Life as an imposter: Experiences of a black man working in the city

Efe Otokiti

16 Oct 2020

Fun fact, in seven years, over four jobs, in two different countries, I have worked with a grand total of eight other black people. And of those eight people, only one of them was a guy.

Now, that sounds dramatic, right? Downright unacceptable, huh? Well, if you work in PR or in fact most city-based office jobs, it’s also completely standard.

When you’re born into a situation, no matter how outrageous it objectively is, it’s also just…normal. So you get used it, even when you belong to the group being disenfranchised.

I have been that “black guy” many times. In fact, I’m always that black guy. And sure, it’s a bit weird but do you know what would be weirder? Walking through an office for an interview, and it being more than 40% non-white (the demography of minorities in London).

I imagine I would just stand there confused and suspicious, as we do when we see unbelievable things for the first time. Because, currently, I’m genuinely impressed when I walk into an office and see two other black people.

For the most part, I’ve tried to not fixate on differences and focus on the things that bring us all together. People tend to be nice and I’ve had many great work experiences.

But there are inescapable consequences to living in a world where the absence of black people, specifically black men, from office settings has been completely normalised. And not all of them can be casually surmounted with the power of ‘positive thinking’.

So, for my Black History Month piece, I thought instead of talking in broad strokes about the general black experience (something that probably doesn’t exist as we’re all unique individuals), I’d share a story of one of the most stressful periods of my professional life.

I want to show you just how subtle and insidious modern racism is. It’s baked into the society we live in, so much so that even when you think you’ve got it all sussed out, it finds a new way to come at you and take you out at the knees.

Always the stranger

As I said, I’ve worked a few jobs in my life. But it wasn’t till the last 4-5 years that I really started my career as an editor. I had just moved back from New Zealand with no money, was living with my parents and trying to figure out how to become a professional writer.

After a wild year freelancing for pennies, I’d pieced together a decent enough portfolio to get an in-house editorial job. And after another year grinding away, I was eventually headhunted for Harvard.

But something about joining Harvard was different to my last jobs. For one, I really liked it here. Everyone was competent, the management seemed like they cared and the clients were top notch.

But what was essentially a great career move essentially broke my brain. And for the first six months, I felt like I was drowning in a pool of my own ineptitude.

It didn’t matter that the feedback I received was mostly positive, or that everyone was super nice, it didn’t stop me from freaking out every second because I was convinced I wasn’t meant to be there.

That feeling of ineptitude, like any second someone would realise that a mistake had been made and have security escort you from the premises is called Imposter syndrome.

Now, I was aware of what imposter syndrome was, being the learned man I am. Yet, for months, I had no idea it was fuelling my constant feeling of dread. And why would I? I had more than enough experience as an editor and had never felt insecure about my intelligence. I just thought I was going mad.

But suddenly, I had something real to lose. Now, there were expectations. And sitting on my pod comprised of 50% Oxbridge alumni, for the first time I truly felt like I didn’t belong and was out of my depth.

I remember asking Cilla, another black employee who worked here at the time, how common it was for people to get fired. She assured me it was near impossible. Didn’t help.

It didn’t matter how good a writer or how affable I thought I was, the reality is that when you see no one who looks like you, your pattern seeking brain goes looking for a reason.

It didn’t take anyone screaming racist epithets or giving me dirty looks. History and culture have already done the heavy lifting.

Imposter syndrome is by no means exclusively a BAME issue, anyone can feel it. But it’s a lot more common in BAME workers because of lack of representation, especially in leadership roles.

The experience completely changed my feelings towards diversity and inclusion initiatives. And even though I got over it, it made me realise I needed to do a lot more.

The unaffordable cost of apathy  

As a black man from east London, the idea that motivational speeches or support groups were going to change the cold realities of the world always seemed naïve.

Tribalism runs deep in all of us, and from a pretty young age, it was clear to me that discrimination wasn’t a uniquely white on black thing – it was a human being thing.

That’s why I’ve always hated the idea of getting involved in D&I initiatives (not that there’ve been many throughout my career). I might as well wear a top with a big ‘T’ on it like Token from Southpark.

But my experience last year made me realise that I was wrong.

Because it’s easy to discount all the unwarranted police attention, the uncomfortable over the shoulder glances or the trolls calling you biologically intellectually inferior online because you’re black (all things that have happened).

These are all relics of a clunkier, more obvious kind of racism.

But we can’t forget that these people built our world. They constructed the systems and they set the tone. And that system isn’t going to dismantle itself. We’re all affected by it and there’s no one, easy solution.

How many black men are holding themselves back because they “feel” industries like PR aren’t meant for them? How many white leaders “stay in their lane” out of fear of saying something that isn’t politically correct, thereby letting the systemic racism continue to fester uncontested?

Point being, we can all try harder. And I’m incredibly happy and proud that Harvard is trying. The BAME to Boardroom session was probably the most I’ve talked about race with colleagues in my life. And it felt like a weight had been lifted from me.

But it wasn’t just hearing other black workers’ experiences that got me. What I found most surprising was the paralysing fear, guilt and confusion many of my white colleagues felt around race. It made me realise that we’re all being affected by racism in some way, and it’s in all of our interests to try and build a better world.

And while I’m very happy these things are happening, I’m also terrified. Terrified that the change that needs to happen won’t come.

But perhaps that’s the wrong attitude. Because cynicism is easy. But daring to hope that tomorrow will be better than today – that takes guts.