I Ain’t ‘Fraid of No Ghost Syndrome

Last week, the Open Con community held its monthly call focused on the topic of imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is the pervasive and often unsubstantiated feeling that you are under-qualified for your particular role, task, or responsibilities. And it has very racialized and gendered aspects. While I wasn’t able to make the Open Con call last month, I hear the conversation was a good one.

Looking over the notes from the call and thinking about the open movement as a whole, however, has me thinking not about imposter syndrome but about its inverse: what I’m calling ghost syndrome. I see ghost syndrome as the pervasive and often substantiated belief that your contributions have been co-opted by a colleague who is more male, more white, and better resourced than you are. Thus, like imposter syndrome, ghost syndrome has very racialized and gendered aspects. Ghost syndrome, particularly in academia— particularly, particularly in the scholarly communications and open movement—means hearing your ideas parroted back to you, without attribution, from your whiter, maler, resource-wealthier colleagues. If you are a woman or non-binary person, it means watching men take over the work you’re doing in the open space. If you’re a person of color, it means watching white people co-opt your contributions for the sake of “openness.” If you’re native and/or from Latin America, Asia, or Africa, it means watching colonizing North Americans and Europeans pretend like they invented scholarly communication and the very notion of commons-based, open scholarship.

Ghost syndrome makes you feel like maybe you don’t exist. Or maybe you hadn’t done what you thought you’d done in the field. Ghost syndrome feeds into imposter syndrome; and in turn, imposter syndrome gaslights you into believing that your ghost syndrome is a reality, that you are, in fact, a ghost.

I guess the title of this post is a lie: I am afraid of ghost syndrome.

It’s because of the dangers of ghost syndrome that my friend and colleague Vicky Steeves and I created the database of Women Working in the Open. It’s why I so appreciate the work of Lorraine Chuen and her colleagues in building the Open Con Conference Planning Report on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. It’s why I appreciate being a part of the Force11 Scholarly Commons: Self-Critique Working Group, led by Gimena del Rio Riande and Robin Champieux.

Because it’s easy to look at phenomena like imposter syndrome and ghost syndrome and pretend that they’re internal, individual, personal problems. But the truth is, they are born out of the broader inequities of our society. And their antidotes are going to require the widespread effort of all of us, working to dismantle oppression and build a more equitable open.

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Coming Back Out of Africa

I’m sitting in the Heathrow airport on my way home from a week and a half spent in Malawi, in southeastern Africa. In the last half hour, I’ve seen more white people than I’d come across in the last ten days straight and my heart sinks within me.

Guess my “race vacation”–a key treatment for race fatigue–is over. It was magnificent while it lasted.

Photo of a sunrise from an airplane window

Sunrise during my flight from Johannesburg to London, April Hathcock, CC-BY-NC

It’s been over a decade since I last visited the African sub-continent, and I’d forgotten how essentially life-giving and invigorating and renewing it can be to spend time in a place where my Black body is the norm and not seen as an anomaly. To be somewhere where everywhere I look, I see faces that look like me and mine. Everyone I encounter could be an aunty or uncle or cousin. To be automatically greeted as a long-sought prodigal daughter with “Moni! Muli bwanji?” and to witness the confusion on the speaker’s face when I respond in English that I’m not Malawian and don’t speak any Chichewa. Even if I couldn’t always follow the conversation beyond a child-like greeting, it still filled my heart with joy to be approached right away as though I belonged. (And inevitably, Aunty So-and-So would eventually say, “Well! You must learn Chichewa for when you come back!” Not if but when.)

And yes, there were painful and frustrating parts, too. I was there visiting my sister and spent time with some of her muzungu (“white/foreigner”–I love that in Chichewa, the word for “white (as in race) is synonymous with the word for “foreigner” or “outsider”) global health colleagues. I witnessed the differences in the way she–as the only Black non-Malawian in the group–built relationships with the local folks, as compared to the ways in which her white colleagues approached the people, culture, and work. In other contexts, as well, I saw neo-colonialism and white supremacy rearing its ugly head time and again. But I also saw how my Malawian cousins rise above that oppression, took what they needed from the patronizing hands offering, and continued working with joy to build back their independence and self-sustaining strength. The colonizers might have thought they were calling the shots, but the Malawians were definitely getting their own brand of reparations for centuries of the rape, genocide, and enslavement of their people and their land.

But, like their cousins whose ancestors survived the Middle Passage and Reconstruction and Jim Crow–all of which are the direct predecessors to what we are now surviving in the police state and industrial prison complex–the Malawians are finding their own way to joy and fulfillment. We always have been a hearty people. That’s why our diaspora has lasted so long, reaching so far and wide.

So even as I sit in the business class lounge of the Heathrow airport (Look, my ancestors! No Middle Passage for this Nubian daughter. No sitting at the back of any transport. I ride up front with the massas and missuses; and their precious lily white young ladies have to address me as “Madam” and serve me tea!); even as I endure the scrutiny of the white gaze–always wondering if I know where I am, if I really belong–even with all of this, I sit quietly in my corner with a smile on my face and joy in my heart that can only come from knowing what it is to spend time in a place I can always call home.

Ndakondwera kukudziani, Malawi! Tionana. I’ll be back to see you soon.