle for identity, for onlyness, brings greater freedom than what can be charged to a credit card.

    I’d like to think we are choosing to give the git of belonging more often. I’d like to think that because the alternative isn’t very encouraging. We have many Kerry Washington’s in our midst. Inequality, hate and violence have nipped at our heels forever. But we keep finding the strength to take a stand for each other.

    Je suis Charlie

    Doing so needn’t be at the hateful ends of conformity. It can be a simple thing such as ensuring the meek find themselves heard. It can be about taking the time to add a little bit of yourself to the most transactional interactions. I think we forget sometimes to distinguish people from their surroundings.

    Of course there are some of us who find standing against the pressures of conformity easier. My life changed when I saw Cool Hand Luke when I was eight. “You’re an original! That’s what you are!”

    Change professionals can’t afford to conform. They have to be the only one in the room not like the rest. They have to be consistently visible so that others have a choice of belonging to something new.

    Someone once said ‘You have more support than you think’. The message here is to keep your head held high when you go about redecorating the world. Because you emphasize your originality, your onlyness, at the same time as create the basis for more belonging.

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