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Impostor Syndrome: Academic Identity Under Siege?

Not a day passes without my questioning my abilities: as a writer, a commentator, and—most of all—as an academic. I wonder if I have talent, or am I just faking it?

Despite those insecurities, I don’t feel like an impostor. On paper, I fit the profile of an academic. I am a white male. I trod a typical school-to-university path that—in addition to providing ample opportunities and advantages—normalized becoming an academic. I have been taught over and over again that my identity fits that of a scholar.

From Good Will Hunting to The Paper Chase, representations of professors in popular culture look like me. When I walk into a classroom, no one questions that I’m the professor. When I go to get a book from my office late at night, security doesn’t even blink an eye. My whiteness and maleness matter because I am rarely made to feel like a guest, an impostor, as someone not worthy of inclusion in the academic fabric. Self-doubt aside, my privileges insulate me from impostor syndrome.

The author and impostor-syndrome expert Valerie Young says the condition “refers to people who have a persistent belief in their lack of intelligence, skills, or competence.” She continues: “They are convinced that other people’s praise and recognition of their accomplishments is undeserved, chalking up their achievements to chance, charm, connections, and other external factors.”

While Young’s definition is important, it obscures the centrality of race, gender, and culture. Given the ways that intelligence and competence are defined in and around racial and gender stereotypes, and given the dominant image of the white, male academic, it is impossible to talk about impostor syndrome in universal ways. Impostor syndrome is not just about feeling out of place or unworthy—it is a symptom of a culture that falsely defines success and worthiness through the myth of meritocracy.

“I always feel like I do not belong, or am not supposed to be here,” notes Tamura Lomax, a visiting assistant professor in the department of gender, sexuality, and women’s studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. “I imagine this is felt for a variety of reasons, ranging from my race, sex, class and gender.” In other words, it is impossible to approach issues of belonging or impostor syndrome in a race- or gender-neutral way.

Many of us may feel insecure or unsure of our worth, but that insecurity and unease is not produced equally. Race and gender are crucial to understanding impostor syndrome, but so are ability, body size, sexuality, nationality, and class. Monica J. Casper, a professor and chair of gender and women’s studies at the University of Arizona, writes:

I was a first-generation college student; daughter of a truck mechanic and a steelworker. I had no idea how to prepare for college; many of my friends were going to state schools or not attending college at all. Some joined the military. I joined the student body of the University of Chicago, on a hefty scholarship, and learned to find my way. I loved it; a whole new world opened up. And then I went on to graduate school and am now—23 years later—a full professor. And we know the stats on gender and full-professor status. White privilege is surely part of my story, but class privilege is not, nor is gender privilege. As a small stature person of good humor and a “kind” disposition, it’s been a long battle to secure some measure of respect. Even now, I have moments in the classroom or at conferences where I feel that sense of “I don’t belong.”

It is crucial to note that impostor syndrome stems not just from the mismatch between the representation of an academic and one’s identity, but also from the daily experiences in which faculty, students, and administrators convey that you don’t belong, or that you don’t have what it takes. From the refusal to refer to faculty of color as “Dr.” or “Professors,” to the ubiquitous questioning of “credentials” or knowledge, these messages are endless.

Universities need to address not only the emotional and the psychological realities but the campus climate as well. There is little conversation in graduate school about feelings of persistent insecurity and unworthiness. It is rare for the myths of meritocracy to be challenged; it’s also rare to have conversations about race and gender’s impact on higher education. Instead, we are taught to be insecure faculty members.

It is not surprising that graduate schools or the university as a whole does little to counteract impostor syndrome—the impostor syndrome is good for business. It is what drives faculty to say yes to every service demand. It is what helps create conditions in which female scholars and those of color do a disproportionate amount of service. Impostor syndrome also leads faculty members to write and publish, stopping only for a second, before turning to the next publication. It leads to “the grind” and fosters exploitation.

Talking about her continuing battle with impostor syndrome, Tamura Lomax notes, “I negotiate this by working harder and knowing and doing more. I’ve found that doing four times as much as the average person actually makes me simultaneously equal to the average person.”

In the end, who has to prove themselves as worthy, as deserving, and as part of the academy is determined more by race, class, and gender, and by those socially produced internal battles, than some objective and equal standard. It is ultimately the belief in meritocracy that is the real lie, the true fake, and the most damaging impostor.

David J. Leonard is an associate professor and chair of the department of critical culture, gender, and race studies at Washington State University.

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