As American as Imposter Syndrome
Who are we, and how do we know?
“Who am I, and how do I know?”
At one point, we’ve all asked ourselves this question. Certain situations bring it to the fore: leaving the family home, changing careers, getting married or divorced—or perhaps a global pandemic and mandatory lockdown, bringing us face-to-face with all that we’ve been running from. When we’re alone in a room, who are we? Without such markers as gathering places, going to work, and social activities, how do we know?
While we come into this world as our authentic selves, we are quickly thrust into mainstream society and made painfully aware of all the ways we are different. We learn that the way to get ahead is to assimilate. In doing so, we forget who we truly are, and spend the rest of our lives trying to remember.
The underrepresented in America—those who are not cis-het, white males—are all too familiar with such existential self-inquiry, as we bear the most pronounced differences. Told we are one thing by a culture that is quick to assign roles, rules, and labels, our souls speak another story.
In a capitalist society such as America’s, we are raised to believe that who we are is a fixed image, defined by artificially constructed categories such as race, gender, sexual orientation, and class. How do we know? By equally arbitrary markers, including the objects we accumulate, the jobs we work, the places we live, the melanin in our skin, and what’s between our legs.
All of this runs counter to the concept of a soul: the thing that made you you, before you forgot. Soul is unbound by place, time, material things, and even bodies. While image relies on structure and continuity, soul is constantly evolving and adapting. Every cell in your body is replaced every seven years; if you’re doing it right, your mental and emotional bodies undergo similar changes.
But the capitalist model doesn’t compute this. It needs you to contort yourself to fit into a box that can be checked for customer segmentation. How do you drive sales with a population that one day might prefer to wear a dress, and on another, a suit and tie? The model needs to predict your behavior in order to serve you targeted marketing that tells you you’re not good enough—but that maybe, with fewer wrinkles and fuller hair and ripped abs, you can get there.
No wonder, then, that 70% of Americans experience imposter syndrome: the psychological phenomenon in which a person questions their own abilities, achievements, authority, or legitimacy. When you have imposter syndrome, no matter how much you accomplish or how widely you’re recognized, you fear that you don’t measure up and will be exposed as a “fraud.”
Imposter syndrome impacts everyone, from college students and parents and corporate middle managers to movie stars and Fortune 100 CEOs—but it doesn’t impact everyone the same way. The difference is in whether the culture around you supports or contradicts that nagging internal monologue.
Let’s take two examples: one is a white, male celebrity chef who is trying to open a new restaurant. The other is a queer Black woman trying to get her first job as a craft beer brewer. Both have a voice in their head that says: You don’t know what you’re doing; they’re never going to give that opportunity to you; and even if they do, they’re going to find out that you don’t deserve it.
For the celebrity chef, the culture provides nothing but evidence to the contrary of what the voice is telling him. He’s white and male, so all the power brokers look like him; helping him means reinforcing the existing system of white supremacy and male privilege. With multiple restaurants and an empire to his name, life is one big opportunity.
But for the queer Black woman who wants to be a brewer, she has nothing but evidence to support what the voice in her head is telling her. There isn’t anyone else who looks like her working in the brewery, or for that matter, in most of the industry. She is routinely passed over for promotions and paid less than her colleagues for the same work. Instead of presenting her with opportunities, the culture throws up roadblocks at every turn.
Messages come from everywhere, from advertising and entertainment to banks, colleges, companies, and institutions, telling the underrepresented that we don’t belong in the spaces where we live, work, and play. And when people who look like you are murdered in the streets by the officers sworn to protect them; when people who love the way you do are called names and kicked out of their homes; when people with your physical form are denied jobs and promotions; these things tell you that you really aren’t worthy, and so eventually, you start to believe it.
As the dominant class knows, this is how to keep people under your thumb: by turning them against themselves. Oppression is easier when they do part of the work for you.
I’ve served as my own oppressor for much of my life. I was never like the other girls, though I was born with female anatomy and told that I was one. Whereas they traveled in packs, Pacific Northwest picture-perfect with their blonde highlights, K-Swiss sneakers, and designer jeans, I was a nerd with no friends, big glasses, and mousey brown hair, wearing oversized T-shirts emblazoned with wolves howling at screen-printed moons.
Where those girls had crushes on boys who slipped them card-paper hearts on Valentine’s Day, my own feelings were a confusing mass of attractions and identifications on both sides of the gender divide, and the only cards I got were the ones given to the whole class. To fit in, I buried my true self deep down, where even I couldn’t find them. It took decades to uncover them, and the work is ongoing.
Of the myriad identities about which I have imposter syndrome, queerness looms largest. This voice tells me things like: I’ve never had an official relationship with a woman, so I‘m not gay enough. I identify with both genders, so I'm not trans enough. I was once married to a man, so I'm not bi enough. I’ve only briefly dated couples, so I’m not poly enough. And I didn’t come out until my mid-30s, so I don't even belong in the queer community.
But then, last spring, while researching stories, I began to interview LGBTQIA+ workers about diversity and inclusion in the food and beverage industry. In conversations with other queers, I saw myself, and suddenly, a whole lifetime began to make sense. I discovered that most LGBTQIA+ people had experienced similar identity crises; even those who seemed, to me, totally clear in their orientation have also felt that they weren’t “queer enough,” “gay enough,” or “trans enough.”
