The Double Bind of Imposter Syndrome Among Scholars of Color
Talking publicly about writing failures is a privilege that scholars of color often do not have. So deep are our ingrained beliefs of inferiority as scholars of color that we question and doubt our own abilities and competence all the time. We ask ourselves questions such as:
“Is my writing any good at all?” “Will anyone ever read what I write?” “Do I really have anything worthwhile to write about?”
Within the context of a Eurocentric predominantly white academic world, people of color and indigenous folks are not automatically seen as “real scholars.” They have to keep proving their competence, intelligence, and hard work (apart from demonstrating warmth and friendliness) in order to be included and get the recognition, pay, and promotion they deserve.
When we consider imposter syndrome (feelings of self-doubt and fear of being exposed as a “fraud”), indigenous scholars and/or scholars of color are often left in a double bind. Talking about feelings of self-doubt further reinforces the presumptions of incompetence that they are striving to change. Not talking about them alienates and ostracizes them in an already exclusive academy.
Even if scholars of color somehow go past imposter syndrome and self-doubt, those around us in our academic communities and institutions often do not see us as competent. We are overlooked for awards, merit raises, and other opportunities, even when we are in the room or at the table. It is constant and exhausting work to be seen as legitimate, capable, and serious. Within my discipline of Communication, the #CommunicationSoWhite movement, which started with a journal article on citational inequalities, has highlighted many of these concerns.
When scholars of color call out the racism, colonialism, and other structures of oppression, we will have to go through the next hurdle. Talking about inequalities in academe will mean we are framed as too passionate, too radical, too much of a social justice warrior, and not balanced enough. Therefore, we are assumed to be not “good team players” and leaders. We will be framed as “angry” mean people who don’t see the goodness and niceness in our colleagues around us.
Even if we somehow overcome these challenges, the old wounds and everyday microaggressions in our workplaces and communities often come back to haunt our minds. We are retraumatized every time our voice, our space, our labor, and our joy are taken away from us. We somehow will have to swallow all of this pushback we get, including sometimes from close colleagues and supposed allies, to keep moving forward in our writing.
Transnational feminist scholar of color, Dr. Sara Ahmed writes more on these perspectives in books such as: On Being Included and Living a Feminist Life that I highly recommend. She discusses how the institutionalization of diversity at most academic institutions ironically leads to reinforcing whiteness.
While we should welcome honest conversations about failures, I believe the issue of imposter syndrome can be addressed more systemically by reimagining how we define, assess, and reward excellence that includes broader ideas of knowledge, experience, and expertise. An important aspect of overcoming these challenges is for all of us to commit to make academe more inclusive not only in its hiring and promotion practices but also in terms of retention and support for scholars of color.