Feel Like a Fake? The Impostor Phenomenon Makes Racial Discrimination Worse

Feel Like a Fake? The Impostor Phenomenon Makes Racial Discrimination Worse

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Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin are concluding that the impostor phenomenon can lower minority students’ self-esteem, sense of well-being, and mental health, when they are already compromised because of perceived racial discrimination.

African American students are most affected, the research suggests.


The Impostor Phenomenon


Feeling like a fraud is experienced by people all over the world, according to Kevin Cokley, Ph.D., a UT Austin professor of educational psychology and African and African Diaspora Studies. He is also the director of the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis.

“Impostor phenomenon research has been conducted in Germany, Austria, Belgium, and France, among other countries,” Cokley told me in an e-mail.

In the U.S., about 70% of people struggle with feeling that they are intellectual frauds.

“Even people who appear confident can harbor feelings of self-doubt because of the high expectations they have of themselves,” says Cokley. “The reality is that, no matter how smart and accomplished you are, there is almost always going to be someone who is smarter and more accomplished. The impostor phenomenon is ultimately about an individual not internalizing the successes she or he has achieved, and finding ways to ignore or discount their previous successes.”


Racialized Impostorism


Although most Americans experience the impostor phenomenon, that experience gets racialized for minority students, Cokley says. Among both African American and Asian American students, feelings of being an impostor predicted anxiety and depression.

Alfiee Breland-Noble, Ph.D., the senior scientific advisor for the Steve Fund, which promotes the mental health and well-being of collegiate students of color, isn’t surprised by the researchers’ conclusions.

The results, she says, speak to her “of the import of social support, preventive interventions, and interventions focused on helping to empower African American students and build their emotional resilience,” she told me in an e-mail.

Breland-Noble offers some key strategies for combating feelings of impostorism and mitigating their effects:

  • Name the problem. “The more we can label our experience, the better we are at normalizing it and understanding that we’re not alone.”
  • Get in-person social support as a complement to electronic social support (social media, texting, etc.) In-person support provides “the human touch.”
  • “Open communication is a must….Don’t try to go it alone.” Reaching out to those willing to listen is critical to students’ success and well-being.
  • Use stress-reduction techniques, like getting adequate sleep, pursuing nonacademic interests, and identifying campus resources.