“Imposter Syndrome” is one of those newer psychological diagnoses which has entered the popular vocabulary. First identified in 1978 in the journal Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, it suggests that some individuals who may appear successful fundamentally doubt themselves and fear that they will be exposed as frauds, or imposters, for their “intellectual phoniness.” Originally applied to female pioneers in business, it now includes those from more modest backgrounds who are accepted by Ivy League schools and worry that “They must have made a mistake with me.”
For those of us who did not go to private schools and were raised in unfashionable suburbs, the idea rings true. Even today, when I tell people I was raised in the eastern suburbs of Cleveland, it’s assumed that I mean tony Shaker Heights—and I’m a bit ill at ease in telling them no. My first reaction among high achievers is often a feeling of not belonging: “With no Ivy League undergraduate degree, who am I kidding?”
It may seem a stretch to connect such feelings of inadequacy to America’s racial climate, but an extensive literature exists on imposter syndrome and African-Americans. The website DiversityInc warns that imposter syndrome can “take a heavy toll on people of color, particularly African Americans.” A paper from the Center for Community Solutions examines “The devaluation of oneself: Dealing with imposter syndrome in the Black community.” A Maryville University paper explores “Imposter Syndrome from a Black Perspective.” A recent Harvard Business Review essay highlights the imposter syndrome problem particularly as it affects black women.
So far, imposter-syndrome literature does not deal directly with affirmative action and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)—but it should, especially in light of the nomination of a black woman to the Supreme Court, whose qualifications, as President Biden stressed, included her racial identity, and as the Court itself prepares to hear arguments related to racial factors as a consideration in Harvard admissions. The basic injustice of affirmative action—assessing individuals by their race, rather than by their own merits—remains the most objectionable aspect of the policy. But for those who argue nonetheless that affirmative action has benefited blacks, the imposter syndrome undercuts that rationale, too.
As racial awareness now extends deeply into public and private life, this is no longer an abstract question. No company is free of pressure to demonstrate its commitment to DEI. Amazon, for one, boasts that it tracks such data—obviously not to demonstrate that it falls short. No university search for faculty fails to consider race and gender. The Small Business Administration’s set-aside program for potential recipients of federal contracts who are “socially disadvantaged” explicitly includes blacks. A recent paper released by the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank proposes making the Community Reinvestment Act clearly aimed at race-based lending, and New York officials recently proposed prioritizing minority communities for certain Covid-19 treatments.
Imposter-syndrome literature suggests, however, that on top of its basic unfairness affirmative action causes collateral damage for African-Americans, in the sense that it can foster feelings of being undeserving because of being hired, admitted, or steered to a particular type of position for reasons other than one’s true qualifications. Worse still, the DEI matrix does not provide the means to conquer imposter syndrome. Those who must work to prove themselves, at the risk of failure and firing, wind up benefiting either way—they either learn what they need to learn to perform effectively, or, by failing, they learn what their limitations are. Those whose successes are not based on performance are denied such opportunities. The couple whose mortgage is approved because of their race will lose the satisfaction of having done what it takes to maintain a qualifying credit score. The small business owner who receives a set-aside federal contract is robbed of knowing that the quality of his product or service carried the day.
The fundamental antidote to the imposter syndrome is the satisfaction of making incremental improvements in one’s position based on performance. Not knowing whether such gains are truly meritorious opens the door to self-doubt. One wonders whether this dynamic contributes to the apparent anger of even some successful black professionals, who, like Nicole Hannah-Jones, minimize racial progress and emphasize any lingering racism as an ongoing justification for affirmative action.
Looked at from this perspective, one might almost consider whether not being included in diversity and inclusion measures represents a paradoxical new form of white privilege. Receiving honest criticism is not only a personal blessing but a genuine professional advantage.
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