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…