Voices Leak Identities: On Speaking Up

Featured Illustration: Melissa Koby

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Voices leak identities, someone told me recently when I confessed to being terrified of public speaking. I had been asked to present a lecture on the cultural aspects of slavery, for an online seminar. In spite of feeling confident about the topic, I was aware of a familiar pervasive feeling of dread. The fact that I would be able to prerecord the presentation and thus avoid face-to-face interaction did nothing to allay these fears. My mind was occupied with other pitfalls, like whether I would manage to navigate the technology or whether the angle I had decided on was going to appeal to the audience. And then, of course, there were the doubts, such as, why would they want to hear what I had to say when there were other more experienced speakers?

These doubts have dogged me throughout my studies over the last few years. I seem to forget very easily the immense sense of achievement and empowerment that accompanied my stepping out onto the stage in my red gown to be capped two years ago on completion of my PhD. Instead, the recording playing in my head seems stuck on the same lyrics: who did I think that I was to be doing doctoral studies in history and heritage when my undergraduate degree was occupational therapy? What did I know of slavery and apartheid when there were experts who had worked in the field for decades?

My thesis supervisor chastised me regularly about the “imposter syndrome” she thought I was suffering from. This psychological phenomenon first described by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in the late 1970s, focused on high-achieving women who “despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments … persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.” I recognise this worry about being a fraud and the anxiety of being exposed that accompanies it. The study focused primarily on white middle- to upper-class women between the ages of 20 and 45, but later studies have shown that women of colour are even more likely to suffer from imposter syndrome. Two of the reasons for this is the lack of role models with whom we can identify and the lack of diversity in the workplace, especially in corporate environments. Women, in general, also tend to attribute their success to external factors (such as their ‘luck’ to be hired) while men are more likely to recognise their own talent.

When I started to think about voice and identity, I remembered my very first trip out of the country, clutching my brand-new passport, at the end of 1990. I was on a bus in London when a group of young black children climbed onto the bus and sat down behind me. I nearly gave myself whiplash when I heard them speak in perfect British accents. I realised how deeply entrenched apartheid was in my psyche and that I had expected them to sound different to their white compatriots, that their accents would give away their identity.

Apart from the fact that I am an introvert who would rather write than stand up and speak, I also admit to not liking the sound of my recorded voice. I hadn’t really considered the reasons behind this. Was it because I couldn’t be put in a box as easily when I expressed myself through writing? Did I brace myself to be judged on the colour of my skin, the sleekness of my hair or the sharpness of my features, when I stood in front of an audience? Was it because I suspected my looks, accent and mannerisms could be used to reflect on my intelligence and competence?

Our voices that communicate information, also convey emotions and, in places like South Africa, are laced with information about levels of education, crime, ethnicity and class. They carry messages about culture and gender. When used for linguistic profiling, they may determine how we do when on the telephone applying for a job, a house or making a booking at a restaurant.

Imposter syndrome speaks directly to issues of belonging which may be influenced by racism and sexism. Back in the 1980s, I was one of two out of twelve of the therapists graduating from the University of Cape Town who were not white. As women of colour, we carry the burden of proving that we are good enough while at the same time not wanting to appear too confident or pushy. The pressure to reflect well on our families or our communities is relentless. Frantz Fanon writing in Black Skins, White Masks, talks about this feeling of being constantly judged, “… the Negro is comparison … constantly preoccupied with self-evaluation and with the ego-ideal. Whenever he comes into contact with someone else the question of value, of merit, arises … the question is always whether he is less intelligent than I, blacker than I, less respectable than I … every position of one’s own, every effort at security is based on relations of dependence, with the diminution of the other.”

When I decided that I wanted to write about growing up in apartheid South Africa, I returned to university to do a Masters’s in Creative Writing to hone the necessary skills. Sure, I love learning but the main motivation for continuing with doctoral studies was that it would add credibility to the work I wanted to do. As if somehow my personal experiences were not worthy enough. Certainly, that journey was empowering and has made for much more informed writing, but here I am, a woman who has completed almost six decades on this earth, who has practised successfully as an occupational therapist, raised two children, and gained two further post-graduate degrees, but is still terrified of standing up and speaking in front of an audience. How many more degrees do I need to be comfortable enough with making my voice heard?

As I have researched deeper into history and how it affects me personally, I have come to realise how much a sense of self-worth is associated with knowing who you are and where you come from.

The story that I have to tell is mine and the contribution that I can make is unique. I need to claim the space that I belong in and tell my story to those who need to hear it.

I was fortunate to have a thesis supervisor who came from the same neighbourhood that I did, with whom I could strongly identify, and who urged me to study further. The fact that she had trodden the path ahead of me was hugely inspiring. So, I challenge you, the next generation of women to celebrate your achievements and each other, to believe in yourselves and continue to contest the artificial boundaries so that you may provide more and more role models to those who come after you.

The last word from Toni Morrison, one of the greatest role models:

“I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.'”