By: Mai Vang
This article is part of the Summer 2021 Magazine Issue Series. Read the full issue here.
WHAT IS RACIAL IMPOSTER SYNDROME?
Racial imposter syndrome is the feeling of self doubt when one’s internal racial identity doesn’t match others’ perception of their racial identity, or the feeling when a multiracial/mixed person doesn’t believe they belong to any part of their racial identity. The feeling of being at home is often lost because individuals’ lived experiences are more unique and complex than their monoracial counterparts or those with a more homogeneous culture. This makes it hard for an individual to connect and engage with the communities with which they identify.
Cultural dissonance is the sense of discord, disharmony, confusion or conflict experienced by people in the midst of change in their cultural environment. It plays a heavy role in how one experiences racial imposter syndrome, because when one goes through cultural change, it is often unexpected and cannot be understood. Cultural dissonance can be seen in action on a daily basis. For example, the values of one culture clashing with the values of another. Typical clashes usually involve traditions and ethics.
Sometimes it can even include things relating to one’s outer physical identity such as fashion, entertainment and speech.
Racial imposter syndrome is a rather complicated feeling and experience, and it isn’t static. Sometimes, individuals can find somewhere they feel connected. The next they may feel entirely alone with no one to turn to. Racial imposter syndrome can affect all aspects of one’s identity, such as the way an individual looks, speaks or acts, and results in feelings of fakeness or invalidity.
FAILURE TO ASSOCIATE
Genetics, beliefs, personalities and identities are all at work within the individual. Taking cultural differences into account, finding the balance between two cultures is rather difficult. Often, the cultures clash with one another. The ideas and views don’t mesh well, especially between cultures in the east and cultures in the west.
Growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood as a Chinese American, Bryants Wu’s most prominent memory of struggling with balancing both aspects of two cultures are from middle school to junior year of high school. During that time, he felt embarrassed to speak his native language in public and in front of other students out of fear that he would get made fun of. “Because of this, my understanding of the language diminished rapidly due to me only using it to communicate at home,” said Wu. Those were the times he viewed himself as trying to become more “American” to fit in better with the kids in school.
This, however, isn’t the case for everyone who identifies with two or more cultures as some are able to find the balance between both. Jacob Haywood’s experience of being half white and half Korean has been a mostly positive experience. Growing up in an American community inside South Korea showed Haywood both sides of his culture from an early age. However, he has faced struggles in learning what it meant to be multicultural.
“Speaking English at my international high school, then going off campus and immediately being immersed in the Korean culture of Seoul was a unique experience that I believe most multicultural people like myself have not had. So I would consider myself blessed to be able to connect both of these sides of my identity from a young age,” Haywood said. From having to remember twice as many holidays in his household to switching languages depending on which parent he is speaking to have been things he had to learn to deal with.
Another example of failing to associate is exemplified by words such as banana, coconut, oreo or apple. These are all terms used to call someone who is supposedly whitewashed because they do not fit the “ideal standard” of how their own community expects them to be in terms of looks and speech. If the individual speaks or acts “too white,” then they are sometimes mocked or made fun of. This makes the individual feel lesser. They’ll receive comments saying, “You’re not Black enough,” or “Are you sure you’re Asian?”
BEING RACIALLY MIXED
It’s believed that people of mixed race will try various means to find acceptance in their communities. They may take an interest in studying and appreciating the culture of one of their races out of a fear of being labeled by others as an outsider or a fake.
One of Lexie Salazar’s biggest challenges she faced growing up was only knowing one side of her ethnic identity. Her immediate environment growing up had a huge influence on this. Growing up as someone who was half-white and half-Filipino in a predominantly white school and home, the only time she engaged with her Filipino culture was when visiting her Lolo (grandpa) and Lola (grandma). She knew almost nothing about Filipino culture growing up. That was what led her to feel she wasn’t really in touch with the Filipino side of her identity, and Salazar struggled with researching it later on in her life.
When a racially mixed person joins a space reserved for monoracial people, their identity can come off as performative. The idea that an interracial person has to be one or the other can make it feel as though they don’t belong. It can also cause them to feel the need to act a certain way around a particular group of people simply because of the way they are perceived.
While diversity is becoming more accepted in Korean culture, especially in the city of Seoul, there is still a very clear separation between native, full-Koreans and those who are not fully Korean. Despite living in South Korea his entire life, it was impossible for Haywood to be fully integrated. A good example Haywood provides is his experience with the taxi system in Korea. This would be his secondary method of transportation, second to the subway system, but it consistently proved difficult for him to catch taxis at busy hours because of the way he looked. Taxi drivers normally pass foreigners due to the awkward language barrier and the stereotype that foreigners are violent and belligerent. Despite being Korean, Haywood was labelled within seconds and treated differently in his own mother country simply because he didn’t look Korean.
TACKLING LANGUAGE BARRIERS
Children of immigrant parents grow up speaking mainly English in America, and because of this, a lot of them neglected their mother language. For many, the only time they were able to speak their language was at home or around family members. Often, they would be scared to speak their mother tongue at school out of fear of getting bullied by their peers. They dissociate themselves away from their cultures out of self-hate at an early age and this dissociation causes them to feel lesser about themselves and their identity.
The language barrier experienced between Wu and his extended family is great. He finds it much more difficult to fully express himself to them while also not being able to completely understand what they are saying. This barrier has significantly distanced Wu from older family members, thus creating somewhat of an emotional disconnect. On top of that, it has made Wu feel disappointed in himself for not trying harder to overcome the barrier. Due to this, he tries to immerse more with others who can speak his language to gain more confidence and experience in speech.
