The Racist Side of Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome is even more pernicious in the lives of minority students, who often hear racist insinuations about their college admissions.

By Jay Gibbs

He was walking through the University of Chicago campus on a sunny day. Tour guides offered well-rehearsed one-liners as the excitable crowd around him moved across campus. He gazed around, looking at every building, every student, every interaction. Each moment was a portrait of life at the University of Chicago; each student another character living that life. He could see everyone around him living; but when he imagined himself in their shoes, that picture suddenly fizzled out of existence. What replaced it was not another image, but the lingering question that buzzed in his ears. “Do I deserve to be here?” it persistently asked. But unlike many others having a similarly worded thought, his question was not one of test scores, nor even GPA. Days prior, a classmate at his high school had snidely implied he was only admitted because he was Black. The buzzing got louder. I still hear it sometimes.

Imposter syndrome is by no means a unique experience at the University of Chicago. Chances are, most people have felt that telltale nervousness as they naturally begin comparing themselves to those around them. In an era where college admissions are fraught with abuse, intentionally vague admissions standards, and fruitless attempts to define someone’s value, this makes sense. For people who are academically competitive enough to gain admission to an elite school, life was a competition for a long time. Even those few who scored perfectly on standardized tests (and probably bragged about it during O-Week) have likely doubted their fit at this university at least once. Success and earned achievements begin to feel like lucky coincidences and great opportunities sour.

Race takes that feeling and inflames it to levels we often fail to properly understand or acknowledge. Unlike tests scores, GPAs, or even résumé lines, it isn’t an admission factor that one can easily conceptualize. If your SAT score was slightly below average, you can still safely say you were in a reasonable range for admission. If your GPA was low, you can look at your extracurriculars and attribute “fit” to that. But race isn’t some number or written essay that you can point to and evaluate. It is a factor that you know is seen. But, it is also a factor you cannot know how admissions staff really perceive. Whether or not it even came up for consideration is a mystery.     

Last week, I spoke to a prospective student. Her parents pulled me aside to ask where near campus she could get her locks retwisted. I gave them the name of my usual place and luckily had a business card in my wallet. She played sports and debated in high school and was enjoying the campus. When she asked me what life was like for Black students at UChicago, the look in her eyes was familiar to me because it was one I had had for years and occasionally still have. Eventually, I asked if people had reacted to her admissions poorly—they had. What should have been one of the happiest moments of her life was ruined by a lingering insinuation from someone she called a friend.

She asked that her name not be referenced in this, and that’s entirely understandable. For a while, I, too, felt strange calling my friends out on their behavior. Somehow, even acknowledging the struggle hurt, because thinking about it invites that malignant doubt back into your mind. When so many people express an opinion, you can feel undeserving even when you know, deep inside, that you deserve what you have.

So, to the many underrepresented minority students connecting with others on social media, touring the campus, and trying to coalesce into the culture of this school, just know one thing: You rightfully earned the opportunities you currently have. It is not the case that your skin gives you a vaulting leap over the heads of your classmates. It is not the case that if not for your ethnicity, you would have been denied to all but your safest of safety schools. All of you are high-performing. All of you are high-achieving. All of you had a path toward success very different from that of your classmates. Despite barriers that oftentimes aren’t even visible, you made it. Many of you are first-generation or from families where going to college at all is cause for celebration. So, celebrate that.

High school students are under enormous stress, and the identities of students interact with that stress. One can experience college admissions from many different standpoints. Universities and high schools need to better address these discomposures early on for students. But, the biggest impact comes from peers. As students, we must get better at keeping our peers from falling into dark feelings of disbelief about their deserved admissions. The wealthy are paying millions to get their kids into school illegally. Hell, plenty more are doing it totally within the confines of the law. Don’t ignore the ridiculously corrupt practices undergirding legacy and donation-based admissions while guilt-tripping people of color to the point of anxiety and depression. Be better. Don’t let those with legitimate successes feel like imposters.