I’ve heard women I consider to be inspirational role models talk about having what is known as imposter syndrome, so when I came across the article “Why Everyone Feels Like They’re faking It” in the February 13 & 20 issue of The New Yorker, I was eager to read it. I have also heard women diagnose other women’s perceived lack of confidence as imposter syndrome. Because I’ve heard such comments so often, it seemed like a club to which a lot of women belonged. I never have heard a man say that he was a member of this club.
The concept was originally called “Impostor Phenomenon” by the two women who explored the idea and wrote the first paper on it. These women bristle at the current “Imposter Syndrome” nomenclature because they didn’t see what they were exploring as a pathological disorder.
The idea behind the phenomenon or syndrome is one’s feeling that they are a fraud or phony because it seems others are fooled into thinking the person is better than they assess themselves to be. Having to mask who one thinks she is, or her real self in regard to skills and abilities, is said to elicit feelings of inadequacy or lack of confidence. Therefore, one is an imposter in one’s own assessment.
The underlying original theoretical assumption or concept for one feeling this way was based on the experiences of the authors, themselves, and the women they interviewed. They concluded that the root cause of this phenomenon was the “disjunction between the messages received” from one’s family, in reference to abilities, and the messages one feared receiving from the world if the world could see behind the mask. The messages from the family could be positive or negative. When there was high praise at home, the women would seek external validation all the while doubting the veracity of the validation. If the messages from family were negative, the women would seek the positive validation that they didn’t receive at home.
As I read the article, I kept thinking about how I had never been able to relate to the feeling of masking or being an imposter or fraud as some have described their feelings. It’s not that I don’t experience a crisis of confidence sometimes. I just never felt that I was masking who I am. When I lacked confidence, everybody knew it because I didn’t try to hide it. If anything, I have been self-deprecating rather than pretending to be better than I think I am. I never felt like a fraud. What I did feel was that others underestimated me, and I had the burden of continuing to prove that I was competent and much more than their estimate of me.
As I continued to read the article, my feelings were validated in a reported exchange between two White women where the conclusion was that feeling like an impostor was a “white-lady thing” because their competence was taken for granted, causing unease if one were not as competent as might be assumed.
Apparently, my feelings reflect the feelings of some other women of color. As a Black woman, no amount of masking removes the racial bias, implicit or not, that colors every interaction regardless of the color of the person with whom you are interacting. Instead of feeling as if you were an imposter, it was most likely the case that others believed you, as a woman of color, to be an imposter rather than possess the requisite skills, abilities, and qualifications.
This is not to say that some people of color do not have fears of being unmasked to reveal inadequacies. The author of The New Yorker article mentions that research studies have repeatedly shown that imposter syndrome disproportionately affects people of color.
Some women are taking to task the idea of imposter syndrome. In an article published by the Harvard Business Review,Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey argue that the label implies a crisis of self-confidence among women, failing to recognize real obstacles professional women—especially women of color—face. Tulshyan and Burey write, “Imposter syndrome directs our view toward fixing women at work instead of fixing the places where women work.”
Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes authored the original work on what they called impostor phenomenon in 1978. In interviews for The New Yorker article, they agree with many of the critiques, given the fact that the “original sample and parameters were limited.” Their focus was primarily on “family dynamics and gender socialization rather than on systemic racism and other legacies of inequality.”
Being a Black woman may not be the only reason that I’ve not felt like an imposter. My experience may be related to my generation. The author of The New Yorker article on imposter syndrome notes that she asked her mother who is 78 if the concept of imposter syndrome resonated with her and her mother said that it did not. For further explanation, her mother expressed feelings similar to the ones I expressed above, namely that women in her generation (and mine) “were likelier to feel the opposite—that we were being underestimated.”