Laura Cathcart Robbins: Truth-teller, Community-builder, Needle Mover

On October 15, 2018, Laura Cathcart Robbins wrote a personal essay on Huffington Post about how she had just attended Brave Magic and was the only black woman out of 600 attendees.

Words by LaKay Cornell. Illustration by Meaghan Elderkin.

What followed next could likely never have been predicted. Her essay stirred up emotions from all sides. There were people who told her to stop being a victim, stop being preoccupied with her race, and stop blaming racism for her own feelings of awkwardness. On her own blog, she described the responses as succumbing to a mentality called Compassion Fatigue. Compassion Fatigue is when we are so tired of hearing about or dealing with something that makes us uncomfortable, we are unable to feel empathy or compassion for those in that situation or circumstance.

Maybe that’s it. Maybe a lot of us have Compassion Fatigue. We could probably use that to explain why people say they are tired of hearing about a lot of things — abortion rights, gay marriage, black men & boys being shot by cops, equal pay — or why, when we start to discuss how important these things are people change the subject, look over our heads or at their phone or politely excuse themselves. Maybe that explains why I have been in rooms where someone starts talking about the need for our teachers to have more resources or how warped the whole student loan system is, and no one gets fired up and wants to march on Washington to see change.

Or maybe people are just ass-holes.

I’m trying to think if I have ever had that same experience when a white man was sharing something he was super passionate about. Nothing comes to mind.

Back to the amazing Laura Cathcart Robbins.

In answer to these protests and demoralizations, she referenced the underlying sentiment of them as she saw it: “Why can’t we all just get over it and move on.” And she did it, like she does everything, with truth.

We can’t move on because we’re still being disproportionately arrested. We can’t move on because we’re still getting shot down in the streets and our murderers aren’t getting convicted. We can’t move on because we are still being pulled over for driving while black, getting the police called on us for shopping, sleeping or babysitting while black. We can’t move on because our votes and voices are still being systematically suppressed. We can’t move on because we’re still getting stared down when we enter a convenience store or asked to leave when we take too long to purchase something. We can’t move on because in the eyes of a great many Americans, we are still worth less.

The reactions she received aren’t unique to her (or this) experience either. Every time someone shares their story — openly and authentically — even in a non-judgmental / question-asking way (which she did), there will be a ton of people who respond by telling that person they don’t have the right to their experience or feelings. And regardless of the underlying motivation — compassion fatigue, the desire to move on from hard things, or just plain ass-hole-ness, the truth is that some person or people are always telling some other person or people that they are not entitled to have the feelings, experience, or reactions they are having.

I read tons of articles on Medium where some well-meaning person is advising the world on some way they can run their business better, manage their health better, contribute to a civil society better, parent better, or … any number of other things. And, at least once a week, I will look at the comments (because sometimes there are other helpful resources there) and see someone who took the time to leave a comment that had no purpose other than to tell the author that they have no business saying whatever it is they said.

It’s enough to make us all want to stop sharing our stories about anything.

Back to the amazing Laura Cathcart Robbins.

These annoying small-minded responses were not the only responses she got. At the same time, hundreds upon hundreds of comments and messages started pouring in with people sharing their own only one in the room story. Her essay had given them permission to acknowledge their own discomfort with being the only one.

Which is exactly what it did for me. I could write an entire book full of the stories of the times I have been the only one in a room:

  • The only one at my abortion-rights-focused non-profit job whose grandpa was a born-again preacher.
  • The only one of any of my friends who had a daughter, on my own, and no “ex-baggage”.
  • The only one who has had 3 unplanned pregnancies, 1 abortion, 3 miscarriages, 2 c-sections, and one vaginal delivery.
  • The only one in most rooms who references my childhood in the fundamental church as growing up in a cult — and is still recovering from the trauma it caused.
  • The only one who is bisexual at Queer events.

And so many more. We all have them. We all have the times we show up someplace — excited for what we might learn, who we might meet, or how we might grow — only to discover that we are the only ________ in that room. This realization, this feeling of being different leaves an imprint of shame, dehumanization, and isolation on our souls.

At least for many of us.

Talk about fatigue. When you mix that imprint of shame, dehumanization, and isolation with the reactions we many times get if we try to share our feelings with other people, there is no way to not be flat out exhausted. So we don’t share. We don’t talk about how it feels to be the only one. (Side note: I deleted multiple lines from that list above and retyped them numerous times tonight because I was worried about what someone might say in response.)

Back to the amazing Laura Cathcart Robbins.

Reading all of these stories. Understanding that there were people everywhere who needed to belong to a community of other only ones, prompted her to start a podcast, The Only One in the Room, last April. Each week she interviews a somewhat celebrity and asks them to share their own only one story. She also reads a letter from a listener and she and her guest provide insight on how that person can process/move through/ survive their only one story.

It’s like she sat down and thought,

Wow. A lot of people felt better about their life when they read my essay about being the only black woman in that room. I should magnify those feelings by hundreds by sharing as many stories like mine as possible.

And she did. I mean, I don’t know if she had those exact thoughts, but I do know that when I read her essay, I felt better and less alone. And after every episode of the podcast, I have felt better and better — regardless if I can identify with the particulars of the guest’s experiences — just from knowing that there are people everywhere who experience the feeling of being the only one.

It is only by the sharing of all of our stories that we can overthrow this fucked up system where anyone ever feels like they lack the power to feel their feelings, have their experiences, and share them with the world.

Every week, with every interview, Laura Cathcart Robbins moves the needle just a little bit more towards equality. And every week, with every interview, that imprint of shame, dehumanization, and isolation on my soul is replaced just a little bit with the power to Show up, Stand up, and Speak up.

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