“DEI picks,” “diversity bids,” “affirmative action admissions.”
Imposter syndrome: “feelings of self-doubt and personal incompetence that persist despite one’s education, experience and accomplishments.”
I don’t belong here and I don’t deserve this are ideas that plague everyone’s mind at some point or another. But what about when that extra layer of pressure is added to an already complex mix? People of color tend to deal with imposter syndrome in similar, but also vastly different ways from each other. With increased emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion, one way we see this struggle is through the belief that people of color are accomplished solely because of their diverse standing — “DEI picks” to fit quotas set in place by companies and institutions, “affirmative action admissions” into predominantly white institutions, “diversity bids” for organizations that lack it — all leading to the assumption that these candidates are only in their standings because they fulfill a diversity quota. Often, people of color are themselves conditioned to believe this. And in turn, to avoid feeling like they “got it easy,” some of these same candidates feel less and less compelled to talk about their identities or include them in their application processes.
Like countless others, I’ve experienced this exact phenomenon without realizing it. As an undergraduate student at the Ross School of Business, there are many situations in which I am the only hijab-wearing woman in my classroom. The University of Michigan lacks diversity at large as a Primarily White Institution (PWI), and this is even more the case within the business school, especially for Muslim students. Now, I always reflect on the fact that a year ago had I walked into a classroom and failed to see a single person who looks like me, I would have been absolutely terrified. But now, after much reflection and becoming comfortable with my identity, I no longer find it so scary. Walking into a space and being the visual representation for all the identities that I carry is something that presents its own complex set of adversities, but it is a task that I’ve come to have an appreciation for. I love my identities, am so proud to carry all of them and have always used them as fuel for my career aspirations. Whether that is embodying the representation that certain fields lack and carving a space for women who look like me, or striving towards a career as a means to give back to my community, my identity plays a role in just about everything, as it does for almost all people of color. In reality, my identities are what have ultimately shaped the trajectory of my life and the lens with which I approach just about everything.
This transition in my attitude regarding this subject did not happen overnight though. I struggled heavily with identity-related issues upon starting at the University. While I used to stray away from saying this explicitly to avoid even confronting these difficult experiences, I’ve managed to come to terms with the fact that they have heavily impacted me. At the moment, these thoughts seemed like a constant annoyance at the back of mind — something that seemed to always weigh down my train of thought. In retrospect, however, I realize that this “annoyance” was plaguing my every move, shaping my every thought and influencing my every decision. I had never before in my life felt so different, and a majority of me didn’t like it. I didn’t want to be the representation that my university lacked, I didn’t want to constantly feel so different and I didn’t want to constantly feel like my interactions with others were my chance to prove my “normalcy” and that I wasn’t a walking stereotype. I became hypervigilant of my differences as a woman of color, specifically a hijab-wearing Muslim Palestinian American woman, in the predominantly white spaces I seemed to be shoved into. And this experience and those feelings are ones that I battled for a very long time.
I only began to embrace my identity and being “different” when I acknowledged the circumstances at hand and quite frankly forced myself to find ways to make myself okay with them. The process was an extended one, and in reality, a huge part of this journey was beginning my work through the Michigan in Color section and being immersed in a community of strong, like-minded individuals who also understood what I was battling. Putting my identity on the drawing board for my readers to externally experience and understand helped me with coping with the identity struggles I was going through but also validated everything I was experiencing. My colleagues through MiC simply understood that. It forced me to dig deep into my insecurities and figure out where they were rooted. I wouldn’t say that this is a journey that I have ended as I believe that I still have a long way to go, but it is a journey that has taught me so much so far.
And what this journey taught me came extremely handy when I found that I began experiencing certain situations rooted in ignorance as I moved further and further into professional and professional adjacent settings. For example, in conversation with others about my academic journey and what I see for my future, I couldn’t help but feel like there was some sort of wall between myself and the (usually) non-POC I was having that conversation with. Whether it’s a change in demeanor when I share that my interests in international human rights work are rooted in my identity as a Palestinian, or little comments after I reveal that I’d like to pursue policy and impact work to help provide the marginalized communities that I come from with the legal-level changes they would like to see, it became clear to me that there was a level of overall discomfort with the fact that there are people who combine their careers and identities. It was often as if the assumption was that I got into the school that I attend or I was given the opportunities I earned solely because of my identity and the “diversity” I could contribute — when in reality, this “diversity” means nothing if I am not a qualified candidate. Furthermore, it seemed like I was expected to keep my identity silent, even though it was perceived as the very thing that got me here to begin with. In reality, schools don’t accept students solely for being POC, and companies don’t accept candidates just because they can enhance their diversity efforts. The constant back and forth in attitudes surrounding candidates from marginalized communities has sparked an internal battle I find myself constantly dealing with. And in turn, I’ve begun to find myself less likely to talk about my identity in conversation or applications in order to avoid being seen through the “DEI” lens.
Furthermore, when a person of color calls spaces out for lacking diversity, it seems to be perceived as them claiming that they deserve to be in these spaces more because of their relative diversity by predominantly white or homogeneous spaces and people. I, as a woman of color, shouldn’t have to deal with the worry of how making the objective claim, that a space lacks diversity, will be perceived by others solely because of the fact that it is a claim coming from me. I should be allowed to point out the failings of groups and organizations in regards to their diversity efforts without being accused of expecting an upper hand because of my diverse standing in these circles, or without being tokenized by these spaces either. What should be acknowledged by these spaces and the people in them, however, is that I, as well as other people of color, carry the extra burden of representation by default of the fact that the rest of their space is fairly homogeneous, a burden that other candidates don’t have to carry. And this, in and of itself, impacts every single aspect of what it means to be part of a space and how my interactions with this space will play out. When people of color claim that their identities impact just about everything, it’s not them “being immature” or “seeking attention;” it’s them describing the lives they are forced to live because of the oppressions they face from racist and biased systems of power. It is not something that we can just turn on and off, and it shapes our interactions with society and society’s interactions with us. If we’re being realistic and frank, at the PWI that I attend, I add diversity. Not only through my identities, but through my unique thoughts and experiences that my identities have led me to. In the fairly homogeneous organizations that I am part of, I provide a unique perspective that is shaped by the identities that I carry. My identities cause me to be multifaceted, not only through who I am, but through my thoughts, approaches and overall perspectives. In spaces that lack individuals that look like me, I contribute to the diversity of the room — but not just in the superficial way they often think I do. I shouldn’t stray away from saying that because of this claim’s perception by others, perceptions that are heavily influenced by implicit biases and expectations. It is an objective statement. And I shouldn’t have to consider how someone “might take it” when I state this — white comfort does not mean minimizing DEI. Comfort and DEI should and must be oxymorons.
I can’t say that this is an internal battle that I’ve beaten. There will constantly be a voice of doubt in my head during conversations when I consider whether I should talk about how I cultivate my identities into my educational and professional journeys. However, I think overcoming the first step of unapologetically claiming my identity and the way that it manifests in different spaces is a step towards overcoming the internal battle at large. So with all this, why does there seem to be a “hush” that surrounds diversity and conversations that have to do with it? Why does it feel like I am mandated to represent my identity, but only to a certain extent, and to an extent where I don’t step on the toes of anyone or anything in the process? Why should I have to think twice before I, as a woman of color, point out the fact that I bring a unique perspective to a situation or space that lacks it and in professional spaces? Why must I need to prove that I have much more than my identity going for me? I know I am proud of who I am and what I represent; so when will you accept that?
MiC Columnist can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.