Last night I attended a lecture on the "Impostor Syndrome" for Women's History Month. The "Impostor Syndrome" is basically the idea that successful women (to a greater extent than successful men) often feel academically and/ or professionally inadequate and live in fear that others will discover their incompetence and strip them of the awards and accolades they have received.
I sat listening to this lecture. Half listening, half feeling annoyed and trying to figure out why. It could have been the casual way that the presenter pretended to be intersectional by dropping the word "people of color" and saying, "This happens a lot to men of color too! In fact, I spoke to a group of Black male engineers once!"
I looked around the room. There were only two other Black women and no Black men. I was surrounded by white women who vigorously agreed with everything the speaker said.
It's not that I don't think Black girls and women ever deal with the Impostor Syndrome. It's not that Black girls don't ever believe that they're not good enough. I know that I've had times where I've doubted my abilities. It's more that I think that Black girls are so heavily burdened by the conflation of white supremacy and patriarchy that being stuck in feelings of inadequacy would render us immobile and would bar us from ever reaching success in the first place.
And so the idea of managing to be successful all while believing that one does not have what it takes to be successful seems like in large part an impossibility as a Black woman.
Black women are constantly dealing with the assumption from others that we are inadequate. If we completely internalized those feelings there would be no room for moving forward because we're not getting support from others so we have to support ourselves.
The smart Black kid is an annoyance. A liability. Pre-college that didn't mean being lauded and celebrated. It meant being viewed as suspect. It meant being accused of plagiarizing papers. Being more carefully watched than other students during exams. I had to develop a strong sense of confidence or at least learn how to hype myself up when I did lack confidence in order to survive this kind of environment.
I had to learn to be the voice that said "you got this" when I had to hear others telling me the opposite. I had to learn to say to myself "I am worthy" to counteract every message of the opposite I was told. I had to do that in order to keep going.
It's not that I'm naturally confident or strong. It's that I've been socialized to be this way in order to make it in a world that is not kind to Black girls. That's the cost of possessing femininity that is not "protected" and infantilized. And this has given birth to Black girl bravado/ the "strong Black woman."
Learning about the Impostor Syndrome annoyed me because I felt like I never had the chance to even consider that I might not be good enough and sit down and dwell in that fact. I feel like I don't have the privilege to be anything but strong.
According to the "Impostor Syndrome" expert I listened to men know how to "fake it till you make it" but women do not. Women are obsessed with details and allow themselves to be academically and professionally crippled by them. I disagree. I think Black girls are taught from a very young age to always put on the face of confidence whether they feel confident or not. To reference Sojourner Truth: and ain't we women?
I used to think that every Black woman around me was more confident and well-put together than I am. I used to wonder why every Black woman seemed to be stronger and more impervious. And then I realized that this is a face that most of us are putting on. And then I realized that even my own front was believable to others. Everybody thinks I'm always confident because they don't know what goes on in my head and because they have a set of assumptions for Black women.
I don't have time to truly have the Impostor Syndrome. I wish I did. That is a lot less stress than knowing that I have to constantly trick myself into thinking I'm good enough and knowing that I'll be in big trouble if I don't successfully hype myself up to that point. I can't reasonably wait for others to tell me that I'm great! And of course I am deserving! I might be waiting for a lifetime.
I can expect at any time to walk into a class or a job where I will be explicitly and wrongly told that I'm only there because I'm Black. If I didn't learn how to combat those kinds of messages there is no way I would be able to survive.
Many of these theories and syndromes and concepts and what not are predicated on the assumption that all women possess a patriarchalized femininity that provides a measure of protection. And so it allows women the space and ability to not have to assert themselves or believe in their own abilities. Somebody else will simply push them along.
The story of the successful Black woman is more often than not the story of somebody who told herself every day that she was smart and capable even on the days where she didn't truly believe it. And allowed that to keep pushing her in spite of the obstacles created by race and gender. And I am not sure that the Impostor Syndrome fully encompasses that.
And then on the other hand I don't like how exasperated I get with discussions like this. Because I feel like it's me neatly playing into the Strong Black Woman myth. The truth is that it's sad that I doubt that a Black woman who doubts herself so severely as to identify it as the Impostor Syndrome would ever get the time of day from professors or employers.
The face of confidence is unfortunately required for living as a Black girl. Which then leads into conversations about the intersections between mental health, race, gender, and "personal responsibility" leading to "success." A conversation that I don't think was attended to in a satisfactory manner at the talk I went to.
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