Black Anxiety in Academia: How the pressure of avoiding stereotypes is harming young Black students in the U.S.

By Jae Bradley

IMPOSTOR SYNDROME is a term that describes a deeply-ingrained propensity to see one’s achievements or status as luck or deceit, rather than a meaningful reflection of skill and persistence. It is a phenomenon often associated with women, particularly in the context of the workforce.

However, the impostor syndrome concept could also easily be applied to the pervasive inner struggles of Black students today. Impostor syndrome can be described as an internalized pattern of discrediting their own work, as fre­quent and often subtle messages from peers, professionals, media, and even loved ones circulate negative ideas about the integrity of Black people.

In The Atlantic, Dr. Claude M. Steele, a social psychologist and previ­ous provost at University of California, Berkeley, reports that Black students underperformed when perceiving that an assessment was an indication of their intellectual ability from his re­search on stereotypes and cognitive performance. However, they performed comparably to other students when that “spotlight anxiety” was no longer present—when it emphasizes that the exercise wasn’t a litmus of ability.

Furthermore, Steele and his col­leagues made a fascinating discovery when Black students were tasked with completing a series of word fragments, each lacking two letters, as quickly as possible. When informed that the test measured skill, the subjects demon­strated a higher tendency to form words that were linked to stereotypes about Black people.

This suggests a pre-existing link between concepts of Blackness and race. This link fosters a hyperawareness of stereotypes that limit the perfor­mance of Black students—it makes proving themselves a central theme in their lives, along with the rigors of academia, which often incubate fear, resentment, and shame.

Consciously or not, Black stu­dents harbor a great deal of stress asso­ciated with social expectations. A study published in the Journal of Counseling Psychology found that Black students experienced depression in response to perceived discrimination at higher rates than their counterparts.

Black students from the women’s college at Notre Dame can resonate with these issues. For instance, Marquel Hayes, a senior philosophy major, says that for Black students, “there’s no room for error.” She believes that black stu­dents can be classed with the stereo­type of being “ratchet” as quickly as a simple mistake is made—be it academ­ic or social—and must work extra hard to regain favor if it is at all possible. Meanwhile, Nnenne Odukwu, a soph­omore nursing major, emphasizes the pressure for black students to actively appease others—even their friends.

This is extremely damaging as it demands that they must stay on their toes to remain in good social, and even financial, standing. In the end, it re­mains that a great portion of this kind of psychological work goes unnoticed.

PC: Tamarcus Brown, Unsplash

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