In a space where you cannot see yourself, it’s easy to feel that you don’t belong. Or to think that you’re undeserving of an opportunity, a voice, or success. These feelings of fraudulence have been defined as the imposter syndrome. It’s everywhere but nowhere at the same time, because while it’s something that is felt by so many, it is rarely talked about or recognised. In essence, you feel like an imposter within your own life.
Lack of representation forces one to feel as though certain spaces are not meant for them, even when those are the spaces they are needed most. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that imposter syndrome is most common amongst minority groups and women. This means that for Māori and Pacific women in this institution, the imposter is a deafening reminder of how different they are to the majority. I spoke to three female students from the Māori and Pacific group here at the University. I asked them: “What does your imposter tell you?” Lanna is an undergraduate student who talks about how being brown has intensified the voice of her own imposter.
Lanna Tuanai Rafael Samoan, Chinese – “Being part of the Pacific minority group, where only speckles of brown can be seen amongst University environments, the imposter syndrome is more prevalent. The voice at the back of my head towers above my ambitions and clouds my vision to success. Sometimes to the point where I am reminded that if it weren’t for the scholarships and achievements under my name, I wouldn’t have set foot in University in the first place. But who can blame a student entering a facility that is not specifically designed for them? I understand my people are held at a disadvantage compared to others, and our imposters consistently drag us down, but there’s also beauty to it. To break barriers, to eradicate stereotypes, and to be one of many brown generations to succeed.”
I spent my primary and secondary school years in South Auckland. Every day I was surrounded by people who looked like me and shared the same background as me which was a huge benefit to my success. I was not prepared for the culture shock I would experience in my first lecture being one of five brown faces in the theatre of over 100 students. Only then did I begin to notice the small voice in my head telling me that I didn’t deserve to be at the University, that I was perhaps the dumbest person in the class, and that my voice and thoughts were not valid because they were different.
The imposter targets people to think that differences are not only weaknesses, but barriers to success. This brings to light one of the most harmful effects of colonisation, the colonisation of the mind, to think that Western ideas and ways are superior. Hence, anything different is not worthy of success leading minority groups to undermine themselves compared to the majority. These histories of oppression provide the foundation for imposter syndrome to be a harder battle for people of colour.
Faaiuga is an undergraduate student who has also established her own photography business Ugas Lens and founded the group UmotivateU. This group aims to raise the statistics of Pacific youth attending tertiary institutions and break stereotypes. However, she also battles her own imposter that at times makes her question her success.
Faaiuga Vaialia Talitonu Samoan – “My imposter says to me that sometimes I am undeserving of my success. When I get rewarded for something, I sometimes don’t feel completely happy and start to question whether I worked hard enough or if it was just given to me because of my kindness. I tend to doubt myself and will force myself to work harder than I did before. As a result, I end up being mentally drained or really sick. It’s an everyday battle because although I believe I am doing great things, my imposter will always find a way to change it. Being brown intensifies these feelings, and while it’s beautiful, at times, it’s scary too. When I walk into spaces where I’m the only brown person, I immediately get anxious because I feel like I don’t belong in that space. I categorize myself as an outsider, and I am reminded of all the stereotypes that exist upon brown people.”
One of the most helpful ways of dealing with imposter syndrome is to talk about it or find role models of success that represent who you are and where you come from. Zoe Henry is a PHD student who has also worked in various roles such as a GTA and student advisor, educating and providing support for other students coming through University. She gives insight into changing the conversation around imposter syndrome.
Zoe Henry Niue, Māori, Pakeha – “My imposter second-guesses every decision I make and makes it twice as difficult to feel good about the work that I do. My imposter always has an alternative reason as to why something went really well and downplays the things that I’m good at or know about. As a Māori-Pacific woman in this institution, the imposter always points out how different I am to everyone else. Whether it’s based on appearance or research differences, or even simple kaupapa, it is all these differences that are magnified and add to the self-doubt.”
“I’m really lucky to be in a space where I can work with our student communities. When I see other students experience and talk about going through imposter syndrome, it kind of shakes me up a bit. Our students are brilliant and brave, and to see them undermine themselves or not see that brilliance really gets to me. It forces me to step up and out from the shadow of my own imposter so that the conversation between me and our students change, we’re no longer talking about all the ways in which we’re not good enough, but we’re focusing on the things that we bring to the table and the things that make us great and feel great.”
Whatever your imposter tells you, it’s important to realise that these things are not true and that the people around you are battling their own imposters too. While you may never fully eliminate your imposter, dealing with it means convincing yourself that you are worthy of success. And if you’re a Māori or Pacific woman reading this — you descend from a long line of revolutionary, strong, brave women who broke barriers for you to be present in this very moment. Your imposter could never compete with the power you hold in your gafa/whakapapa. You’ll be okay, sis.