Developing a strong sense of self-identity as a Person of Color (POC) is essential to fight tokenism and survive the impact of racial isolation. Young POC are often placed in spaces that may subject them to racial isolation or tokenism. The likelihood of having these negative experiences increases when minorities work, attend school, or live in predominantly white communities. 

Although we are all unique beings, community is essential to self-development and self-identity. When your sense of community and belonging are compromised, serious problems can occur. Separation and alienation from your ethnic community and your non-POC peers can result in an identity crisis and mental distress. 

People who are victims of tokenism show higher levels of stress, depression, and anxiety. Developing a sense of identity that is non-reliant on spaces that may segregate and disengage you from your peers is an important step in overcoming the phenomenon of tokenism and racial isolation.

Defining experiences you might face as a POC in white spaces

Here is a list of definitions for different terms that may help to explain your experiences. After you have taken time to glance over these definitions, we will talk more about how these experiences can impact your self-identity and well-being. Also, we will discuss how you can maintain your identity in the face of these experiences. 

What is racial isolation?

Racial isolation occurs when people of a certain racial background, especially POC, face segregation from their non-POC peers. Racial isolation can be very subtle and may look rather different from the form of segregation that was witnessed in America during the 1950s. Ethnic minority young people may experience racial isolation at young ages if they attend a predominantly white school that does little to focus on diversity and inclusion. This form of isolation may occur because of different things such as tokenism, stereotyping, and microaggressions.  

My personal experiences with racial isolation

Growing up, I went to several predominantly white schools. Because my family moved a lot, I was often the “new kid” and it made it extremely difficult to fit in and feel like I belonged. While I was usually able to make friends wherever I went, no matter the race, I had a lot of difficulty making friends at one particular school that I attended. I was one of two minority students in that class. Everyone else, including the teachers, were white. Although I never had a problem with it, I learned right away that the people there saw me differently because of my race. This started a pattern of racial microaggressions that would follow me into adulthood. 

Once I became an adult and started working in the corporate world, I experienced many microaggressions in the workplace. At one particular job, I was the only Black employee in my department, so I received comments about my hair, my family’s background. People even made certain assumptions about my financial situation and how I was able to afford to go to college. 

Thankfully, I was very secure in my identity as a Black woman by that time, but before then, I remember internalizing some of the comments that people made about me as a child. I grew up in a small town in Georgia where neighbors, teachers, and some of my peers perpetuated a lot of racism. There was an incident involving my father in which a white neighbor told him to, “Go back to Africa.” When everyone around you finds a perceived flaw and keeps poking at it, that can cause someone to feel less confident and start to resent who they are. 

What is tokenism? 

Tokenism is when a person, likely someone whose background differs from the majority group, is intentionally set apart from that group to act as the spokesperson or representative of their community. This often takes place in predominantly white institutions, such as schools or certain workplaces. People who are tokenized are frequently subjected to microaggressions and stereotyping. 

Shortly after making the rocky transition from a Black neighborhood to a predominantly white neighborhood, I began to experience tokenism for the first time in my life. Once I started attending my new school and making friends, I realized quickly that I was different. 

There I was, a little black girl who was meek and quiet. I enjoyed reading, playing board games, and going to church with my family. This made it incredibly easy for others to feel comfortable saying and doing things around me because I was not the stereotypical angry black girl who got loud and cursed them out. I came from a two-parent household, so I could not possibly be like the others, they thought. 

In so many words, I constantly got the feeling that they saw me as “safe” and different from the other black people that they had heard about⎯ which was in no way, a compliment. It later confirmed my suspicions when I would hear phrases such as, “I don’t mean you” or “You know how black people…”. As I got older, the stereotyping got worse.

What are stereotypes? 

Stereotypes are broad assumptions made about a particular group of people. This may look like a young Black man who is accused of being a criminal because he dresses a certain way, or a person of Middle Eastern descent being accused of being a terrorist, simply because of how they look. These types of assumptions create many problems in our society, on both a local and a global scale. 

What are microaggressions? 

A Psychology Today article by Dr. Derald Wing Sue, Ph.D., defines racial microaggressions as, “brief and everyday slights, insults, indignities and denigrating messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned white people who are unaware of the hidden messages being communicated.” In short, racial aggressions are a subtle, “not in your face” type of racism. 

Have you ever gone to school or worked at a job where very few people look like you? Has someone ever heard you speak before replying, “You speak so well”? Perhaps people have made comments about your hair, the way that you speak, or generalizations about the racial group that you come from. These are all considered microaggressions. Microaggressions, while not always intended to come from a rude place, are extremely harmful. 

The above experiences may lead to internalized racism. What exactly does that mean?

After years of experiencing tokenism and racial isolation, you can start to internalize, or take on other people’s words and feelings about you or your race and begin to believe those negative things about yourself. This is called internalized racism

I briefly experienced this when I was younger. For me, these feelings began as early as the first grade. I remember how some teachers would treat white and “light-skinned” racially ambiguous students much differently than they did Black students. I often felt inferior to my white peers, especially young girls around my age. 

One of the ways that I began to internalize this was through my perception of my hair. I had my first chemical hair relaxer by the time I was six years old to straighten my naturally kinky, coily hair to make it more “manageable”. Even with the relaxer added, I had a very painful, complicated relationship with my hair for years after that. 

Effects on my personality 

One of the other ways that I was affected by internalized racism is that I became a people pleaser. I was often placed in this mold and expected to be docile and agreeable, so it was hard for me to speak up and advocate for myself because I was always afraid to reinforce certain racial stereotypes about Black people. 

