Why Do Students of Color Feel Like an Imposter in School?
Research reveals imposter feelings can contribute to anxiety and depression
Posted April 11, 2017
I was the only black child, well the only black female in the computer engineering science class and the teacher wouldn’t help me, he kind of pushed me [to] the side and he’s always like you can figure it out. But then, Billy needed help, so he just raised his hand and the teacher would assist him. But when I raised my hand he would overlook [me]…At first, it made me feel like I wouldn’t be able to get through the class, maybe I’m not smart enough for the class, so I wanted to quit…So I had to prove a point, it made me stronger but it kind of tore me down at the same time..—Lenora T.*
Lenora’s experience in a science class reflects a context in which a teacher ignored her presence and denied her assistance. This exchange exhibits some level of discrimination from the teacher and definitely a preference for one student over the other. While encounters with discrimination can motivate some individuals to behave in ways that counter false stereotypes, they may still struggle with the tension between how they perceive themselves and how society views them (Factor, Williams, & Kawachi, 2013). In Lenora’s case, this experience in high school led to questioning her intellectual ability and self-concept.
Self-concept encompasses the beliefs and knowledge an individual has about himself or herself. Individuals develop schemas about themselves in relation to their social system—self-schemas become internal cognitive structures and representations of one’s self and ability (Garcia & Pintrich, 1994). The public education system socializes young people and is responsible for developing some of the mental representations they form about intelligence and their cognitive abilities. For example, children complete a series of standardized tests from elementary school to admittance into college. These tests assess a series of cognitive abilities—reasoning, verbal acuteness, analytical skills, etc. Unfortunately, results from these assessments present a structure that more often privileges affluent and white students (DeCuir-Gunby & Dixson, 2004). Consider these results released by the National Center for Education Statistics:
Figure 1: National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading scale scores of 4th- and 8th-grade students, by race/ethnicity: 1992, 2013, and 2015, National Center for Education Statistics. (2015).
The media and public education system communicate representations of intelligence through symbols and messages. These representations become mental models that more often depict Black and Latino youth as intellectually inferior—evident in reports that demonstrate gaps between their academic performance and peers on a variety of reading, math, verbal and analytical tests. Consequently, young people may develop beliefs that reject the idea that they possess intellectual abilities and will question their ability when they have to apply their intelligence or acquire some level of success from it. Researchers would argue impostorism could partially explain this phenomenon and play a role in perceiving discrimination and negative mental health (Bernard et al., 2017; Cokley et al., 2017).
Impostorism describes how individuals may feel unintelligent or like an intellectual fraud in situations where they have acquired some level of success—like gaining admissions into a prestigious university. Recent research released by The University of Texas at Austin found imposter feelings might exacerbate the relationship between discrimination and mental health outcomes. A group of psychologists aimed to test the role of impostorism in the relationship between perceived discrimination, anxiety, and depression. Participants were selected from an ethnically diverse sample of college students and completed a series of self-report measures in an online environment. The online questionnaire included scales measuring the imposter phenomenon, perceived discrimination, and prevalence of symptoms of anxiety and depression.
The findings suggest impostorism predicted anxiety among Black and Latino students but may have more adverse effects than discrimination on the psychological well-being of Black students. The findings also found that Black students with high levels of impostorism were more likely to report encounters with perceived discrimination and higher levels of depression. The authors indicate:
“Already feeling vulnerable, out of place and believing that some people do not think they deserve to be there, the negative impact of perceived discrimination on depression becomes even greater the more they feel like impostors. It is perhaps the impostor phenomenon characteristic of fearing that others will find out they are an intellectual fraud that makes the impact of perceived discrimination on depression worse for [Black] students.”
Kambon (2003) argues individuals growing up in disempowering systems will have experiences that confirm they are lesser human beings. This cultural misorientation will create a dynamic where young people are socialized to think and affirm false ideals and stereotypes. It is important to understand how the concept of race undermines the ability of Black and Latino students. Specifically, the historical construction of race and use of racial science to validate the inferiority of both Black and Latino groups continue to play out in our society and across various social institutions.
Findings from the study may help us understand how perceptions of intelligence can have negative consequences for students in learning environments. While Black and Latino students are not intellectual frauds, the education system often transmits messages that suggest the opposite. A belief that intelligence is inherited and “fixed” and using culturally incongruent measures that continue to illustrate, symbolically, a hierarchy of intelligence will only continue to reinforce cognitive misrepresentations.
Focusing research on individuals may be problematic when we should direct efforts at institutional policies and practices. Policies need to address system-level factors like reliance on the continued use of standardize tests in public education. Interventions can aim to reorient how adults and young people perceive intelligence and changing their individual beliefs. Targeting the symbols and messages that influence the development of mental representations and changing them can support systems designed to cultivate and affirm the intelligence and competence of Black and Latino students.
*To maintain anonymity Lenora is a pseudonym for a participant from a study exploring retrospective accounts of race-related trauma in the public education system.
Bernard, D. L., Lige, Q. M.,…Neblett, E. W. (2017). Imposter phenomenon and mental health; The influence of racial discrimination and gender. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 64, 155-166. doi: 10.1037/cou0000197
Cokley, K., Smith, L., Bernard, D.,…Roberts, D. (2017). Imposter feelings as a moderator and mediator of the relationship between perceived discrimination and mental health among racial/ethnic minority college students. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 64, 141-154. doi: 10.1037/cou0000197
DeCuir-Gunby, J. T. & Dixson, A. D. (2004). “So when it comes out, they aren’t that surprised that it is there”: Using Critical Race Theory as a tool of analysis of race and racism in education. Educational Researcher, 33, 26–31.
Factor, R., Williams, D. R., & Kawachi, I. (2013). Social resistance framework for understanding high-risk behavior among nondominant minorities: preliminary evidence. American Journal of Public Health, 103, 2245–2251.
Garcia, T., & Pintrich, P. R. (1994). Regulating motivation and cognition in the classroom: The role of self-schemas and self-regulatory strategies. In D. H. Schunk and B. J. Zimmerman (Eds.), Self-regulation of learning and performance: Issues and educational applications (pp. 127-153). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Kambon, K. (2003). Cultural misorientation. Tallahassee, FL: Nubian Nation