Saturday, March 14, 2015

Impostor syndrome and its manifestations

I've been playing something around in my head for a few days and thought that a good jotting down of ideas might serve it. Following my appearance at the All About Women Festival on the How to be a Feminist panel, there has been a hell of a lot of really wonderful feedback. People described the conversation as crucial and thanked me individually for my contribution to it. However, it was also pointed out by some that they would have liked to hear more from me in the discussion. Some even went so far as to state that the white feminists on the panel were not creating enough space for the feminists of colour (myself and Roxane Gay). 

I can't speak for Roxane's experiences here, though I did notice that both of us were quiet for large sections of the panel. I do know that I myself held back. I know that I was nervous as hell before I went up there and that when I was up there I had a hard time jumping into the conversation. I also felt that I wasn't deferred to as much by the anchor. All this is despite me knowing full well that I have worthy views to contribute to the conversation and indeed, considering I am a liberationist on multiple fronts there may even be a capacity for the imparting of useful and transferable knowledge.

But this is not the first time I have held back in such a scenario. I am an introvert by nature, so I could blame that but if I looked around the other women I was on the panel with, I really was not alone in that regard. Most actually showed high degrees of introversion and indeed, whilst the world is geared towards extroverts, in the fields of writing and knowledge (such as academia) I have consistently found that introverted types dominate. We get up on the stage, loudly proclaim our views, and then go searching for the nearest dark corner the minute we've finished convincing the world. I have previously done this in other panels and meetings in environments that are actually supportive by their nature but am starting to understand that this is more than a thing that I do. It is an actual phenomenon.

In the lead-up to the event, I consistently wondered how I could hold my own amongst such esteemed company. I mean these were women who, as I described to friends, had "done stuff". They had published books, had illustrious media careers, and had generated huge followings and even huge derision proving their points. I even went so far as to refer to myself as a "diversity quota". Never mind that I am actually a published writer who appears on the radio every other week, has a large number of panels and lectures under her belt and a heap of articles which have generated big readerships. Nope, despite those facts and the amount that they were pointed out by my dear friends, I still questioned myself being up there and the worth of my contribution.

It was when someone said to me that I had "impostor syndrome" that I gained a bit of awareness into what was going on in my head. The idea that someone can believe they are worthy of less space due to their position in society is something women come across all the time. And it is socially reinforced. I mean, the fact that it's a big deal that QandA actually had an all-women panel FINALLY because they have shown time and time again that women's voices are not as necessary (think re: their domestic violence panel) is just crazy. The fact that Catherine Deveny could have been criticised for dominating the space and interupting when she actually didn't is even more crazy. Women are not entitled to take up space in the same way that men are according to society, and we see this played out over and over again. Whether it's women talking in a board meeting or walking home alone, it's the same thing. It needs to stop. Men need to create the space and not judge the comments of women as being less worthy, as being biased, as being non-neutral.

So to translate this then to my experiences of being on a panel: black women are socially not as entitled to take up space as white women. Our experiences are special, are marginal and therefore, no matter how much we may have achieved, reside on the periphery. This is part self-perpetuating and part socially-reinforced. I've already mentioned how I felt about jumping in, about how my experiences weigh up against the experiences of others and I am acutely aware that a lifetime of marginalisation makes me feel that way. It's utter rubbish. It's something that I need to work on. I mean, I have delivered lectures and conference papers with no problems at all and it's because when in my own space, I am sure of my own knowledge and why I am bringing it to the table. This needs to translate to panels where I am sharing the space with others. I talk about the systems of oppression and how they combine to further marginalise specific groups and need to become more aware of when I am reflecting this.

Likewise though, I need to not be seen as a marginal or "special interest" voice by others. Within the scope of that discussion, the only time I was called upon for views was at the very beginning of the session by the anchor. It then took me over half the session to actually jump in to the conversation and even then, I was apologetic when I did so. I watched the clock tick down the minutes and got more and more aware that I was not being called upon and it stressed me out. I additionally noted that Roxane was also not one for jumping in and mainly answered when called upon. As I said, I can't speak for her though I do note that we both reflected this same phenomenon to an extent. I also noted how free-flowing the conversation between her and Clementine Ford was later in comparison. 

Anchors need to be incredibly aware about this and not reinforce the power dynamics. The idea that women of colour are there for the special comment is wrong - we can answer everything and indeed, the depth of insight due to the intersection of gender and race can create something all can learn from. We have all the experiences of the white patriarchy due to the process of colonisation with the addition of experiencing other patriarchies within our own cultural groups. Anchors need to know when dealing with a diverse panel that they are dealing with diverse experiences of oppression as well, and some will not feel as entitled to contribute discussion due to this. They need to actively create the space and ensure that some voices are not left behind. We are trying to fight the systems of oppression but we need assistance.

Thank you, utterly everyone, for all your amazing words of praise, encouragement and everything else. I cannot tell you how much I appreciate them. Keep fighting the good fight and I promise, I will be back!

Update: 16/3 - Out of interest, here is an article the anchor of the session wrote about the session from her perspective. It's telling, to say the least. Apparently, it's problematic to spout any ideas that look at removing structural forms of oppression, which is exactly what I did, first up. Also, I am an "Arrernte woman from the NT" despite the fact that I live in Melbourne and Roxane Gay is "African-American" despite the fact that she identifies as Haitian American and spoke about her heritage, at length, in a later session. Anyway...  


  1. It was a pleasure to meet you and sit on the panel with you. I too noticed that we were quiet for large periods of time. I kept wanting to poke you so you could talk more because I was enjoying what you had to say. I kept wanting to say more but I didn't want to "dominate" the conversation which I am still thinking through, two weeks later.

  2. I was right there front and center (almost literally, 2nd row to the left of the middle) and I was so excited for it. I think my group all left feeling a bit meh about the host. I'm hesitant to read it from her POV. I loved your contribution, I was really happy when they announced you and Larissa would be attending and that's when I purchased tickets and I was excited Roxane was attending. I was a bit disappointed at how few chances you guys had to speak, as an audience member it looked more like it was because there were so many panelists and the host was favoring others a little.

    I get impostor syndrome. I have it, every time I go somewhere or get invited to something I feel like at any moment someone will tap me on the shoulder, tell me there has been a mistake and ask me to leave. You definitely deserve to be there and I look forward to seeing you on more panels.