Imposter Syndrome (IS), is a term initially meant to deconstruct erroneous feelings of inadequacy, often in women and Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), in the workplace. However, the term ignores the roles of systemic racism and gender biases in creating ideas of competency or professionalism that purposely exclude women and BIPOC. As a result, those who experience IS are pathologized as inadequate or unprofessional. Similarly, the “strong black women (SBW)” trope was initially meant to empower Black women who often experience race and gender based discrimination-mysgynoir. It then morphed into a dangerous tool that dehumanizes Black women, causing our pain and mental health to be ignored because we’re so “strong”. Of greater concern, continuing to label women who experience discrimination and bias is a missed opportunity to change the systems that perpetuate IS. And, the consequences, such as dismissed pain and decreased diversity in the workforce, are deadly.
The SBW trope demands superhuman mental and physical endurance. This mental health toll can be deadly or debilitating because, according to the American Psychiatric Association, only one-third of African-Americans who need mental health care actually receive it. African-Americans with mental illness are also less likely to be offered evidence-based medication or psychotherapy. Less access to evidence-based psychiatric care leads to increased criminalization and death. Racism fuels the social drivers of health that contribute to health inequities. When you’re constantly being told to be “strong” or that you are “magical”, your humanity is lost. And so is the empathy for your physical and emotional pain.
IS: from diagnosis to dangerous
Psychologists first discussed IS in high-achieving predominantly upper middle class white women in the 1970s, describing the phenomenon and potential treatments. They described IS as feelings of “intellectual phoniness” influenced by a person’s family dynamics and stereotypical societal sex-roles. Even today, we rarely discuss IS in the context of its origins: sexism. And we continue to ignore the role of intersectional identities informing the IS experience. An article in the Harvard Business Review argues that IS pathologized minor feelings of anxiety in the workplace and mirrors the diagnosis of “female hysteria” made popular in the 19th century. IS, like the SBW narrative, had innocuous beginnings. Nonetheless, the terms pathologize women and BIPOC by ignoring the racism, sexism, xenophobia, and classism that perpetuate feelings of inadequacy and otherism. Women apply for jobs only if they meet 100% of its qualifications while men apply when they meet 60%, in part because of IS. Women and BIPOC quickly learn who’s allowed to “fail up”-receive accolades and promotion despite failure or mediocrity, and who is not. IS and SBW tropes worsen our health outcomes as well as our career prospects. Private and public institutions must be held accountable for perpetuating systemic racism and sexism that drive IS and the SBW trope.
It’s the System
Biased definitions of professionalism perpetuate IS in oppressed groups without holding institutions accountable for discrimination. For instance, some institutions have decided that the very texture of certain race’s/ethnicities’ hair is so unprofessional, that it is grounds for dismissal. As a result, Dove and the CROWN Coalition, in partnership with then State Senator Holly J. Mitchell of California, introduced the CROWN Act. The act prohibits discrimination against race-based hairstyles. Jeffrey Thornton’s lawsuit against Encore Group LLC in San Diego in 2021 is believed to be one of the first lawsuits to invoke the act when he was asked to cut his locs to comply with company standards. Race-based ideas of professionalism extend to tone and humility as well. It is the expectation that women, BIPOC, and LGBTQI folks have a high threshold for bias and discrimination. As a Black woman, I may undergo more scrutiny for the manner and tone in which I responded to a racist microaggression than the person who committed the microaggression against me. The inequitable policing of appearance, valid emotions, and tone is rooted in white supremacy and embeds itself in professionalism policies. IS focuses on the individual enduring the scrutiny of spaces not created for them instead of changing the culture of these spaces.
Equity & Empathy
Our professional workspaces are slowly beginning to mirror the demographics of the country. As a result, antiquated and bigoted ideas of professionalism are negatively impacting women and BIPOC. Labels such as “imposter syndrome” and “strong Black women” may initially make individuals feel seen. However, the onus is still on the oppressed to bend to systems that silence their anguish and pain. We must hold our professions and society to a higher standard. This includes prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusion in the work culture. Confronting IS and the SBW trope requires an anti-racism systemic approach. We must address housing, education, and environmental inequities that influence inequitable health outcomes. We must seek mental health parity and diverse health care teams to encourage cultural humility. We must change how we socialize children regarding gender-biased ideas of intellectualism and capability. We must extend the same grace and humanity to Black women that we extend to everyone else. Decentering the patriarchy and white supremacy will move the needle toward a more empathic and equitable workplace and society.