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Intersectionality & Imposter Syndrome

Forces of Nature series. Arrangement of colorful paint and abstract shapes on the subject of modern art, abstract art, expressionism and spirituality
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Imposter syndrome is defined as self-doubt of intellect, skills, and accomplishments. Many people struggle with imposter syndrome, especially in a professional setting. There are many factors that contribute to this feeling. For BIPOC individuals, especially women of color, imposter syndrome can be even more intense due to being marginalized and systems that make them feel as though they don’t belong and have to prove themselves by working harder than their counterparts. 

Underrepresentation is a prevalent issue that can impact the feeling of imposter syndrome within BIPOC people. When you don’t see people who resemble you or have similar experiences as you, it makes you question if you will be good enough or if you will even be considered. It can feel intimidating to try because it feels like you don’t belong. Even if you do get an opportunity, there is a pressure to not mess up. Sometimes BIPOC people are the only people of their race or ethnicity in a work setting and often feel like they have to be the representative for that. Instead of being seen as a person who is there to do their job and develop professionally, they are othered and faced with microaggressions. With a hyperfixation on their identity and how they will be viewed, BIPOC people tend to adapt to their environments to alleviate the discomfort.   

BIPOC people are taught to change themselves or “code-switch” in order to fit into spaces that are centered around whiteness. There’s no space to be their most authentic selves in the workplace. This switch becomes second nature and can impact people’s mental health. It requires one to perform for most of the day, as we spend most of our time working. It is also anxiety inducing because of the pressure created to keep up this image. People who code switch, monitor their behavior to avoid being perceived in a stereotypical manner which makes it hard to be in the moment. A PsychCentral article titled “Code Switching: What It Is and What It Costs Us” states, “Survival by code-switching is a skill that has been passed down throughout generations, and code-switching itself has survived because people still use it as a survival skill.” Code switching feels like a necessity for folks who don’t fit the standard of whiteness and the act of having to act differently to be successful is a major factor of the imposter syndrome BIPOC people face. 

Imposter syndrome affects people on different scales due to intersectionality. Intersectionality, a term created by civil rights advocate and scholar, Kimberle Crenshaw, describes how identities such as race, gender, class, and more intersect and create overlapping systems of disadvantages. Our intersectional identities determine how we are treated and it is unique to our experiences. For me, I am a Black woman, and with that comes a unique set of experiences. The disadvantages of the systemic racism that Black people are faced with daily and the sexism that women deal with are a part of my treatment. With me being mindful of these forms of disadvantages, it impacts the way I move in this world and how I view things. I often feel like I have to be perfect at something to be taken seriously or to feel like I deserve an opportunity. If I’m not experienced with a certain skill, I’ll often not try because of the fear of feeling like a failure and the shame that comes with that. Even when I do have experience, and even receive compliments or words of affirmation, I still am hard on myself and question my ability. 

There is a LinkedIn article titled “Men Apply For A Job When They Meet Only 60% of The Qualifications, But Women Apply Only If They Meet 100% of Them. Here's Why”. The author Mei Ibrahim states, “ What condemned women was not their actual ability to do the work, but rather the lack of confidence and the decision not to try. A lot of women have trouble achieving and then keeping their confidence despite years of experience and impressive skill sets.” There are many factors that make women, especially women of color, question their ability. Pay gaps, not wanting to be perceived as aggressive, not being taken seriously by counterparts, underrepresentation, and more contribute to the lack of confidence women face. According to the Mom Project, 70% of women report not feeling like their managers invest in their professional success. These actions can make anyone feel as though they aren’t good enough at what they do or that they should play it safe because they don’t have the support or resources to grow. 

This can also be related to inaccessibility in the workplace. People with disabilities are more than capable of working but society projects the disabled community as helpless. In a Bold Blind Beauty article titled “Unmasking Imposter Syndrome: Embracing Your True Potential with Competence, Confidence, and Courage!” the author, Sylvia Stinson - Perez states, “Living with a disability can add a unique layer to imposter syndrome. We might fear being “found out” and rejected when our disabilities are discovered.” It is unfair to cast people with disabilities out when work environments are the ones that don’t contribute to an accessible environment. If workplaces implemented policies and provided materials that were meant for everybody, everyone would be able to flourish. 

Another example of intersectional imposter syndrome is the way it affects formerly incarcerated individuals. When a person re-enters, they should be given a fair chance but biases and stigma take over. It is systemic and inequitable hiring practices that only further the discrimination toward formerly incarcerated people. Even if a person is qualified for a job and has the experience and skills needed, most times they are counted out due to something they’ve already served time for and transformed from. This can create doubt about their place in society and work. According to the Prison Policy Initiative’s report “New data on formerly incarcerated people’s employment reveal labor market injustices' ', joblessness is different from the term unemployment. Joblessness refers to people who are actively looking for work and joblessness during reentry can push formerly incarcerated people deeper into poverty than they already faced before incarceration. This can cause recidivism, especially for people on parole who must be employed or risk facing re-incarceration. It builds pressure and according to an article titled “Mental Health Effects Facing Recently Released Prisoners”, stigma, discrimination, isolation and instability are some mental challenges formerly incarcerated folks face. The pressure affects families as well because they are the support system. The systemic barriers in place make it hard on everyone connected to the individual. 

In a report from the National Council of Nonprofits survey, one of the key findings was that nearly three out of four nonprofits (74.6%) completing the survey reported job vacancies. Fair chance hiring is a potential solution to help with these vacancies. Nonprofit organizations are mission-driven and about helping people. Fair chance hiring gives people with lived experiences opportunities to make a difference and to be able to support their own journeys. 

In order to relieve imposter syndrome within BIPOC, justice-involved individuals, and people with disabilities, barriers need to be broken. In order for that to happen reflection, unlearning and action need to take place. MindOpen offers a training called Build to Bloom where we build on existing DEI frameworks to expand the evaluation of an organization’s equity journey from the leadership’s perspective and create a communal practice to overcome personal bias and structural barriers to make meaningful organizational change. MindOpen also offers fair chance forward workshops that help with best practices for hiring people who have records. Both of these can be a useful resource for organizations dedicated to making the workplace a place for everyone to thrive. 

Imposter syndrome is able to occur because of the systems in place that exist. If we can break these barriers and truly work toward an equitable future, everyone will recognize the skills they have and have the environment that will allow them to thrive just the way they are. I hope that this makes BIPOC people, especially those who identify as women, realize that they aren’t alone in how they feel and I hope this causes our counterparts to reflect on these issues, how they contribute and think about steps toward equitable futures where all talent is recognized and accommodated. 


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