'Racial Impostor Syndrome': Here Are Your Stories

“Racial impostor syndrome” is definitely a thing for many people. We hear from biracial and multi-ethnic listeners who connect with feeling “fake” or inauthentic in some part of their racial or ethnic heritage.

Kristen Uroda for NPR

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Kristen Uroda for NPR

It’s tricky to nail down exactly what makes someone feel like a “racial impostor.” For one Code Switch follower, it’s the feeling she gets from whipping out “broken but strangely colloquial Arabic” in front of other Middle Easterners.

For another — a white-passing, Native American woman — it’s being treated like “just another tourist” when she shows up at powwows. And one woman described watching her white, black and Korean-American toddler bump along to the new Kendrick and wondering, “Is this allowed?”

In this week’s podcast, we go deep into what we’re calling Racial Impostor Syndrome — the feeling, the science and a giant festival this weekend in Los Angeles that’s, in some ways, all about this.

Here’s how we got started down this track. A couple months ago, listener Kristina Ogilvie wrote in to tell us that “living at the intersection of different identities and cultures” was like “stumbling around in a forest in the dark.”

She asked, “Do you hear from other listeners who feel like fakes?”

Good question. So we took it to our audience, and what we heard back was a resounding “yes.”

We got 127 emails from people who are stumbling through that dark, racially ambiguous forest. (And yes, we read every single one.)

Here are excerpts drawn from a few of the many letters that made us laugh, cry and argue — and that guided this week’s episode.

Let’s start with Angie Yingst of Pennsylvania:

“My mother is a Panamanian immigrant and my father is a white guy from Pennsylvania. I’ve always felt liminal, like I drift between race and culture. When I was young (20s) and living in the city, I would get asked multiple times a day where I was from, where my people were from, because Allentown, Pennsylvania, clearly wasn’t the answer they were looking for … It always felt like the undercurrent of that question was, ‘You aren’t white, but you aren’t black. What are you?’

“But truthfully, I don’t feel like I fit with Latinas either. My Spanish is atrocious and I grew up in rural PA. Even my cousin said a few weeks ago, ‘Well, you aren’t really Spanish, because your dad is white.’ Which gutted me, truly. I identify as Latina. I identify with my mother’s culture and country as well as American culture. In shops, I’m treated like every other Latina, followed around, then ignored at the counter. I married a white guy and had children who are blonde and blue eyed, and I’m frequently asked if I’m the nanny or babysitter. And white acquaintances often say, ‘You are white. You act white.’ And I saltily retort, ‘Why? Because I’m not doing your lawn, or taking care of your kids? You need to broaden your idea of what Latina means.’ “

Jen Boggs of Hawaii says she often feels like a racial impostor, but isn’t quite sure which race she’s faking:

“I was born in the Philippines and moved to Hawaii when I was three. … I grew up thinking that I was half-Filipina and half-white, under the impression that my mom’s first husband was my biological father. I embraced this ‘hapa-haole’ identity (as they say in Hawaii), and loved my ethnic ambiguity. My mom wanted me to speak perfect English, so never spoke anything but to me. After she divorced her first husband and re-married my stepdad from Michigan, my whiteness became cemented.

“Except. As it turns out, my biological father was a Filipino man whom I’ve never met. I didn’t find out until I tried to apply for a passport in my late twenties and the truth came out. So, at age 28 I learned that I was not half white but all Filipina. …

“This new knowledge was a huge blow to my identity and, admittedly, to my self esteem. ‘But I’m white,’ I remember thinking. ‘I’m so so white.’ After much therapy, I’m happy and comfortable in my brown skin, though I’m still working out how others perceive me as this Other, Asian person.”

Indigo Goodson’s mom is Jamaican and her dad is African-American. She wrote about the way people’s perceptions of her change based on where she lives:

“Culturally we grew up as Jamaican as two California-born black American children could have in the Bay Area. … We ate mostly Jamaican food (prepared by both our mother and father), our Jamaican family lived with us growing up, and it was my mother that told us Anansi stories and other tales or sayings popular in Jamaica.

