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This is the third post in a 4-part series about impostor syndrome (Part 1, Part 2). Check back tomorrow for the conclusion!

Self-Deportation

When a department admits students from "minority groups" but doesn't do anything to address impostor syndrome, how different is that from categorically rejecting everyone who isn't a het cis able-bodied white man from an middle- to upper-class background? This way, the administration gets to boost their diversity numbers and gets plausible deniability when those students (as it were) "self-deport". "We tried to admit women and students of color, but they just didn't like it here! They must just not be interested in science." As if interests are developed in social isolation and don't depend on a network of social support telling you -- implicitly, usually -- that you belong. It's not as if everyone who's in a minority group experiences impostor syndrome, but the experience of someone who gets treated like they belong and someone who doesn't is so different that I don't think it's too strong to say "you might as well just reject everyone". I also don't mean to say that diversity decisions always get made in bad faith, but I've had some personal experiences that make it difficult for me to believe that there is any genuine institutional commitment to diversity at the universities I've attended.

In my experience, it seems that being told you're welcome and that you belong is sort of like water if you're a fish: when you have it, you don't notice it. It's only when these things are absent that you do notice. I blamed myself for their absence, because that's what I've always been taught to do. I attributed my failure at Berkeley to my own incompetence, and it didn't occur to me until years later to think about how my environment contributed to my failure to thrive there. I got ignored. The other grad students in my group and cohort socialized with each other; I just got left out. Since I was being perceived as female at the time, I think this had something to do with the fact that I was perceived as not a peer (because I wasn't male) and not sexually available (since I was married) -- therefore, to most of my fellow students, I was useless.

I can point to a few incidents that that reinforce this. I went to lunch with my officemates and one of them (not a grad student, but a research programmer who worked for my advisor), said, "I hope your husband doesn't mind that I'm taking you out to lunch." Ten years later, I still remember that. I'm sure he wouldn't have said to a grad student who he perceived as male who was married, "I hope your wife doesn't mind that I'm taking you out to lunch." But there you have it -- my difference had to be pointed out at any possible occasion. During a research group retreat, I'd been planning to share a hotel room with another one of my officemates, a guy -- we were both fine with it, and during the previous year's retreat, we had shared with no problems -- and then one of the professors in my group interfered and insisted that I have my own room, despite my protests. Another time, one of my officemates mentioned they'd been playing video games at someone's house, but didn't invite me because they'd assumed I wouldn't be interested in killing things. Each of these incidents would have meant very little on its own, but like all microaggressions, they have a cumulative effect. When people point out that you're different all the time, you start to believe it. And I doubt that coming out as genderqueer (which was what I identified as at the time, basically only in LiveJournal posts, though) would have helped. The one time when I tried to explain to someone during coffee hour that I didn't see myself as male or female, I just got blank stares.

Being cut off from everyone else contributed to my impostor syndrome. I'd go to talks and think I was the only one who didn't understand them, because people didn't usually talk to me, so I never got a chance to develop friendships with other grad students that would give me a chance to find out that not everyone else understood, either. Because of my lack of meaningful relationships with other grad students, I didn't pick up on tacit knowledge, like "it's actually worthwhile to study for the prelim" -- I actually had no idea about that, and wouldn't have asked a professor since that would seem disrespectful. When you're a social outcast, you only get to see other people's public faces -- you never get to see how much doubt and fear everyone hides behind their veneer of confidence. Especially for CS dudes, that veneer of confidence is often overconfidence, which makes it even worse if you're comparing yourself to others and you assume that the overconfidence reflects genuine competence. But it's harder for some people to form the relationships that -- among other things -- engender inside knowledge about what's behind the mask. The reasons why some people can get entry into friendship networks and others can't are political.

It's possible that I also isolated myself, to some extent. Not that I necessarily had a choice about it. For me, there was a feedback loop between difficulties with work and social isolation. If my project wasn't going well, I would feel ashamed of that and avoid my advisor, officemates, other students, and so on. Being isolated made me feel worse, which made it harder to focus on work. People who weren't afraid of being unmasked as an impostor would, presumably, go to other people for support when work was going badly, either to talk through their ideas or just to vent. But I was always afraid to admit that anything was hard for me.

I was extra-isolated because of my gender variance. You might have been asking at this point: didn't Berkeley have a group for women in computer science? Indeed, they did. But when I went to those group meetings, I felt like I didn't belong because I wasn't a femme cis woman and didn't talk about weddings and babies. I wasn't welcome in this male-dominated department because I was perceived as non-male, but I also didn't feel like I belonged when i went into the one space that I thought was for people like me, either.

One time, in comments on someone's LiveJournal post, a guy told me that if I felt isolated at Berkeley, then something must be wrong with me. At the time, I believed him. I honestly believed that with all of the intellectual resources at Berkeley, it was my fault for not taking advantage of them. For me, that's one of the lasting consequences of impostor syndrome: feeling guilty about "missing" or "wasting" opportunities that my anxiety stopped me from using. There's also feeling like I'm self-absorbed because what was basically about my worries about how other people saw me stopped me from doing productive work and playing well with others. That feeling of guilt just creates a feedback loop with the impostor syndrome itself -- reinforcing that I'm not like those other people who are good at doing things and don't let the guilt and anxiety stop them.

