Dena Simmons: How Does Imposter Syndrome Affect Students Of Color?

Mar 16, 2018
Originally published on March 16, 2018 6:50 am

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode The Consequences of Racism.

About Dena Simmons's TED Talk

When Bronx-native Dena Simmons received a scholarship to attend a majority white boarding school, she felt like an imposter. Simmons suggests ways students of color can be made to feel more accepted.

About Dena Simmons

Dena Simmons is the director of education at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, where she oversees training, coaching, and education initiatives. Previously, she worked as a teacher educator, curriculum developer, and diversity trainer.

Simmons is a graduate of Middlebury College and Pace University. She received her doctorate degree from Teachers College, Columbia University. Simmons grew up in the Bronx, New York.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

On the show today, The Consequences of Racism. And for many children, it starts in the classroom because race often determines where you grow up. And where you grow up often determines what your classroom looks like, which was the case for Dena Simmons, who grew up in the Bronx.

DENA SIMMONS: So, you know, you think about the Bronx. You think about the demographics. So it was mostly Latino. We had some folks from English-speaking Caribbean countries, and we had one Chinese family and one or two Albanian families, and really mostly folks of color.

RAZ: But her neighborhood also had a reputation for being kind of rough.

SIMMONS: In third grade, I would watch the news, and it was the time when they would say, it's 10:00 p.m....

(SOUNDBITE OF PSA)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It's 10 p.m.

SIMMONS: ...Do you know where your children are?

(SOUNDBITE OF PSA)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Do you know where your children are?

SIMMONS: And every time I heard that, it would inspire such fear and anxiety in me. Because what followed after that was news about the Bronx, and it was bad news about the Bronx.

RAZ: Dena lived in a one-bedroom apartment with her mom and two sisters, and her mom did everything she could to keep Dena and her sisters safe.

SIMMONS: We spent a lot of time inside. My mother didn't want us to play outside. And in many ways, she was protecting us from sort of the dangers of growing up in an urban center where there's a lot of poverty.

RAZ: And the most important thing for her mom was to get her daughters a good education.

SIMMONS: You know, when my mom came to New York from Antigua, she landed at JFK with $25 in her pocket, and she started cleaning homes in Long Island. And in Long Island, she was watching some program about boarding school, and it sort of planted an idea in the back of her head of saying, I'd like my kids to have that opportunity, as well, and did everything she could to get us to a better school. Because for her, education was our way to a better life.

RAZ: Because the public school in their neighborhood wasn't that great, when Deena turned 14, her mom sent her and her sisters out of the Bronx to a boarding school in New England.

So you get to the school, and you are a scholarship kid, right?

SIMMONS: Yup. A charity kid, actually.

RAZ: A charity kid.

SIMMONS: I felt like a charity kid. Like, I went to boarding school feeling like that.

RAZ: And you're with kids who are coming from incredible wealth and privilege.

SIMMONS: Yes. Yes.

RAZ: Did you instantly feel like an outsider?

SIMMONS: Instantly. Instantly felt like an outsider. You know, I remember the first day of school, and, you know, looking around at who my classmates would be and thinking to myself, I will not have friends here. Because no one looked like me. I had never been in an environment where I actually was a minority. I had grown up, and everyone else looked like me. So it was the first time that I was going to a place where I was actually a minority, and I felt like that. And so dressing differently was enough. Having the hair that I have was enough to distinguish me from my classmates. The color of my skin. All of those moments really, you know, made me come to believe that if I had stood any chance at a successful future that I would do well to heed the glances, the unsolicited advice and the public shaming that was for my own good. And then from that, I learned really to erase myself in order to survive.

RAZ: Dena shared some of those childhood experiences on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SIMMONS: Once I walked into a classmate's dorm room, and I watched her watch her valuables around me. Like, why would she do that, I thought to myself? And then there was the time when another classmate walked into my dorm room and yelled, ew, as I was applying hair grease to my scalp. I learned that I didn't speak the right way. And to demonstrate the proper ways of speaking, my teachers gave me frequent lessons, in public, on the appropriate way to enunciate certain words. A teacher once instructed me in the hallway, asking. She said this loudly. Dena, it's not axing, like you're running around with an ax. That's silly. Now, at this point, you could imagine the snickers of my classmates. But she continued, think about breaking the word into ass and king, and then put the two together to say it correctly, asking. There is emotional damage done when young people can't be themselves, when they are forced to edit who they are in order to be acceptable.

I know that teacher meant well. I know that the teacher wanted me to go around so that I speak in a way where, you know, people in power will want to listen. But there is an implicit message there, right? It's like, you need to learn this way in order to be successful. And what does that do to students when they think that the way that they have learned, that the way that they are, is wrong?

Ultimately, I'm a quintessential success story. I attended boarding school and college in New England, studied abroad in Chile and returned to the Bronx to be a middle school teacher. I received a Truman Scholarship, a Fulbright and a Soros fellowship, and I could list more.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMMONS: But I won't.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMMONS: I have eternal impostor syndrome. Either I've been invited because I'm a token, which really isn't about me, but rather about a box someone needed to check off. Or, I'm exceptional, which means I've had to leave the people I love behind. It's the price that I and so many others pay for learning while black.

RAZ: When we come back, Dena explains how she's trying to fight imposter syndrome in classrooms across the country. Stay with us. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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RAZ: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, ideas about The Consequences of Racism. And we were just hearing from Dena Simmons. She's an educator about imposter syndrome, which is often felt particularly by students of color.

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SIMMONS: After my talk aired, I received hundreds of emails from people saying, I'm so glad that you said this because this experience for me was true. Every kid should be able to go to school and feel like they could thrive not survive - that they have the safety to be authentic, that there's not one message of what is acceptable and what is successful.

RAZ: Yeah.

SIMMONS: And I think, you know, you have to name it and talk about it for people to realize, oh, you too? And I think from that, those conversations and that openness, there's power in that. There's sort of healing in it as well.

RAZ: How - like if we accept that this is a problem that creates a culture of lower confidence and a feeling of not belonging and can lead to worse outcomes, which is bad for everybody - like it's bad for the United States. It's bad for our future. I mean, how can we start to think about fixing it?

SIMMONS: Well, there's no silver bullet. But I think it's important, one, for us to think about the environments where our students live and the curriculum that our students learn. You know, I spent a lot of my learning-hood (ph), via my education, reading about white people and their heroic acts and never really seeing myself reflected in positive ways in what I was learning. You know, I don't have to go too far to see negative images of myself or people of color displayed right back to me.

So I think it's important for the educators in the room to consider how to invite the experiences and the lives of students into the classroom such that those experiences are welcomed - such that they see role models that look like them, such that they understand that their communities are communities that have assets, that are communities that are worth saving - because, you know, in many ways I had to leave my neighborhood in order to attain a better education.

And that, in of itself, sends a message that I had to leave home because home had nothing to offer me. And I think there's just so many different messages that students of color particularly get that send them the message that they are an imposter. And I think to be black in this country is to constantly think about one's place - to constantly think about, am I welcomed here?

RAZ: Can we really have a conversation in this country, in the United States, about education without talking about race?

SIMMONS: I don't think so. You know, if we think of the statistics of who the students of color are, about half of our students are students of color, and about 17, 18 percent of our teachers are people of color. So you have a potential cultural disconnect in the classroom every single day. And if you're a kid of color, you're more likely to not see yourself in the curricula because our schools are perpetuating problematic single narratives of who we are as a people.

I think we've agreed that we don't want to talk about the ugly aspects of our story - right? - because we've said, no, we've been heroic. We've been great. We don't have any violence in our history. What? Slavery? What? Lynching? No, no, no, no, no.

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SIMMONS: So it's like we sort of don't want to confront ourselves in many ways. We don't want to look in the mirror and see the realm and the complexity of our history that was both heroic and also ugly. And I think we cannot heal if we don't understand who we are.

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RAZ: Dena Simmons - she's now the director of education at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. You can see her full talk at ted.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.