Racial imposter syndrome, identity, portraits - Composite image of three photographs: on the left is a woman in black sat on a sofa, in the middle is a woman in grey sat on a sofa, on the right is a man in black sat on a sofa.
All photos: Anna Salhany

Racial Imposter Syndrome Makes You Feel Like Your Identity Isn’t Yours

We spoke to three people with mixed heritage about the insecurities and doubts they face day-to-day.

This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands.

I’ve never felt like I belonged anywhere. My mother is Dutch-Indonesian and my father is Irish-Lebanese. I was born in Canada and live in the Netherlands. That feeling of balancing between worlds – none of which I could make my way into – brought on an identity crisis. I don’t identify with Dutch culture but can’t call myself a foreigner; I have Lebanese roots but don’t speak Arabic, and could I really call myself Indonesian if I’ve never been there?


Then, I came across a concept that helped me begin to make sense of my identity and my relationship to it. “Racial imposter syndrome” is a term popularised by an episode of the American podcast Code Switch, broadcasted in 2018. It describes feelings of insecurity and doubt that arise when an individual’s own sense of their racial or ethnic identity doesn’t fit with how others perceive them. Lacking a stable sense of belonging, you end up feeling like an “imposter” trying to be part of a community which doesn’t fully accept you.

Dutch psychologist Eneida Delgado Silva explained that these feelings stem from the fact that the culture and background we’re born into plays a huge role in shaping our identity. “During the first phase of your life, everything is about safety, so you want to be accepted by your parents,” she says. “You automatically take on their culture: It is a prerequisite for feeling secure. If, though, you can’t take that on, it will have an impact on your identity and your emotional development.”

She goes on to say that maintaining a sense of consistency in regards to your identity becomes even more important as you get older. “During puberty, when you’re constantly in flux, having a steady base to fall back on is important. This starts with your parents and adjacent family members: how they respond to you, and whether you feel like you belong with them, or not.”


There are numerous factors which can contribute to racial imposter syndrome. Some are external, like being confronted with discrimination and racism in the wider world. Others are more inward, like feeling as if the interests and attributes you have don’t line up with how other people expect you to act and behave based on their perception of your identity.

It should be noted that racial imposter syndrome isn’t a term with a recognised or official diagnosis, but that doesn’t stop it from being a useful framing device for people who have regularly had reasons to question their place in the world. “It is often accompanied by feelings of loneliness and emptiness, of wanting to overcompensate to meet other people’s expectations, of not feeling at home anywhere and wanting to change who you are,” said Silva. “It can lead to depression, anxiety, and burnout.”

While researching the topic, it became apparent that there are many people, often from families with complex migration backgrounds, who struggle with these thoughts and feelings. It may sound strange, but seeing that was meaningful to me: I finally felt understood.

I decided to share my findings on social media, where I received many responses from people who were hearing the term for the first time. They told me that they felt heard and had finally found words to describe a feeling they’d had for a long time. I asked three of them about what racial imposter syndrome means to them.

Racial imposter syndrome, identity, portraits - Photograph of a woman wearing black sat on a striped chair in a curtain-lined living room. There is a potted plant to her left and a coffee table to her right.

Rokaya Hamed

‘There was a different Rokoya for every situation – that was exhausting’

I really wanted to fit in at primary school but it was made clear to me that I didn’t. I grew up in a small city where I was one of the few kids of colour. White kids laughed at my hair – they’d ask me if I’d stuck my finger in a plug socket. Whenever Islam was in the news they’d bring it up with me.

It was a similar situation with my Moroccan side. I don’t speak the language and I’ve only been there once in my life. Because of that, Moroccan people have sometimes told me that I’m not “one of them”. On both sides, other people decided who I was for me. They decided how I should feel and they decided, too, what was wrong with me.

I wasn’t accepted as myself. I felt too Moroccan around white people, and too Dutch around Moroccan people. I was constantly overcompensating. There was a different Rokoya for every situation and that was exhausting. I found inner peace only when I turned inwards and started looking for who I really was. You shouldn’t look for validation from other people – you’re the only person who can give it to you. – Rokaya Hamed, 21, is Moroccan and Libyan

Racial imposter syndrome, identity, portraits - Bearded man wearing black sweatshirt and jogging bottoms sits on a sofa in a white-walled room. In front of him is a potted plant.

Jahari Veldt

‘We live in a society where people really lean in on the expectations they have of you based on their first impression’

My Dutch grandparents adopted my mother from South Korea when she was very young. She grew up not knowing much about her own culture and still doesn’t to this day. So when I was a child, I felt more of a pull toward the Surinamese side of my family. But my skin is lighter than all my nieces and nephews’, and I always felt like I was less Surinamese than they were as a result. 

Despite me being half-Surinamese, I was called “Chinese” or “little Buddha” by people. It didn’t give me an identity crisis per se, but it definitely made me less inclined to want to get close to others. It also made me try really hard to combat the stereotypes that existed on both sides of my family. We live in a society where people really lean in on the expectations they have of you based on their first impression. 


The thing is, someone else’s ignorance isn’t your fault. They don’t know what you’re going through, so try not to let it bother you too much. I know I’m fun, funny, and kind. If that isn’t enough for people, that’s their loss. Not mine. - Jahrai Veldt, 33, is Surinamese and Korean

Racial imposter syndrome, identity, portraits - Photograph of woman in glasses wearing grey sweatshirt sat on a blue sofa in a cream-walled room. To her right is an anglepoise lamp and a small potted plant.

Emma Kribbe

‘You’re doing your best to fit in and others see you’re different’

My upbringing was a mostly Dutch one. My Nigerian father died when I was three months old, so I never really knew him. Because of that, I didn’t know much about my Nigerian roots growing up. I know they’re there but I can’t really back them up: I don’t speak the language, and I don’t talk to my Nigerian family all that much.

Sometimes I think: I’m just a brown Dutch person. At the same time that doesn’t cut it, because I’m also Nigerian. I feel like a fraud, especially around my foreign friends, because when I’m with them I don’t feel foreign or Nigerian enough.

When I was with Dutch people, I also noticed that I was “different”. There were micro aggressions, comments about my hair or the colour of my skin. There were a lot of jokes about those things at high school. I tried to laugh along, but in reality, I felt terrible. You’re doing your best to fit in and others see you’re different. I actually went through a phase where I hated being brown so much that I tried to appear whiter.

With time, I’ve started to become more and more proud of my skin colour. But I still think it would have helped a lot if my dad had been around. I would have had someone who was like me, and who understood that part of me. - Emma Kribbe, 22, is Dutch and Nigerian