” … Both my parents are black, so no one ever asked ‘What are you?’ … But then when folks would meet my mum they would say things like, ‘Oh I thought you were black!’ or ‘You do look Jamaican!’ And I would tell people I’m still black and clearly Jamaicans look like black Americans because we are both the descendants of enslaved West Africans. Now that I live in New York City, where if you’re black people assume you are first generation Caribbean, I often have to remind people that my dad is black American and so am I.”

Helen Seely is originally from California. She told us what it’s like for her to interact with different groups as a light-skinned biracial woman:

“White people like to believe I’m Caucasian like them; I think it makes their life less complicated. But I don’t identify as 100% white, so there always comes a time in the conversation or relationship where I need to ‘out’ myself and tell them that I’m biracial.

“It’s a vulnerable experience, but it becomes even harder when I’m with black Americans. It may sound strange — and there are so many layers to this that are hard to unpack — but I think what it comes down to is: they have more of a claim to ‘blackness’ than I ever will and therefore have the power to tell me I don’t belong, I’m not enough, that I should stay on the white side of the identity line.

“You know that question we always get asked? ‘What are you?’ Well, I still don’t know. I’ve never had an answer that I can say with confidence; I still don’t know what I’m allowed to claim.”

Natalia Romero echoes some of those feelings. Her family left Colombia for the U.S. when she was 9 years old, and she says that while she doesn’t consider herself white, she gets treated like she’s white all the time:

“My mother doesn’t speak English and so when I am home all we speak is Spanish and act like a bunch of rowdy, tight knit Colombians … I grew up experiencing what many poor young immigrants face — bad schools, hunger, poverty, a lack of resources — but eventually managed to pay my way through college and work now as a musician and teacher, often very white communities.

” … When people talk about the current political climate, they speak to me as if I were white, not someone who is terrified of the hatred of Latinx and Hispanic people, someone who walks around with my green card in my wallet, knowing that until I am a citizen (which I morally have a huge problem with) I am not safe. I exist and inhabit these white spaces, but my experience is not white. My experiences comes from being the sole English speaker in my house at age 9 and having to speak for my parents at the bank, at school, in apartments. My experience is from pretending my youngest sister wasn’t part of our family because the apartment complex only allowed 4 people to a 1 bedroom apartment and we couldn’t afford a 2 bedroom one. I come from a place where people speak poorly of Latinx people around me not realizing I am one … “

Everyone’s story is different, and as is discussed on the podcast, we’re still learning how to talk about identities that fall outside of our traditional understandings of race in the United States. Luckily, for those who are confused, you’re in good company.

A version of this story originally published on June 8, 2017.

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Protesting Is Uncomfortable. Should It Be Easier?

Hundreds of people demonstrate against racism in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bay Ridge on Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 15, 2018 in New York City.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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Spencer Platt/Getty Images

To protest, or not to protest?This week on Ask Code Switch, we’re digging into a question from Shawn, an African-American high school student in South Florida, who wonders how best to take a stand against injustice:

Hello Code Switch Crew,

I’m a left-leaning person and very much politically conscious. Whenever the pledge of allegiance comes on for school, I often feel like taking a knee/or simply not standing as my own small act of protest. This is however, not possible in most classes, as it is viewed as disrespectful by most teachers or too politically tinged for school. This is at a predominantly black school, mind you. Also, most teachers characterize my refusal to stand as a general apathy possessed by my entire post-millennial generation.

I ultimately came up with a compromise where for the pledge I place a fist on my heart and raise it in the air at the end, similar to the famous Black Power Salute at the 1968 Olympics.

Can I get your opinion on this “compromise” of mine? I don’t really engage in protests or rallies but plan to in college/once independent from my parents. Can you please give me advice on how to mount my own small pieces of protest and resistance as a student? I really wanna contribute as best I can even if I can’t hold a picket sign just yet.

Hi Shawn,

First off, let me say that I identify with you so much. Starting in elementary school, I refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance.

I had been instructed by my mother that America was by no means a nation “with liberty and justice for all.” Her view was that I shouldn’t be forced to engage in a “propagandistic ritual with no basis in history or fact.” (Thanks for helping me fit in, Mom.)

In those days, I was a bit of a goody two-shoes, and even that small act of defiance felt profoundly uncomfortable. The whole time, I wondered if my teachers were scowling at me, decrying my lack of respect for flag, school and country. Like you, I didn’t want to be seen as a troublemaker.

