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Racial-Ethnic Identity and the Imposter Phenomenon Among Ethnic Minority College Students

2679 words (11 pages) Essay in Sociology

08/02/20 Sociology Reference this

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 Research has shown that the desire to prove oneself is something that many minority students feel attending predominately white institutions (PWI; Solórzano et al., 2000). Being at these PWIs comes with a feeling of isolation which is influenced predominantly by the factor of race/ethnicity. Even those students who are successful when it comes to academics may still struggle psychologically. The experience of minority students at these institutions where their identities are increasingly on display needs to be studied. Researchers need to look at how students perceive their racial/ethnic identities and the influence this perception might have on their academics, but researchers must also be aware other factors which may be influencing their academic achievement.

One potential construct that may influence the relationship between racial/ethnic identity and academic achievement is the Imposter Phenomenon (IP). IP gives a person a feeling of unease and fakeness in the face of their intelligence (Clance & Imes, 1978). Research has shown that there is a direct relationship between racial/ethnic identity and academic achievement, but there is limited research on IP as a factor that may influence the academic achievement of minority students.

Racial-Ethnic Identity

Racial identity is a person’s beliefs about what it means to be a specific race and how it affects a person’s perception of their identity (Lige, Peteet, & Brown, 2017). Ethnic identity is the degree to which a person associates with a certain ethnic group (Phinney, 1996). In one study, researchers decided to use the term racial-ethnic identity to show that the sense of belonging a person feels towards a certain group may come from race, ethnicity, or both (C. O. Smith, Levine, E. P. Smith, Dumas, & Prinz, 2009).

Defining one’s identity is a central part of human development and being able to develop racial-ethnic identity is important for ethnic minority students (Phinney, 1989). Studies among African-American students have found that those who have a negative racial identity have been shown to have increased anxiety and feelings of inferiority (Anglin & Wades 2007). This is proof of the importance of strong racial identity and a person’s feelings of self-worth. It is assumed that a person with a weak racial identity will be less confident in themselves and therefore less confident academically. This person may be more inclined to not accept their accomplishments due to potential feelings of inferiority. Researchers also found that African-American students who had a positive perception of their racial identity reported increased feelings of academic competence and higher self-esteem (Anglin & Wade, 2007).

Racial identity is an important part of a minority student’s identity, especially the identity of a student who may be attending a PWI (Lige et al., 2016). This may suggest why the strength of one’s racial-ethnic identity can contribute to their success in college, especially in academics. 

Racial-Ethnic Identity and Academic Achievement

 D’Auguelli and Hershberger found that fewer African American students obtain their undergraduate college degrees than their white peers (1993). Obtaining an undergraduate degree is proof of successful academic achievement at the college level. This is a troubling statistic, for this shows there is a relationship between racial-ethnic identity and academic achievement.  Achieving academically is the main goal of students who are in undergraduate college. Academics achievement is the way in which students obtain scholarships, keep scholarships, and obtain new opportunities overall. One would assume a student who is achieving academically would recognize they are achieving competitively with college peers.

Many studies have found a positive correlation between racial-ethnic identity and academic performance (Smith et al., 2009). Lige and colleagues (2017) suggested that those African-American students who have a strong ethnic identity may have developed coping skills to deal with possible isolation and discrimination experienced at PWIs. Researchers did find that a strong racial identity is a predictor of high achievement (Smith et al., 2009). Ford and Harris found that African-American students who achieved academically had stronger positive racial identities than students who were underachievers (1997). This suggest that those African-American students who do not identify favorably with other African-Americans may have increased feelings of otherness and isolation in academia. This may be reflective in grades of feelings of imposter phenomenon in college.

Imposter Phenomenon

 The Imposter Phenomenon (IP; Clance & Imes, 1978) is marked as a feeling one has of intense phoniness regarding his or her intelligence. Those who experience IP believe themselves to have tricked the people in their environment into believing they are more intelligent than they appear. Those who experience IP are not actually incompetent, these are people who achieve at a high level and receive recognition for that achievement but still do not believe this recognition is warranted (Clance & Imes, 1978). Studies have found that those who are successful often attribute their success to external standards rather than personal factors (Clance & Imes, 1978). IP feelings are also associated with lower self-esteem because those high in IP will disregard their successes and instead focus on any failures they may have (Clance & Imes, 1978). IP deals with achievement in general, a seemingly broad construct.

 Ross, Stewart, Mugge, and Fultz found that IP feelings can cause individuals to have feelings of incompetence, fear of being evaluated, disengaging from situations promoting academics, or exhibiting an unhealthy desire to be successful (2001). IP is much more than a feeling of inadequacy in the face of academics, it can promote added stressors to students who, even if they prove themselves to be successful, still feel like that is not enough. This may even cause individuals to perform poorly due to anxiety and other stressors that come from IP. These students may feel like their efforts will never be enough to truly be successful because they do not believe they belong in the space which they are in. Therefore, they will be constantly trying to prove themselves, constantly building the pressure. 

