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Belonging Here

Professor Kevin Cokley uses charisma, performance and powerful anecdotes to explore the impostor phenomenon and other issues in African American psychology

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Professor Kevin Cokley. Photo by Marsha Miller. Graphic by Ryan Goeller.

The course is Psychology of the African American Experience, and Professor Kevin Cokley has assigned a reading from a controversial figure in black psychology, Kobi Kambon. Cokley discusses the reading for a few minutes, then announces he has a surprise. “It just so happens that Dr. Kambon is actually here. He’s outside,” Cokley says, “and he would love to engage you in some of his ideas.”

Cokley leaves the room, then reenters it, having fully assumed Kambon’s persona. Now, he engages students in full character, arguing with them and shutting them down brutally just as Kambon would if he were actually there. This adversarial engagement “helps students fine-tune their argumentation skills with a spotlight,” Cokley explains. “This is important, because if you want to challenge someone’s ideas intellectually, you’ve got to be prepared to do so on a basis of logic and not just emotion.”

Students never know quite what they’ll find when they arrive in Cokley’s classroom. On another day, he addresses an unsuspecting student: “Bill, your mama has a weight problem — she can’t wait to eat.” Murmurs, laughs and shocked looks between students ensue, and the insults might go on for several minutes. But this leads into a deeper discussion of this predominantly black male practice of “playing the dozens,” better known as “your mama” jokes. “With young black males, it teaches you to be quick witted. It teaches you not to respond in anger. If you respond with anger, you lose. You have to be sharp intellectually.” 

Cokley, who this year was inducted into UT’s Academy of Distinguished Teachers, describes his teaching style as “charismatic,” “high energy,” and “performative.” “Where I can, I try to make it more engaging because I know that’s what helps encode certain ideas and concepts in my students’ minds,” he says. He is a faculty member in the Department of Educational Psychology and the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies. Additionally, he directs UT’s Institute for Urban Policy Research & Analysis.

The oldest of five children, Cokley grew up in Pilot Mountain, North Carolina. (Fans of “The Andy Griffith Show” will remember it as neighboring “Mount Pilot.”) Both of his parents attended two-year colleges and worked blue-collar jobs, his father in the tobacco industry, his mother in textiles. “I guess that makes me first-generation, since I was first in my family to graduate from a four-year college,” he says.  

“For as long as I can remember, I’ve been interested in black issues,” Cokley recalls. Initially, he intended to work in college admissions with students of color. But as he worked on a master’s degree toward that end, he realized he wanted to research the issues he was learning about. In 1998, he earned a Ph.D. in counseling psychology from Georgia State University.

Cokley says much of his research has challenged the notion that African American students are anti-intellectual, and it reexamines the impact of racial and ethnic identity and gender on academic achievement. His dissertation compared African Americans attending predominantly white universities with those attending predominantly black universities. In the first group, he found that grades were the most important factor in how they felt about themselves as students. In the second group, the quality of student-faculty interactions was the most important. 

One particular area of interest explores the “impostor phenomenon.” “It’s the idea that people who are very competent, accomplished and intelligent nevertheless feel like intellectual frauds. They feel that in spite of all they have achieved — their academic or professional accomplishments — they have pulled the wool over people’s eyes, that they’re not nearly as intelligent and put together as they come across to other people.” 

The phenomenon was first noted in the 1970s in a study of predominantly white women. “When I came across this research, I was surprised to find that very little had been done with respect to the experiences of students of color on predominantly white campuses. Anyone has the potential to feel like an impostor. For white students, it really is about not feeling smart enough, good enough etc. However, with students of color, impostor feelings often are linked to their identities as Latinx, African American, Asian American, etc.” 

One prime example he uses is that of Maya Angelou, who had published seven critically acclaimed autobiographies and each time, he says, thought, “‘Uh-oh, they’re going to find me out.’ You’re Maya friggin’ Angelou!” he laughs. His 2013 study on the impostor phenomenon is his most high-profile work to date, cited in stories about Michelle Obama and Oscar-winner Viola Davis. 

Feelings of impostorism are linked to anxiety and depression, so he says, “When I give talks about the impostor phenomenon, I always end with solutions — what can we do about it?” He lists three things: “For all students, but especially students of color who are experiencing impostorism, it really becomes important that you connect with other students who are feeling the same way so you can have this shared experience. Second, as a psychologist, I will always encourage people to seek mental health support, particularly when these feelings become debilitating or bleed into more serious mental health outcomes. And third, because we have a tendency to minimize the good things that we do, you should be very intentional about documenting all your successes. You did well on a test? A project? Document that. Then, every week or month, go back and look at what you’ve done.”

UT students have certainly benefited from Cokley’s time at Texas, but he has benefitted too. Last year, students who had won a Presidential Award for Global Learning for their proposal to study colorism and the use of skin-bleaching products in Ghana approached him to be one of their faculty sponsors. “Colorism is a deeply rooted issue that’s fairly universal across many different cultures as a preference for lighter skin,” he explains. 

But for Cokley, traveling with the students to Ghana became about more than being a faculty mentor. “It was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. I’ve taught about Africa and its significance to African Americans, but I had never been to Africa.

“The most significant experience for me was going to the slave castles,” he says. “I teach about the slave castles every time I teach Psychology of the African American Experience — what it was like for enslaved Africans before they were placed on ships, how horrific that experience was.” 

Finally going to Africa and touring these slave castles was “one of the most profound experiences I have ever had,” he recalls. “Being in one of the dungeons within the castle where the enslaved Africans were held, you could still smell the stench of human excrement and vomit caked in the walls and floors hundreds of years after the fact. It was a really emotionally powerful experience.” 

Though Africa may be close to his heart, fortunately for Texas students, he has put down roots in Austin. He is married to Germine Awad, a UT professor of educational psychology and an Egyptian American who studies prejudice and racism with a focus on Arab Americans and African Americans. Together they have a 6-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old son, whom Cokley calls “a die-hard Longhorns fan.” “It would be very difficult to leave this place for that reason,” he chuckles. 

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