Impostor syndrome? No. Just racism.

The popular notion of ‘impostor syndrome’ obscures the effects of structural racism. Too often, black people and other people of colour are placed in situations where they’re made to feel like impostors, as if they don’t belong. But when they perceive, accurately, that others think they don’t belong, they may accept the pop-psychology diagnosis that they have a ‘syndrome’ sometimes called ‘impostor phenomenon’.

The problem with this all too frequent self-diagnosis is that the sense of being an impostor isn’t in the minoritised person’s head. It’s in the structural racism that they are forced to confront.

As part of a larger study, I and my colleagues interviewed 54 black doctoral students in STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – fields. Almost all of them reported feeling ‘impostor-ish’ at one time or another in their academic lives.

Only three of our study participants dismissed these feelings as personal quirks or universal experiences that ‘everyone’ has. The rest, however, recognised the racial subtext behind these feelings. The feelings of alienation didn’t just happen. They happened because the systems and structures at the foundation of STEM fields are racist.

Racism has created a situation where people of colour are woefully underrepresented in STEM fields. Of the more than 9,800 doctoral degrees granted by United States engineering schools in 2017, only 1.7% were received by students identified as black or African American.

In percentage terms, the representation of black faculty in STEM fields isn’t any more promising. In 2017, only 2.3% of tenured or tenure-track engineering and computing faculty in the US identified as African American, and that was a slight decrease from the previous year.

Of course, poor representation of faculty of colour often translates into fewer students of colour, who depend disproportionately on having mentors who look like them and understand their racialised experiences.

Racist attitudes

The lack of representation in STEM is not the only factor. Beliefs about the inherent inferiority of black students persist, even if their white peers would never admit to them.

As detailed in the recent Race, Ethnicity and Education publication, “Racism camouflaged as impostorism and the impact on black STEM doctoral students”, a black woman in biomedical engineering told us that “no one has ever directly told me [that I can’t achieve in STEM]. I have always gotten As. But it’s the surprise that other races would have at my intelligence, and even from other people in the black community, and like, ‘Why are you so smart?’” This question would unlikely be presented for a white or Asian biomed student.

Another interviewee we called ‘Chike’, a fifth-year doctoral student in chemical and biomolecular engineering, told us: “When I walked into my first dynamics class, an individual who I’m really good friends with now, later told me that he thought to himself, ‘Who is this black kid coming in this classroom?’ [laughs]. I applaud him for being open and honest enough to tell me that. But what that tells me is that this negative perception of us still exists.”

Chike applauds the honesty of his white peer, but he acknowledges that it is the structures of racism that have created an environment in STEM where a ‘black kid’ in a doctoral-level science programme is positioned by peers as an anomaly, even as a freak.

Racism from international students

We also found that international students who have imbibed anti-black messages in the media they consume abroad, come equipped with racist attitudes that imply that black people do not belong in STEM fields.

For example, one of our respondents, Nicolás, had to confront the openly racist assumptions of an international student whose outlook on African Americans was formed by racist portrayals and stereotypes.

Nicolás reported: “I had a gentleman who’s from Egypt literally say to me, ‘Why are you getting a PhD? You guys don’t get PhDs’… And I had to pause and say, ‘What are you talking about?’ Well, I was trying to see where he’s getting this from. And then he realised what he said, so he tried to play it off. [He] said, ‘Not many Americans’, which is invalid, because there are other Americans – white Americans – in my lab as well getting PhDs.”

The need to counter such negative expectations causes racialised stress and strain on black people that is not negligible or marginal. There is abundant peer-reviewed research showing the very real and deleterious mental and physical effects of encountering racism on a daily basis.

Systemic racism not impostor syndrome

Black students do not display feelings of alienation and impostorism because of any deficiency on their part. They feel like impostors because they are positioned as such by their peers, based on a history of discrimination and exclusion.

If black STEM students are experiencing feelings of impostorism in academia, the leadership of their institutions should recognise this as a sign that their culture is fostering a racially hostile environment.

Unfortunately, colleges, universities and businesses sometimes offer workshops intended to ‘cure’ impostor syndrome. They locate the problem in the ‘patient’s’ head, which is the wrong place to investigate. The right place to look is directly into the face of systemic racism.

We have, as a people, been systematically denied access to high quality education, making us virtually invisible at the highest level of academia in technical fields, yet some observers want to tag us as suffering from a ‘syndrome’.

Instead of using ‘impostor syndrome’ as a scapegoat for the effects of structural racism, it is imperative that sense of belonging is understood through the lived experiences of black students in STEM. Racially diversifying the faculty reduces the sense of being an impostor, while chipping away at structural racism.

The larger STEM community must recognise that racist stereotypes about who is competent (and who is not) in STEM departments are detrimental to black students, who have been made to feel like impostors, rather than competent professionals who contribute in meaningful and important ways to scientific and technological advancement.

It is the United States education system – and by extension – numerous other systems in our society that have the syndrome. And that syndrome is called racism. And it’s not in anyone’s heads. It’s been made real by over 400 years of oppression and exclusion.

Ebony McGee is an associate professor of diversity and STEM education at Vanderbilt University's Peabody College in the United States.