Imposter syndrome is the fear that you will be exposed as a fraud. It’s the irrational belief that one day someone will catch on to you; that you’re not as good at something as you or everybody else has been led to believe. It’s the feeling that you don’t have the right to an identity, even though cold hard proof in the form of genetics would suggest otherwise.
I am the product of my parents. An Australian mother, and a Ghanaian-Filipino father have made me what I am today. I grew up in Western Australia, where I, my mother and my father were all Australian citizens one way or another. My parents put a lot of effort into making sure I had a connection to both Ghana and the Philippines, however my childhood was that of a white child; I grew up with the privilege of never having to worry about race. I have my father’s face, but with lighter skin, and big, curly brown hair. If you were looking for it, you would recognize West African and South-East Asian characteristics in my face, but my skin is not dark enough to illicit discrimination. To the casual passer-by I look different, but not enough to immediately trigger in someone’s mind as “VERY DIFFERENT, MUST TREAT DIFFERENTLY.”
Obviously I did not have a very nuanced view of my identity when I was seven, and because I was never treated differently because of my race it was never a big deal. Even though we lived in a predominantly white suburb, the fact that my dad had darker skin than my mother was never anything other than normal. Of course I noticed it, as my choice of coloured pencils would show, but we weren’t a mixed-race family, we were just a family.
To me the Ghanaian and Filipino parts of me were like super powers; something that I didn’t have a definite concept of, but that made me look and feel different. I was the darkest skinned person in my school, and while that says more about the lack of diversity in my school than me, it was something I was proud of, it made me feel special.
Even still though, it wasn’t really something that I had a concept of in the sense of identity until 2009 when my family travelled around North America for a year. I started being exposed to and learning about North American black history and culture, especially to do with the civil rights movement. This was the point when I really began to conceptualise race and racial identity. I saw this on a personal level when my parents and I would go out with my dad’s sister and her husband (who is also white) and people would assume my dad and my aunt were together, and my mum and uncle were together, and my cousin and I were two strange children who looked like each other, but not like the products of the two supposed couplings. This was when I started wishing I had darker skin. If only I’d been born just a few shades darker. If only I looked like an even combination of my two parents. If only there was clear proof in the colour of my skin that I was the identities I so desperately wanted to claim. I felt such a strong disconnect between the stories and experiences I connected with on a personal level, and what I saw in the mirror.
We moved to Ghana a year after that and I was confronted by my overall lack of proof. When asked where I was from, I would answer that I was Ghanaian, and time and time again, be told I was lying, and I had no proof to respond with. I had no Ghanaian passport, I couldn’t speak any language other than English; my only proof was a father who, with darker skin than me, himself was called a foreigner.
It was during this period that my connection to the Philippines somewhat ironically began to grow. There is quite a sizeable Filipino community in Ghana, one into which I was welcomed with open arms. Random Filipinos in supermarkets and craft stores would spot me from across the room and recognise me as part of the Super Secret Filipino Club.
Then came the both joyful and terrifying onset of puberty, and I got taller, and I looked older, and my hair got even more distinctly curly, and I remember looking in the mirror one day, and seeing my dad’s face, but with lighter skin and more feminine features. All of a sudden I began to see my heritage in my appearance, especially once I stopped hating my hair and trying to brush it into submission. Or at least that was how it seemed to me at the time. In reality I just looked like the older version of four, and seven, and ten year old me, but I could see just how much I really did look like an exact smushing together of my parents.
When I went to Morocco, in 2014 I was asked on three separate occasions if I was part West African, but when I returned to Ghana again I was a foreigner. I didn’t know how to identify; I hadn’t been back to Australia in years, I’d never been to the Philippines, and Ghana obviously didn’t want me, so where did I fit in? I identified more with being mixed race than a particular country.
This was the point when I became interested in social justice issues. I began seriously educating myself on feminism, privilege, and race, sexuality and gender-based discrimination. I would read about inherent privilege, and institutionalized racism, and follow story, after story of police brutality against people of colour, and I would connect with these issues on a personal level. The thing is that I didn’t feel like I had the right to do that. Not only because of the colour of my skin, and the fact that having “white girl!” shouted at me in traffic or when I walked down the street was a common experience, but because I was aware that I had lived my life as a mostly-white-looking person, in a world where in the west, and all the media and advertising that streams out of it, white is the default. I never felt “white,” but that is how I have been treated by society at large and I have benefitted, largely unknowingly, from it. At the same time however, half of me is not white, and while I can’t tell you if it’s the left half, or the right half, that means something, and it sure as hell means something to me.
I’m not a stranger to imposter syndrome in other areas of my life, but I’ve most recently been trying to figure my way around it in the context of ethnic identity. I am so proud of how diverse my family is, and of all the different cultures swirling around inside me (obviously I know a lot about biology), but when I think of myself as a person of colour, which by all means I should qualify as, there is always that part inside me saying “eeeeeeehnn. But like, did you pass the entrance exam, are you good enough, are you really allowed to claim this?”
Where I am at the moment is that this is who I am. This is who I am, and this is who I have wanted to claim since I was seven. Ultimately it is not for others to tell me what parts of my identity I am allowed to have, however I do have to recognize the inherent privileges I have because of the colour of my skin, and how I have been treated as a result of that. I am not “exotic” as said by the skeezy guy scanning me up and down with an appraising look, nor am I the person who claims to be 1/64 th “ethnic” on their great-great-aunt Mildred’s side. I can’t say I’m just Australian. It feels awful to purposely exclude one of the three cultures that make me up genetically and I think that is what matters. The most important thing that I’ve realised, though, is that the colour of my skin isn’t some magic variable that controls how I get to interact with my identity.
I am the product of my parents. Whether their two skin tones mixed on a palette would yield my exact shade is irrelevant. I have inherited so much more from my parents than my appearance; my mum has passed onto me her incredible resourcefulness, and the ability to make the best out of any situation, no matter how bad. I have my dad’s ability to focus on something I’m passionate about for hours at a time, and his love of silly jokes. I see my heritage in my hair, and my nose, and my middle fingernails. I see it in my love of travel and stories. But most of all, I see it in the fact that I like who I am, and frankly, I value that the most.