Reflections on Imposter Syndrome

A few things happened yesterday that got me thinking about this. The first is seeing this post by Jenna Wortham on Twitter. She is referencing the fact that many media companies are now realizing that they have created hostile work environments for black people.

The second was an interesting conversation with my friend who mentioned that she didn’t understand why more white people did not see the importance of racial equality. I responded that this was probably a response born out of their own insecurity. For if there was racial equality and they didn’t have white privilege, where would they be? Would they be worse off than they are now? (answer is probably yes)

This got me reflecting on my own issues with imposter syndrome. And now I think I have a deeper clarity about what that means for me. So many black people have been excluded from racist institutions. As a result, so much greatness has been excluded from racist institutions. Because I have succeeded in spite of this, I am left with a less great competitive set. So my imposter syndrome comes not from the fact that I don’t belong with these other white people, it comes from the fact that maybe none of us belong. Maybe there is a completely different set of black, white, asian and latinX people who – if we had anti-racist systems – would be standing in our places.

So my imposter syndrome is actually not about me feeling less than great. I think I am pretty great actually. It’s about the sadness I have that I could be greater, could get better, could be more challenged if I was given the opportunity to compete with the best. And I believe that many, if not most, of the best are left out and/or pushed out because of racist policies and institutions.

None of us in any of our industries can write ourselves down as the best, the greatest or a member of the “midas list” until the industries themselves are anti-racist. To do the former before the latter is untruthful.

The Allure of the Black Messiah

“You’re organizing people to be self-sufficient rather than to be dependent upon the charismatic leader…the most important thing was, and still is in my mind, is to develop people to the point that they don’t need the strong, savior-type leader.” – Ella Baker, 1968

“The good news is that racist and anti-racist are not fixed identities. We can be a racist one minute and be an anti-racist the next. What we say about race and what we do about race in each moment determines what, not who we are. I used to be racist most of the time. I am changing. I am no longer identifying with racists by claiming to be not racist. I am no longer speaking through the mask of racial neutrality. I am no longer manipulated by racist ideas to see racial groups as problems. I no longer believe a black person cannot be racist. I am no longer policing my every action around a white or black judge trying to convince white people of my equal humanity; trying to convince black people I am representing the race well.” – Dr. Ibram Kendi from How to Be Anti-Racist.

This past week was devastating. With the killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Avery, George Floyd and the countless others who we will never know, it seems like white america has finally decided that black people are important to listen to.

Black people have been and will continue to be important to listen to. I worry though, that in an effort to offload the work of critical thinking, white (and black) people will gravitate to a Black Messiah. Someone who tells them exactly what to think so that they don’t have to think for themselves at all and also helps them offload some of the guilt of participating in a racist society for so long which prevented them from listening to and believing in black people in the past. The work that needs to be done cannot be offloaded onto a black messiah. The work is deep, personal and painful reflection on how your behaviors have contributed to (& if you’re white), and benefited from) white supremacist institutions.