I was eighteen and frantic the first time I heard the word “dichotomy.” The person that said it was the complete opposite of me: white, preppy, prepared. My eyes bugged out—what does that mean? I remember looking around the room, helpless, for anyone else who also had no idea what that word meant. But everyone kept on staring at her, placidly. They knew. Of course they did: this was an honors seminar for incoming freshman. Everyone in the room was bred for success in gifted and talented classes, specialized high schools, private schools. It was only me. The room was small, and grew smaller every second the longer I had to be in it. I wanted to press pause on the conversation so I could look up the word and feel less like someone who had no reason to have a presence in the room. You don’t belong here, said my ever helpful brain.
Nothing makes me feel more like an idiot than not knowing what a word means. I strive to know every word there is—from words that could be understood better in simpler language, like avarice, to words more commonly uttered by my friends and family, like capping. It’s a means of survival in my tale of two worlds, navigating between the academic and home. From reading (a lot) since a young age, I know many, many words. My mom calls them “them SAT words,” but to me they’re my security blanket: oftentimes in the upper echelon of academic spaces, you cannot go three seconds without someone using a word with three syllables or more. If you look confused, you’ve already lost. If you pronounce the word wrong, you’re worthless. Seminars are timed, mandatory trauma sessions where I feel lost at sea, surrounded by people smarter than me.
And that’s all it is, isn’t it? I’m surrounded by people that are smarter, better, more qualified than I am to be in whatever space I find myself in. Whether that’s seminars, conferences, panels. There’s always that little voice, whispering in my ear: you don’t deserve to be here. She follows me everywhere, to every space, all the time. You don’t deserve to be here. She whispered to me the first time I sat down in my first AP (Advanced Placement) class and looked at the reading list, books my classmates recognized but the list was foreign to me. She got louder when I heard words in class I didn’t recognize, or when I felt brave enough to speak in my honors class only to be shot down in ways too eloquent for my comprehension. When I’m up late at night, memorizing the pronunciation of “them SAT words” that I have read but never dared to say aloud for fear of looking foolish, she keeps me company. It is a constant anxiety that thrums through me, white noise that surrounds my every thought.
When I am in a room, and the only black person is me, the voice is instinctive. When I am in a room, and the only woman in there is me, she’s all I can hear. I’ve since learned, through much therapy and talking with other people who are quick to fill me with positive affirmations that what I suffer from is imposter syndrome. What I’m thinking and feeling is all in my head, that I don’t deserve to be here, because of course I do. A black woman deserves to be in every room, everywhere, at all times. There is no such thing as being an imposter if you’re the real thing. And yet, this syndrome is not borne out of thin air: these institutions, jobs, places, and spaces are often built for one kind of person, and if you feel ostracized, or out of place, it is because the system is made to make you feel that way. Sometimes the syndrome, the buzzing in your brain, has nothing to do with you but rather the people who have built entire buildings, programs, secret societies, without you in mind.
Knowing the truth of your seat at the table being hard won and welcome is hard to believe, and practicing the hard task of taking up space is easier to type than to actually practice in real life. The voice is still in my head, even now as I apply for graduate school. Even now, as I write this piece, I wonder if I was chosen by mistake. I’ve found that the only cure is constant affirmation and assurance, of which I have plenty to spare, thankfully. I am working on getting over the shock that comes with acceptance letters and opportunities, the voice that tells me that I don’t deserve them. But no one is an imposter: you are made to take up space, to sit at whatever table you want to. Nothing you’ve ever achieved is a mistake. Take up space, fill up a room, take over the planet—there’s room for you. It’s what I have to tell myself every single day, and I hope you tell yourself the same.