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 the Mothering in Color series for WellAcademic.