So, if your immediate goal is to take a stand without ruffling too many feathers, it might help to talk with your teachers about your decision. Explain what this act of protest means to you. Bonus points if you do that using the lessons you’ve learned in school — you can point out that historically, slavery and Manifest Destiny created an unjust society for people of color; that mathematically, disparities in the distribution of government resources make it almost impossible for poor people to rise out of poverty; that scientifically, racism in this country can ruin your health.

If you’re talking with an English teacher, try busting out some Langston Hughes: “There’s never been equality for me, Nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free.’ “

Or if it’s your civics teacher, trot out a citation from Tinker v. Des Moines. Yup, you aren’t the first high schooler to stage a controversial protest. In 1965, a group of students in Des Moines, Iowa, hatched a plan to protest the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands to class. School administrators weren’t pleased, and the conflict rose all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1969, the Court ruled that students don’t lose their right to freedom of speech when they step into a school — at least, not completely.

“In order for the State in the person of school officials to justify prohibition of a particular expression of opinion,” Justice Abe Fortas wrote in the 7-2 ruling, “it must be able to show that its action was caused by something more than a mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint.”

Those explanations might help your teachers see that what you’re doing isn’t apathy. On the contrary, it’s your way of engaging with the knowledge you’ve gained about your country and its history. And it will help clarify things for you too, so you’re never just protesting for protesting’s sake.

Of course, school isn’t the only place to fight injustice. You can also join marches and rallies in your community. Just this week, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, thousands of people across the country took to the streets to stand up for the causes they believe in. Check out websites like the Resistance Calendar to find groups that are staging protests near you.

But here’s the other part to remember. Protesting is by nature, confrontational. Challenging the status quo will bother people, because it forces them to rethink their own values and behaviors. Fifty years ago, Tommie Smith and John Carlos were kicked off the Olympic track team and faced death threats as a result of what today seems like a small, respectful act of protest.

Colin Kaepernick, (who you also seem to be channeling,) has been the subject of verbal abuse and personal attacks from the President of the United States for kneeling during the national anthem back in 2016.

And that’s to be expected. Every high-profile protester who has sought to fight racial injustice in this country has faced massive ire, from abolitionists to civil rights marchers to Black Lives Matter activists.

“Most Americans see inequality — and the racial habits that give it life — as aberrations, ways we fail to live up to the idea of America. But we’re wrong,” writes Eddie S. Glaude Jr. in his book, Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul. “Inequality and racial habits are part of the American idea. … Something profound has to happen if we are to change course. A revolution of value and a radical democratic awakening may be this country’s only hope for salvation.”

What I’m trying to say, Shawn, is that protesting injustice will and should be uncomfortable. Changing the way people think requires that discomfort. Once you’re away from home and school, there will be other people to make uncomfortable. People will never tire of telling you that politics don’t belong at school, at the dinner table, in sports, in the pews. If protesting is in your future, you’ll likely get very used to the feeling of ticking people off.

But know that you have a host of activists who’ve come before you to look to for inspiration. This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Poor People’s March on Washington, massive anti-Vietnam protests, the Prague Spring, and giant, student-led demonstrations in Mexico.

Read up on those protests if you need a reminder of how people have persevered in the face of unimaginable consequences.

So, what do you think? Is Shawn’s protest effective? How do you fight injustice in your communities? Write to us at CodeSwitch@npr.org and let us know what you think.

And as always, if you have a racial conundrum of your own, fill out this form and tell us what’s on your mind.

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Majority Of National Park Service Board Resigns Citing Administration Indifference

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke speaks on the Trump Administration’s energy policy at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, in September. Nine of 12 members of the National Park Service advisory board resigned Monday citing Zinke’s unwillingness to meet with the panel.

Andrew Harnik/AP

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Andrew Harnik/AP

Three-quarters of the seats on the U.S. National Park Service advisory board are vacant following a mass resignation Monday night, citing Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s unwillingness to meet with them.

Nine of the panel’s 12 members, led by former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles, handed in their resignations. The bipartisan panel was appointed by President Obama and the terms of all members who quit were set to expire in May.

