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Today’s post is by Dr. Christina McWhorter. Christine McWhorter is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Mass Communications and Journalism at Norfolk State University. Her research interests include media literacy with an emphasis on news literacy and critical literacy. Her scholarship also addresses the social influence of media and media representation. She teaches broadcast journalism and television production with the goal of emphasizing the importance of storytelling through diverse perspectives.
Academics are intimately familiar with impostor syndrome. We know the feelings of inadequacy. We struggle to convince ourselves that we belong, and we suppress the perpetual suspicion that we aren’t enough.
For women of color, imposter syndrome can be multidimensional. Our self-doubt is especially pernicious because it is linked to our racial/gender identity. Most WOC Ph.Ds have experienced years of gendered racism. Now insecurity can proliferate in our minds. As a result, we feel constant pressure to defend our worthiness to others and to ourselves.
Race/gender-based imposter syndrome can show up at any time but it often creeps up in group settings. Consider the following scenarios:
You’re about to present at your field’s national conference. You sit next to the other members of the panel, a row of white bodies. You smile, introduce yourself, and then look out at the audience. A sea of white faces.
You’re at a talk featuring Dr. Very Big Deal in Your Discipline. After quickly scanning the room (you always scan the room), you notice very few POCs. During the Q and A, in the confident, vocal crowd, hands shoot up all around you.
You walk into a classroom where you instantly realize you’re the only woman. As you walk toward the back of the room to find an empty seat, rows of eyes linger on your face.
A lot can happen in these moments. For some, the sense that you don’t belong can be overwhelming. The anxiety is palpable.
We can overcome our insecurities, but first, we need to realize they’re based on false messages that we’ve internalized. At some point in our lives-maybe as children, perhaps during our grad school years, or maybe even in our current environment- we learned things about ourselves that just aren’t true.
There are several strategies for addressing racialized/gender-based imposter syndrome. I find that I’m able to quell feelings of inadequacy by identifying these false messages- I like to call them mental myths- and debunking them.
Although I am writing from my experience as a WOC, I believe anyone can take the principles of “mental myth debunking” and use them to combat imposter syndrome. Here are some of the mental myths I’ve encountered.
As a WOC, I need to prove my worth to my non-POC peers.
There are lots of reasons we feel we must prove ourselves. For one thing, representation is important. In the minds of many, you not only represent yourself but the sum total of WOC Ph.Ds. We want to represent ourselves well. In addition, you may feel that as a WOC, your image is already deficient (see Myth 3, below). While these feelings are valid, they don’t mean you need to prove yourself to anyone. You don’t need anyone’s approval to “fit” in academia. WOC, collectively, don’t need anyone’s approval either. When you bring your unique perspective to the table, you will find people there waiting to hear it. Approval from others isn’t necessary.
My contributions are less valuable than those of my non- POC peers.
This is a cousin to Myth 1. Your race, gender, upbringing and background do not diminish your value. Your success has not occurred despite your race/gender identity. If anything, your unique identity as a WOC Ph.D. adds to your worth and strengthens your contributions to your department, your students and your field.
Other people don’t think I’m smart enough, good enough, or that I have what it takes to succeed in academia.
You can’t know what others think unless they say it, so resist the temptation to invent others’ thoughts by speculating. You could be completely wrong about the opinion they have of you.
I want to add an important note here: since we don’t live in a post-racial society, there is a very real possibility that some people are thinking negative thoughts about you. Nevertheless, remember this. Their thoughts of you, whether real or imagined, need not affect your view of yourself. If people think negatively of you based on your race/gender identity, they are wrong. Give yourself permission to disregard their faulty opinion.
If I don’t know everything, I don’t know anything.
It’s easy to feel insignificant in a field like ours, where a core function of the job is being an expert in your discipline.
You hear others’ presentations, read their work, and you’re impressed with their ideas. You think, “My goodness! This writer is brilliant!” You assume they know much more than you.
They probably don’t, though. Most likely, they know a whole lot about one teeny, tiny area –just like you do. They have brilliant ideas pertaining to their area- just like you do.
If you’re an expert in your field (and if you’re reading this, you are), you won’t always know the same things as everyone else. That’s okay. Don’t be intimidated because someone knows their stuff. Be confident that you know yours.
I don’t belong.
You do belong.
Academics like to exclude other academics through institutionalized elitism. It’s a way to deal with the crippling imposter syndrome they face (see the beginning of this post).
Scholars and professors affirm this elitist system by upholding near impossible, arbitrary markers of success. Then they snub those who don’t reach the markers.
Their entrenchment in this system has nothing to do with you. As we have previously established, you are brilliant and your contribution is significant. Be validated by your own markers of success. Be proud of your accomplishments, your growth, and the positive impact you have on others.
A Final Thought:
As a WOC Ph.D., you may be overwhelmed with the fear that who you are and what you know are not enough. Resist this feeling. Treat mental myths the same way you treat other claims- analyze them for their veracity using actual evidence.
Not feelings. Not emotions. Evidence.
If any myth doesn’t hold up (and it won’t), disregard it and replace it with truth- that you are smarter, stronger, and better than you think you are.