Imposter Syndrome and Women of Color

Last fall, I signed up to write a guest opinions piece for The Student Life on a whim. I had never written for a school newspaper before, and I definitely hadn’t written an opinions column. I had no idea what to think when I submitted my draft. The editor was great and coached me through some grammar and organizational matters. And all of a sudden it was Friday morning and my column was on the front page. I didn’t really believe it until I could get my hands on a copy, for which I waited a solid week.

My parents and friends were proud, but I laughed it off. There was no way that I could have written well enough to deserve such an esteemed spot. It wasn’t until a friend sent me a link about imposter syndrome and women of color that I realized my denial wasn’t based on an actual deficit on my part, but a reaction to a socialized belief that I had about my ability.

In 1978, Dr. Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes wrote “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention” and coined the term 'imposter phenomenon,' which would later become imposter syndrome. The study analyzes highly qualified, decorated women who consistently downplay their own successes as luck or situational effort. These women routinely choose to make excuses for their achievements instead of accepting that they deserve the opportunities afforded to them.

The imposter syndrome has been written on numerous times, in respected outlets like The New York Times, Slate, and even the American Psychological Association. Each of these discusses the ways in which Clance and Imes’ original study excludes men and their equal chance of experiencing these feelings of fraud. Research has proven that successful men are as likely as women to feel like imposters. So, if there are no gender-based differences, are there differences in how imposter syndrome manifests?

The authors of the original study claim that there are three main reactions to imposter-related feelings. These reactions aren’t mutually exclusive, but they typically happen one at a time. The first reaction is one of persistence. People who suffer from imposter syndrome often work especially hard to avoid being found out. The second reaction is avoidance. Imposters will not talk about their own thoughts or feelings in an attempt to avoid conflict. The third reaction is related to garnering approval. Imposters will go to extremes to earn approval from others–for example, volunteering to do research with a professor. Most of these behaviors actually reinforce the imposter syndrome, creating a cycle of increasing doubt.

However, there is a thin line between doubt and denial. Doubting yourself can negatively affect your work. But doubt can be remedied by displays of ability. When TSL published my front-page column, my success should have alleviated my doubt. But imposter syndrome is more complicated than that. In imposter syndrome, success is explained away, leaving lingering feelings of doubt. In their minds, sufferers generate endless excuses for their accomplishments, potentially hindering their success in the future by increasing their fear of failure.

Clance and Imes’ study has been reproduced to test for a number of variables, including occupation, age, and gender. These studies have shown that there are increased rates of imposter feelings for people who perceive themselves to be outside the majority. Success is easier to explain away when there is no one that looks like you in your surroundings.

Regardless of how or why imposter syndrome manifests, it's no surprise that at colleges like these there are rampant feelings of doubt and denial, especially for the women of color who are consistently reminded that they're lucky to be here. With so few people of color (and even fewer women of color), a lack of economic diversity, and fledgling institutional support, it’s no wonder that some of us suffer from imposter syndrome.

After my friend told me about imposter syndrome, I realized that what I had seen as deep-rooted flaws were really projections of this condition. I had to ask myself hard questions. Was I facing my fears? Was I growing? Ultimately, I realized that I wasn’t lazy or unfocused. I simply couldn’t bring myself to risk failure. Even as a junior, I started to forget that Pitzer is lucky to have me, that I positively contribute to the community, and that my success here is all my own.

Imposter syndrome is ultimately a natural result of my surroundings. I’m glad that mainstream news is willing to cover these issues and that studies have been done to follow up and expand the ideas originated by Clance and Imes. At the end of the day, my achievements can’t be explained away, and imposter syndrome is just a small part of my academic journey.

Simone Bishara is a third-year at Pitzer studying Sociology. She hopes to one day pursue a career in juvenile justice.