Unmasking Impostor Syndrome

The irony of feeling like I’m the wrong person for this piece isn’t lost on me…

Alisha Samnani // Managing Editor, News Editor
Mikaela Johnson // Illustrator

I was on the phone the other day when I was asked a question: would you rather be able to fly or have the ability to become invisible? Without hesitation, I chose flight—although if you were in my shoes, you’d understand that it wasn’t much of a choice. Why choose a superpower that I already possess?

Unfortunately, I’m not alone. Many BIWOC feel the same way while walking through life. Being constantly spoken over and having credit ripped away from you will do that to a person. It’s not unusual for me to present an idea that’s met with lukewarm or disapproving tones, only to have someone else co-opt my idea shortly after and receive a chorus of praise.

Psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes coined the term “impostor phenomenon” forty years ago, describing it as “internal experience of intellectual phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” In other words, it’s the sensation of feeling like a fraud in your industry, role or position—regardless of your authority, credibility or accomplishments. You attribute your success to sheer luck and often minimize your accomplishments in the process.

What’s important to remember about Clance and Imes’ study is this: their sample was alarmingly homogeneous. I’m talking about a group of majority white, middle to upper class, and highly educated women. More recent studies demonstrate the link between racialized identities and impostor syndrome, but even these fail to recognize that for BIWOC, racism and sexism are interwoven into a basket of oppression.

As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, representation matters. Multiple television shows, such as New Girl, or Two Broke Girls, classify ‘girl’ as a white person—that’s what’s considered the norm. Anything else is considered niche. If you’re already living in a society that constantly questions your right to belong, is it any surprise that you’re even more likely to be impacted by impostor syndrome?

The representation of BIPOC in North American media recycles a handful of cliches. In New Girl, there’s Cece—the South Asian woman who serves as a sidekick to the main white character Jess. She is highly sexualized throughout the series and is given little character development until much later into the show. In Two Broke Girls, the two characters of colour seem like little more than caricatures. And of course, there’s always the generic Asian kid whose only role is to be the nerdy, shy side-kick with little to no storyline. They’re great at math. They often play either the violin or the flute. I resented their one-dimensionality.

Improving representation in the media isn’t enough. We need to place more BIWOC in positions of power in the real world. I remember signing up for my classes last semester: a friend and I were so excited that one of our classes had an instructor that looked like us. It was one of the rare instances in all our years of school—from kindergarten to where we are now—we could recall having a BIPOC teacher. So rare that neither of us needed a full hand to count how many instructors of colour we’ve had—collectively. Being a student at Capilano University (CapU)—or any institution, for that matter—has its challenges for everyone. These challenges are amplified when you are a BIWOC. We have to work twice as hard to get half as far. You don’t get to be mediocre. Those are the lessons you learn as a BIWOC navigating the world.

A common experience many of us share is having others doubt our abilities. My friends and I have regaled countless stories wherein an instructor, a classmate, or a boss have praised our “surprisingly good English,” which in itself makes it clear we are somehow different. Many BIPOC, especially those who have parents that have immigrated or have immigrated themselves, speak multiple languages. Consider how you might feel taking a foreign language class. Are you able to express yourself as wonderfully as you are in your first language? How’s your accent?

Now, this isn’t to say BIPOC are not or will never be good at English. In fact, most of us are excellent at it. Unfortunately, no matter how perfect our English is or how straight our hair is, there’s always a haunting feeling of never belonging in so-called Canada as a non-white person. BIWOC are othered by mainstream North American culture, both in Hollywood and in real life. These numerous microaggressions, only a couple of which I touched on above, may seem like nothing to some of you. But imagine this: each microaggression is equivalent to stepping on a tiny little thumbtack. Together, they’re piercing.

BIWOC are by no means a monolith—but we are linked by our experiences navigating stereotypes that prevent us from reaching our full potential. We need to create a culture for BIWOC that addresses systemic bias and racism, rather than simply telling BIWOC to “have more confidence” and attempting to fix imposter syndrome. Perhaps then we can start calling impostor syndrome by what it really is—unmasking it once and for all.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *