By: Mattie Levy
This article offers a meditation on my own experience with imposter syndrome as a Black oboist in the classical music sphere.1Imposter syndrome is defined by Oxford Languages as “the persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills,” OED Online. March 2022. Oxford University Press. https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/92613?rskey=S9z4FQ&result=1. Beginning with a personification of “the imposter” within me and comments on solutions to imposter syndrome offered by other authors, I address some of the methods of universities and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) offices (hierarchical academic systems and DEI initiatives such as wellness groups and workshops), and whether they address the othering that is often felt among Black musicians. Instead of an all-encompassing solution to imposter syndrome (I believe there is no immediate solution), I end with a call to action. I aim to mobilize musicians to support Black people as they continue to navigate making music in a white world.
Among a sea of white faces—whether it be at a performance, a rehearsal, or in a classroom, and despite hours of preparation and effort—I do not belong. This is what it would sound like if my imposter syndrome had a voice:
I am not a good musician; I don’t practice 3.5 hours a day. I don’t listen to orchestral music 24/7. I don’t always warm up before my lessons. I don’t always come in at the right time after counting rests, and I do not always play the correct rhythm. No one told me this, but I can feel it. Every time I go to a rehearsal, I see the disdain in the eyes of fellow musicians. They wonder why I am there, how I got here. It feels like graduate student conductors draw sticks as to who gets stuck with me in their chamber ensembles. It feels like university conductors dread having to give me one first oboe part. (They allocate my sound to marches and up-tempo pieces so that you don’t hear me in the texture.) No one told me this, but I can feel it.
I bet fellow oboists tell me I did a good job out of obligation and lie to my face when I ask for their thoughts. No one told me this, but I can feel it.
How did I get here? Was it after being rejected from four of my prospective undergraduate colleges (Juilliard, Eastman, Oberlin, and waitlisted at the University of Michigan)? Was it when I spent 4 semesters in the lowest University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre, & Dance ensemble? Or when I never made it to the finals of the oboe studio orchestral excerpt competition? I’m told to focus on my successes. For example, I am always reminded that I am studying with one of the top oboe professors in the country. Or how I (finally) got out of the lowest ensemble and into Symphony band (the second highest). At least I wasn’t rejected from every summer festival, only the big ones in other countries. You don’t need to win the virtual oboe competition, you don’t need to win the Berlin Prize for Young Artists, you don’t need to do the concerto competition.
I’m not just an oboist. Among these accomplishments that people tell me to focus on instead of my losses are that I am co-founder of Black Leaders in Art Collective (BLAC). BLAC is a student organization built to support Black students in the arts (like myself) that provides performance opportunities, collaboration opportunities, and a safe space. They also like to bring up my job as a student advisor for the office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at SMTD. I also am a composer (but I haven’t been doing that long enough to chronicle failures).
At any other point in my life, I’ve never been so lost. I can paint a picture of myself on my resume: a performer/composer that is a champion for DEI in her work. I know music isn’t just about ensemble placement, concerto competitions, or summer festivals, but the intense focus on achievement and rankings in classical music makes me discount my social justice efforts. The imposter in me invalidates everything I do. They say not to compare yourself to people, but how can you not in an industry that is rooted in comparison? How can I think of myself as an individual if my success is determined by the collective?
For weeks, I struggled with writing this essay. I went through endless definitions of imposter syndrome and did some half-hearted research on the subject. I’ve seen articles that talk about many possible solutions. One solution offered by the journal, Women in Higher Education, says to “reframe fear of failure to opportunities for success.”2Melanie V. Tucker, “Rewriting the Narrative on Imposter Syndrome,” Women in Higher Education 30, no. 4 (April 2021): pp. 1-2, http://doi.org/10.1002/whe.20970. An article from the journal nature by Kelsey Inouye says to “take each rejection in stride.”3Kelsey Inouye, “How I Tackled Post-PhD Imposter Syndrome,” nature (London), (August 2021), https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-02215-0. In “Imposter Syndrome: Treat the Cause, Not the Symptom,” Samyukta Mullangi and Reshma Jagsi say that “imposter syndrome is but a symptom, inequity is the disease”4Samyukta Mullangi and Reshma Jagsi, “Imposter Syndrome,” JAMA 322, no. 5 (June 2019): p. 403, https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2019.9788. and that we must promote women and minorities as leaders of institutions. Some would say that the solution lies in the hands of DEI offices.
Most of the “solutions” that research yields are either intangible, broad generalizations or stories of affirmation that describe how to “beat imposter syndrome” that do not necessarily work for everyone, especially Black people who are often, as in the case of Black women, expected to be “magical” to be worthy of regard.5This statement is in conversation with the debate over the phrases “Black Girl Magic” and “Black Excellence” and whether those are harmful to the Black community. Read more here: Janice Gassam Asare, “Our Obsession with Black Excellence Is Harming Black People,” Forbes , December 10, 2021, https://www.forbes.com/sites/janicegassam/2021/08/01/our-obsession-with-black-excellence-is-harming-black-people/?sh=39cf2d802fd9. The solutions offered in some of these articles do not take into account how most Black people must process their imposter syndrome at a deeper level because they were not constantly afforded the people, spaces, and materials to affirm them as white people were.6This relates to Intersectionality, a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw “that describes how systems of oppression overlap to create distinct experiences for people with multiple identity categories.” The Editors of JSTOR Daily, “Kimberlé Crenshaw’s Intersectional Feminism – Jstor Daily,” JSTOR Daily (2020), https://daily.jstor.org/kimberle-crenshaws-intersectional-feminism/.
However, the Mullangi and Jagsi article offers an ideal solution. They argue that changing who is in a position of power and allowing Black people to see more of themselves in a space is a goal worth working toward. On the surface, taking a class with a white professor may not seem problematic, and in some cases, it is not. However, never seeing yourself in the discipline you study can cause irreparable damage. How can someone like me believe she is not an imposter if there is barely anyone in her industry that looks like her? Many of my white colleagues have family members who are successful musicians, or who have the money to support them with iPads, summer music programs, and conservatory-like high schools such as Interlochen. If so many generations before me were not allowed to try—let alone excel—in the classical music industry, how can a Black musician who happens to get into the University of Michigan believe that she can?
Hiring more Black professors would push back against this sentiment and allow Black musicians to see that it is possible to succeed. However, this solution is not necessarily one that Black musicians in a university setting at this moment can benefit from, as the pipeline toward better representation will take decades to fill. If a white professor is tenured and has been conducting or teaching musicology for 50+ years, universities will only change who holds that position if the white professor retires. Even if they hire adjunct Black professors, a Black person will likely have to take classes with primarily white professors for a long time.
It is because of this that Universities have implemented DEI initiatives that are supposed to offer resources that push back against this reality. However, as both a Black person in the classical music sphere and as a student worker for the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion office at the University of Michigan, I can say that we do not have as much power as people want us to have. I’ve seen constant emails come into our inbox, discussing the lack of accessibility in classrooms, microaggressions, and anger at not receiving funding. In trying to find answers for these people, I’ve had my colleagues in the office tell me that as much as they would like to solve these problems, they are not given the power to do so. DEI offices cannot change curriculum, but they can beg professors to consider it. DEI offices cannot add an elevator to university buildings for accessibility, but they can plead for approval of that structural change. Just as these tangible items cannot be fixed by DEI offices alone, the same goes for the intangible. Imposter syndrome among Black musicians will not just be solved by DEI office pleading. Further, the methodology for DEI within the University of Michigan and other universities is founded amidst principals of inequity. The Black Action Movement (a 1970s coalition of the Black Student Union, Black Law Students Association, Association of Black Social Work Students, and Black students from the Medical School and Department of Psychology)7Kati Bauer et al., “Diversity in Student Life,” Michigan’s Story: The History of Race at U-M, 2014, https://apps.lib.umich.edu/online-exhibits/exhibits/show/history-of-race-at-um/diversity-in-student-life#activism. emphasized “racial justice was incompatible with the university’s existing values.”8Matthew Johnson, “Controlling Inclusion,” in Undermining Racial Justice: How One University Embraced Inclusion and Inequality (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2020), pp. 104-144. Even if independent people within the DEI office have good intentions, and even if they try to do good work, they are still working within an inherently racist system.
