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August 22

Published in: Spot The Difference | Creative Brief

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Illustration by Rianna Woods

For my university end-of-year design exhibition, me and my tutor worked to set up one section of the exhibit. My friends joked about how I, a student, had been “bossing about” our tutor as I told him how I thought the pieces should hang. Women of colour often find themselves labelled with archetypes such as “bossy”, “angry”, “strong”, or “mean”, which warps their perception or they shrink themselves to be more palatable, leading to what is called impostorism.

“Girls tend to raise their hand less and less as time goes on because their confidence starts to fade because of the things they are called”. - Serena Williams

A report found that “two-thirds of women in the UK had experienced impostor syndrome at work in the past 12 months, while men were 18% less likely to do so”, which is exacer- bated when race, sexuality and ethnicity are considered.

Imposter syndrome, imposter phenomenon, imposter experience or impostorism was coined by psychologist Pauline Rose Clance and her colleague Suzanne Imes in 1978. As a queer Black creative who experiences feel- ings of impostorism on what feels like almost every other day, I know it is a psychological pattern of doubting your accomplishments, often putting achievements down to luck and convincing yourself that you are a fraud despite external evidence.

Although impos- torism was originally studied only in female students, it is prevalent across genders, ages, and races within various occupations and more commonplace in underrepresent- ed or disadvantaged groups. Many have opinions about its origins and even what to call it. “To call it a syndrome is to downplay how universal it is. It’s not a disease or an abnormality, and it isn’t neces- sarily tied to depression, anxiety, or self-es- teem” says Elizabeth Cox. Limiting it to a lack of self-esteem or the 19th century medical undertones of “female hysteria” blames the individual without considering the historical and cultural contexts of systematic racism, classism, and other biases that they endure.

The truth is, a long list of factors adds to the feelings of impostorism. To exist in the world as a Black woman is to always question your success or right to be in certain places, a voice that can become all-consuming. Most women of colour have experienced being told they don’t belong or won’t succeed all their lives.

"The system was not created for women of colour. It doesn't show up in the same ways for us" - Rha Goddess and Deepa Purushothaman.

When I was in primary school, my head teach- er called me into her office to say she felt I was “6 going on 16” and would never make it. She added that she didn’t think I would even make it through secondary school. As a Black woman talking to a little Black girl, she told me that the world is not a place for me to flourish. Not the way I currently exist – not without suppressing who I really am. Whether that little girl was too sassy, confi- dent, or outspoken, what is clear is the neg- ative stereotypes about women of colour, that they are too lazy, loud, unintelligent or lack integrity, results in impostorism at such a young age.

Editing who you are to be acceptable does emotional damage and creates a narrative that you, as you are, should not be there. Just existing as a woman of colour can be seen as activism or protest; therefore, it’s near impossible to separate politics and the experience of Black womanhood. We cannot just be here. If we are here, it must be revo- lutionary to serve a more prominent political or intellectual purpose; otherwise, there is a form of scrutinising or taking apart.

‘Pitch culture’ has created an environment in which each of us is almost required to be an impostor to succeed. The notion of ‘faking it to you make it’, or like Stefanie Sword-Williams says in her book F**K Being Humble, “Blag now, worry later”, is a privilege not accessible to all and only makes impos- torism worse as you find yourself over prov- ing what you’ve sold. The ‘prove it again bias’ slows down progression and forces you to reconsider if you’re up for the task. Despite the constant efforts to prove it, being paid less, promoted less and hired less validates your impostorism.

Many women of colour find themselves be- ing the first in many spaces. “Only 58 Black women and 71 Latina women are promot- ed for every 100 men promoted”, accord- ing to a 2020 report. A lack of role models means there is no signal of achievement, so often, you self-rationalise down to two factors. 1. I’ve been invited because I’m a to- ken, which isn’t about me, but rather about a box someone needed to check off. Or 2. I am exceptional, which means I’ve had to leave the people I love behind.
Unfortunately, that cultural and societal pressure to achieve for those who haven’t, before and after you, only fosters the idea that “there is no way I, the only one picked, is meant to be here”. It feeds your impostorism and weights the goal to succeed.

An increase in self-esteem for one doesn’t remove the fact that several other women of colour should be here too. The onus is on corporate organisations to create environ- ments that provide policy, support, profes- sional development, wage transparency and equal pay. Lilly Singh’s Ted Talk explains how gratitude is not a form of currency. She says, “don’t weaponise gratitude”, but instead, women need to be paid in money, opportuni- ties, and promotion.

The opening title may be misleading as it’s evident that impostorism is something I am not new to, even experiencing it when writ- ing this piece. When my uni friends called me bossy, my tutor stopped to tell them, “She’s not bossy; she’s a leader”. And that’s it, al- though we may question our place here, no handouts were given, no luck has been had. We’re here because we’ve worked hard to be here. We’re qualified to be here. We add value being here. We’re leaders, writers, creatives, visionaries and inventors, and that merit is on us. That is why I’m not grateful to be here. Proud, yes - but grateful, hell no.
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