By Nichole Guillory (WellAcademic Guest Blogger) - Mothering in Color
This past summer, I received an invitation from a leading scholar in my field to do a keynote address for a conference where other leading scholars showcase their work. He had asked before, and at that time, I said no. I said no, not because I didn’t want to do the keynote, but frankly, I didn’t even think I—or my body of work—was worthy of the ask.
Let me say that again. I did not even think I was worthy of the ask. Sad, right? Like too many other Black women in the academy subjected to consistent devaluation as scholars, I have struggled with/against Impostor Syndrome since I entered the academy as a professor more than twelve years ago.
I am the poster child for what psychologists identify as a condition of self-perceived intellectual phoniness. Doubting my accomplishments, thinking I am not deserving of my achievements, fearing exposure as an intellectual fraud—this is the internal script that has been on constant replay in my head. To this day, when people I meet for the first time ask me what I do for a living, I don’t say “professor.” I say I teach. The next question is invariably about where I teach, and when I tell them my university’s name, they tell me that I’m a professor. Did you catch that? Perfect strangers have to tell me that I’m a professor.
So when I received the invitation to do a keynote this time, my first reply was not just no, but hell no. Doing a keynote with this group in particular, my closest colleagues in curriculum theory, engendered my worst fears about myself. I do not belong in this space. I am not a real theorist. I work in teacher education, not in a curriculum theory program. What someone else has to say is far more important than I what I have to offer.
I didn’t think that I could stand in front of large room full of scholars whose work I had read and studied. I felt like that they would see me just as I saw myself—an academic fraud, a phony, an impostor. I didn’t send the “regrets” email right away though. I told myself that I would sleep on the invitation and reply the following day.
Some of you reading this who are not Black women scholars may also feel like impostors in your workplaces too, but I just want to make clear that for marginalized groups, feeling like you are fraud and are not deserving of your achievements is often intensified by systemic racism, sexism, cis-genderism, and ableism, to name just a few. Systemic practices in the academy which value us for our service more than our scholarship, for our obedience more than our critiques, for our silence more than our voices are dehumanizing and do real damage to our productivity, not to mention our physical, emotional, and spiritual health and well-being.
So back to my decision about the keynote. I eventually said yes for one reason only. I am trying to teach my son to practice bravery when situations arise where he might be fearful. I don’t want him to allow fear to drive his decision-making like it did (does) mine for a lot of my life. I am not a perfect mother, but I am always an honest one, even when it’s hard. So I figured that I could not say no to the keynote and then turn around and tell him to say yes to doing things he fears.
Mothering always pushes my boundaries. I’m not always grateful for the nudges, but this time proved differently.
The writing of the keynote—not delivering it in front of an audience—was the hardest part for me, mostly to calm the noisy voices of doubt and fear long enough to produce thoughtful and provocative analysis. I learned that I write best with an academic babysitter, which Roxanne reframes as writing “in community,” and without my writing partners—Roxanne and Megan—the voices would have won. The second hardest part was to quiet my comparison mind because conference organizers sandwiched my talk in between keynotes by two popular big name scholars whose work I admired from afar for all of my career. I told myself that they were the badasses, not me; that people would come to hear what they had to say, not me.
Having given the keynote last week, I now have the space to recognize that saying yes was one of the best decisions I made for myself (and ultimately for my son). Not because what I said was positively received, but because of the lessons I learned about myself and my work.
I am not an impostor after all. The academy has done its best to convince me that I’m not a scholar, but no more. It’s time we step back from the expectation of institutions that don’t value us in the first place and step up on behalf of ourselves.
My institution and all of its problems seem very small now in comparison to the work/writing I have left to do, and I realize that I must center my energy on intellectual work, which is my writing on Black mothering as a resistance practice, both as theory in my academic publications and as praxis in Mothering In Color.
People being moved by the keynote was a humbling experience that highlighted how grateful I am to all who paved a way for me to deliver the keynote in the first place. I was moved even more toward bravery by their very generous support of the work.