Further, DEI offices, no matter how good their intentions are, do not always provide comfort to Black students. Oftentimes, if the person overseeing the office is Black themselves, Black students do feel more comfortable talking to that person. However, that single person cannot serve as a therapist to every single Black student in the school, nor can they solve the problems that every Black student is facing. Even if the DEI office has BIPOC people on its staff, some students may feel like that office is simply there to check a box. (The DEI office’s lack of power to initiate structural change without countless levels of approval emphasizes this feeling.) Black people are tired of the many unfulfilled promises they have heard from people in power. Black people are tired of the “sincere” offers of solidarity without tangible change from people in power. Faceless offerings of wellness workshops for BIPOC students, pointing fingers to other centers on campus, or prompts to report incidents do not always make students feel supported. It is better to have these initiatives than to not have them at all; DEI offices are doing all they can do. However, a Black person may not always feel comfortable going to a workshop offered by a predominantly white institution, a Black person may not always want to take advantage of social identity resources offered by predominantly white people, and a Black person is not inclined to trust the reporting system offered by a predominantly white institution (especially when so many reports like these lead to little consequence—University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel being offered a position as a tenured faculty member after an inappropriate relationship is a primary example of this).9Kaitlyn Luckoff and Kate Weiland George Weykamp, “Former U-M President Mark Schlissel Offered Contract for Tenured Professor This Fall,” The Michigan Daily, January 29, 2022, https://www.michigandaily.com/news/fired-university-president-mark-schlissel-offered-contract-for-tenured-professor-this-fall/.
By no means do I want to negate the work that people in these offices are doing. Some resources can prove to be helpful, and I have met plenty of staff members within these initiatives of all social identities who are trying their best to advocate for change. If these initiatives are the only ones we have that are even close to scratching the surface of decolonization, anti-racism, and accessibility, the efforts of those who facilitate them do not go unnoticed or unappreciated. However, institutions still need to do better.
So, what’s the point? How can we fix this problem? I honestly don’t think we can, or at least not in a way that would be felt now. A colleague of mine said that part of the reason why this work, especially as a student, is so exhausting is that you do not feel the benefits of what you do. For example, students at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre, & Dance finally got a race and ethnicity curriculum requirement put in place. However, that requirement does not apply to students admitted prior to 2021. This even applies to that organization I co-founded (Black Leaders in Art Collective); the benefits of a safe space feel different when you are the one providing it. It is more taxing to be the one providing networking, performance, and collaboration opportunities instead of just taking advantage of them, especially amid dealing with the pressure of ensuring those opportunities are fruitful. I call myself an activist, and part of the reason why I feel like an imposter is because I do not always feel or see the benefits of my activism. I start initiatives, hoping they will help someone, and the only way I know my work was worth it is if someone tells me. I call myself a musician, but I do not always reap the benefits of practicing. I’m so focused on what people think, how they see me being the only Black woman in the room, that by the time my solo comes I miss my entrance.
Ultimately, I think the only “solution” to imposter syndrome among Black musicians or anyone is to provide person-to-person support and affirmation. This doesn’t solve the problem, not even close, but it is the one thing that seems to act as a balm in dealing with it. That’s what DEI offices are meant to do, but group workshops or wellness strategies are not enough. The support needs to be internal, meaning it must come from the people working in the industry. It must come from the other musicians, conductors, professors, etc., who make us feel like imposters. Surrounding Black musicians with other Black musicians would be a better solution, and initiatives like the Sphinx Organization do this.10The Sphinx Organization advocates for increasing Black and Latinx representation in classical music. “Sphinx Organization,” Sphinx Organization, accessed February 25, 2022, https://www.sphinxmusic.org/. However, this is not something that will span across every symphony in America. My needs are valid, though some may find them unrealistic. I need conductors to stop giving stern glares after hearing a mistake. I need my non-Black colleagues to stomp their feet when I play a solo well. I need all my professors to be realistic about my work, to let me know when I need to work on something and applaud my successes. Even though we should work on relying on ourselves, and not seek validation, validation sadly is one of the many ways we thrive as musicians. We make music because we love to hear it ourselves, and we want to share that music with others and hear them applaud. Black people need our audiences, as well as our colleagues to applaud and support us when the world is built for us to fail.
There will never be a true solution to imposter syndrome, since years of systemic oppression will always make Black people feel like they don’t belong. All we can do is keep holding on to the things that make us feel better within it.
