For Women of Color, Imposter Syndrome Begins in the Classroom

Public debates around academic meritocracy and affirmative action have a lasting affect on marginalized students’ sense of self worth.

Ari Curtis
Sep 8 · 7 min read
The Token logo on top of a photo of two gray pencils on a yellow background.
The Token logo on top of a photo of two gray pencils on a yellow background.

This is the second (and extremely delayed) installment of our two-part education series. For Part I, written by Natalie Chang, click here.


Last spring I won an award. It doesn’t matter what it was for — I’m pretty sure it was one of those awards that pretty much everyone who’s nominated wins — but it was still the kind of external validation I wish I didn’t need. The accolade afterglow lasted mere minutes before it was replaced by the usual doubts: Is this a mistake? Do I really deserve it? And of course: Did I win because I’m black?

As a minority, the feeling that any accomplishment can be explained away by affirmative action starts early, and it often begins in academia. Not long after you learn about identity-based scholarships sometime in high school, you absorb the unfounded sentiment that, as a black or brown or native student, your gain is a white student’s loss. And that by taking advantage of the opportunities given to you, you are taking an opportunity from someone more deserving.

Though the idea that some children deserve a better education than others is rarely said aloud, it hangs in the atmosphere and chips away at your confidence. It’s obfuscated by pearl-clutching about resources and racist appeals to “safety.” And it’s couched in the myth of meritocracy — that an education is something to be earned. But how exactly do kids “earn” the right to an education?

Those who stand to gain the most from elite educations — poor minority kids, and especially black and brown ones — often face scrutiny and psychological strain on their paths to success.

Obviously, they don’t; it’s just easier for wealthy parents to tell themselves that their child is inherently special. It’s much harder to acknowledge the structural injustices and inequities that allow their kids to flourish while less fortunate kids flounder. Parents with means can buy or cheat their way into elite educations for their kids, using prestigious institutions to superficially legitimize their offspring’s otherwise unearned privileges. Ironically, wealthy white students are the ones who have the least to gain from attending top colleges; their pre-existing socioeconomic status is a far more significant predictor of their future success.

Those who stand to gain the most from elite educations — poor minority kids, and especially black and brown ones — often face scrutiny and psychological strain on their paths to success. Whether it’s black students in Charlottesville trying to advance their educations or poor students working toward Ivy League degrees, their credentials, and really, their worth, is constantly questioned. You can hear the pain and confusion — and perhaps worse, the resignation — in the voice of one of the seven black teens accepted into New York City’s prestigious and selective Stuyvesant High School. The teen spoke to New York Times journalist Eliza Shapiro in an April episode of The Daily:

“I’ve been told that the only reason I got into Stuyvesant was because I’m black, even though the test doesn’t even factor that in. …. So people get angry. They find a way to demonize you, to vilify you in a way that makes you alien. And of course, not only is that discouraging and alienating, but it makes you feel like maybe you don’t deserve your spot, even though I know that I worked just as hard as every other sophomore in my class to get into this high school.”

That feeling the student describes — the discouragement, the alienation — sticks with you. The seed of doubt that you are inherently less-than starts young, and at best, blossoms into a robust case of imposter syndrome. At worst, it discourages minorities, and women of color in particular, from pursuing particular academic and professional paths in the first place. And after all, is it really imposter syndrome if your peers actually believe you don’t belong?


I’m under no illusion that I am especially deserving or qualified to have had the education and career I’ve had. My station in life is largely the result of a series of choices and circumstances, most of which were wholly out of my control. My parents moved to Fort Collins, Colorado, with my grandparents not long before I was born. They’re from Los Angeles, where, during mandatory desegregation, my dad was bused to schools in the San Fernando Valley and West L.A.; my mom sometimes skipped school to avoid gang violence in her neighborhood.

