Imposter Syndrome: How racism creates and perpetuates self-doubt

I recall reading on Twitter a tweet expressed by a young African-Jamaican female scholar named Kayonne Christy who said the following:

Is it imposter syndrome or is it white supremacy? Is it imposter syndrome or is it misogyny? Shifting the locus of blame from myself to the structure has put lots into perspective for me.

Notwithstanding our ability to decide on how we perceive our abilities and ourselves, it is equally important to recognize that the society in which we are operating is significantly powerful in influencing our ideologies and self-perceptions, especially about our capabilities. What the system of Western European supremacy successfully did for people of colour, better known as the “global majority”, is diminish our confidence in ourselves and distort our perception of our capabilities. This phenomenon, although not clinically defined as a mental illness, is a type of cognitive distortion that naturally causes mental distress entitled “imposter syndrome”, a term coined by Dr. Pauline Clance.

Origins of Imposter syndrome

Dr. Clance initially developed the term in the 1970s while studying academically and economically successful European-American middle-class women between the ages 20 and 45’s struggle with self-doubt and self-confidence in their accomplishments. Understanding the history of sexism in Western European culture, for centuries, White men sought to inferiorize White women and consequently made them feel inadequate to even visualize a role outside of domestic work.

White women of Western European descent have spent much of their lives, especially since the turn of the 20th century, fighting for equality and in many ways attempting to prove to White men that they can do everything a White man can do and more. Therefore, the inference one can make from Dr. Clance’s research is that imposter syndrome derives from high achieving and in some cases, over-achieving White middle-class women seeking to disprove the sexist tropes attached to their female identity imposed upon them by their White male oppressors. However, in this fight, according to Dr. Clance’s study, some White women clearly find themselves subconsciously doubtful of their abilities. This self-doubt appears to stem from struggling with an inferiority complex caused by the internalization of sexist rhetoric. This notion goes back to Kayonne Christy’s point about debating on whether imposter syndrome i.e. individual cognitive distortions is really the issue or is it the epidemic of Western European based misogyny that is affecting these women’s perception of their aptitudes.

Departing from the original focus of imposter syndrome with White women, this article serves to explore the imposter syndrome phenomenon and its manifestation amongst people of colour.

What is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is a term that describes one’s doubt in their ability and competency as well as perceiving themselves as a “fraud” who are undeserving of any praise and whose supposed “fraudulence” will be discovered. What makes “imposter syndrome” a cognitive issue is that the person suffering from this distorted perception often has many external achievements that would confirm their competence and disprove their self-doubt. However, this perception issue causes the person suffering from imposter syndrome to overlook these accomplishments and instead, associate them with “luck/chance” or “one time” successes.

Imposter syndrome is often connected to perfectionism, a notion where the individual believes that everything they do must be “perfect” and anything less is inadequate. Imposter syndrome often reveals itself in people operating in academic settings, workplaces, athletics and any other place where there is some degree of comparison of their capabilities to others.

The relationship between racism and Imposter syndrome

It is natural for anyone to become their own toughest critics and set high expectations for themselves. However, for people of the global majority i.e. people of colour, we have been the victims and survivors of racial myths and stereotypes. Hence, we must recognize that part of our motivation for seeking to exceed expectations while simultaneously doubting our abilities to succeed lie in the introjection of these myths and stereotypes.

Black people of African descent, who have internalized the African intellectual inferiority racial myth, may question whether they received a high-ranking employment or academic position due to their impressive skill set, intelligence and qualifications, or to fill diversity quotas. An Indigenous person excelling in law school and running well engaged land-based initiatives may question if they are as competent as people praise them to be. This self-doubt may be attributed to the subconscious belief that they are just one of the “lucky ones” to succeed from their community but fear that they may fail and consequently fulfill the stereotypes attached to Indigenous people ex. supposed laziness and proclivity towards alcoholism. An East Asian person excelling in sports may doubt their athletic level, despite impressive accolades, by way of believing the racial trope that all East Asian people are better suited for intellectuality than athleticism. These examples of imposter syndrome serve to illustrate how all of these self-doubt and distorted ways these various populations may perceive their situation and themselves, in some way, are a result of internalizing messages that have been created and perpetuated by the racial hierarchy, especially in Western contemporary societies.

These messages are a part of a racial hierarchy that attribute certain aptitudes to certain groups, with White people at the top and everyone else falling into their assigned place. Despite certain “positive” stereotypes such as the notion that African people are naturally athletic, East and South Asians are intellectually gifted and “model minorities”, Arab men are wealthy merchants and so on, do these tropes actually encompass the whole culture? What happens when members of these communities do not fulfill these stereotypes? Do they become inadequate as human beings? These and many more questions can often ruminate in people of colour’s minds because, plainly stated, imposter syndrome for the global majority, especially in predominately Western societies, often subconsciously takes the form of doubting our ability to live up to the racially-specific expectations set for us. Imposter syndrome for many people of colour can lead to anxiety and depressive related symptoms because this self-doubt is rooted in our inclination to disprove negative and/or live up to “positive” racial stereotypes.

Remedying imposter syndrome

To remedy imposter syndrome, like other cognitive distortions, primarily involves restructuring our scheme as it relates to core beliefs about ourselves and the world. We must separate fact from fiction and find ways to manage success and disappointment effectively. For people of colour, this task is even more burdensome when compounded with battling internalized and externally perpetuated racial tropes that have the potential to damage one’s self-concept. However, overcoming imposter syndrome is not impossible and here are some ways to do so:

· Recognize that failing once or even twice does not take away from your other outstanding accomplishments

· Recognize when you are engaged in actual fraud-like or dishonest behaviour in comparison to when you may be creating this illusion. Look at the evidence for and against your perception.

· Reflect on ways you may have internalized certain racial stereotypes and how it has influenced your perception of your capabilities

· Disclose your struggles to someone you trust in order for you to not battle this distressful feeling by yourself

· If you are spiritual, have a conversation with your respective deity/deities about your struggle with imposter syndrome and speak aloud what has been influencing you to struggle with this internal distress; sometimes speaking feelings aloud and hearing them can help you find the faulty thinking patterns in them

· Remember the fight that your ancestors displayed to escape the shackles of colonialism and enslavement, lives through you. If you have doubts about living up to this legacy, review the above-noted points

· Profess what success looks like to you and how you will achieve it. Discuss what barriers may come up and have a plan of how you will navigate those barriers

· Write down, record or sing self-affirmations when you find yourself struggling with self-doubt. Self-affirmations can also come in the form of Biblical, Torah, Qur’anic, Kemetic, Hindu, Buddhist or Confucius statements/passages/scriptures that reaffirm your strength to succeed in the way you envisage

Imposter syndrome is not unconquerable; you are powerful beyond measure and it is important to recognize this reality. Do not let imposter syndrome define you; instead, seek to be the person that you envisioned and that your cultural community raised and nurtured you to be.

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David Grant is a psychotherapist, author and educator who specializes in trauma, emotional and mental health of African people and child and family welfare.

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David Grant MSW RSW

David Grant MSW RSW

David Grant is a psychotherapist, author and educator who specializes in trauma, emotional and mental health of African people and child and family welfare.

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