Bibliography: Asare, Janice Gassam. “Our Obsession with Black Excellence Is Harming Black People.” Forbes, December 10, 2021. https://www.forbes.com/sites/janicegassam/2021/08/01/our-obsession-with-black-excellence-is-harming-black-people/?sh=39cf2d802fd9. Bauer, Kati, Trey Boynton, Shevon Desai, Melissa Hepburn, Tom Hubbard, Karen Jania, Darlene Nichols, Glenda Radine, Charles Ransom, and Lorraine Robert. “Diversity in Student Life.” Michigan's Story: The History of Race at U-M, 2014. https://apps.lib.umich.edu/online-exhibits/exhibits/show/history-of-race-at-um/diversity-in-student-life#activism. George Weykamp, Kaitlyn Luckoff and Kate Weiland. “Former U-M President Mark Schlissel Offered Contract for Tenured Professor This Fall.” The Michigan Daily, January 29, 2022. https://www.michigandaily.com/news/fired-university-president-mark-schlissel-offered-contract-for-tenured-professor-this-fall/. "impostor, n.". OED Online. March 2022. Oxford University Press. Accessed May 20, 2022. https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/92613?rskey=S9z4FQ&result=1. Inouye, Kelsey. “How I Tackled Post-PhD Imposter Syndrome.” nature, 2021. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-02215-0. Johnson, Matthew. “Controlling Inclusion.” In Undermining Racial Justice: How One University Embraced Inclusion and Inequality, 104–44. Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 2020. Mullangi, Samyukta, and Reshma Jagsi. “Imposter Syndrome.” JAMA 322, no. 5 (2019): 403. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2019.9788. “Sphinx Organization.” Sphinx Organization. Accessed February 25, 2022. https://www.sphinxmusic.org/. The Editors of JSTOR Daily. “Kimberlé Crenshaw's Intersectional Feminism - Jstor Daily.” JSTOR Daily, 2020. https://daily.jstor.org/kimberle-crenshaws-intersectional-feminism/. Tucker, Melanie V. “Rewriting the Narrative on Imposter Syndrome.” Women in Higher Education 30, no. 4 (2021): 1–2. https://doi.org/10.1002/whe.20970.
- 1Imposter syndrome is defined by Oxford Languages as “the persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills,” OED Online. March 2022. Oxford University Press. https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/92613?rskey=S9z4FQ&result=1.
- 2Melanie V. Tucker, “Rewriting the Narrative on Imposter Syndrome,” Women in Higher Education 30, no. 4 (April 2021): pp. 1-2, http://doi.org/10.1002/whe.20970.
- 3Kelsey Inouye, “How I Tackled Post-PhD Imposter Syndrome,” nature (London), (August 2021), https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-02215-0.
- 4Samyukta Mullangi and Reshma Jagsi, “Imposter Syndrome,” JAMA 322, no. 5 (June 2019): p. 403, https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2019.9788.
- 5This statement is in conversation with the debate over the phrases “Black Girl Magic” and “Black Excellence” and whether those are harmful to the Black community. Read more here: Janice Gassam Asare, “Our Obsession with Black Excellence Is Harming Black People,” Forbes , December 10, 2021, https://www.forbes.com/sites/janicegassam/2021/08/01/our-obsession-with-black-excellence-is-harming-black-people/?sh=39cf2d802fd9.
- 6This relates to Intersectionality, a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw “that describes how systems of oppression overlap to create distinct experiences for people with multiple identity categories.” The Editors of JSTOR Daily, “Kimberlé Crenshaw’s Intersectional Feminism – Jstor Daily,” JSTOR Daily (2020), https://daily.jstor.org/kimberle-crenshaws-intersectional-feminism/.
- 7Kati Bauer et al., “Diversity in Student Life,” Michigan’s Story: The History of Race at U-M, 2014, https://apps.lib.umich.edu/online-exhibits/exhibits/show/history-of-race-at-um/diversity-in-student-life#activism.
- 8Matthew Johnson, “Controlling Inclusion,” in Undermining Racial Justice: How One University Embraced Inclusion and Inequality (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2020), pp. 104-144.
- 9Kaitlyn Luckoff and Kate Weiland George Weykamp, “Former U-M President Mark Schlissel Offered Contract for Tenured Professor This Fall,” The Michigan Daily, January 29, 2022, https://www.michigandaily.com/news/fired-university-president-mark-schlissel-offered-contract-for-tenured-professor-this-fall/.
- 10The Sphinx Organization advocates for increasing Black and Latinx representation in classical music. “Sphinx Organization,” Sphinx Organization, accessed February 25, 2022, https://www.sphinxmusic.org/.