We Belong Here: Black people and imposter syndrome
Updated: Jun 9
Almost every Black person I know has struggled with imposter syndrome. Dr. Leilani Carver-Madalon writes, “People who are experiencing imposter syndrome feel like they are not good enough, like they don’t belong … that they are a fraud, and it is only a matter of time before they will be found out.”
The degree of achievement and success doesn’t matter. We have a Bachelors, a Masters, a PhD, we have won awards in our fields. We drive Lexuses and live in big houses. It doesn’t matter. We still have to resist feelings of not belonging.
Of course, we are not the only ones who wrestle with this. White women who work in male dominated fields also deal with it. You’re the only woman at the table, the only female surgeon, the only woman in the engineering class, the only female pastor at the conference- and men around you wonder if you really should be there. The struggle is real!
Immigrants, especially immigrants with thick accents, also contend with this. It is as if an accent signifies inferior intelligence. People speak to you slowly and loudly, and attempt to hide shock when you express well-articulated, knowledgeable thoughts.
But there is a depth and prevalence of imposter syndrome among Black people which is particularly poignant – because it is both old and ubiquitous.
My husband and I feel it when we walk into a high-end restaurant in the suburbs: do you belong here? Can you afford to be here?
I have a Black friend who often has to explain that she owns her house and doesn’t just rent it.
There’s another Black friend who is regularly asked if she is an aid when she enters her apartment building. The thought that she actually lives there is unfathomable to some.
We have felt it when we’ve walked into white churches, white gatherings, white spaces. You can feel that question hanging in the air like smog: do you belong here?
I remember when my husband and I were standing with a group of white engineers. When these white men found out that Marvin has a PhD in physics, they actually gave him math problems to solve. We could hear their thoughts: Is your PhD real? Did they confer that auspicious degree on you to fulfill a quota? Do you measure up? You couldn’t possibly be as smart as us. It didn’t even enter their brain space that he could be smarter.
Right now, we’re hearing about Moses Ingram, who plays Reva in the Disney+ series, Obi-Wan Kenobi. She has received hundreds of racist comments from Star Wars fans. The message is loud: You don’t belong in the Star Wars universe. We don’t want you here. You’re not one of us. You’re not good enough.
This is part of the American story. Thomas Jefferson believed that one day slaves would be free, but that they should then be sent back to Africa. James Monroe took it one step further and claimed and named Liberia, whose capital, Monrovia, bears his name. In their minds, freed Blacks had to leave; they had no place in America.
When slavery did end and most Black people did not leave, American instituted a one-hundred-year effort to keep us separate from white people. We were forced to live separately, work separately, attend school and church separately, swim separately, eat separately, seek medical help separately and then we were laid to rest separately in Colored cemeteries.
White women have been through a lot, but their experiences don’t touch that level of rejection and disdain. They could not obtain white men’s jobs, but we could not breathe white peoples’ air.
I wish this sense of not belonging ended when legal segregation ended. But it did not. That idea that America is first and foremost for white people is propagated by cable news hosts, presidents, and politicians. It lay behind the malevolent questioning of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. It lay behind the accusations that President Obama must not truly be American.
It motived Dylan Roof and Payton Gendron to mercilessly take the lives of as many Black people as possible in Tops and Mother Emmanuel Church.
Many others who aren’t as rabid as Gendron or Roof believe that since we are here, we should at least assimilate with white norms and values. This assumption of assimilation allows us through the doors but expects obedience of thought: if you’re truly American, you have to vote the way we do, think the way we do, value the things we value and fit into the stereotypes we’ve created.
But here’s a truth bomb, to borrow the phrase of a friend: we belong here. Other than indigenous peoples, we have endured more and overcome more than any other people group in this country.
We peered through schoolhouse windows and taught ourselves to read. Under the cover of night, we stole away to underground slave churches and learned that God created us and set His people free from Egypt. That provided generations of hope that one day He would set us free, too.
We learned math and science when no said we could. We won Pulitzer Prizes and Nobel Peace prizes. We won Olympic medals, breaking record after record. We recorded music which is heard by most humans on the planet. We turned ashes into beauty and crafted culture which others copy.
I’m going to step into pastoral mode for a second:
If a seat at the table requires sweat equity, we belong there.
If a seat at the table requires intelligence, we belong there.
If a seat at the table requires perseverance, we belong there.
If a seat at the table requires character, we belong there.
If a seat at the table requires wisdom, we belong there.
If a seat at the table requires natural talent, we belong there.
If a seat at the table requires sheer will and determination, we belong there.
Don’t let the noise of wondering if you belong drown out the steady drum beat of your brilliance. Don’t shrink back assuming that this new opportunity couldn’t possibly be for you. We have been told for so many centuries that we are less that it is hard to believe that we are more, more than enough.
We have fought in every American war. We have pulled ourselves up from our bootstraps when we had no boots. We contributed billions of dollars to the economy when we could not vote. We withstood generations of taxation with no representation. Other than Native Americans, we are the only Americans who are not immigrants and if America is great at all, it is partly because of us.
We are not imposters. We are the real deal. We are just as American as those of lighter hue. We don’t have to step back, and fade into the background. Rather, we can step forward - and sit down at the table.