“At first passing seemed so simple … She hadn’t realized how long it takes to become somebody else, or how lonely it can be living in a world not meant for you.”
—Brit Bennett, The Vanishing Half
The quote from Brit Bennett’s latest novel refers to twin sister, Stella. Although she is Black, her light complexion fools people into thinking she is white. After posing and “passing,” she secures a job at a department store — never to reclaim her Blackness. For over forty years, Stella pretends to be someone she is not. In her mind the advantages she receives as a white woman far outweigh any degree of racial obligation, allegiance, or honesty.
Recent stories of white women posing as Black women speak to a different type of passing. It is doubtful cultural critics or race scholars would even label the actions as such. The narrative is that white women do not have to pretend or prove proficiency as they automatically get a “pass” per se. The Karens, Beckys, Susans, Rachels, and now Jessicas are presumed innocent and right without inquiry or second glance. The systemic advantages garnered them thrive on systematic racist moves. Thus, a fictional character in a book and persons in history shift to a lighter side in order to glean some racial fringe benefits. The irony is palpable.
What is moreover disturbing about these reverse-passing machinations is the imposition it places on Black women.
As if we do not have to stand in the professional judgement seat enough, as if we do not have to demand the title of “Dr.,” “Professor,” or “Ms.” in the classroom, as if our ideas and data are not second-guessed, and our presence called into question, now any imposter syndrome Black women experience is layered with the imposition of real-life, true-to-form imposters. Because persons pretending to embody a Black woman’s existential reality have been weighed and found wanting and lying, there is bound to be more burden of proof on us. This is the imposition of the imposter syndrome.
Coined in the 1970s, imposter syndrome is described as an “internal experience of intellectual phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite high achievement.” It is the constant scrutiny, self-critique, position of doubt, posture of “don’t belong,” and rewinding of unsure and uncertain. Imposter syndrome evinces wherever a person feels they are not qualified, notwithstanding credentials to testify otherwise. Despite the StrongBlackWoman epithet, experts note that racism is generative in imposter syndrome causing it to manifest more in women of color.
Representation is also a contributor of imposter syndrome. As a partner of racism, representation and efforts to control the dearth of diversity impact feelings of adequacy. Environments where Black women are the only one add to performance pressure and imposter syndrome. In such solo contexts, Black women are the model that they are looking for and need. With no professional paradigm, there is a tendency to wonder of one’s worth. Whether in the classroom, boardroom, workplace, the arts, the public square, or on the screen, the inability to see people who look like us can lend toward both subliminal and stentorian messages of outsider and other.
This is not to say that women of other racial and ethnic groups do not experience imposter syndrome. Sexism has its hand in this self-debasing mental anguish. Yet, As Black women navigate the bottom of the social ladder, the trickle-down effect means the internal wariness is exacerbated. We straddle the intersectionalities while learning to live, move, and have our being.
As a biblical lens proves helpful in my personal pursuits, I lift two places where a potential reading of “imposter syndrome” could be applicable.
I Samuel 15:17 records Samuel saying to Saul: “Though you are little in your own eye, are you not the head of the tribes of Israel? The Lord anointed you king over Israel.” Saul is the first king over a people who were once in bondage. They requested a king. God reluctantly gave them Saul. Yet, Saul relishes in apprehension. Although he was a renown warrior prior to ascending the throne, this background was not enough to boost him. With royal scepter in hand he has identity vacillation. He is small, insufficient by his own characterization.
The Gospel of Matthew (15:21-28) registers an intense conversation between Jesus and a Canaanite mother. The mother is a non-Jew seeking healing for her daughter. Jesus a Jew is visiting her non-Jewish territory. He is the ethnic outsider in her hometown. The mother publicly makes a request on behalf of her ailing child. The conversation quickly spirals from courteous to curt as there are declarations of treating the mother like a dog. In the Greek, it is actually a play on the word “dog/Kynaria” and “Canaan” — the latter elicits memories of a people the Jews battled to get their Promised Land. In either case there is gender and racial denigration. The mother acquiesces to the canine epithet for the sake of her daughter. She yields to the racism and sexism. In the end, Jesus heals her daughter. The story does not paint Jesus favorably.
The Canaanite mother shouts, kneels, and makes internal mental modifications. She wrestles with Jesus and within herself. Although holding a place of geographical advantage, she relents it. Her imposter syndrome as self-deprecating becomes a bargaining tool.
The I Samuel and Matthean texts are places to pause and consider imposter syndrome. No, neither text employs nor anywhere in the Bible is the phrase used. Yet, as Saul belittles himself despite his regal status and as the Canaanite mother revisits her posture and place for her daughter, both can help the reader to consider their own pejorative internal speak.
The imposition of imposter syndrome is imposters who dwell in the mendacious abyss of professional facade make life harder for others. The imposition of imposter syndrome is we suffer, society is compromised, our giftedness does not illuminate a dark, dank world when we doubt and dare not show up fully. The imposition of imposter syndrome ought to conscript us to get off the mental merry-go-round of inadequate, insecure, and insufficient.
We do not need to pass. Just fight like hell to be in the skin we are in.
Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder, author, speaker and teacher, is a Baptist and Disciples of Christ minister who holds a Ph.D. in New Testament from Vanderbilt University. Her latest book is When Momma Speaks: The Bible and Motherhood from a Womanist Perspective. This #WomanistMomma currently serves as Associate Professor and Academic Dean at Chicago Theological Seminary.
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