To add on to Em’s post about ‘invisible effort’, there’s also its converse, the dreaded ‘imposter syndrome‘. That is, when you find out that you did get a particular opportunity, you wonder if you don’t deserve it, if you somehow ‘fooled’ HR, or if the people on the admissions committee just feel bad for you and want to help, rather than respecting your abilities. And before you find out, there’s often this worry and catastrophising: for instance, thinking you failed a statistics test when you ended up getting an A. (True story! I literally thought we’d get a test returned to us with an F. Turns out it was a 96.)
It’s irrational, but when you’re used to situations more like what Em described, you have a hard time believing that people do want to give you—and your work—a fair chance, as opposed to immediately zeroing in on the stereotyped ‘perfect employee/student’ with untarnished grades or work histories.
Imposter syndrome tends to affect people who belong to a community that isn’t historically associated with culturally recognised achievement: that is, people of colour (except South and East Asians, who deal with a different set of stereotypes as the ‘model minority’), women and people with disabilities. Before our transition, we dealt with the triple threat of racism, ableism and misogyny, which all contributed to our own ‘imposter syndrome’ issues. Nowadays, ableism and racism are still factors, and while we don’t deal with direct misogyny any more, the memories are still there, and its effects still exist. (DISCLAIMER: I’m not trying to claim that trans men are ‘men lite’, but that cis men and trans men’s upbringings may be different because of the added stereotyping.)
But if you’re Black, for example, and go to a school where you experience stereotype threat (that is, teachers have a lower expectation of you because they think Black students are less academically capable), you may start internalising it and thinking that you are a poor student, even though you have the ability to excel beyond what anyone has ever predicted for you. The same applies to women, particularly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers; girls are frequently steered towards the humanities and social sciences, because as Barbie said, ‘maths is too hard’. Many women feel that they shouldn’t get involved in STEM careers, and a lot of women who are in STEM disciplines feel that they’re not as competent as men—not because they are less competent, but because of the stereotypes they’ve heard from Day One about how boys grow up to be engineers, physicists and computer programmers, while girls grow up to become schoolteachers and social workers. (There’s nothing wrong with being a schoolteacher or a social worker, of course, but society places a high premium on being a STEM employee.) People with disabilities are often marginalised too, especially those of us who had the misfortune of having spent time in special-education classes as children. If you’re in a classroom where the teacher is telling you (whether implicitly or explicitly) that your disability will make it so that you’ll never amount to anything, you’re probably not going to have the best self-image. You’ve already been considered the ‘dregs’ of education; why the hell would you want to proceed further?
This is where imposter syndrome comes from: the idea that particular groups are less capable than others, and you start internalising it and start questioning when things go right. (And when things go wrong, you feel that it’s ‘proof’ that you suck.)