Jessica Williams Isn’t Ours to Diagnose

Jessica Williams, The Daily Show, Imposter SyndromePractically the minute Jon Stewart announced he would be leaving The Daily Show later this year, with no hint of who would replace him, women around the blogosphere collectively cried out, “JESSICA WILLIAMS!” But when Williams, a regular on the Comedy Central show, said she wasn’t interested and some women pounced, “diagnosing” her with Imposter Syndrome. When I first learned about Imposter Syndrome — when someone can’t or won’t acknowledge their own talents and believe their successes are just a result of sheer luck — I tried to tell everyone about it. It was like I had discovered the concept and had to spread the news among my lady friends. “OMG, THIS IS WHAT I HAVE BEEN FEELING!!”

 So recently, when I had a chance to talk with Dr. Valerie Young, an expert on imposter syndrome,  I wanted to discuss the collective rush to judge 25-year-old Jessica Williams. Dr. Young  started by stating the obvious — no one, including herself, should go around diagnosing other people with imposter syndrome. “I work with a lot of celebrities and I wait to hear them say things like ‘I don’t deserve this…’ and ‘What if they found out I am not as good as they think I am?'”  This is the pitfall into which writer Ester Bloom fell — playing WebMD to a high profile “patient” Williams by proclaiming that:

“How modest! How self-effacing! You can almost hear all the old white people who benefit from the status quo nodding their approval. We did it, they whisper. We have succeeded in instilling in yet another competent, confident young woman a total lack of understanding of her own self-worth! We didn’t even need to undermine her; we gave her the tools and she undermined herself. Well done all. Good show. Let’s play eighteen holes and then hit up Hooters for lunch.”

She continued her rant against Williams by saying she needed “the best Lean In group of all time” to convince her to go for that comedy brass ring.

I understand how Bloom felt it was easy to diagnose the amazingly funny Williams with Imposter Syndrome for saying she wasn’t qualified to host The Daily Show. Once you realize what Imposter Syndrome is, and think you’ve experienced it in your own life, you start to see it everywhere! It is just a fact, generally speaking, that women undervalue their worth and work and men overvalue theirs. Give men and women fake tests and men will score themselves higher. Ask them about leadership and men believe they have what it takes to run for office, yet women with the same backgrounds say they’re not qualified and need more experience. We see this scenario over and over in our daily lives and in the media.

Given my job as someone who supports women in STEM fields, my day is about dealing with Imposter Syndrome, gender stereotypes and stereotype threat. So yeah, when I read Jessica Williams’ tweet I thought, “NO!” because a guy would walk through that door, ready or not. We have seen scenarios such as Luke Russert stepping right into high-profile journalism after his father’s death. Russert was 24 and fresh out of college, but that didn’t stop him from taking a great opportunity to join NBC. Maybe he did have a moment of imposter syndrome, but he obviously moved past it, landing at the top of the newscaster heap.

These opportunities, however, are few and far between for young women of color. As someone who is an expert on mentoring, I know that much of what fuels mentors is to help less experienced people through the pitfalls we found ourselves in. What I saw on blogs and social media since Stewart’s announcement was a movement to kick a woman through the main anchor door of The Daily Show. Samantha Bee! Jessica Williams! Tina Fey or Amy Poehler! Feminists were NOT going to let this golden egg be handed off to another man without a fight. So when Williams tweeted, “Thanks but no thanks,” it felt like a kick in the gut. My 40-year-old brain started thinking, “But we pried open a door! Just walk in and take it!”

Thankfully for me, I do not have the luxury or pressure to write think pieces before having time to digest what is happening. If I did, maybe I would have done what Bloom did. Instead I got a chance to stop and realize that my reaction of disappointment about what Williams said was about ME not her. I also have more experience to know that, as Dr. Young summed up, “Success is complicated.” That’s the biggest issue I’ve always had with “Lean In” and everything related to it. My definition of success is not always about climbing to higher positions and earning more money. Sometimes it is, but some days success is having a young woman thank me for helping her figure out her career path.

Since my job is about helping, guiding and supporting women in finding their path in life, I am most likely guilty of what Bloom did to Williams, but to others. My crimes include telling my students, on many occasions, to go do study abroad or travel before they are old, married and have children. I told a close friend to jump at a new job offer, even if it meant leaving Chicago, because being without kids, she could. I was possibly in the room when journalist Latoya Peterson was critiqued about some of her professional efforts because “women never play big.”

There’s a delicate balance that those of us with experience and knowledge of all the forces at play have to walk with others we believe don’t have that same information. There is an urge to reach out to women we see “making a mistake” and tell them what we see. But as Dr. Young said, we need to let others diagnose themselves. Then, maybe, we can swoop in to help. We also need to realize that, most of the time, it’s not our business to offer unsolicited advice. So much of feminism is about agency and we need to honor the agency in others. The sisterhood is powerful, but we must be careful that it does not turn into a motherhood. As Jessica Williams said in a tweet, after clearly being fed up with so many others trying to tell her what she should and should not do with her life:

She is not ours. She is not ours to fix or to tell what to do, but she is ours to appreciate her comedic writing and slaying of all things anti-feminist.

Veronica Arreola writes the blog Viva la Feminista, where she tries to navigate and understand the intersection between feminism, motherhood and her Latinadad. You can follow her on Twitter @veronicaeye.

To contact Veronica for an interview or to book her as a speaker, she can be reached at veronica.arreola@gmail.com.

Image via screen shot

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