Excerpted From: DeShayla M. Strachan, Among Us: Impostor Syndrome and Barriers to Black Success, 29 Cardozo Journal of Equal Rights & Social Justice 319 (Winter, 2023) (250 Footnotes) (Full Document)


DeShaylaStrachanThe perception of Blacks in America has not changed much since the twentieth century. Blacks have been viewed as savages, entertainers, gangsters, and the like. Although there has been a push for more diversity in law schools and law firms--and institutions have devoted resources to recruitment and retention of minority attorneys--their efforts have yielded only modest gains. Further, the perception of Black women has not changed. This is evident from recent events. We are dying. What is the cause of death? If we are not dying from COVID-19, then we are dying from racial injustice. The whole world feels and sees this tension. Although Black people and other people of color knew these injustices and inequities had been going on all along, it was once again highlighted when video footage of another death at the hands of police emerged, at a time when we were all staying at home and out of the public. A Black man named George Floyd was murdered by a white law enforcement officer in front of witnesses--including children. A Black woman named Breonna Taylor was killed in her own bed by police. A Black man named Ahmaud Arbery was hunted down by white men while he was out for a jog and subsequently killed on the street. Two more Black men, Daunte Wright and Amir Locke, were fatally shot by police less than two years later.

These are just a few examples of the racism that has forever stained America. It is systemic and institutional. It exists in law schools, the legal profession, and academia. Because of this broken system, institutions and employers have attempted to be diverse and inclusive by recruiting and hiring members of minority communities. But after many years, the legal profession is still one of the least diverse professions in the United States. Due to this lack of diversity, when a person of color is hired, they often experience Impostor Syndrome, which leads to a myriad of negative effects for both the employer and employee.

To add salt to the wound, the intersectionality of racism and sexism is prevalent in the legal profession. As a woman, it is already harder to enter predominantly male fields and be treated equally; being Black adds an extra layer of perceived inferiority to a Black woman. As proven in previous scholarship, women often self-sideline, or downplay or prevent the advancement of their own achievements and opportunities. We are often unseen, unheard, and silenced. The fact that Blacks tend to be seen as “diversity hires” leads to their peers withholding the presumption of competence that is afforded to white men. This misconception and implicit bias leads to microaggressions, exceptionalism, perfectionism, and ultimately Impostor Syndrome, which, in turn, causes the Black attorney or law professor to leave the employer and find work elsewhere. Black women in law firms are perceived as weak if they are less vocal and overly aggressive if they speak up.

Many institutions seek to hire underrepresented groups but still perceive the diverse hires negatively. This negative perception appears when Blacks are not given the benefit of the doubt that their white coworkers are given and receive more discipline than white employees. This perception also appears when they are looked over for promotions and then white employers perceive them as a threat. The historical racist ideologies that affected other professions have harmed the legal community as well.

This paper will discuss the role law schools and employers in the legal profession play in Impostor Syndrome and how to overcome barriers to Black success through a Critical Race Feminist lens. Part I will discuss the meaning and origins of Impostor Syndrome. Part II will discuss Impostor Syndrome in marginalized groups in the workplace. Part III will discuss barriers to Black success and how the syndrome is seen in the legal profession. Part IV will discuss how implicit bias causes exceptionalism and fosters the environment for Impostor Syndrome. Part V will include best practices and contemplate ways to overcome Impostor Syndrome and retain attorneys and professors of color.

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Despite slight gains in 2021, just over four percent of all law firm partners are women of color; Black women and Latinx women each continue to represent less than one percent of all partners in U.S. law firms. Equity partners in multi-tier law firms continue to be disproportionately white men. In 2021, twenty-two percent of equity partners were women and only nine percent were people of color.

Despite these barriers and the prevalent feelings of Impostor Syndrome in Black women, as of 2021, there are twenty-eight Black female law school deans in the United States. That number increased in 2022. The first Black woman U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Ketanji Brown-Jackson, was confirmed in 2022. Black women and other women of color can overcome Impostor Syndrome by focusing on the facts. We are competent and capable. Our voices are unique, and we are a valuable asset to our employers and educational institutions. Institutions can retain Black women law students, attorneys, and professors by supporting them and setting them up for success. Providing mentors, sponsors, and proper training will build morale and women of color will be more likely to feel like they belong. Once Black women are recruited, institutions should work hard to be anti-racist by not only being diverse, but also inclusive. Give women of color more than an invitation to the dance-- invite them to dance as well. Anything less reveals itself as a half-hearted attempt to appear more racially diverse than is true. That in itself is suspicious (or, as an Among Us player would say, “sus”). So, who is the real impostor? It is not the accomplished woman of color or the first-generation college graduate. Rather, it is the institution claiming to have diversity while betraying the people it purports to include.


DeShayla M. Strachan is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law and a Black alumna of Barry University School of Law where she received her J.D. in 2017.