By Emily-Rose Njonde
Posted on August 26, 2021
For so long Black people have not been allowed plurality. We have been grouped into boxes, forced into categories, so much so that many of us find it bizarre when a Black person strays from the “norm.” This means that when entering white-dominated spaces, Black people often feel uncomfortable and out of place, sometimes to such an extent that it pushes them to abandon the activity altogether. This is very commonly seen in fields such as academia, a still predominantly white space, where the pursuit of Black excellence is often hindered by these feelings of ineptitude and burnout. In this article, I will be talking about what causes these feelings and ways to avoid them.
As a Black person who has grown up almost exclusively surrounded by white people, I am no stranger to the feeling of being the only person of colour in the room. The feeling that you are constantly representing your race is omnipresent and can sometimes be stifling. This feeling of otherness and inadequacy that many Black people feel is called imposter syndrome and it can be crippling. A setting that overwhelmingly fosters this sentiment is that of academia. Black scholars who choose to pursue post-secondary education are often placed in circumstances that create toxic environments that dim their light and limit them from reaching their full potential. In Canada, most post-secondary education faculties have a majority white staff. Black kids who go off to colleges and universities often find themselves being the only one of their complexion in their classes and labs. Despite imposter syndrome being common to professionals from many walks of life, Black students face particular challenges.
Imposter syndrome for Black students is not merely an imagined state, but rather a result of constant societal messaging. Imposter syndrome typically describes internal experiences that lead people to believe they are incapable of things despite evidence of high achievements. Black students in particular are constantly reminded by their environment that they do not belong there. A study by Kevin Cokley studied the tangible effects of these toxic academic spaces and revealed that imposter syndrome can contribute significantly to depression among Black students.
A major symptom of imposter syndrome is burnout. Due to the feelings that come with imposter syndrome, we may struggle to see the value in the work we do and this can lead us to overwork. In addition, the excessive and prolonged stress that comes with imposter syndrome and being in toxic spaces can lead to emotional, physical, and mental fatigue also referred to as burnout. Much like a candle that has lost its flame, this can happen to individuals who have been burning too bright for too long. Many Black students experience this, a result of the constant pressure to perform. Because Black students are typically the only representation for their race in academic spaces, they feel the constant need to be more excellent than their white peers. A quote that captures this sentiment that you might have heard before is “Work twice as hard to get half as much”. Due to feeling out of place, they overwork in order to prove their value. This can be detrimental to Black excellence because it may stop some from achieving their long-term potential.
Although changing the systemic nature of the discrimination Black people face in academia is an active and uphill battle, there are steps that you can take today to ensure you’re able to be the best version of yourself in the realm of academia.
Here are a few steps that you can take to combat imposter syndrome and other negative feelings that may come up while navigating academia while Black:
Forget humility. No one likes a bragger, right? It is customary to downplay your achievements in order to not seem full of yourself or narcissistic. However, constantly dismissing your successes can actually have negative consequences. Sometimes, it’s ok to be confident in your skills. To be proud of yourself and your work and to assert that you are talented is extremely helpful in establishing self-worth. Knowing your strengths and being comfortable with them is a great asset. This can help prevent imposter syndrome as this can serve as a reminder as to why you belong and deserve to be in those spaces.
Be your own hype man. As silly as it may seem, positive affirmations really do work. As weird as you may feel in the mirror repeating cliché phrases to yourself, after a while, you will start to believe those positive words. The mind is extremely powerful and can be used in a way that benefits or disadvantages you. Use your mind and the power of the tongue as a tool to help you be more confident in yourself and your abilities and combat feelings that may come with imposter syndrome.
Curate a strong support system. Community is so important. It can be the difference between depression and sanity. To have people that understand what you are going through and be there for you can make a huge difference. A good way to do this in academic spaces is to join Black student groups or unions, and if your school doesn’t have one, starting one could always be a good idea! You can also try making friends in your classes or program. Imposter syndrome often makes you feel as if you’re alone and no one understands you, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Trying to connect with like-minded individuals on campus and creating a strong support system is another great way of combating imposter syndrome.
Seek help. Therapy can be extremely helpful when it comes to addressing negative thoughts and thought patterns. Between 2001 and 2014, only 38.3% of Black Canadians with mental health problems reported using professional health services compared to 50.8% of white Canadians. Some schools offer free therapy services that many don’t utilize. There is never any shame in seeking help and if you’re struggling during your time on campus, doing this may be a great idea.
Take Breaks. I know “hustle culture” leads us to believe that if we are not working all the time, we are not being useful, but this is not true. Sometimes resting is the best thing you can do for your body and mind.
While it can be extremely difficult to be the only Black person in certain spaces, we should not let that impede our success or overall excellence. It is important for Black people in all walks of life to know that they are as good and capable as their white counterparts. Don’t let fear stop you from achieving your potential. Be unapologetically yourself and always take up space.