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"Why Black Professionals are More Prone to Imposter Syndrome".


Throughout history, black individuals have faced a long and

painful legacy of racial discrimination based purely on their appearance. From pseudo-scientific theories alleging intellectual and moral inferiority to enduring narrativ


es of inferiority, this historical backdrop has left a lasting impact on the black community. It is not uncommon to hear words like savages, incompetent and criminals being used to describe black people's behaviour.


The professional landscape is be design and necessity premised on reward for competence and performance. Once of the crucial components of competence is intelligence, which has been central to the pseudo-scientific theories that denigrated black intelligence to basic instincts, which lack complex reasoning.


Within the black professionals circles, it is often said that they need to work twice as hard because their competencies and qualifications are often up for scrutiny. Well-meaning as Affirmative Action is, black professional appointments do not escape the question of merit or quota. This further creates anxiety for black professionals who sometimes wonder about the same, regarding the legitimacy of their appointments.


This article explores the deep-rooted reasons why black professionals are more prone to experiencing Imposter Syndrome and how historical discrimination, institutionalized biases have contributed to this phenomenon.


Historical Prejudices

Historically, false scientific research perpetuated harmful stereotypes about black people, suggesting they were intellectually and morally inferior to other ethnic groups. To date many within academia and various industries are still referencing these pseudo-scientific researches as valid. Figures like Thomas Jefferson propagated narratives that labelled black individuals as having lower pain thresholds and even suggested they suffered from a mental illness called "drapetomania" when attempting to escape slavery. Such narratives fostered a perception of inadequacy among black individuals.


The National Library of Medicine published research findings that found that black patients are less likely to receive pain medication and more likely to have their pain underestimated than white patients. Link: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6587104/


Ÿ Limited Opportunities: Institutions during the era of apartheid in South Africa relegated black people to professions like teaching, police work, nursing, and blue-collar jobs, reinforcing the belief that they lacked intellectual proficiency. This created a societal and institutionalized mindset that questioned the competence and excellence of black professionals. In response, black professionals use the term "Black Excellence" to contradict the notion they too are capable of excellence since it is a basic human trait of which they're just as capable of.


"Black Excellence " also captures the psychosocial and prejudicial struggles black professionals have to overcome to achieve success.


Lack of Leadership Representation: It is well documented that in the USA and a country like South Africa where black are majority, black professionals are underrepresented in many industries. In the fields of sports, entertainment, arts, and creativity, black individuals are celebrated for their talents but are often not regarded as competent leaders, coaches, managers etc.


In 2022, The Institute for Diversity and Ethics reported that in the USA, 75% of National Football League (NFL) owners are white, while only 25% are non-white. The report also found that 72% of NFL general managers are white, while only 28% are non-white.


Contrast the above percentages with black professional athletes in the United States, according to a 2022 report by the University of Central Florida. Black athletes make up 73% of the National Basketball Association (NBA), 72% of the NFL, and 70% of the Major League Baseball (MLB).


In South Africa, recent reports on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, the largest in Africa, here are some worth noting:


- According to the IoDSA's 2023 Governance Index, black representation on JSE boards remains stagnant at 32%.

- Only 15% of CEOs of JSE listed companies are black, according to a 2023 report by PWC.

- Only 11% of executive directors of JSE listed companies are black women, according to a 2023 report by the B-BBEE Commission.


This lack of representation perpetuates the notion that black professionals are not fit for leadership positions, further fuelling Imposter Syndrome. The group that is hit the hardest seems to be black women, due to the lowest percentage of representation and negative perception of competence. In 2022, a survey of 40,000professionals from 333 companies by LeanIn, cited that:

- 20% of Black women leaders experienced “having someone say or imply that you’re not qualified,”

- 38% of Black women leaders experienced “being mistaken for someone at a lower level” and

- 55% of Black women leaders experienced “having their judgment questioned.”



These types of experiences can fuel Imposter syndrome.


Ÿ Media Bias: Media often labels similar negative behaviours by black leaders differently than their white counterparts. For instance, fraud in the private sector is labelled as "white-collar crime" while the same actions by black politicians are characterized as fraud. Such biases contribute to the perception of black individuals as less competent.


