It’s Not ‘Impostor Syndrome’ When You’re Black and Woman
Almost every morning for the past two years, I have found myself sitting in my car on this predominantly White campus playing Tasha Cobbs or Kendrick Lamar or BJ the Chicago Kid or something to get my mind right before stepping out into war. That’s what being Black and woman and queer and capable in academia feels like. War.
It’s funny because I volunteered for this. I quit a well-paying (!!!) job and moved across the country by choice. No one forced me to come here. No one pressured me. But, once I got here, I found myself asking over and over again, “do I belong here?” I ask myself at least once per week, sometimes daily when things get especially rough. “Do I belong here?” It echoes.
This feeling is no different from how I felt while working in corporate America. It is no different from the wave of emotions I felt when stepping onto my undergraduate campus for the very first time. It seems more proximate now, more closely related to my life as a doctoral student and the hierarchies of the system within which I find myself embedded. Sometimes, it feels intimately related to my station, being so early in my academic journey. But, most importantly, this feeling of always being on the defensive and always having to fight stems from my race, my gender, my class, and my sexuality. It usually isn’t because I feel like an ‘impostor.’
Some people refer to these feelings as “impostor syndrome” (also spelled “imposter syndrome”). In fact, this term is thrown out almost immediately when I mention any self-doubt. I have seen it time and again. An amazing woman, usually of color, expresses a bit of shakiness or a tinge of anxiety and someone is there to tell her she’s being irrational, that she feels like she is acting out a part rather than living out her truths.
This phenomenon was coined by Pauline Rose Clance & Suzanne Imes in 1978. They say,
“However, despite their earned degrees, scholastic honors, high achievement on standardized tests, praise and professional recognition from colleagues and respected authorities, these women do not experience an internal sense of success. They consider themselves to be “impostors.” Women who experience the impostor phenomenon maintain a strong belief that they are not intelligent; in fact they are convinced that they have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise. “
In essence, the theory is that high-achieving women doubt their own abilities, consumed with the belief that they are simply posing as intellectuals, posing as high-achievers, when, in actuality, they are just average. Or, worse, they may even think they are mediocre. To me, this is where “Lean In” culture stems from. No doubt the logic there is problematic.
There have been articles explaining how to overcome impostor syndrome. Others ask if it really just means you are destined for greatness. Interestingly enough, almost nothing asks why certain women have this syndrome in the first place. Even more importantly, what if there are differences between White, Black, Latina, Asian, Indigenous, and other racial and ethnic groups of women where this syndrome is concerned?
I can honestly say I have had this issue. But, I am not sure only women are likely to embody this phenomenon. Yet, I know I have. I remember distinctly when I received acceptance letters from leading universities while in high school and I felt compelled to check the envelopes to ensure they sent the letters to the right Jennifer Marcella Logan. For years, while attending school at the University of Southern California, I joked that someone had been “drinking on the job” and that was how I got there. I didn’t take myself seriously as a scholar. And, while I still do this from time to time, I think there is a contextual component necessary to this logic that is missing: Black people, especially women, are socialized to believe that they are not allowed to enter these spaces not only because of the assumptions of inadequacy about their race but also because of the social norms about the role of women in society.
This phenomenon, therefore, is not just the embodiment of impostor syndrome when Black women are involved. Instead, it is the byproduct of internalized White Supremacy and, in a parallel way, patriarchy.
At this point of my career, I know that I am high-achieving. I am aware of my accomplishments and my arc of success. There are plenty of women (and men) like me, who, even when they become more confident in their innate strengths, when they perform at levels higher than their White counterparts, they do not receive the recognition, support, or accolades typically reserved for White men and women. It is their challenging of certain social norms that makes their achievement seem rebellious, subversive, or even threatening to the “normal” functioning of our society.
By labeling every single moment of self-doubt expressed by women, primarily those of color, as impostor syndrome, we flatten the complexities and pervasiveness of White Supremacy and patriarchy. Not only that, we situate these women as just needing to “lean in” or “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” whilst never acknowledging that when they do lean in, and when they do pull themselves up, they are still met with opposition from individual actors and institutions who are invested in their exclusion from many public spaces.
So, while I have dealt with this by “arming” myself each morning with messages that encourage me throughout the day, I know this isn’t a long-term or even generalizable solution. It will take collective acknowledgment that leaning and pulling are not the actions which will dismantle these systems. Instead, the deliberate centering of these women in all public space seems much closer to the answer we seek.
Photo credit: hdimagelib.com
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