“Having positive academic experiences should not be determined by the colour of our skin, nor should it be determined by our socioeconomic background, gender, identity, ability, language, or religion.”
Access & Safety in Higher Education: Addressing Imposter Syndrome & Internalized Oppression
Recall the excitement you had when you first found out you were accepted into university. All of the late nights studying, essay writing, reading Lord of the Flies and Macbeth. It finally paid off! University of Toronto, Ryerson, Western, Wilfrid Laurier, and York University are just a few schools topping the list of choices for high school graduates. It is also a big moment for parents, having prepped and supported their child for this next step. Helping with homework or encouraging your kid to believe in themselves, that they are capable. It was all worth it.
But what if you are the first in your family to attend university? What if you were always told that you would have to work 10 times harder than others to succeed? What if you never thought that university was in your future because people who look like you are frequently told or made to feel that they do not belong? Or, perhaps you were streamed in high school, and university was never encouraged as an option for you to choose from
I see quite a few racialized clients in my private practice who are university students. Most of these students present with anxiety and/or depression. However, with further exploration, it is evident that some of the core issues surrounding their illness have to do with imposter syndrome that interconnect with experiences of internalized oppression.
Imposter Syndrome and Internalized Oppression
Below is a hypothetical story about a young Black man in university:
Tyrone is in his second year of university and for the past year and a half, he has suffered from symptoms of anxiety. He expresses being worried, irritable, finding it hard to concentrate, and is very critical of himself.
“You’re not good enough, you’re such an idiot, you don’t fit in, go back to where you belong.” These are just a few of the negative thoughts that constantly race through Tyrone’s mind. Tyrone hears about the wellness department and decides to seek counselling.
Tyrone and his therapist take a collaborative approach to therapy. Once comfortable, Tyrone discloses to his therapist that he is the only Black student in his program. He mentions feeling awkward because he stands out. He discusses being in groups with his peers and not being asked for his opinion. He also mentions that his group members do not give him much responsibility for class projects. Tyrone stated he even feels angry at times, but does not feel comfortable expressing himself because he does not want to be labelled as an “angry Black man.” He finds himself doubting his abilities and telling himself that he is not good enough. Tyrone even thought that perhaps the admissions department had made a mistake. He is convinced that the school wanted to appear diverse and that is why he was accepted into the program.
Unfortunately, this train of thinking is very common for racialized students. They often fear being seen through a negative lens, so they stay quiet and say nothing. This fear tends to create or foster additional feelings of anxiety, internalized racism, and internalized oppression.
Tyrone questioned how his classmates viewed him. Because of his lived experiences, he was keenly aware of stereotypes and perceptions of Black men being seen as worthless, not good enough, lazy, criminal, and/or poor. He feared that his peers and professors would “catch on” and he would be exposed as an imposter. He would be exposed as a stereotype.
A significant challenge for many racialized students is a lack of safety in the classroom. What does safe space mean? It means feeling free to be yourself, be comfortable in your environment, and exist in a judgment-free zone. When individuals feel like they are being judged by their peers, when society continuously reinforces belief systems that suggest they are not “good enough,” and when experiences of racism, direct or indirect, are part of lived experiences, feeling safe becomes incredibly difficult or not possible.
Statements such as, “You are very well spoken (for a Black person)”, or “You are not like the rest”, are incredibly hurtful. Although the intention is not always to be hurtful, these micro- aggressions are insensitive, problematic, and inherently racist. How can one feel safe when they are being judged for how they speak? How does one respond in this situation? Although the answer may appear straight forward to some, it is not so easy when what you want might be to just fit in. For many people, walking into a classroom induces some level of anxiety and/or fear – this can be even more so for individuals from racialized backgrounds. Students may ask themselves, “What if I say something wrong? What if I sound ‘too Black’? Do they perceive me as being ‘ghetto’?” What should be a safe space can quickly become a place of fear and dread.
Where do we go from here?
First, we need to recognize that systemic racism exists. We have to unpack the hurt, anger, judgment, colonization, and white supremacy that continue to erode our society, and many racialized cultures. I am often asked about how I deal with racism, and to be honest, there is no right answer. Tackling racism tends to be subjective. I tell my clients that racism is currently a part of our everyday life, whether directly or indirectly. I talk to them about acceptance in terms of letting go of what we cannot change and navigating a path where we make a difference while feeling safe and having a voice. It is important to recognize that there are a lot of good people in the world, and doing what we can to unite and confront racism is important.
The goal should be to create an open dialogue that fosters inclusivity, curiosity, and growth. Every student deserves access to education. Having positive academic experiences should not be determined by the colour of our skin, nor should it be determined by our socioeconomic background, gender, identity, ability, language, or religion.
What can Institutions do?
- Set up safe spaces for racialized groups to freely discuss the challenges they experience.
- Create a compulsory course about systemic racism/white privilege and discuss the impact it has on racialized groups.
- Provide yearly training for faculty that addresses their biases and beliefs about racialized people.
- Hire racialized faculty to reflect diversity.
- Send racialized representatives to high schools promoting post-secondary education.
Being aware of internalized oppression may help some racialized students manage experiences of imposter syndrome. If you find your thoughts consist of not being good enough, being a fraud, or being afraid that you might be exposed, you, yourself, may be experiencing imposter syndrome. With further exploration with a trained professional, there may be deeper issues of internalized oppression(s) that relate to these experiences and feelings. Speaking to a therapist who is culturally-sensitive and not afraid to discuss complex or systemic issues such as racism, may be helpful.