Imposters Syndrome & The Pursuit of Excellence In A White World

Many times before I write a piece, speak in front of a crowd, present at a meeting, or even talk about a project that I aspire to do, I feel like I am a fraud. I feel like someone is going to call me out, find out I don’t know what I am talking about, or just look at me and say, “That sounds stupid.” Mind you, even if I am well prepared, researched, have the data, confidence in my abilities, and know 100% what I am talking about, I still feel like some person will call me or my work fake. This is something that I have battled with my entire life. I have no reason to think this – I have accomplished enough to know that I am authentic and have the work to back me up, but still, I fear that it is not enough.

I learned of the term “Imposters Syndrome” years ago while talking with other non-white people from school. Imposters Syndrome, a term created by psychologists Pauline Clance and Susanne Innes, is described as a feeling of “phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” While these people “are highly motivated to achieve,” they also “live in fear of being ‘found out’ or exposed as frauds.” We would trade stories about fearing that our work isn’t good enough, people would see through us, or that we are lucky to have gotten here. As a kid that grew up in poverty, I know this all too well. I had to scrape and fight for every inch I got. When I was in school, I would try and be a voracious reader and build up my vocabulary, so when I was called to answer a question or talk in front of class, I would be able to give a sufficient answer and “not look stupid” in front of all these white kids and rich Black folks that I didn’t live around.
In the work place, this behavior continued. I would try and overachieve, landing positions and opportunities, being either one of the youngest or the only Black person in the room. I would look around at many of the white faces, not think, “I made it” but “They are going to find out that I don’t know shit.”

I often think, “What am I trying to prove here? What I am looking for?” Is it white validation? I can admit to myself, that was part of it. And you know what? I don’t blame non-white people for wanting white validation, to be seen as equals. We can’t help it, we have been programmed to think this way. World-wide, the standard of excellence is white. Through education, music, film, fashion, food, beauty, and many other cultures, to be white is what we have been told to aspire to. Everyone wants to be looked at as good enough. We are not savages, and we want to prove that to white people day in and day out. We go to their schools and get their degrees, live amongst them, marry their way of life to ours, and attempt to fit into what is acceptable to gain that handshake, that symbol of “You are as good as us.” So that was part of it that drove me, but I also wanted to show anyone and everyone that I am not a fraud.

This American Life, a podcast that is based around stories of everyday people in the United States, aired an episode called, “3 Miles.” The segment was about three kids in New York City who attend an inner-city school getting a chance to visit a private school for a semester that was three miles away. The experience of young people from poverty being around wealth was thought to inspire them to work hard and reach for the stars. This school exchange embodied the idea of “success is possible if you work hard enough” and “it doesn’t matter where you start, but how you finish.” By the end of the program, the three kids had grown into adulthood and were still struggling with their place in the world. Two of the young people didn’t finish school and the third person had graduated from college, yet was not optimistic about her future. She would say, “What am I doing here?” The episode resonated with me because while you can put poor smart kids in a fancy school and give them access to that type of education, it doesn’t erase the psychological scars that come with being Black, Latino, or poor. You think and act differently because you have been told all your life you are not good enough and if you are successful, it is because of luck, someone felt sorry for you, or it could have been a mistake. As a Black person in a system of racism/white supremacy, optimism is killed. It makes our talents seem ordinary and inadequate. I start to second-guess myself; doubt starts to creep in. Those are the invisible scars of racism that have been carried throughout generations. When I start to unpack what has been done to Black people in this country, I sometimes say, “Damn, they did a freaking unbelievable job on us.”

There is a shirt that I’ve seen around that says, “ I wish I had the confidence of a mediocre white male.” I laugh at that, but it is true. Can you imagine what it is like to be told that you can do anything? The world is yours? You have all the power and nothing is holding you back? I don’t. Being Black in America is occupying a certain space that says, “You will accomplish a certain amount and that is it. Anything after that is impossible.”

I don’t know how to defeat Imposter Syndrome. I am 39 years old and I still fight against it. This will be a battle that will be waged throughout my entire life. People who mistakenly view it as an issue of self-esteem have advised me to read Berne Brown or Marianne Williamson. While I can appreciate Brown and love Williamson’s famous quote about feeling inadequate, they do not address the mental damage that racism/white supremacy has inflicted on us. Some folks have found ways to get beyond it. I like to tell a story of my father and I working out at a fancy 24 Hour Fitness in Manhattan. In between talking junk with each other about how slow we are going on the exercise bike, I asked him, “Do you ever feel like you don’t belong somewhere fancy, someplace nice?” He immediately said, “No. I know who I am, what I can do, and what I did to get here. No one is better than me.” I think about that story a lot because I try to embody that. Sometimes I am successful; I have the swaggering confidence that I am smart, talented, and my hard work got me here, but most of the time I’m just looking around, hoping that what I have written, said, or done doesn’t make people think I am a phony. It is another battle in the life of LeRon L. Barton, Black man in America.

1 thought on “Imposters Syndrome & The Pursuit of Excellence In A White World

  1. Derrick B. says:

    Good article LeRon. I can relate to some of your sentiments.

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