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Theodore R. Johnson explains the ‘imposter syndrome’ — one of the consequences of affirmative action policies

Writing in the WSJ this week (“A Missed Opportunity on Racial Preferences“), Theodore Johnson says that he’s tired of the suspicion that because he’s black, his achievements are always suspect; he also explains the “imposter syndrome” that he and many successful blacks frequently experience:

Many thought that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would be a bookend for that history, finally making the country live up to its Founding declaration that we are all created equal. But in the decades that followed, policy makers and the law began to take into account race, ethnicity and sex as factors that needed to be considered in the interest of addressing past wrongs. Later, the emphasis changed to encouraging diversity.

The tragedy is that many minority members and women internalize the perception that they are undeserving of whatever success they might enjoy, and they begin to question their abilities and merits. Speaking from experience, I can attest that I often hesitate to respond with a simple “thank you” when offered congratulations; instead I tend to cite serendipity and credit my family’s prayers. In doing so, I discredit my perseverance and talents, instead thanking my lucky stars that I was fortunate to slip in unexposed.

Maybe minority members and women will be familiar with the “imposter syndrome,” the sense that one’s career success owes to luck, timing or tokenism—not competence. An effect of racial preferences in my life has been to cause the constant dilemma: Was I rewarded because I’m black and happen to be qualified, or because I’m qualified and happen to be black? This is a serious question with significant ramifications.

5 thoughts on “Theodore R. Johnson explains the ‘imposter syndrome’ — one of the consequences of affirmative action policies

  1. Accident, luck, the grace and benevolence of God, hard work and study – all reasons given by many people of all races when referring to their accomplishments. It is a trait called “humility” and it is not a function of skin color.

    The flawed Civil Rights Act of 1964 has nothing to do with courtesy and politeness and although some people falsely display humility, it is not endogenous to the black race.

    We are all alike under the skin.

  2. Use President Obama as the benchmark for affirmative action. He is it’s poster person. Social engineers thought they were doing the right thing with DIVERSITY. But all it wrought was to polarize America and make people feel inferior because they are given special preference.

  3. Hell, I’m white and I have the imposter syndrome. Growing up with grade inflation, trophies for everyone, and constant repetition that everyone is “special” has made me skeptical of almost any praise. Like the fellow above, I usually acknowledge any compliment with a “thank you”, but I often have to force it out if my mouth and rarely take it to heart.

    • that seem to really tie in with the reynolds law post.

      it’s the trappings of virtue and success (3.9 gpa, trophies, accolades, etc) but when they come too easily and without the actual work and victory that was once required to do such things, they are not only not satisfying, but demean the whole process.

      if the average gpa at your school is 2.5, then a 3.9 is a big deal. if the average gpa is 3.8 (surprisingly common now) then your 3.9 feels ordinary.

      when 75% of harvard students graduate with honors, that’s not really honors. it’s a dishonor not to get honors and means you were in the bottom 25% of your class, but getting them no longer really means anyhting. it’s just a checkbox that most people hit.

      that said, i can also see johnson’s point.

      if we are having a high jump competition and i jump 6 feet and you jump 5′ 10″ and are then declared the winner and get the job/spot at school/etc, how are you going to feel about your victory?

      you had a lower bar. the really insidious part of that is that, unlike our high jump thought experiment, you never really see how high you jumped.

      thus, even if you jumped 6’3″ and beat me hands down, you will never know it. what you will know is that you could have gotten in even by jumping lower than i did, and i can certainly see how that nagging suspicion could make you less sure of even your deserved achievements.

      you know that the table is slanted toward you, so how can you ever be sure what you actually earned and what was preferencing?

      • if we are having a high jump competition and i jump 6 feet and you jump 5′ 10″ and are then declared the winner and get the job/spot at school/etc, how are you going to feel about your victory?

        Not only that, but how well will I perform at a job/school where everyone is expected to jump 6 feet based on their entrance exam? It seems I’ve been set up for failure.

        How will I feel, knowing my coworkers/classmates suspect I’m there – not for my jumping ability – but because of my skin color?

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