UNDERSTANDING SKIP GATES – Part 1: Impostor syndrome

As a prelude to some serious review of the work of Skip Gates it is reasonable to evaluate the sources of dissonance. Generally speaking I would disregard attempts at apparent pop psychology but in this case one is seeking a basis for understanding rather criticism and a basis for linking apparently unrelated aspects fo a persons work and personality. To this extent the allegation of impostor syndrome should not be seen as a derogatory slur but a suggestion for investigatory if not partially exculpatory review. Its usefulness can be determined by how much it explains, the questions for further enquiry it raises  and how much new insights it generates. There is an interesting article by Sakulku on this topic. (Note 1)

Much of the evidence is in public domain but some key features are not. 

Skip Gates did not get into Yale by direct competitive entry but was accepted as a transfer on affirmative action from a non elite university. Though he obtained a very prestigious scholarship to Clare College, Cambridge he did not at the time personally believe he was  capable of getting into Yale on color-blind terms. The Mellon Fellowship is highly competitive and prestigious but Skip believed he was an ‘affirmative action’ candidate. This was  made abundantly clear to me when his fellow ‘white’ Americans told me in some amazement that Skip had with great unease asked them if the Africans at Cambridge university were also ‘affirmative action’ candidates.

There were many Africans at Cambridge at the time and we were probably more at ease than he was. Take Anthony Appiah and myself: we had gone to private schools in England, had competed all our lives against our colleagues and had always been in the  Oxbridge ‘hopefuls’. Since many of our colleagues who scored less well than we did at school also obtained entry to Oxbridge the scope for impostor syndrome was not there. Further, many of the other Africans who had not been educated throughout  in England fell into two camps. There were those whose parents had gone to Oxbridge and were brought up with that expectation i.e. ‘ you are the brightest of my children I expect you to go to Oxbridge as I did’. Then there were those who had been stars all through their school days and won scholarships to Oxbridge in open competition against English students – Tosan Rewane is an example. Some, the lucky few, qualified on both counts.

At the time I was quite offended that Skip should think I was an affirmative action candidate. But this is about Skip.

What did the impostor syndrome do to Skip? I recall talking to him about it when he confessed his feelings of being unworthy, trying to assure him that he had no grounds for such a view. I told him he was accepted by the brightest students in Cambridge as one of them  which was not in the gift of any affirmative action department. To be accepted by the top  students at Cambridge as one of them was a priceless honour  (mercilessly  evaluated) which Skip never acknowledged or recognised within himself.

Skip was an obvious ‘hustler’ but extremely charming at it. However his hustle was transparent. He had been accepted as the first Black member of an exclusive Yale sorority  and he had reciprocated and done his ‘duty’ by some very exclusive but far seeing and ambitious young girls to give them future political cover – ‘I had a Black boy friend when I was at Yale  so I am not a concealed racist despite my privileged background’. It never occurred to Skip that the only difference between his hustle  and those of other elite kids was that his never involved money and was not subtle. Other elite Americans would host absurdly expensive parties with the most beautiful girls in attendance. This was simply a hustle to get to know the most important young men in Cambridge at the time and get them into their address book. I recall meeting many Americans who are now household names in the US. It was simply a different class hustle.

Skip originally wanted to study philosophy but when he was told sight unseen that he would not get a first class he refused to challenge it – despite my urging. I suspect this was due to his impostor syndrome. He may have felt he had been ‘caught out’.

When his original PhD was rejected by Cambridge and Yale stepped in to save the day (this is as told to me by Skip himself) this would have reinforced his impostor syndrome. It is then not surprising that his first career foray afterwards was to seek a career in law and only when funds were not available did he return to academia.

It is possible that the rejection of his PhD did untold damage to his self esteem and led to his belief that he could  not go head to head against the best and brightest of the ‘white’ establishment. 

While I have serious reservations about Skip’s work, that he is equal to his Yale and Harvard colleagues is beyond question. His failings in my opinion are due to moral choices. If he fails it is not because he could not have done better. If he lacks any sense of his own destiny then it is because of cowardice. Paul Robeson, W E B Dubois, Martin L King, et al knew the price that has to be paid for destiny. My allegation is that Skip chose not to pay it. He declined the role destiny had  set for him and chose an easier life. This was  a moral choice independent of impostor syndrome but which reinforces impostor syndrome. 

How this ‘impostor syndrome’ may have affected Skip’s views and attitude to top scholars and the academic consensus will be explored later. My suspicion is that what many have seen as a self hating  syndrome may be better explained as a consequence of impostor syndrome being extended to all his African American colleagues. If he Skip Gates is amongst the best and he is an impostor then all African Americans must be impostors and inadequate, and it is only the generosity of ‘good white people’ that has allowed him to be in ‘high office’.


  1. Sakulku, J. (1) “The Impostor Phenomenon”, The Journal of Behavioral Science, 6(1), pp. 75-97. doi: 10.14456/ijbs.2011.6.  (https://so06.tci-thaijo.org/index.php/IJBS/article/view/521)