Revenge of the Nerds?

The stereotypical geek story is that of a white cis boy who's smart, wears glasses, gets bullied in school for being skinny and weak and interested in math and science, but makes good by going to college, studying hard, and eventually making a lot of money and achieving higher social status than his former bullies (who are probably working at a gas station for the rest of their lives or something). I'm not sure how often it really happens this way. But geeks, especially male geeks, certainly talk a lot about rejecting hierarchies that are based on physical prowess, athleticism, beauty, putting effort into one's appearance, and other traits that they deem to be shallow and below them.

So instead... they adopt a hierarchy that's based on how "smart" you are, or can convince others you are, but that otherwise shares many of the same oppressive characteristics as any other social hierarchy. Is this better? Many geeks would say yes, because smart people are better than strong or pretty people -- I guess? So isn't the real answer they're giving "yes, because I'm smart but I'm not strong"? How is that an improvement? Why don't we try to tear down hierarchies of dominance rather than replacing one oppressive social order with another?

Of course, it's not like only geeks value intelligence. People outside the ivory tower consider "stupid" an insult, too. In whose interests is it to keep middle-class people anxious about how smart they are? While impostor syndrome seems to apply mainly to people coming from minority groups and trying to become socially, professionally, and/or intellectually mobile, it's not solely confined to people in minority groups. Moreover, the over-valuation of being "smart" or "intelligent" in some singular way is widespread within the middle class; it seems to be shared by people who don't suffer from impostor syndrome as such. Perhaps it's just my personal biases, but the overwhelming pressure to show that one is "smart" in order to be accepted seems particularly strong in groups of people who do science, technology, math, and engineering. Some people in these groups even describe themselves as "sapiosexual": finding intelligence attractive (though I'm sure that for many of these people, many of whom are heterosexual men, intelligence is even more attractive when it's in a thin, conventionally attractive, cissexual, female package).

In a world that doesn't offer a whole lot else for me to value myself by -- I'm not a cis man, not thin or strong or athletic, not conventionally attractive, not wealthy -- I have spent a lot of time trying to prove -- to myself and others -- that I'm smart. I've played this game and not realized it was stacked against me. In college, I belonged to a group of friends that chalked "we're smarter than you are!" on a wall in an underground tunnel on campus. (Some of these people are still close friends to me, but hopefully we've all grown and changed since then.) At the time, I didn't see any problem with that. In fact, anytime anyone talked about things like not using "stupid" as an insult, I felt afraid and hostile -- if you took the one thing away from me ("smartness") that I thought I could use as an advantage in the social ladder, what would I have left? (Well, being white, but I wasn't very aware of that at the time either.)

To me, dividing people into "smart" and "stupid" is just another of example of the dualistic thinking that seems so popular among my peers. Like how the NRA divides people into "good people" and "bad people" so they can feel sure they'll never use their guns to hurt somebody (who didn't have it coming), the "smart"/"stupid" binary at least appears to lend confidence that you, yourself are on the right side of it. And if which one you are gets determined at birth, all the effort in the world makes no difference. So is it any wonder so many people don't want to put in the effort to be either good or smart, except when there's an external reward? Classes that people get sorted into at birth and are believed to be immutable seem to be quite useful for maintaining exploitive social hierarchies.

I think that in a society with increasingly unequal distribution of wealth, feelings of being smarter or more intelligent than others give middle-class people something to value in themselves so that they're less likely to question the wealth and power held by upper-class people. When comparing what you have to what the 1% has, it might be comforting to say to yourself, "At least I'm not one of those stupid people who walks around Wal-Mart drinking a big soda." And if you feel the need to prove how smart you are all the time, maybe you'll work more hours at your software engineering job, because it's not enough just to be good -- you have to be better than somebody else. Never mind that someone who doesn't work as hard as you may be reaping most of the benefit from your effort, never mind that as much power as you feel your ability to write code gives you, you're probably just "doing the bullies' homework" (to borrow Leonard Pierce's phrase). The warm, fuzzy feeling of being smarter than somebody else makes up for it, right?

The expectation -- seen in startups as well as in tenure-track faculty jobs -- of working long hours seems part of this phenomenon too. The evidence shows that people don't actually produce more work when they work longer hours, but maybe it's not really about productivity. Working long hours "proves your commitment" and thus increases your social status, whether or not there's any concrete improvement in outcomes. Of course, you don't actually have to work long hours for this to succeed -- you just have to get people to believe you do. Regardless, if our focus was cooperation rather than competition for resources believed to be scarce, we could just have fun doing great stuff and relax. As much as some people talk about a "post-scarcity economy", without addressing fundamental inequalities, the surpluses are just going to keep going to the wealthy.

To be continued...

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tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
Tim Chevalier

July 2014

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