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An open letter to Black professionals: You were never the impostor

Thought Leadership

Ten years ago, in my very first management role at a large consumer packaged goods company, an employee who reported to me (and who had also applied for the same role) asked me, in front of my entire team, “How does it feel to know you were a diversity hire?”

Even though I knew that I was the most educated person in that room, and had five years of experience in the industry, That question has haunted me throughout my career and I am sure haunts many other Black professionals in our current climate. This incident was a reminder that the feeling of impostor syndrome isn’t just the nagging voice in our head; it’s vocalized by coworkers, leadership, and reinforced by biases and stereotypes. It can be impossible to push away those galling feelings of inadequacy, which persist despite evidence of our success.

So that’s why, in this moment, when many companies are now scrambling to hire their first Black employees in leadership roles, it’s important to remember one thing: You were never the impostor. It was always them. As recruiters reach out to us, companies begin internal promotions, and newly formed diversity, equity, and inclusion roles flood our timelines and inboxes, this is a moment to pause and think strategically about your goals and career trajectory.

As Black professionals, we are used to living in a world of firsts: the first Black executive in the company, the first and only Black employee, or—most popularly—the first in a newly created diversity and inclusion role. I know many amazing professionals in that role, but that cannot be the only role in your organization for Black talent. Trust me, we are not supernatural; we do not have a secret cure for racial inequity by simply occupying a role. The burden of being a single person meant to shift equity and inclusion within an organization is a nearly impossible feat.

So when the recruiters reach out about their DEI positions, remember to ask them what the career trajectory is for this role. Ask them if this is a newly created role and how will success be measured. Ask them if this is a leadership role that enables you to drive change. Ask if the executives within the organization are measured or incentivized by improved equity and inclusion metrics. I have learned in my career that positions that are not tied to revenue or performance metrics can make it very hard to prove your value within an organization.
In whatever role you decide to take, know that being the first (or one of the first) is hard. You do not have a blueprint or an established handbook to guide you. You are navigating a new role in a corporate system that only recently felt comfortable declaring that your life mattered.

If you are ever asked, like I was, to explain what it feels like to be a diversity hire, stay strong. I say, “Yes, I am a diversity hire.” Then I share my list of accomplishments, experience, education, and end with “so yes, I bring a diverse perspective and talent that fills a gap in this organization.” Even so, this approach does not stop the chronic self-doubt and a sense of professional illegitimacy that supersedes any obvious proof of our hard-earned competence.

Yes, on the one hand, we know that we have earned the roles we are in—it is only now that the door has finally been opened for us. On the other hand, we also understand that “token-ism” and “box-checking” can be the exhaust fumes of diversity efforts.

So to my fellow Black professionals who have succeeded despite every odd stacked against you, who followed the Black parent mantra that you had to “work harder,” “be more educated,” and “be friendlier” than everyone else; for those who navigated the loneliness of being the first or the only one; who swallowed sharp comments when faced with countless microaggressions and code-switched like your career depended on it (let’s be honest—it did).

For those who dealt with countless inappropriate questions about your hair, your culture, and your family; for those who received muddled performance reviews or were told your presence in a room is aggressive/intimidating or you don’t seem like the kind of “guy I could get a beer with.” For all the times you felt like an impostor despite achieving the ever-changing benchmark of excellence.

Remember that you were never the impostor. The true impostor was the corporate hiring system that told you that you just needed to get an education and work hard and that would be enough. Turns out, they just realized their system was broken and the odds were never in our favor.

When you have to fight through the gut-wrenching irrational feeling of incompetence or self-doubt, let this be your soul-soothing mantra: “You were never the impostor. It was always them.”

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