If I felt mistreated, I would not want to call it out. Frequently being subjected to mistreatment and racial microaggressions, but not feeling comfortable enough to speak out, caused a lot of internal conflict within myself and it made me extremely unhappy for a while. On the off chance that I did defend myself, people saw me as the aggressor. I constantly constantly suppressed my emotions due to my need to not upset other people and to keep myself out of trouble. It caused me to live a very “safe” lifestyle, but it led to a lot of resentment that I kept to myself. That, in conjunction with other life factors, eventually led to diagnoses of Major Depressive Disorder and Social Anxiety Disorder. I did not learn how to unapologetically speak up for myself until I became an adult.

Other POC experiences in white spaces

The issue of racial isolation and self-identity is extremely important, and I wanted to include some quotes from some interviews that I conducted with several POC current and former students who have experienced racial isolation. I decided to include standout quotes from these interviews because I want to emphasize how prevalent this problem is and to show that many other minorities can relate to your experiences. 

Read what they said below.

The only Black girl

In high school, I was the only black girl in a friend group. Perhaps me being a part of that friend group was tokenism, because it only took one argument for them to stop being friends with me years after graduation.” – Anonymous  

During my first semester of college, all the girls on my sports team were white besides one other (I was already friends with the other person of color before undergrad). I didn’t make friends with the other girls, and it seemed like it was easier for them to converse with one another and connect. My social attempts during college were mostly in vain, then Covid hit and that affected most events on campus, so I just focused on my studies for the rest of my time in undergrad.– Anonymous  

“Micro” aggressions 

When it comes to microaggressions, I am no stranger to this! My sisters and I went to a predominantly white middle school. It was a nice school for the most part, but among my friends, I was that token black friend. I hung around those girls, yes, but I was their friend at school and nothing more. Throughout middle and high school, I was never invited to things, they showed no interest in meeting my family, and if I DID get invited to something, I was the last one to find out. It was as if I was an afterthought to them.” –C.L. 

As a young, black person in America, I have experienced my fair share of microaggressions. Most of them came from my white teachers in elementary and middle school. The little comments they would say to me and other black students did not go unnoticed and made for an uncomfortable environment. These comments consisted of awkward remarks about our hair or skin color and sometimes manifested into being accused of doing something wrong even though we were doing exactly what our white counterparts were doing. Moments like those made me feel “othered” in the classroom and negatively affected my social environment. I didn’t always feel comfortable with the white students or teachers because of this treatment.” – J.B.

The Black lady and the purse

At work, my white co-worker and I always go to lunch together. Sometimes we take my car and sometimes we take hers. On this particular day, she asked if I could ride in the car with her so that I could see the new purse her husband had bought her. She had left the purse in the car to avoid cramming it into her locker. I told her that I would ride in the car with her so she could show me the purse on the way to lunch.

Once lunchtime came, we got into her car and she started driving to the restaurant. I asked her to show me the purse that she had been bragging about and she told me to reach in the back of the driver’s seat. I unbuckled my seatbelt and started reaching for the purse. While I was reaching for the purse, my white co-worker said, “Don’t go stealing anything out of my purse now. I know how you all are”.

Even though she was joking, I was offended because she was trying to say that she believes in the stereotype of black people being criminals. She thought that because I was a black woman, I was going to steal from her purse. After she made that comment, my jaw dropped, and I stopped reaching for the purse. I told her that because of her racist comment, I did not want to see the purse.” – G.H. 

Lessons in forming self-identity 

“Despite all this, I’ve learned to embrace the unique individual God created me to be, and not try to change to be more like the world. I’d say that’s one of the most important lessons in my journey of self-identity.” – Anonymous  

Combating tokenism and racial isolation by forming self-identity

Self-identity is when a person understands who they are as both an individual and as a member of a community. We form our self-identity through the process of self-connection. 

In their article, Self-connection and Well-being: Development and Validation of a Self-connection Scale, Klussman et al. claim that self-connection consists of three primary components: self-awareness, self-acceptance, and self-alignment.

1. Self-awareness 

The first step in gaining self-awareness is acknowledging that your feelings, while valid, are not always factual. Learning who you are, despite what you feel at a certain moment, allows you to take a more accurate assessment of yourself and your talents. This is extremely important to remember if you are in a place that isolates you, especially if you are one of the only POC in that space. It can be easy to fall into the traps of self-doubt and internalized racism if you do not become confident in who you are outside of the stereotypes and microaggressions that are thrown your way. 

2. Self-acceptance

One of the keys to overcoming the impact of racial isolation is radical acceptance. Radical acceptance is when you accept or embrace all parts of yourself, including the positive and the negative. When you do this, there is no room for comparison to anyone outside of yourself.  As cliché as it may sound, you learn that life is truly not a competition and every person is on their own unique path, so you should not compare who you are to the expectations or stereotypes pushed by others. You are exactly who you were made to be, and that is not defined by how others perceive you or the racial group that you come from. 

3. Self-alignment 

Self-alignment speaks to the relationship between your real self and how you would like to show up in the world. Factors such as core values, spirituality, and the role that you play in other people’s lives are crucial in terms of becoming self-aligned. Being happy or satisfied with how you meet the expectations or desires of your idealized self, determines how aligned you are with who you wish to become.  

Another important aspect of self-connection and self-identity is your self-esteem. Author and educator, Kendra Cherry, MSEd describes self-esteem as your “sense of overall personal worth or value.”


For me, the challenges of tokenism were difficult to overcome. That said, forming my self-identity included learning more about my culture, becoming an advocacy worker, and studying race relations. Doing all these things taught me to separate the errors of society from who I am as a person, while not regretting being a person of color in the process.