Knowles, in a letter of resignation from himself and the eight other members to Zinke, said the board had “worked closely and productively through 2016 with dedicated National Park Service employees, an inspiring Director and a fully supportive Department.”

Since then, as explained in the letter, the board had repeatedly tried and failed to secure a meeting with the new interior secretary.

“[Our] requests to engage have been ignored and the matters on which we wanted to brief the new Department team are clearly not part of the agenda,” the letter reads.

Alaska Public Radio quoted Knowles as saying that the Department of the Interior “showed no interest in learning about or continuing to use the forward-thinking agenda of science, the effect of climate change, protections of the ecosystems, education.”

“And it has rescinded NPS regulations of resource stewardship concerning those very things: biodiversity loss, pollution and climate change,” he added.

According to The Washington Post:

“The three board members who did not resign include Harvard University public finance professor Linda Bilmes, University of Maryland marine science professor Rita Colwell and Carolyn Hessler Radelet, the chief executive of Project Concern International. Terms for the first two end in May, while Radelet’s term does not expire until 2021.

In an email, Bilmes said she did not resign her post because she is conducting research with other colleagues funded by the National Park Foundation, and wanted to complete her project.”

Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Democrat who is the ranking member on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, issued a statement of support for the resigning board members.

“The President still hasn’t nominated a director for the National Park Service and Secretary Zinke has proposed tripling entrance fees at our most popular national parks,” she said. “His disregard of the advisory board is just another example of why he has earned an ‘F’ in stewardship.”

Since taking office, President Trump has sought to roll back protections of national parks and public lands under the auspices of the Department of the Interior. The administration has ordered a dramatic downsizing of two massive national monuments in Utah and has announced plans to open up oil drilling in protected areas of the Artic and the Atlantic.

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Opioid Crisis Blamed For Sharp Increase In Accidental Deaths In U.S.

Hydrocodone-acetaminophen pills, also known as Vicodin, arranged for a photo at a pharmacy in Montpelier, Vt. A new report from the National Safety Council says the abuse of prescription opioids has helped fuel an epidemic in overdoses.

Toby Talbot/AP

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Toby Talbot/AP

Accidental deaths in the United States rose significantly in 2016, becoming the third-leading cause of fatalities for the first time in more than a century – a trend fueled by the steep rise in opioid overdoses, the National Safety Council reports.

Accidents — defined by the council as unintentional, preventable injuries — claimed a record 161,374 lives in 2016, a 10 percent increase over 2015. They include motor vehicle crashes, falls, drowning, chocking and poisoning, a category that encompasses accidental overdoses.

NSC said in a statement, “The unprecedented spike [in accidental deaths] has been fueled by the opioid crisis. Unintentional opioid overdose deaths totaled 37,814 from drugs including prescription opioid pain relievers, heroin, and illicitly-made fentanyl.”

By comparison, motor vehicle deaths were at 40,327 in 2016, a 6.8 percent increase from the previous year. Deaths related to falls were also up by nearly 4 percent and drownings and fire-related deaths saw slight increases from 2015, up 5.1 percent and 3.2 percent, respectively. The only category to show a decline was choking deaths, which were down 4.4 percent.

Ohio led the nation in opioid overdose deaths, with 3,495, followed by New York, with 2,752 and Florida, 2,622.

Poisoning deaths hit a peak for those in their early 30s, but there is another spike in early 50s, the statistics show.

The NSC writes:

“Preventable deaths have been rising since 2009 after years of declines and plateaus, and they trail only heart disease and cancer when it comes to the number of lives lost annually. Unlike other causes of death, preventable injuries are a threat at every age.

In spite of the current increase in deaths, Americans are still safer than in the early 1900’s. In 1903, the accidental standardized death rate was 99.4 per 100,000 population – twice as high as the current death rate of 47.2. However, the current death rate is 39 percent higher than the lowest recorded rate, 34.0, achieved in 1992.”

In October, President Trump declared a public health emergency to combat the opioid epidemic, a move designed to free up some resources for treatment. He also directed agency and department heads to use all appropriate emergency authority to reduce the number of deaths from opioids.

But the president’s move is seen as a half-measure by many of his working-class supporters because it involves no new money. It falls short of Trump’s earlier promise to declare the crisis a “national emergency,” which would have triggered an allocation of federal funds for the crisis.

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