Out in the Open

'If you think about who is feeling like an impostor, it's people not in the privileged class'

Dena Simmons says “it is the easy way out” to think of impostor syndrome as something that just happens at the individual level. She wants us to ask how certain environments make racialized people feel like impostors.

Dena Simmons wants us to ask how certain environments make racialized people feel like impostors.

Dena Simmons says “it is the easy way out” to think of impostor syndrome as something that just happens at the individual level. (Courtesy of Dena Simmons)
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"What is the environment doing to breed impostor syndrome in people?"

That's a question Dena Simmons wants us to ask when we talk about impostor syndrome - the feeling that you don't deserve your success.

"Usually, if you think about who is feeling like an imposter, it's people not in the privileged class," Simmons told Out in the Open host Piya Chattopadhyay.

Simmons, an educator and academic at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, said questioning her own merits and accomplishments over the years has had to do with questioning her belonging in particular spaces. 

It started with her move as a child from an ethnically diverse neighbourhood in the Bronx, New York to a mainly white boarding school in Connecticut, where she was one of a few black children among mostly white students.

"Because of that, the feeling different, I started to feel like an impostor. But it wasn't only that. It was the sort of slights, the unsolicited advice, the public shaming that came with that environment that continued to perpetuate my feeling that I did not belong. That I somehow got plopped there by mistake." 

The difference between helping and hindering

Simmons recalls one particular incident when a teacher admonished her in front of her friends in the hallway for the way she said the word "asking."

"I actually said it like 'axing' because that's how everyone around the Bronx, that's how we say it…"
 
When Simmons shares this story, she said one of the reactions she gets is people wondering whether the teacher was just trying to help, correcting her for her own good.

I realized that in order for me to be successful, I had to erase myself as a way to survive...And I feel like, in many ways, I came to school full and came away empty.- Dena Simmons

"I'm not going to take away that her intentions were not good. It was the way that it happened."

One of Simmons' issues with the teacher's response is the lack of recognition that there are multiple ways of communicating that can change from place and community. 

"If she had said to me, 'Dena, perhaps back home you say 'axing.' That's completely fine. But here, we say 'asking.'"

Simmons said privileging one as right and the other as flat out incorrect was just one of many incidents that made her feel like "everything about me was wrong."

"I realized that in order for me to be successful, I had to erase myself as a way to survive. I had to perform another person. And I feel like, in many ways, I came to school full and came away empty."

Changing the school system from within

Despite her continued success, Simmons said she is still made to question her merits, her belonging in particular spaces.

"[A]s a woman academic, a black woman academic, I still experience it. I'm still often times the only one. I still feel I walk into the room, I have to check what I'm wearing. I have to see if my hair is not too 'Afro-ish'...It's the constant emotional labour of asking myself, 'Am I safe to be my authentic self?' And, in many ways in North America, 'Am I safe to be black?'"

One of the goals of Simmons' work in education is "to ensure that no one else has to experience this. No one else has to come into a room and ask themselves 250 questions about their belonging." 

She believes part of the solution is changing curriculum that centres whiteness by meaningfully integrating the lives and backgrounds of racialized students as also being 'official knowledge.'

"Cause you know, when I left the Bronx, the message was sent to me was that the Bronx had nothing to offer me. And when I left the Bronx, I learned that back home wasn't right. I wasn't right…

"I believe every child deserves an education that guarantees the safety to learn in the comfort of one's own skin."


This story originally aired on June 17, 2018. It appears in the Out in the Open episode "Impostors".

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