Racial Imposter SyndromeOctober 11, 2019 2 Comments
I have now sat in at least six meetings in which women of color leaders have talked about feeling like an imposter. My thinking is evolving, but I believe imposter syndrome in racialized contexts is the experience (almost like a deja vu moment), when people of color feel like a fraud or, worse, they actually believe they are not capable leaders.
Initially coined by psychologists Suzanne Imes, PhD, and Pauline Rose Clance, PhD, in the 1970s, impostor phenomenon occurs among high achievers who are unable to internalize and accept their success. They often attribute their accomplishments to luck rather than ability, and fear that others will eventually unmask them as a fraud.
Imposter Syndrome is unique if you apply a racialized lens because it is so deeply intertwined with assimilation and racism.
Assimilation into white and male work culture was not something that women of color chose. We were forced to conform our way of dressing, speaking, working, and being so that white people, and men – in particular – would accept us as leaders, good workers, and trusted friends. It was an olympic code-switching, and it was exhausting and soul depleting. But mostly, it was survival. Survival so we could ascend to positions of leadership, keep a job, and make enough money to support our families. Choosing not to assimilate came at a huge price.
When you assimilate, you lose a sense of self. You lose the parts of you that were the “original you,” the stronger parts of your identity and what made you unique and whole. And before you know it, you become another version of yourself – watered down, less happy, more anxious, and constantly questioning your abilities. It’s like catching a wicked case of internalized oppression in which we walk around feeling bad about ourselves or feeling like we fall short. It may be a feeling that lasts for a few seconds and we swat it off to move forward, or it lasts longer, causing serious emotional pain and worry.
This vice grip of assimilation and internalized inferiority finds us showing up as half of ourselves in the workplace. For example, we may have the best idea in a meeting at a particular moment, but we feel self-conscious advocating for it or even raising it. People may want us to take on leadership roles but we turn them down, either because we think we don’t deserve the role or we might fail. Racial imposter syndrome drains your confidence meter, and confidence is necessary to take risks, lead and collaborate with others.
One thought leader on this topic speaks to how there is the real you and then there are the masks we wear to hide our authentic selves.
So what can we do about it?
As women of color, I feel we need to embrace our real selves and discard the masks that assimilation requires us to wear. We have to surrender our perfectionist patterns and release the internal negative feelings that we have. We need and deserve a positive and healthy internal dialogue and stance.
Racial Imposter syndrome prevents women of color from taking on high profile roles such as executive director in nonprofits or elected office. I am convinced as a woman of color that we must confront and conquer racial imposter syndrome to develop positive self-image and healthy confidence which will help us to accept and excel in our most desired leadership roles. Together, we can be free of our masks and lead boldly for racial equity and social justice.