I began to feel less alone than ever before, even in the midst of this interminable quarantine. These really were my people. This really was me. And this journey alchemized an actual love of my androgyny and indefinable queerness, rather than just accepting it because nothing else felt quite right.
I know my experience is still extremely privileged compared to that of many others—especially BIPOC, the differently abled, and those from more under-resourced upbringings than my own. I don’t know what it’s like to face these intersectional challenges firsthand, and I realize that philosophical self-examination is a bit of a luxury concern. Yet as my work took me next to the domain of immigrant and native-born BIPOC chefs, food business owners, and community organizers, what surprised me was not the differences between their stories and mine, but the resonance.
They, too, were caught between worlds: no longer fully identifying with their ancestral cultures, but not feeling completely at home in the West, either. I interviewed chefs from Spice Bridge—a food hall in Seattle where every business owner is an immigrant or refugee woman—and they described the initial loneliness of being immersed in a society with unfamiliar norms and counterintuitive customs. American culture, and especially the food and beverage industry, with its competitive nature, labyrinthine regulations, expensive real estate, and single-serving meals sharply contrasted with their memories of accessible food entrepreneurship; cooking with family; eating from communal plates; and always making enough to feed guests who might drop in.
So, who were they? As Nigerian-born author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie describes in “Americanah,” many immigrants struggle for years to answer these questions, feeling they are neither “African enough” nor “American enough.” And even the native-born, especially those with first-generation relatives, may feel torn between mainstream American culture and the customs, traditions, and expectations of their communities, feeling that they are not, for instance, “Black,” “Latinx,” or “Asian enough.”
But how did they come to know? For the people I spoke with, food and beverage was a clue. The things we eat and drink are powerful markers of identity, and many underrepresented people in America use these very implements of their “othering” as a cudgel to pry themselves free.
Chefs such as Ann Kim and Preeti Mistry describe how kids at school ridiculed the traditional lunches packed by immigrant parents and grandparents—“I was sent to school with a bento box of rice, dried fish and kimchi, and I was ostracized,” Kim told the Minnesota StarTribune—yet both rose to prominence through cuisine that reflects ancestral food traditions as well as the environments in which they were raised.
Seattle’s Edouardo Jordan, after becoming the first Black chef to win the Beard for Best New Restaurant for the Northern Italian-influenced Salare, subsequently opened JuneBaby; here, he shares the real history of Southern cuisine, as created by enslaved people of African descent. “I realized,” he told me last summer, “that most of [the story,] in the U.S., was being told by a bunch of white chefs in the media.”
Similarly, Sean Sherman, founder of the Sioux Chef collective and the nonprofit NATIFS, helps reclaim traditional foodways and empower Indigenous chefs. All of these chefs have won Beard awards, but they also know that the answer isn’t to ask for a seat at a table that wasn’t built for them. As Mistry said: “Fuck that table. We’ll sit on the ground and have a picnic.”
And we have seen that the table was built with flimsy materials, indeed. The American nation and its patriarchal ruling class are facing an existential crisis. It started with Trump’s election in 2016; intensified with the protest movement led by Black Lives Matter and fueled by the murder of George Floyd; and then it calcified in months of quarantine and the inability to return to the “normal” capitalist paradigm. Now it has been brought to its inevitable apex with the armed insurrection at the United States Capitol.
On January 6, 2021, as white terrorists overtook the halls of government, flying Confederate flags for the first time in that building’s history, including during the Civil War; taking selfies with police officers; and stomping soiled boots on lawmakers’ desks, political leaders and public figures were flooding social media with posts claiming: “This isn’t who we are.”
Really? How do we know?
Maybe some of those in the dominant classes thought we were a powerful nation: the land of the free and the home of the brave; a place of opportunity where everyone can rise from nothing to become successful; but all the evidence is pointing to the contrary.
The kid gloves used by law enforcement during the Capitol attack; the fact that Trump was even elected; his ability to incite this kind of violence and expose the cancer just under the surface; all of this tells us everything we need to know about our nation. It isn’t every single person, but it’s enough of us—and even those who actively resisted this party and this person, if we’re white and middle-class, are still complicit in enjoying the privileges of a system rigged in our favor.
Here, too, I am between worlds, as both an underrepresented and a white person. While the challenge for the former group is to hold onto the truth of who we are, which we know by what our souls tell us, the overrepresented must acknowledge the truth of who we have become, based on all of this evidence. We must admit that the world we have created is broken and backwards and even downright evil, but that given our history, it was perfectly predictable. The voices in the heads of the underrepresented have been singing our national anthem. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
If we, as Americans, can be brutally honest in our self-examination; if we have an authentic desire to change; then from this place, we can ask ourselves a different question: “Who do we want to be?” And maybe, just maybe, we can transform those inner voices into imposters after all.
Talk to me in the comments: How can we individually and collectively answer the questions, “Who am I? How do I know? And who do I want to be?” Have you ever dealt with imposter syndrome? What, if anything, has been the cure?