I remember walking into my first job straight out of college, wondering if my hair was combed down enough or if the comments I interjected into conversation were smart enough for my coworkers. In retrospect, worrying about my appearance or monitoring my speech seem like pretty trivial things to worry about, but for women, this isn’t always the case.
And for women of color, it’s much more deeply felt. Because not only we do need to worry about our hair and perceptions of our intelligence and appearance and mannerisms and pitch of our voices, but we also have to contend with ingroups and outgroups that are created in mostly white workspaces, and the imposter syndromes that they create.
I think it’s easy to victim-blame in these instances — “oh, you should just smile more,” or whatever. But the fact is that ingroups and outgroups are a result of real and systematic forms of discrimination that grant access to spaces to some people, while excluding others for not meeting a particular standard.
There’s a really great study I found from the Duke University Diversity Lab that spoke in great depth about ingroups and outgroups, but I’ll summarize here: when a strong group identity exists, the people within those groups are more likely to strictly police who is granted entry. And if we apply this theory to white workspaces, it holds true. Statistically speaking, people of color are less likely to be hired for positions compared to their white counterparts. But even if they are accepted, they have to learn a whole new set of “ingroup” roles that have been established by the majority.
Sounds kind of unfair, right?
So, today, I’m going to talk about four ways women of color can overcome imposter syndrome in white workplaces.
1. It’s okay to “take up space” — in fact, embrace the space you occupy!
Women of color are socialized to believe that they do not belong in white spaces. When I was a sophomore in college I took a debate class, and as you might guess, it was an all white and male space.
As an introvert I felt thoroughly out of my comfort zone, but that was doubled by the fact that I was a woman tasked with debating premises with men who have been socialized to speak out forcefully, even when wrong. And then triple that discomfort: upon leaving one class, a peer student came up to me, showered me with praise on my rebuttals, and made an off-color remark on my “Latin feistiness.” (I’m actually Filipina — “dragon lady” would be more accurate.)
From that point on, I made it my mission to take up space in that class. I interrupted. I stared down my opponents with steely gazes. I was determined to show myself that I freakin’ belonged in that classroom, regardless of the color of my skin or reproductive organs. And guess what? I came out on top with the highest debate scores.
For women of color, it can be really difficult to feel a sense of belonging in the classroom, workplace, or boardroom, especially when you’re reminded that you don’t have a right to be there. But I’ve found that taking forceful ownership over your right to belong is a truly empowering act, especially when people are determined to make you uncomfortable and unwelcome.
2. Own your accomplishments with unapologetic pride.
There is absolutely nothing more frustrating than other people taking credit for your accomplishments in the workplace, but I think this can be even more compounded for women of color. At my last position I was researching a solution for a marketing campaign for one the white managers, a pretty innocuous task: I found the solution, told the manager, and went on my way. So I was a little miffed when, the next day, she accepted praises for the solution in front of our director without even a nod to me.
As always, women of color are used to taking a backstage role in our places of work. We’re less likely to think the choicest opportunities go to the most deserving employees, but we trudge on, giving our full 110 percent and knowing that we have to do better than white colleagues because we’re more closely scrutinized. (Hey -- they still pay us less.)
But no matter: when you do something amazing to work, you absolutely should get the credit for it. From that point on, I made a change. During morning huddles, I relied on “I” statements to list out my accomplishments: “I figured out how to do this…,” “I am managing a project for that… .” When people gave me credit for my work, I thanked them publicly to reinforce my gratitude and appreciation of such gestures.
If you can, make it a practice to step out from backstage. You’ll feel better for it.
3. Reflect on all the steps you’ve taken to get to where you are today.
Journals are all the rage right now, and while I do love good stationary I also think they serve a practical purpose.
I took up workplace journaling mostly as a way to document all the assignments, large and small, that I was getting done throughout my days. It’s a good practice — seeing what you’ve put your stamp on. But slowly, it started to evolve in something a bit more meditative: I’d write down reminders to myself about how far I’d come. Here’s one entry: “Today was terrible, but remember that time when you got laid off and the world was over?!”. And five years later, I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing.
I think what this habit does is put into context all of the steps that make up the larger ladder that is our careers. For women of color, this can be incredibly powerful. In the face of subtle microaggressions and vindictive probations (I’ve had them both!), the workplace can feel incredibly exhausting. But if you take a step back and just be in awe of what you’ve done, you’ll realize more and more that you are valuable, you are highly-competent, and you have every right to be where you are.
4. Take time to practice self-love and care.
Not surprisingly, women of color who deal with imposter syndrome are also more likely to struggle with higher levels of anxiety and depression.
In one of my former workplaces, targeted harassment of women of color got so bad that there were days I would just call in sick to avoid another public shaming from the boss. Fighting down breathlessness and a gnawing pit of dread in my stomach, I remember walking to my local clinic where I actually fainted before seeing the doctor. The stress I felt from having to deal with a toxic workplace actually manifested itself physically, which is something I wouldn’t wish on my enemies.
Naturally, I started taking self-love seriously. I cut out alcohol, I practiced meditation in my bedroom, I talked to a therapist who could help me unpack my emotions. And, of course, I started looking for other jobs. A lot of my friends of color mirror similar experiences: it wasn’t until the crap really hit the fan that they made some serious changes in their lives.
While it shouldn’t take physical or emotional disturbances to alert us to injustices, I am grateful to my body and mind for letting me know what was up. When I made a commitment to love and respect and prioritize myself, and not those who brought me down in the workplace, I finally walked away scot free.
Kaitlyn Borysiewicz is the Director of Communications and Co-Founder of The Melanin Collective, and lives in Arlington, Virginia with her dog-child, Hershey.