Imposter Phenomenon, Racial-Ethnic Identity and Academic Achievement

 Few studies have looked at the relationship between IP and academic achievement concerning racial/ethnic minorities. This is problematic because there are no studies which consider the effects that ethnic identity may have on minority student’s IP and how those feelings might affect academic achievement.

Research has shown that ethnic identity has a negative relationship IP. In one study, researchers found that some components of racial identity predicted IP scores (Peteet et al., 2015). The feeling of “otherness” which racial-ethnic minority students feel was hypothesized to play a role in a feeling of intellectual incompetence. Within a sample of African American undergraduate students, there was a negative relationship found between imposter phenomenon and self-esteem. Some research suggests how strongly one connects to their cultural background may protect against academic threats (Ethier & Deaux, 1990).

Peteet and colleagues noted that in a previous study (Ewing, Richardson, James-Myers, & Russell, 1996), racial identity did not predict IP scores. Ewing and colleagues tested a group of black graduate students and found out they were less likely to experience IP when they had a strong Afrocentric worldview. The differing results were attributed to Peteet and colleagues’ sample being undergraduate students while Ewing and colleagues studied black graduate students. The different age groups may have affected the understanding of racial-ethnic identity.

Researchers have found that self-esteem was one of the factors that mediated the relationship between racial/ethnic identity and imposter phenomenon (Lige et al., 2017). Participants who had a strong racial identity had higher self-esteem and low levels of IP, showing that those who feel positively towards their racial identity will experience imposter phenomenon to a lower degree.

Lige and colleagues (2017) discovered students who perceived themselves as outsiders within higher education lead to increased feelings of IP. These results showed that there is a relationship between being aware of being a minority and feelings of IP. Another study found that when specific racial-ethnic minorities were compared to one another, Asian American students had higher IP compared to Latino/a and African American students (Cokley, McClain, Enciso, & Martinez, 2013). This shows that, even among minorities, feelings of IP vary.

Research has found a positive relationship between IP and academic achievement. In a study by King and Cooley (1995) high levels of IP have been linked to high GPA and increase in academic endeavors. But, in the case of academic self-concept, there is a negative relationship with IP. One study showed that IP has been linked to a decrease in academic self-concept, suggesting that students who have increased IP will have a low academic self-concept (Cokley et al., 2015). This makes sense because a person who has feelings of IP may perform well, but they do not believe this performance reflects themselves. They view their performance as a result of external factors.

Present Study

Previous literature has not looked at the relationship between ethnic identity, imposter phenomenon, and academic achievement. There is limited research looking at the relationship between imposter phenomenon and racial/ethnic identity. This relationship would be important because it could give possible cause for how to help certain students who experience increased imposter phenomenon to find ways to cope with these feelings, so they are able to succeed academically. But there has not been a studied conducted which looks at imposter phenomenon as a potential mediator between ethnic identity and academic achievement.  Achievement must be conceptualized for participants in the study to make sure academic achievement is the variable which participants look at (Peteet et al., 2015).

In the current study, the researcher hypothesizes that IP mediates the relationship between one’s ethnic identity and his or her academic achievement. Low ethnic identity will lead to high IP which will lead to low academic achievement. 



Participants in this study will be recruited from the Knox College student body via email and in-class announcements. Students who identify as any race other than White/Caucasian will be strongly encouraged to participate in this study. Students will be told the researcher is investigating the relationship between racial-ethnic identity and academic achievement. Only participants currently of undergraduate college age will be accepted to participate (ages 17-23). Subjects will choose either a piece of candy or extra credit in a specified psychology course at the college for their participation.


 Student demographic information. Participants will complete a questionnaire which includes demographic information such as race/ethnicity, gender, GPA, class standing, etc.  

 The Clance Imposter Phenomenon Scale. The Clance Imposter Phenomenon Scale (CIPS; Clance, 1985) is a 20-item instrument developed to measure the frequency of imposter feelings or academic fraud encountered by participants.Participants respond on a 5-point Likert scale (1 = “not at all true”, 2 = “rarely,” 3 = “sometimes,” 4 = “often,” and 5 = “very true”). An example item is “I often worry about not succeeding with a project or on an examination, even though others around me have considerable confidence that I will do well.” Higher scores on the scale are reflective of an increased feeling of IP.

 Multigroup Ethnic Identity Measure. The Multigroup Ethnic Identity Measure-Revised (MEIM-R; Phinney & Ong, 2007) consists of 6 items measuring the level to which a person identifies as a certain ethnic identity (e.g. “I feel strong attatchment toward my own ethnic group”). The participants respond on a 5-point Likert scale (1 = “strongly agree”, 5 = “strongly disagree”). A low score is associated with a stronger ethnic identity.


 This experiment will take place in a designated lab space in the Knox College Psychology department. Participants will first complete a consent form describing the study and the procedures. Next, participants will be assigned a participant number and complete a student information questionnaire. Then, participants will complete the Clance Imposter Scale. Next, participants will complete the Multigroup Ethnic Identity Measure. Finally, after completion of all test materials, participants will be debriefed and given desired compensation.


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