Trespassing on Unfamiliar Territory: A Black Woman’s Reflection on Imposter Syndrome
I could not shake the numb feeling in my legs as my fellow graduates and I began our processional walk at our Master’s Hooding Ceremony. This day was finally happening: I was graduating with my Master’s degree. Today was the manifestation of all of the group projects, painfully lengthy readings, unescapable anxiety from the thesis defense and committee approval.
As we walked into the ceremony, the numbness in my legs continue to spread the rest of my body. The excitement, anxiety, and joy of the day forced my body, overwhelmed with unspeakable emotions, to betray me.
Despite this, somehow, I found myself standing with my peers during the national anthem as we looked towards the American flag displayed on two LED screens adjacent to the graduation stage. As my graduating peers and an audience around us, filled with our friends and families, turn to face one of the screens (or the actual flag waving behind the faculty onstage), I stare into the LED screen and laugh.
I am a Black woman, a person Malcolm X described as "the most disrespected, unprotected, and neglected in America." In this moment, as I stare into this flag, I remember my history. This flag and this country were not created with my liberty and humanity in mind. Furthermore, higher education institutions in America were not created with the intention for Black people to succeed.
Yet, on the evening of my Master's hooding ceremony, I was not only joining the growing number of Black women who, according to a 2016 National Center for Statistics study, are the most educated demographic in America. I was not only contradicting the oppressions ingrained in the foundations of America. I was recreating America’s narrative of who is educated.
This reflective moment rose like a strong, firm fist and crashed through the bouts of Imposter Syndrome that I still continue to face in my graduate studies. Imposter Syndrome, coined in the 1970s by American psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance, refers to high achievers who doubt their qualifications and successes. This is prominent in graduate students, especially students of color. I assert this based on my experiences as a Black woman of a low-income background in the professional field of education at a PWI (Predominantly White Institution).
For two years, I sat in numerous courses at my university juxtapositioned between avoiding the role as the Black voice in the room of white listeners for the sake of “perspective” or being the Angry Black woman who spoke up and gathered White tears and guilt like Lebron James gathered his bag during the 2018 NBA Finals Game 2 postgame interview. For two years, I felt that as a socio-economic minority, I did not belong in this program and at this university. Though my professors and my advisor praised my work ethic, research, and writing, I still felt like I was trespassing on unfamiliar territory. Historically, early American colleges and universities were created for the white, wealthy, and male. Since then, higher education in our country has progressed in its diversity and opportunities, but the past still haunts in the form of Imposter Syndrome.
Just last week, I was engaging in small talk with a gas station clerk.
“Are you in school?” he asked.
His eyes widened and his mouth parted in disbelief as I said, “Yes, I’m a Ph.D. student.”
“You?!” he exclaimed. “A Ph.D. student?!”
Here again, though the previously mentioned statistics of Black women are in my favor, I am still reminded that I am not where society believes I belong. This looks like constantly defending my qualifications, research methods, and the use of Ebonics and hip-hop culture in my thesis.
Imposter Syndrome is normal, especially for persons who identify outside of America’s dominant groups. The history of higher education may scream, “THIS IS NOT A PLACE FOR YOU!” The field of academic research publishing my deny ideas and language of our culture. But, we are here, and here to stay.
As I continue my educational journey as a doctoral student, I am certain Imposter Syndrome will try to surface at my most vulnerable moments: before I submit a paper, as I present at conferences, and constructive feedback from peers.
We are on the right path. I will continue to reflect upon this moment at my graduation ceremony not as a reminder that I can do this, but that I am doing this. And I am exactly where I am supposed to be.
About the Author
Asia Thomas is a middle school teacher by day and first-year doctoral student by night. I currently live in Atlanta, Georgia. Let's talk race, gender, education, and grad school! Find me on Twitter @AsiaHasSpoken.