Unmasking my masks on the way up the ladders of success

Much research in the social sciences field has found that many successful ethnic minorities in the United States feel like impostors just waiting to be found out. It is a sad psychological phenomenon that when faced by so many challenges to rise up from poverty that once success has been achieved, the success leaves a bittersweet taste in one’s mind and soul. Unfortunately, I have at times, been one of those case studies. I have achieved much in life, yet there have been moments, when that sense of being an imposter has creeped into my consciousness. As a matter of fact, I was hit by this imposter feeling very early on in life.

When I went from a public school in the South Bronx, where I was labeled as gifted, to an elite private school in Massachusetts, I was immediately confronted with the imposter sensibility. I had been considered advanced in mathematics in the Bronx. District school administrators were brought in to specifically observe me solve math problems on the chalkboard. I wore the mask of math genius so that I could be paraded about as if we were at a Brazilian carnival celebration. After my first trimester at my boarding school, my mask got hit with a cold bucket of water. I didn’t do all that well in my math class. I hung out with the other math misfits in class thereafter. My second trimester, I didn’t improve much in the math scores. I knew something was wrong, so I started psychoanalyzing myself. After that second trimester, I went home for the holidays and came across my former best friend who had ended up in the foster care system. Her life completely turned upside down but the break up of her family. Plus, she was pregnant and wanted me to be the godmother. That didn’t happen. My mother thought it was an insane proposition and I was still reeling from my bad school performance. I had to snap out of it. Upon return, I started to ace everything. I turned it all around. I started pulling all nighters just like everyone else. Put my head back into the game. And, a game it was. Everyone there was obsessed with grades to the point that people (mostly girls) contemplated suicide if they got an A-. I put on another mask at that point and became obsessed with grades. They became me. Thereafter, college was pretty much a breeze.

Once I entered graduate school, I again got the feeling of not fitting in. Again, I was a bit of an outsider. I didn’t feel the need to be catty and competitive with research and jockeying for lab space. I found it all a farce and quite disgusting. I had envisioned a more collegial supportive environment. However, for many research was the center of their universe. For me, not so much. I had other things going in my life. There I sat at research meetings with a smile on my face, but it was a bit of a mask. I aced my coursework. I aced my oral examinations and dissertation defense. As a matter of fact, I think I still hold the record for fastest oral examination session. There was no question I couldn’t answer. I was unstumpable. Yet, I felt a bit of an imposter as my passion was not solely research. I was motivated by the thought of doing well and finishing fast and moving onto my life. I think some professors may have felt a bit cheated by the fact that I went such an applied route. See, the graduate program I attended (supposedly in the top five in the country) was very theory-based. They wanted future theoreticians. I was too practical for that. However, I played the theory game extremely well.

Thereafter, I got through my post-doctoral training program and got my first job as a psychologist. My first interview was via phone and I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I had crib sheets for my face-to-face interview that followed. I had crammed all this information into my head the night before. It was a position that meant psychological application at the community/ground level. No way graduate school prepared me for that. My first few months, I most definitely felt like an imposter. A year into my position, I was called upon to be a grand Latina advocate. The funny part being, I had never identified with the phrase “latina” beforehand. When I stated as much in a public forum, I was chastised for making such a bad political statement. I had no other recourse, they would tell me, than to be a Latina. I was a Latina behavioral scientist in a room filled with non-scientists, non-hispanics, and mostly males. Thus, my latest mask (although true enough demographically) was that a hispanic female social scientist. Furthermore, even though I grew up poor and from the Bronx, many wanted to discount me as a community member because I held a PhD. If I claimed to also be of the community, I was viewed as an imposter. How many masks is a girl to wear throughout her life?

I had mask upon mask that I had placed upon myself and that others covered me with. That’s the part I have come to realize. Others have placed their hopes, their fears, their egos and their goals onto me. Oftentimes, parading me about as either a grand hope or a grand “fill in the box” that they needed. I have a core to which I remain true. No matter how many other masks others place onto me, I am always outspoken, not afraid of debate and always in search of fairness and justice.

Inspired in part by the daily prompt of the great pretender