Meanwhile, my early childhood was full of school plays and field trips and science fairs. I was incredibly lucky, and I’m occasionally struck by a sort of survivor’s guilt because of it. Even so, I didn’t dare ask my parents for pricey standardized test prep or AP tests (despite doing well in AP classes). Rather, my parents leaned on sports to ensure I’d have access to a quality school that my family couldn’t otherwise afford.

But did I deserve it?

I don’t think that’s the point. Or at least, it shouldn’t be the point. Students who want an advanced education should have fair and affordable access to it, full stop. It’s not society’s place to tell children whether they’re worthy of opportunity. But too often that’s the case, and the psychological effects can be lasting. The paranoia that I’m perceived as an abuser of unfair advantages, or a product of affirmative action, still leads me to question my accomplishments. At least when I was a student-athlete in college, I could gauge my success with my athletic performance and grades, both of which are much more concrete measures of achievement than the nebulous victories of adulthood.

In a way, that’s what Token is for: celebrating people who’ve been told their identities give them an unfair advantage, when in reality, they’ve succeeded in spite of the structures that oppress and marginalize them. In this issue of Token, we’re featuring women who’ve shed light on the racial disparity in academia and its lasting effects on women of color.

– Ari, who’s only here because she’s black


Nikole Hannah-Jones

A photo of Nikole Hannah-Jones.
A photo of Nikole Hannah-Jones.

We’ve featured her before, but no examination of racial disparities in the American education system would be complete without referencing Nikole Hannah-Jones. She is currently the face of The 1619 Project, a massive chronicle of the 400 years since the first African slaves arrived in the United States. But I first learned about her in an episode of This American Life called The Problem We All Live With, where she reports on a failing, predominantly black school district’s attempts to integrate with a nearby white, affluent district.

The highlight of the episode–or rather, the lowlight — is a forum held in a white school in which parent after parent complains about the supposed horrors black children will bring to their childrens’ schools. One parent wonders whether they’ll need metal detectors once the black children arrive; another suggests starting classes earlier to discourage black parents from enrolling their children into the schools. The assembly, which was attended by a mostly-white audience, was a harrowing look into how white parents really feel about equal opportunity in education.

After you listen to the episode — which you absolutely should do — read Hannah-Jones’s essay about finding a school for her daughter in New York City. Though it’s three years old, the essay is a prescient precursor to today’s debate on integration, meritocracy, and privilege in NYC public schools.


Kelley Williams-Bolar

A photo of Kelley Williams-Bolar speaking into a microphone. She sits between two people.
A photo of Kelley Williams-Bolar speaking into a microphone. She sits between two people.

In 2011, Kelley Williams-Bolar was jailed, fined, and put on probation for using her father’s address to enroll her children in his (whiter, better) school district. Her story resurfaced last spring amidst the admissions scandal in which actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, among others, were charged with bribing and scamming their children into college. The two incidences illustrate the extreme disparity in what qualifies as “cheating the system” when you are a black mother trying to do right by her children.


Jenn M. Jackson

A photo of Jenn M. Jackson.
A photo of Jenn M. Jackson.

Jenn M. Jackson is a writer, scholar, and an assistant professor at Syracuse University. In this essay she writes about the distinction between imposter syndrome and the very real psychological impact of racism and misogyny on women in the workplace. She writes:

“By labeling every single moment of self-doubt expressed by women, primarily those of color, as impostor syndrome, we flatten the complexities and pervasiveness of White Supremacy and patriarchy. Not only that, we situate these women as just needing to ‘lean in’ or ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’ whilst never acknowledging that when they do lean in, and when they do pull themselves up, they are still met with opposition from individual actors and institutions who are invested in their exclusion from many public spaces.”


Token is a project by Ari Curtis and Natalie Chang that celebrates the work and worth of women of color. Subscribe here to get the latest issues in your inbox.

Token Mag

Celebrating the work and worth of women of color. To get Token in your inbox, visit thisistoken.com and subscribe.

Ari Curtis

Written by

the personal is political

Token Mag

Token Mag

Celebrating the work and worth of women of color. To get Token in your inbox, visit thisistoken.com and subscribe.

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