In 2017, the largest corporate fraud in South Africa was committed by Steinhoff, under the leadership of Marcus Jooste where profits were overstated by $7.4 billion USD. Steinhoff fraud was reported as corporate scandal, with more daring publication headlining it as accounting fraud.

Contrast the Steinhoff reporting with how VBS Mutual bank fraud was reported from the onset. Bank heist, notorious bank corruption, scammers, corrupt, incompetence were some of the words used in headlines. Many cried what they perceived as the difference in the reporting of similar crimes where innocent people lost their invested money.


Ÿ Anxiety in Professional Settings: Black professionals frequently face anxiety in professional settings due to their intelligence and competence being regularly questioned. There is also a factor of inequitable compensation for the same jobs. The international Bibliography of Social Science published a research paper which looked payment gap in senior position in South Africa. They found that White groups and black males dominate higher positions in the private sector and their remunerations are often higher than those of black female employees in similar positions: https://journals.co.za/doi/10.31920/2634-3622/2022/v11n1a4


On 15 November 2019, News24 published an article stating that whites in South Africa earn 3 times more than blacks. The article doesn’t go into details about what metric was use, or whether the average is across all working population or by specific comparable positions.


Ÿ Some industries are slow in promoting black professionals into leadership positions, and aging black professionals often do not progress in their careers at the same rate as their Caucasian counterparts.


When people are not compensated fairly for their contribution, it is bound to not only affect their moral, but further create doubt about the worthiness of their work. This can trigger imposter syndrome especially when the poorly pain individual has just been promoted.


Imposter Syndrome and Its Link to Historical Discrimination:


Imposter Syndrome manifests as feelings of self-doubt, inadequacy, and the fear of being exposed as a fraud despite evidence of competence. The regular questioning of black professional about the validity of their qualifications, level of proficiency and intellectual competence directly creates that doubt. It is difficult and emotionally challenging to have regularly justify what you know to be true about yourself and what you have achieved.


Here are five key points linking Imposter Syndrome with historical discrimination:


Self-Doubt: Centuries of racial discrimination have ingrained self-doubt in black individuals, making them question their abilities and achievements. It is not uncommon within corporate corridors to discuss the meritocracy of black professionals.


Ÿ Fear of Exposure: The historical narrative of inferiority has led to a fear of being exposed as incapable, contributing to Imposter Syndrome. A few institutions have enquired why black professionals seem reluctant to apply for senior position or positions of leadership. The answer lies in fear that being in the position would mean being exposed as being incompetent, even when they're qualified candidates.


Ÿ Negative Self-Talk: The perception of being less competent due to historical biases can lead to negative self-talk and undermine self-confidence, more so if such a mindset is prevalent within the environment.


Ÿ Perfectionism: Black professionals may feel the need to be perfect and not make mistakes, to prove themselves in the face of pervasive prejudice, further intensifying Imposter Syndrome.



Limited Mentorship and Representation: The scarcity of black role models in leadership positions exacerbates Imposter Syndrome by lacking visible proof of success.


To address Imposter Syndrome among black professionals, it is crucial for organisations to instil a culture of confidence in everyone. This includes promoting diversity and inclusion, providing mentorship opportunities, and actively combating biases in hiring trends and promotions. Organisations need to acknowledge their and the historical context within which they operate and have an strategic plan to dismantle systemic barriers due to biased criteria that exclude certain cultural dynamics.



When black professionals thrive and excel, they must be rewarded for fairly for their contribution. Failing which the burden of Imposter Syndrome result in higher attrition of black professionals as they seek opportunities in more accepting industries.


Jabu Zwane is a Mindset Development Specialist and Founder of The Mindset Development Institute and Success Mindset Summit. He is the Vice-president of the Professional Speakers Association of Southern Africa ( PSASA). He is a host of a Motivational segment of INX Prime TV every Monday, titled, Monday Motivation. He is a contributor to several publications on various topics and has been featured on News24.com, GQ magazine, Newsroom Africa, Power FM, Talk Radio 702, SABC Radio and many more.

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