I invite others who are suffering through Impostor Syndrome to say yes to something you are fearful of doing. Taking that risk just might quiet those impostorism voices once and for all…or at least quiet them considerably.
Nichole Guillory, PhD, is Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at Kennesaw State University. She publishes on the experiences of women of color in the academy. She is mom to Nicholas, the love of her life. We couldn't be happier that she has agreed to pen a the Mothering in Color series for WellAcademic.
By Joycelyn Moody, JMoody's Musings
Last Sunday I met a radiant sister Black professor who teaches at another university in town (I’ll call her “A” to protect her anonymity). A thrilling oddity in San Antonio (seventh largest US city), where the population of African Americans has remained a constant 4% since I moved here over a decade ago. Sister professor, possibly a new friend. Unlike me, though, this other professor is also an Associate Dean. That position adds a whole other level of stress.
Still, Dean A cast a pleasant, vibrant demeanor. When she mentioned having served her institution for over 20 years, my research background and the many, many conversations I’ve had with other women of color in the academy kicked in: she’s undoubtedly suffered from the toxicity of injustices and “interlocking systems of oppression” that relentlessly plague academic sisters. Our conversation proved me correct, unfortunately.
My first inclination as a way to sustain connection with Dean A., to help her cultivate a wider network of not only Black academic women’s support but also minoritized educators of all ethnicities, and to envision her having the extraordinary experience I’d had recently among WellAcademic retreat participants: I invited her to attend our 2019 retreats for women of color faculty.
More than anything, what Roxanne and I want for those we encounter—as WellAcademic coaching clients, as retreat participants, as newsletter subscribers, as readers of our blog posts, in on-campus workshops—is to share our unique strengths and gifts as feminist scholars of the African diaspora. As our mission statement announces, we have dedicated our own professional lives to providing others, especially academic women of color, with enriched productivity through reduced life stress.
Meeting Dean A last weekend, I immediately imagined her as an ideal WellAcademic retreat participant, someone who’d almost certainly experience some of what I had in early October 2018.
When Roxanne and I held our first retreat on Bald Mountain at Elohee, I performed two roles: (1) WellAcademic coach and (2) retreat participant. In preparation, 14 retreat participants signed up for 20 to 40 minutes of private coaching with me. At Elohee, heart after heart opened to mine in trust, humbling me. I’ve flattered myself a creative thinker, tactically intuiting when to go deep and rapid fire versus when to work more contemplatively and long-view. Moreover, I’ve savored my research into self-improvement, rereading and applying it through Black feminist theoretical lens.
During my WellAcademic coaching sessions, I felt rejuvenated by the individual connection with clients seeking to regain their paths. At the same time, I gained a new solemnity, a serenity, about my skills while coaching clients. With them, I was experiencing both dynamic personal growth through the incremental “Breakthrough Sessions” Roxanne had crafted for us—then gently led us through—and developing the precious intimate group bond emerging in our sister circles.
We’d accepted Roxanne’s call to Elohee for insight and renewal, for sisterhood and rejuvenation. Having participated in numerous workshops with my astounding business partner before, I knew the other participants and I would inevitably have an extraordinary experience. Whatever the others expected, my own expectations were truly exceeded. The difference lay in the fact of community: while Roxanne was our indisputable fulcrum, magic lay in our collectivity.
I doubt many of us anticipated the powerful experience we’d create together.
Almost each retreat participant arrived with trepidation about WellAcademic’s deliberate timing at institutional midterms. Most divulged the challenge of permitting herself to break away for her own revitalization just when others feel free to demand more from us—make-up midterms at students’ convenience, belated committee meetings on chairs’ timetables, and so on. Even retreat participants “on leave” arrived almost panting, as if we’d run the distances from Cincinnati, Madison, Philadelphia, San Antonio, Miami, doubled over by the demands we make on ourselves and we face (or face down) from others who claim power over us.
I’ll close with two short lists.
What I expected:
What I gained/Hadn’t imagined receiving:
Until next time,