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Press On: A Story of Imposter Syndrome as a Black Woman in America

Updated: Jul 6, 2020

Imposter syndrome can be a crippling thing — coupling it with anxiety and everything that comes with being a black woman in America results in an uphill battle that I’m faced with everyday. As someone who has applied for schools two — soon to be three — times, laying out my accomplishments on paper results in a stark presentation that never fails to make me feel inadequate.

Applying for private high schools was a breeze, but once it came time to apply to college, I realized the paradox that application processes put on black students. On one hand, I’ve been told not to worry about getting into schools on the mere fact that I’m a black woman who is doing comparably well in school. On the other hand, the world has shown me that I and other black students have to work ten times harder to achieve the same as our white peers. In this paradox I find myself stressed, not only for feeling like I’m not doing enough, but also for knowing I will never feel the security people have tried to insist I have.

The cycle of my inner thoughts is never ending: “you ARE doing enough... well, this person is doing [insert ridiculous amount of extracurricular activities]... but they don’t have affirmative action… okay but like, is that really benefiting you though? I want to get into school on my own merits... that means I have to work 10x harder than I am... but I’m already doing so much,” and so on, and so forth. These statements are on my mind constantly, simultaneously. Sometimes they encourage me to set my goals crazy high, while others try to tell me that I’ll never be good enough to get there.

While I was in high school it was really hard to reckon with the dichotomies; most of the time it just resulted in me not doing anything, as this way provided the least resistance. Now that I’m planning on applying to medical school, I’ve come to terms with the fact that this inaction won’t get me where I want to go. But after years of idleness, I wasn’t really sure how to put the passions I know I had to good use.

Eventually I found my way: I’m currently president and vice president in two clubs I care very deeply about; one of which allows me to be an activist to a cause very personal to me. And yet, the imposter syndrome bug continues to bite me. I always wonder if there’s somebody better for the roles that I have, whether at my lab, in my clubs, or at my jobs. I always question whether I’m really good enough to be where I’m at. If I really have the qualifications necessary to have what I have. How does one get over this?

I wish I had the answer. I wish I knew how people truly believe they deserve everything they have, and I wonder if it’s easy to feel that way if no one in your life has never told you otherwise.

Does the girl from my high school who told me I only got into UNC because I’m black suffer from imposter syndrome? What about the customer at my job who was incredibly surprised when I corrected her that I go to UNC Chapel Hill, not Charlotte (where there is a significantly higher percentage of minorities) because her daughter didn’t get into Chapel Hill? Or the ignorant white boy who thought it was okay to say the n-word to my face because “this is a free country?”

Another mystery presents itself to me: where do I draw the line between fears of mine caused by anxiety, and those caused by the racism I’ve experienced over the course of my life? Growing up as a black girl with immigrant parents in a town where you could count the number of black kids my age on one hand has likely shaped me in more ways than I would like to admit. When you grow up with white educators, white doctors, white neighbors, white everything, it makes it hard to see where someone of your color can fit into the world.

Pursuing medicine with all of this in the back of my mind has exacerbated these struggles, but has also provided me with immense motivation. Growing up I wish I had seen more representation of women who looked like me in powerful roles—I see them more now, but the white male-ness is still overbearing (only 2% of all physicians are black and female). I hope that myself and the many black women I know who are aiming high can change the faces of the careers we chose to pursue.

I recently read a great article on Forbes interviewing Dr. Nancy Oriol from Harvard; she encapsulates the struggle that so many black women face today. When asked the obstacles she faced before reaching her position as a high-achieving black woman, she replied:

“There are 3 main obstacles. One is people telling you that you can’t make it. The second obstacle is people telling you that the only reason you do “make it” is because you are black. The third obstacle is you not believing in yourself.”

Frankly, at this point in my career I’ve started to do better about ignoring the first two. The girl from my high school, the lady at work, the ignorant white boy in my town—they have no effect on me, where I’m going, or how I got here. The internal impact of their words stays with me, as it’s part of my history that I can’t forget. However, when listening to my cyclic thoughts, their words are squashed down by my own affirmations.

The latter of the obstacles is the biggest hurdle to myself, and it is one that I helped build. At times I don’t believe in myself because of the former two problems, but a lot of the times the anxiety stems from the constant need for comparison and competition that is characteristic of the “pre-med life.”

Dr. Oriol provides reassurances for black girls. For the first obstacle: “build a fire in your heart.” For the second, “build your capacity for empathy, knowing that people who make these claims are jealous of your success.” And for the third: “know that the struggle is constant, so accept it and press on anyway.”

And so I press on. I have made it this far despite whatever obstacles put in my way or that I put up myself. I will insist on my confidence until I wholeheartedly believe it. I know that everything I’ve done will pay off; I will make sure of it. Above all else I know that I am determined, and this will always get me to where I need to go.

I will probably always deal with imposter syndrome in some form or another. Despite the recent anti-racist sentiments by many of the non-black people I know, I’ve also taken note of those who have stayed silent; their deafening silence reminding me of the racism I will likely always face.

But, as I grow, their silence grows quieter and my voice gets stronger. Reinforced by myself, my minority peers, my minority teachers, my minority doctors, and minorities from all walks of life, my voice grows confident, loud, and eventually, this voice of power will be loud enough that I won’t hear any other one in my head.

My name is Simone and I’m going to be a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill! I’m a Quantitative Biology major, with a double minor in Education and Chemistry. I’m from Sandy Hook, CT where I’ve lived practically my whole life, and being from there has driven my passion for gun violence prevention. Outside of that, I’m also a dancer and I love listening to music and cooking!

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