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Forty years ago, therapists and researchers Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes set out to investigate why so many accomplished women in their professional and social circles had trouble internalizing their achievements. The authors called on their own past experiences as self-doubting graduate students as the basis for their research. During this time, the country was still wrestling with the women’s liberation movement, which called for greater sociopolitical change and gender equality and representation. Consequently, women psychologists were holding the traditionally male-centric field accountable to advocate for feminist research and comprehensive studies that focused on women.
Similarly, Black psychology was blazing its own trails in the wake of the civil rights movement, with pioneers such as Joe White, who established the first Black Studies program, and Robert Williams, who created the term “Ebonics” to validate the use of African American Vernacular English while advocating for culturally informed testing. Like feminist psychology, Black psychology had a related desire to acknowledge the psychological experiences of marginalized individuals, but was criticized for viewing race independently. It is within this political landscape that impostor syndrome research was born.
The impostor phenomenon — more commonly known as the impostor syndrome — was originally conceptualized in the Clance and Imes landmark 1978 study. The term refers to high-achieving, objectively competent individuals who tend to minimize their accomplishments, attribute their success to luck, and fear being outed as a fraud.
Despite later research that clarified that men also experience the impostor syndrome, Clance and Imes hypothesized that the phenomenon only affected women and argued that sexist socialization messages encouraged men to externalize their failures and internalize successes while encouraging women to do the opposite.
For most Black women, who have had any professional interactions with people who are not Black women, this hypothesis probably makes sense but it fails to account for the experience of being simultaneously Black and a woman. This might be due to the fact that the sample of participants Clance and Imes used for their initial study was painfully homogeneous consisting of majority White, educated, middle to upper class women.
Recent studies prove a racialized component to impostor syndrome, noting that experiences with racial discrimination, combating negative racial stereotypes about intellectual inferiority, and underrepresentation may cause high-achieving Black people to feel like impostors despite impressive resumes. But even these studies fail to consider that for Black women, racism is gendered and sexism is racialized.
Traditional views of the impostor syndrome as either gendered or racialized completely miss the mark and neglect to consider how racism and sexism interlock to form a nuanced and exacerbated form of oppression.
Coined 30 years ago by Kimberlé Crenshaw, intersectionality theory acknowledges the risk for vulnerable groups’ experiences being erased or ignored when only utilizing a “single-axis” of analysis. To put it simply, traditional views of the impostor syndrome as either gendered or racialized completely miss the mark and neglect to consider how racism and sexism interlock to form a nuanced and exacerbated form of oppression.
Black women live in a society that consistently communicates to them that they aren’t worthy of professional success. On the job, Black women tend to have less access to supervisory support, professional development, and are paid less than their Asian and White women counterparts. In addition to combating racial stereotypes questioning their intellectual abilities and sense of belonging, Black women must also contend with specific gendered racial messaging and stereotypes such as the “strong Black woman,” “the angry Black woman,” “the hypersexual Black woman,” and “the invisible and silenced Black woman.”
Consequently, a Black woman suffering with impostor syndrome will likely have distinctive reasoning for why she feels like an impostor when compared to a White woman. For Black women, the impostor syndrome might be triggered by feeling othered in predominantly White or exclusive spaces, navigating gendered racial microaggressions on the job or in class, stereotype threat, or merely existing in a culture that either ignores or objectifies them. So the way we understand and discuss the impostor syndrome has to account for these different social realities.
For decades, psychological research on women has conflated White women’s experiences to Black women’s. By using research samples overwhelmingly dominated by White women to form conclusions, research has mimicked larger social dynamics where White women represent womanhood. An example is a 2018 study on women’s objectification. Researchers used majority White women participants to form its conclusion that women experience various types of objectification, such as sexual, animalistic dehumanization, and appearance-focused.
However, another study released in the same year utilized an intersectional framework and accounted for the centuries long practice of society viewing Black women, in particular, as objects. The researchers found that Black women are both sexually objectified and animalistically dehumanized to greater degrees than White women, and that even White women participate in this objectification.
Consequently, the researchers were able to offer more meaningful and culturally-informed conclusions about objectification and how it impacts White and Black women differently. Similarly, studies on Black populations often take the “Black experience” to mean the Black male experience — ignoring Black women, such as studies on “endangered” Black boys and men that lead to national programming and policy initiatives such as My Brother’s Keeper while Black girls and women, who face similar vulnerabilities, go overlooked.
But it’s not completely the researchers’ fault. Quantitative research methods fall short when accounting for intersectionality since most analytic strategies still view race and gender as identities that can be added together (experiences with racism + experiences with sexism = total oppression) or multiplied (experiences with racism X experiences with sexism = total oppression). But, we know that identity doesn’t work that way and that it’s impossible to neatly detach aspects of oneself for psychological inquiry. Race and gender are intertwined so attempts to separate them simply decontextualize experiences and lead to unsophisticated conclusions about the people being studied further perpetuating structural power imbalances.
This isn’t to suggest that there are no researchers who care about Black women and their experiences. On the contrary, scholars across multiple disciplines like Anita Thomas, Helen Neville, Beverly Tatum, Jioni Lewis, Janet Helms, Patricia Hill Collins, Philomena Essed are few of several academics working tirelessly to produce intersectional research made by and for Black women. Their critical approaches highlight areas where previous research and research strategies have fallen short by either trying to separate race and gender or just completely ignoring Black women. And their work holds future scholars accountable for not making these same missteps.