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MIND

When we talk about imposter syndrome, we need to be intersectional

Imposter syndrome is often seen as a gender-based scourge, but we rarely look into the part race plays in feeling like a fraud

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By Yomi Adegoke on

Discussions surrounding imposter syndrome are more often than not hinged on gender – when we talk about it, our imagined sufferer is usually an overachieving, under-confident white woman in a corporate setting, questioning her legitimacy at every given moment, while her male colleagues jostle about with ease, never once worrying about their lack of credentials.

But rarely do we examine the part that race plays in making individuals feel like frauds, despite their achievements; ethnic minorities are constantly battling imposter syndrome, and when you’re at the intersection of both race and gender – as women of colour are – the feeling can be doubly hard to shake.

This idea was outlined by a recent piece in The New York Times by Kristin Wong, Dealing With Impostor Syndrome When You’re Treated as an Impostor, which looked at the idea that not only are ethnic minorities more likely to feel like imposters in their industry, role or position, but that it’s linked to the continued treatment that tells them they are such by their peers.

Kevin Cokley, a professor of educational psychology and African diaspora studies at the University of Texas, published a study in The Journal of Counseling Psychology and found that impostor syndrome can compound the already existing discrimination some minority groups may feel, adding to their anxieties. The study also found that African-American college students had higher levels of anxiety and discrimination-related depression when they had significant levels of so-called “impostorism”. He was inspired to conduct the research when, as a black academic, he felt as though he was suffering from feelings of inadequacy, too.

When you’re at the intersection of both race and gender – as women of colour are – the feeling can be doubly hard to shake

“Can we say discrimination causes impostorism? No, but we know there’s definitely a link between the two,” he told The New York Times. “Feeling like an impostor can exacerbate the impact of discrimination. This is what we found with African-American students in our study. I suspect that discrimination can also exacerbate the impact of impostorism.”

The default person expected in positions of power is, as we are well aware, well-off white men. This means anyone who is from a poor background or female or from a BAME background or a multitude of other things often question their right to be in spaces that were not created with them in mind. And, too often, we assume gender is the only thing that impacts how credible we feel in these places – when you type “imposter syndrome” into Google, an onslaught of articles crop up wondering why women suffer from it so much, with very few asking why minorities (especially female minorities) do, too.

“I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now’,” novelist, poet and civil-rights activist Maya Angelou once famously said. “I’ve run a game on everybody and they’re going to find me out.” And, while many women of whatever colour are likely to relate to this sentiment, many may miss that she was likely to have felt like an imposter not just because she was a woman, but also because she was black.

The New York Times article recommends different approaches for minorities to tackle feelings of inferiority: joining an affinity group in order to find workers with similar backgrounds and experiences, recruiting a mentor and taking stock of your accomplishments. But another memorable quote, from another woman of colour, is also worth noting – simply, “Why not me?", the ever-relevant motto of actor and writer Mindy Kaling.

@yomiadegoke

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