On Being the Only White Girl in Aerobics

I was standing in the aerobics room for a little while before I looked around the class of about thirty folks and realized, hmm, I’m the only white girl in this room. Everyone else was black.

I am rarely in all-white, or even predominately white, environments. But I am also rarely the only white person in a room. So I noticed.

The music started pumping, and I was obediently clomping up and down on my plastic step. While I love a good aerobics class, I’m not regular enough to really “get good” at it.

In other words, as the instructor calls out commands like we’re square dancing in a discotech, I don’t really keep up. I stop. I watch what everyone else is doing and jump back in. My poor transitioning skills work in my favor because I’m woefully out of shape. Studying everyone’s feet gives me time to breath.

Suddenly I started thinking to myself, “Sarah, get it together. You are making ALL WHITE PEOPLE LOOK BAD.” Because, you know, there’s some stereotypes about white people and dancing (as exemplified in this little gem).

I found myself wishing I could explain myself to my classmates. In my mind, I have various signs hanging around my neck:

“I didn’t used to be this clumsy and out of shape. In fact, I was a varsity basketball player in a past life. But in this life, I had a baby mere months ago!” 

“Please forgive my hips. It’s not because I’m white. It’s because somewhere in my religious background I internalized this idea that swaying my hips to music is a slippery, slippery slope!” 

“I will get this, folks. I was once enrolled in an ADULT CHRISTIAN HIP HOP DANCE CLASS. I got this!” 

But wearing a sandwich board in aerobics seems impractical at best, so I tucked away my mental rationalizations.

After a water break, a girl about my age turned me and said, “You’re doing great… especially for your first time.”

I wanted to say, “Thanks. It’s actually not my first time, just in this class.” But when I opened my mouth, I literally couldn’t form words. Just a breathless giggle.

Still, I was surprised how much I appreciated her speaking to me. Normally, I’m not a big fan of strangers greeting me. (I’m sorry. Could I sound any more socially awkward and not like the extrovert that I actually am?)

But I did feel “on the outside” in that class. Partly because I was new, but also because of my skin color. I was really grateful for someone to simply say hello to me.

Reflecting on the class, I've wondered about friends of color experiencing all-white (or predominately white) environments. Is there a nervousness about reinforcing stereotypes? A desire to issue statements of explanation or rationalization like I had?

I can’t imagine how exhausting that must feel. I was wiped out after aerobics. Sure, for obvious reasons, but also because I’d been thinking so much.

I have hesitated to write this post. First of all, I know other people were probably thinking about me very little. And secondly, I have wondered if I would’ve even thought about the situation as much if I wasn’t thinking about blogging.

But also, I hesitate because I don’t want to compare how foolish I may look scrambling to execute an “L-step” to issues of true isolation, misunderstanding and damaging stereotypes. I don’t want to seem like I’m making light of real issues of race.

On the other hand, I am writing about it because in the multicultural life I’ve chosen, I’m thinking and talking about race often. There are many situations in which Billy is “the only” Latino, and we talk about it. We live in an African American neighborhood, and race is a topic of conversation there, too.

I also have thought a lot about the young woman who said hello to me. While I generally notice the racial make up of a room, I don’t always think to reach out if there’s only one person of color in a group of white folks. I want to be more aware to say hello. Hopefully, I can welcome someone else the way I felt welcomed.

Do you notice race in new settings? What have been your experiences?

Photo credit: Kenny Holston


  1. Emily K. Stein1:23 PM

    Thanks for this post. As often occurs, you make me feel better because you voice the thoughts I wonder if I should have....like noticing I'm the only white person in a room. Because I'm usually the only white person, it doesn't bother me much anymore, but when I walk into new situations, at times, it does take me by surprise.
    I went with a friend to a worship service at a college campus. Because it was a college campus, I assumed it would be racially diverse, or mostly white. I was taken back when I walked in, because we were the only white people, everyone else was Asian! It was a wonderful experience!
    But, to your other point, it does cause me to notice when a person of color steps into a room when I'm in an all white setting. My first thought is usually to reach out to them, and make them feel welcome, which I often do. But I often have this nagging thought in the back of my head....am I doing this to truly welcome them, or because I don't want them to think that everyone in this room (including me!) is racist? Is my welcoming them trying to prove something, cause if so, that's not really a welcome.
    But alas, as I continue to struggle with my own whiteness and learn to become comfortable in my own skin, I'm hoping to feel less a necessity to prove that I'm not racists, and to truly desire to welcome and enjoy a new person in our midst.

  2. Thanks for sharing that article, Naomi. I had seen and thought it was so incredible. It is heart-breaking from me that students have to experience that type of pain, but I am glad they are speaking out.

    I'm glad this post connected with you, and I think it's great that you're considering your perceptions and processing them.

  3. I'm so glad you commented, Emily. I think that's a really important point to raise. I have definitely seen the awkwardness of the opposite extreme where someone is singled out for their ethnicity and "over-welcomed" in ways that feel at best uncomfortable.

    But I think what you say about being comfortable in your own skin is really key. Because even if you're asking yourself those questions, a polite, friendly hello is natural and welcoming to a new person. And, at least to me, it means a lot!

  4. "Reflecting on the class, I've wondered about friends of color experiencing all-white (or predominately white) environments. Is there a nervousness about reinforcing stereotypes? A desire to issue statements of explanation or rationalization like I had?" <--- I always scope out the white to POC ratio in any situation. And as someone who looks racially ambiguous I don't typically feel like I need to combat any specific stereotypes but there are many times where I feel uncomfortable being the only non-white person in a situation.

  5. Also, I think many POC feel the burden of representing their entire race. Racism is not seeing humanity, right? So when one POC does something, it is usually attributed as a characteristic of the larger group. Usually that same burden is not placed on white people. If a white person does something, it is not usually attributed as a characteristic of all white people. We see this play out in larger society on a daily basis.

  6. Absolutely. Well said, Alyssa. "Racism is not seeing humanity." I may use that line in the future. Very insightful!

  7. I love these thoughts that you shared. It's funny because I've had various things come up in the last week or two that have really gotten me thinking more about race. Right now, there are a whole bunch of jumbled thoughts floating around, which tells me I need to sit down and write to figure out what's going on in my head.
    Anyway, last week, I had to look up the demographics of my city for a class assignment, and I was surprised at how low the percent of African-Americans was (about 20% I think). Because (as someone in the "majority") I had perceived my city to be much more "diverse"...as in, I thought there weren't so many white people. And when I stopped to verbalize this--that I had perceived that I wasn't SO much in the majority in this area--it really gave me pause. I haven't quite figured out what I make of my perception yet, but it's in process.

    Also, have you seen the project at Harvard? Incredible... http://www.buzzfeed.com/alisonvingiano/21-black-harvard-students-share-their-experiences-through-a

    Also, this. Ha, I totally relate!
    “Please forgive my hips. It’s not because I’m white. It’s because somewhere in my religious background I internalized this idea that swaying my hips to music is a slippery, slippery slope!” Let's just say my husband had a lot of work to do when he taught me to dance salsa. (And he still probably has better moves than I do.)


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