I learned a long time ago – as an undergraduate student- that as I'll have to work twice as hard just to be given half of a chance as everyone else. When papers were being returned it amazed me how other students (white and Asian) responded to the scores of Black Students. If we made low marks, they weren’t surprised. They would say, "Oh", shrug and announce their higher scores. If we made high marks, then they were completely surprised, asking to see our papers and checking each answer, word-for word. I would like to say responses like these are a thing of the past, but they are not. Along every bend and curve along my personal STEM path, I’ve been dealing with reactions like these. The demon that I call Imposter Syndrome isn’t self-doubt. It doesn’t don my face or voice. No, my demon is a chorus of whispers and side eyes, and groups of leaned in faces treating me as if I were a fraud, as if my accomplishments were a fluke.
The Impostor Syndrome I've experienced manifests as never ending quizzing, asking me basic questions about a topic to demonstrate that I really know something. It comes in the backhanded compliments of people who say things like,
"You knew that"
"You speak so well"
“How do you know that/that person”
“YOU got a DDIG” (a NSF Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant)
It’s not these phrases per se, it’s how folks say it – with a tone and pitch of surprise or as if it they were asking a question, with eyes wide, like a deer-in headlights. Perhaps most people don’t mean any harm by asking those questions or being genuinely surprised. However, it definitely betrays them; it reveals their biases and [low] expectations they have of some people. I’ve become especially sensitive to coded language and remarks – certain phrases or ways of behaving or interacting with minorities that ring out like a dog whistle. The biases may not be very blatant and individuals may not be aware of them. But this nagging uncomfortable feeling seeps in that tells me that folks are thinking, "What is she doing here?"
And then that doubt plants itself in my mind and spirit. I feel out of place and insecure more often than I care to admit. I feel like I have all of these extra hoops to jump through. I have to prove that I am worthy of where am I right now. To behave in a way that communicates that I'm here because I deserve it, not because of charity or because of a diversity fellowship or that I landed some great opportunity only because I’m double minority. We all get chances, but why is it so G-D hard for everyone to believe that I'm here because I deserved it as much as anyone or perhaps more than anyone else?
Yet, a more difficult question comes to mind, How do I handle these casually-made, perhaps unintentionally, offensive reactions? How do I assert myself in the most effective, yet and politically? And this question matters more because it sets the field for all future interactions I (and perhaps other females/persons of color) will have with this person/institution. I have been in several academic settings, where I am the other – usually the lone or even trailblazing other. I have learned, sadly, that it is imperative that I assert my personhood and ‘teach’ folks how to treat me respectfully. It’s fine line and I try to be diplomatic so as not to shut the conversation down. However, these lessons must be delivered swiftly. The times I failed to do so taught me much. The most difficult situations have been when persons of authority, say department chairs or deans are the offensive ones. (This is where and why allies matter so much). It is a struggle. I desperately want to scream and lash out. I feel most uncivilized inside.
I bust my ass. If anything, I risk coming across as brash and cocky. I know I've earned every bit of it and I'm not keen on placating some privileged person's ego. However, that also means I’m more likely to be described as bitchy, uppity, or not-staying in my place – again more coded language that must be addressed when and if it comes up. I’d rather be described as no-nonsense, confident, and assertive. I see how (and why) some people become those no-nonsense hard asses that makes everyone call him/her Dr. Suchinsuch all of the time: because some people are all too quick to dismiss your accomplishments and your hard work.
Have I to exorcised this Imposter Syndrome demon fully? No, but I do pretty good job of kicking its ass every now and then. I embrace my inner-Awesome. I thank God daily, and on really tough days I rock this song as my affirmation.
I Don’t Want to Be by Gavin DeGraw