“When thinking of how the language barrier has affected myself and my own views of belonging, the language barrier surprisingly has not made me feel like I do not belong anywhere. I find solace in my cousins and other family members within my generation who often struggle with similar situations, so that has been able to somewhat help my need to belong in a family setting,” said Wu.
Entering college, Salazar felt she didn’t fit in with the Asian community at school, not only because she didn’t stereotypically fit the image of someone who was Filipino, but also because she couldn’t speak Tagalog. Sometimes Salazar feels generally distant from the community, especially when many people assume that she’s solely white because she’s white-passing. Salazar feels like the side of her Filipino heritage has been completely invalidated.
However, that doesn’t make her feel distant from the Filipino heritage and culture as an individual. “I felt like, because I was not exposed to all these aspects of Filipino culture growing up, and that it didn’t heavily affect my life in comparison to others, it didn’t feel like I was truly Asian and I’ve oftentimes felt like I don’t really fit in with the community at MSU,” said Salazar.
On top of that, if the individual is not fluent in the spoken language or if they do not have the same accent, then they become the outcast of the community. For Salazar, not being able to speak Tagalog was something that didn’t bother her until college, because her grandparents could speak English, and her father managed well with only having to speak English to them. It felt like the language was something she didn’t need to learn.
In attempt to run away from their heritage, people of many cultures would feel the need to withdraw and whitewash themselves to fit in at school. They would disregard the harmful and negative stereotypes that affect them, and turn it into a joke to entertain their white peers. For example, the representation of Asians in American media recycles a handful of cliches, such as the generic Asian kid in high school shows whose only purpose was to be the nerdy, shy side-kick with no storyline. They excelled at math and they played the violin. Many Asian Americans resented this one-dimensional representation because they felt as if they needed to fit these stereotypes in order to be considered a “true and real” Asian.
Longing for the company of those with Asian heritage that Haywood grew up with, he sought a predominantly Asian crowd at Michigan State University. It was here that he experienced negative words towards himself and his combined heritage, questioning his position in the Asian community as someone who does not have Asian physical traits. This further escalated as Haywood grew to become a leading figure in an Asian-interest organization on campus.
“I was in the Marching Band in my early years at MSU, and I was met with nothing but acceptance and a welcoming attitude from its predominantly Caucasian, socially progressive crowd,” said Haywood. Nevertheless, the vast majority of people have welcomed him in spite of his experiences and helped him transition to this country, so he never felt the need to prove his identity to those who were less than welcoming.
THE FEELING OF NOT BELONGING SOMEWHERE
Growing up in a predominately white suburban area, it is definitely hard to fit in and find a place to belong. Being in an environment where one is not familiar with much of their background, even just by looking different, inevitably can lead one down a path of feeling alone and not really having a set friend group.
For Wu, he could never relate to his friends and their family trips to their beach houses in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and other things like recreational sports. He was never outcast directly, but the combination of not having much in common with the kids in his school district along with differing backgrounds made it difficult for him to find a group of friends to fit in with. Wu was a floater, for lack of a better term, and he never really had a set group of friends to always go back to. His friendships were made out of convenience rather than genuine connection.
Oftentimes, Salazar felt as if she didn’t really fit with the Filipino or Asian community at school. She chalks this up to not looking or acting Filipino enough to others, even if it’s valid to her or her family. A majority of the time, people try to figure out what race or ethnicity Salazar is solely based on her outer appearance. “A lot of the times I get told I look like I’m only white or even get told that I look Latina,” said Salazar. Like many others, Salazar’s skin tone can change drastically based on the amount of sun she receives. She gets tan in the summer and becomes paler in the winter.
It can be discouraging to someone when they are told that they don’t look like their identity as if everyone is supposed to look a certain way when they’re of a certain race. It makes someone feel like they don’t belong because they don’t conform to a certain standard of looking a certain way or a certain standard of the amount of their culture. “I understand I do not fit the ideal standard of both of my heritages, but I cannot change these facts, nor do I want to,” said Haywood.
Haywood always had a loving support group, even if that meant his support group was 7,000 miles away in Korea. “My experiences may be vastly different from those similar to myself, but I do not believe I was ever an outcast,” said Haywood. He has friends who understand him and care for him despite who he is and his experiences. He still has negative experiences from time to time, and he acknowledges that he probably always will because of his identity as half-white and half-Korean, but Haywood’s support group has always found a way to make him feel welcomed.
The inconsistencies in the social construction of race are evident when mixed-race people find themselves in the in-between spaces of culture, identity and belonging. Just because someone doesn’t live up to the expectations of their culture and society doesn’t make them any less of who they are. If an individual identifies with a certain culture or race by default, then their existence itself is valid enough.
Not knowing their mother tongue or not being able to fully connect with both sides of their culture doesn’t invalidate their own identity. In a world with 7 billion people, everyone is bound to be different. There are bound to be identities that fall outside traditional understandings of race and identity. The only person who gets to define how they identify is the person themselves. They are enough, and they do not need to justify their existence to anyone.
Nonetheless, there are many people who have felt and experienced racial imposter syndrome. Being able to find a support group that understands the struggles of not looking a certain way, speaking a certain language or following a certain tradition of a culture is what helps make these individuals feel more safe and comfortable in their own skin. For someone to know that they are not the only ones struggling to connect to their race or culture can be comforting.
Mai Vang is a senior under the College of Arts and Letter majoring in Professional and Public Writing. Her main focus is digital content creation and many of her creations are heavily inspired by Studio Ghibli. In her free time, she likes to experiment with video and photo editing in hopes to be more flexible with her skills.