By openly raising the issue in her book and on tour, shes again unmasking the common, nagging, dogged sense of doubt felt by anyone who was raised as member of a non-dominant, victimized group in a stratified society that raises its ugly head when that member rises above the limits that a culture teaches are inherent in their group. Though they thereby should be an example of the fact that those limits are artificially constructed and down-right discriminatory, the culturally-taught role lingers within.
Two psychologists labeled this phenomenon imposter syndrome in a 1978 paper that identified it in women who are expected to take on a victim role in a male-dominant culture but who instead break through glass ceilings to enter levels historically dominated by men.
"Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the imposter phenomenon persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise," the psychologists wrote. "Numerous achievements, which one might expect to provide ample objective evidence of superior intellectual functioning, do not appear to affect the impostor belief."
There are many who cant be as open about the syndrome as Michelle Obama. But that doesnt mean that it isnt there in the depths not just of women but of anyone who was taught by their culture that their race, sexual orientation, gender, economic status, able-bodiedness, etc. is somehow lesser and not the norm of a culture that has thrived on oppression.
Its installed in anyone who has experienced, or watched others of their group experience, being a victim of overt and covert discrimination on devluation on the basis of something inherent or crucial to them.
In a culture where a variety of oppressions exist and overlap, its not surprising then that researchers observed in a 2013 paper that as much as 70 percent of the population experiences what these psychologists call The Imposter Phenomenon - intense feelings that their achievements are undeserved and worry that they are likely to be exposed as a fraud at some time in their lives.
No matter how much one has accomplished, how many books theyve written, how high theyve moved up on the economic ladder, how theyve entered the board rooms of America, how much theyve fought for justice, how they have achieved rights such as marriage equality, how many people look up to them or tell them, or how accomplished they are, there remains in their depths the sense that at some time, somewhere, somehow, someone will unmask them as not legitimately belonging to the privileged group.
Of course, these internalized messages are false and irrational. And thats nice to know, given the misinformation everyone receives as part of the cultural conditioning regarding groups of people from the day they were born into our culture.
But the conditioning that installs these messages as a part of our cultures intersection of oppressions, defining some groups as more worthy than others, isnt installed intellectually. Its effectiveness and persistence are due to the emotional basis of conditioning, especially the feeling of fear that not to go along is to experience negative consequences.
In Scared Straight this is analyzed frankly, using classic oppression dynamics, as crucial to a victim role that those who are not in the dominant group of an oppression are expected to internalize and perform to keep the overall cultural hierarchies going. Those conditioned into any victim role are conditioned by the fearful means analyzed in the book to believe at a deep, emotional level that:
1.the dominant role is the ideal that is preferred, natural, human, moral, healthy, pro-society, pro-human, pro-God;
2.people who live this dominant role are the ones who correctly define, and are most qualified to define: a) the oppressor and victim roles, b) what oppression and prejudice really are regarding the roles, and c) what values go with the roles;
3.those who are not a part of the dominant group should live to emulate that dominant role as closely as possible, no matter how difficult doing so might be for these outsiders;
4.there is something inferior about members of the non-dominant group that will make it impossible for them to actually succeed at the dominant role;
5.this inferiority consists of everything that makes members of the non-dominant group inherently different from members of the dominant group who can easily act out their inherent, better characteristics;
6.anything in the non-dominant group that does not match the dominant role should be hidden or corrected if possible because it is inferior, shameful, unnatural, immoral, inhuman, dirty, unhealthy, uncivilized, destructive of society, and anti-God;
7.the successful embracing of this victim role means that members of the non-dominant group should enforce the victim role on each other.
None of this is inherent in the members of any group of human beings. Its taught.
And whats taught can be untaught. But that doesnt mean that this phenomenon or syndrome wont raise its irrational head at the most irrational times.
Those who experience it must then remind themselves with Michelle Obama of its untruth. But we must be clear that its not just an individual emotional problem (as if it's just something wrong with you that can be fixed by reading the right self-help book) but inherent in a hierarchical system.
They must think, act, and decide in the light of its falsity no matter how that might feel as if doing so is rejecting values of a the larger culture. Because the truth is that they are, and that theyre choosing courageously to thereby reject any lingering imposter phenomenon.
Michelle Obama told those young women who might feel as if they dont really belong to "start by getting those demons out of your head." The reality of those in the dominant group, she said is different than how we might feel:
"I have been at probably every powerful table that you can think of, I have worked at non-profits, I have been at foundations, I have worked in corporations, served on corporate boards, I have been at G-summits, I have sat in at the U.N.; they are not that smart.
© 2019 Robert N. Minor
Robert N. Minor, Ph.D.,
Professor Emeritus at the University of Kansas, is author of
Religion Is an Addiction;
Straight: Why Its So Hard to Accept Gay People and Why
Its So Hard to Be Human;
& Healthy in a Sick Society.
Contact him at www.FairnessProject.org
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