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Imposter Syndrome, Or Something Else? Historian Talks 'Discriminatory Gaslighting'


For the longest time, Christy Pichichero says she thought she was plagued with imposter syndrome, you know, that feeling that you don't belong, that you don't quite deserve your success. But this past year, she took a step back and coined a whole new phrase for what she's been experiencing. It's called discriminatory gaslighting. And Christy Pichichero, who is an author and professor of history at George Mason University, joins me now to explain. Hello.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: So first, listeners should not be surprised if they've never heard the term discriminatory gaslighting before because you literally invented it. But what does it mean?

PICHICHERO: So discriminatory gaslighting is based on this first idea of gaslighting. That word has been a bit trendy in the past couple of years. I did...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It certainly has.

PICHICHERO: Yeah. So in gaslighting, the abuser attempts to cause an individual or group to fall into self-doubt, questioning their perceptions of reality, their memory, their identity. Why do they do this? It's to build their own power and diminish resistance on the part of the victim so that the abuse can continue. So what happens in discriminatory gaslighting? Well, discriminatory gaslighting happens when dominant social groups use these psychological tricks to maintain their power and privilege by sowing self-doubt and dependence in minoritized groups.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Give me an example of this and how you experienced that in your life.

PICHICHERO: So as I was tracing back my feelings of exclusion and being an imposter, this brought me back to my senior year of high school And the events - or more particularly, the narratives - surrounding my getting into Princeton. Now, I certainly did not expect to get into an Ivy League for college. I had no dynastic or legacy claims regarding any specific schools. But I worked hard. I had strong test scores, high grades in AP courses and in my overall GPA. I had best-in-show prizes for my artwork. I was captain of the soccer team, and I was the...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You earned it.

PICHICHERO: I earned it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You earned it (laughter).

PICHICHERO: I was the lead in the musical. Yet when I got into Princeton, the shock and indignation of classmates and their families was physically palpable. I can still feel it today. Parents and students were glaring and whispering in the hallways and at school events until one white boy finally uttered the phrase to me directly through clenched teeth. You got into Princeton because you are Black.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, first of all, how painful but also how diminishing.

PICHICHERO: I sort of internalized this assumption that came from other people that no level of accomplishment by a Black girl could open the doors of the aptly named Ivory Tower, that only affirmative action could do that. And so from that point on, I really did start to doubt myself. Could Princeton have made a mistake? Perhaps I was a fraud. And these thoughts really plagued me throughout college and into my years as a professor.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you discussed how that made you feel like you had imposter syndrome. Why did you decide it was time to retire that phrase and reframe it in this way?

PICHICHERO: Well, in so many ways, this term, this concept of discriminatory gaslighting is born of this moment in history, this very difficult year. The unjustifiably violent deaths and the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor. And then the pandemic and the horrifying yet predictable disparities that made Black, Latinx and other minoritized communities the hardest-hit by COVID-19. And all of this opened new and old wounds for me as a biracial Black woman and ultimately forced me to grapple with some big questions. What does discrimination look like? It can be a knee on the neck. It can be lacking health care or the privilege of teleworking during a pandemic. All of these are forms of discrimination. And these forms were swirling around in my mind as I got ready to face a diverse classroom of students. And I had a revelation. I didn't have the imposter syndrome. I had been a victim of an insidious psychological manipulation driven by prejudice and pursued for the purposes of discrimination. And this type of manipulation needed a name.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell me, what do you want people to do with this new phrase?

PICHICHERO: I want people to explore it and to use it. This moment in history is one of challenge and opportunity. Now, in our continued reckoning, we need to courageously name and address variant types, processes and experiences of discrimination. We need to rethink our assumptions as we begin to imagine a post-pandemic society that can be shaped in new and better ways and recognizing. And naming the different tools of oppression are a first step in dismantling them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Christy Pichichero is a professor at George Mason University. Thank you very much.

PICHICHERO: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.