Cultural Imposter: an open letter

This is my email response to the final minutes of the latest Codeswitch podcast, regarding racial imposter syndrome.

Hi Codeswitch,

I yelled a long, “yes!” at least three times while listening to your last episode when racial imposter syndrome came up. What a relief to give this feeling a name and community because it is so real.

My mother is white, a German, Irish, and Dutch descendent from Indiana, and my father is Haitian. He immigrated here in his 30's with my seven older siblings. They split up when I was a baby, and I was estranged from my Haitian family for years, with my mom giving me snippets of Haitian culture here and there. She taught me a couple Creole songs, but had no idea how to do my hair. She told me about St. Michel, where my father was from but had mostly lost the tiny amount of French she’d picked up. She made me plaintains a few times, and told me about the tap-tap, but couldn’t explain what daily life is like for people living in the Western hemisphere’s poorest nation- whose legacy is a long punishment for having the audacity to have defeated Napoleon and gained freedom from slavery before the Civil War, at the height of French world domination.

Something strange and unfortunate happened when I was 7. My story took a twist when my mom married an extremely abusive, mentally ill, substance-addicted white supremacist. My home life was severely troubled, and I instantly became an outsider in my own home. This gave me plenty of reason to reject the Middle American culture of my mother, and sort of cobble together my own identity that was very far from my home life, through other very multicultural influencers in my life- and then later as an adult through my older sisters from spending short and significant time with them. I really only feel Haitian when I see them twice a year for holidays.

In my being, I didn’t really feel like a Black American woman until my 20's, because I was rarely exposed to other Black people prior to then, and never got real exposure to the beauty of Blackness, let alone the real understanding of what slavery, Jim Crow, and white supremacy’s legacy means in today’s society. Until age 9 when a hairstylist explained to me that the world sees me as Black, I didn’t even think that word applied to me! I began to learn through life experience and through finding new adopted families as years went on, as well as self-educating and reading. I have had to be a student of Black American culture because it is the closest thing I have to home.

I recently learned about the concept of cultural humility vs cultural competence. This means understanding that someone’s experience of their own culture is more important than the outsider’s lense. For me, this is both comforting and enlightening as it helps me move among different spaces with that humility that makes space for learning and non-assumption. In a way, among all three of these over simplified cultures (white, Black, and Haitian American), I am at once an insider and an outsider. And my experience of living at the crossroads of these three different cultures means I don’t experience it in a “typical way.” Cultural humility teaches that my experience is not to be minimized (I’ve always felt these aspects of me “didn’t really count” somehow), because the experience is mine and mine alone, among the groups of people I’ve been lucky enough to call home.

So here I am, a Midwestern, albeit well-travelled, woman who reads as Black, speaks a working class white Indiana dialect of English (via my first language teachers), socializes mostly in Black spaces, struggles sometimes in digesting AAVE, and seriously longs for the Caribbean culture that I missed out on but am lucky enough to reconnect with some as an adult. I also grew up in a poor/under-educated home, and currently work in a very upper middle class corporate tech environment (that’s a whole new, related conversation).

It can be really beautiful and insightful to live in this skin, as much as it is lonely and a constant cycle of learning new facets of all of these cultures as well as my own deficit in understanding and agility in experiencing them.

Whew. That feels good to share, and I would love to hear about others’ thoughts on cultural intersectionality, post colonial diaspora loneliness, and cultural humility.