Updated: Feb 16
12.12.18 // What did W. E. B. Du Bois mean by ‘double consciousness’? To what extent does this remain a feature of racial identities today?
W. E. B. Du Bois’ concept of ‘double consciousness’ is an expression of the internal tension experienced by members of racial minorities regarding their sense of self-worth, identity development, ambition and political participation. For Du Bois, a split sense of self exists within every member of a racial minority; one side is the internalized view of the “world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” (Du Bois, 1903), whilst the other encompasses the individual’s understanding of themselves, their heritage and “strivings” (Du Bois, 1903). Central to the idea of double consciousness is the internalization of prejudices against members of minorities to the point of a limitation of their own sense of self-worth and participation in society, through the psychological effects resulting from a sociological process (Meer, 2018).
In Du Bois’ words, double consciousness is the “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others” (Du Bois, 1903). Essentially, double consciousness develops within individuals of minorities which experience prejudice, as they gradually internalise the view of themselves which the ‘dominant’ group within society places upon them (Meer, 2014). According to Meer, societies as a whole have a “social consciousness” (Meer, 2018, pp.5), which depends on the shifting interactions between minority and majority groups. Both minority and majority groups have varying experiences, but are connected in a common social consciousness through their belonging to one society (Meer, 2018). Within the interaction between the groups, an uneven power dynamic is observable, usually characterised by a lack of recognition for the practises, struggles and issues of the minority (Meer, 2014). This power dynamic then bleeds into the very construction of minority individuals’ sense of self, creating within them a warped sense of identity, due to the internalisation of the views of the majority. Thus, a duality within the core identity of those experiencing double consciousness is formed. The power imbalance in society is translated into a power struggle within their own sense of identity, reflected in the question of which part of their “hyphenated identity”(Meer, 2018) they should accept.
Du Bois exploration into double consciousness was focussed around the specific experiences of African-Americans after the abolition of slavery in the USA, an experience which feeds strongly into ideas on the democratic participation of minorities (Meer, 2014). Although African Americans had been recognised as citizens by 1868, legal loopholes such as the grandfather clause which prevented descendants of slaves from voting continued to exclude African Americans from democratic participation well into the 20th century (Library of Congress, n.d.). This is an illustration of one significant aspect of double consciousness; members of minorities being expected to fulfil the duties of citizenship, but being prevented from reaping the rewards, or contributing to change in society in order to change unjust constructs. This historical example is also an illustration of other roots of double consciousness; a lack of recognition, representation and understanding for minority groups.
Although there are far less concrete legal boundaries contributing to minority discrimination in developed societies today, examples of lack of recognition, colour-blindness and discrimination leading to double consciousness are still very much apparent. In a report on one study on “black patriotism” in the United States (Johnson, 2018), the duality of the African-American experience comes to light especially poignantly through interviews of black people of various professions including civil servants, students and manual labourers. The most common pattern of behaviour was an intrinsic split between a love for one’s country and contempt for the “hegemonic patriotism” (Johnson, 2018) which governs it. One especially relevant contributor to this split was the recent upsurge in police brutality targeting African Americans; in 2017, black people made up 25% of the fatalities of police violence, disproportionate to their 13% slice of the population, and in 2014, less than a third of those killed were allegedly armed and violent (Sinyangwe et al., 2018). This is an example of the dichotomy between members of a racial minority rightfully being expected to follow the laws and conventions of the society in which they live, however simultaneously being subjected to systematic discrimination and even violence by a state which should be protecting all of its members equally.
The direct effects of this dichotomy can be observed in their translation into the psyche of black people in the U.S. Multiple participants explained part of being black in America as belonging to a “nation within a nation” (Johnson, 2018, pp.1978). Many of those interviewed reported feeling love for their country, however simultaneously condemning the unjust systems within it. The participation of black people in the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM) leading to increased public attention to a significant issue in contemporary American society is a perfect example of the productive application of the “gifted second sight” (Du Bois, 1903), in which members of a minority are better able to recognise the injustices within their society through first-hand experience, and to consequently bring about change. The interplay of patriotism and criticism is also connected deeply to Du Bois idea of the unification of the “two souls” (Du Bois, 1903) of black people; using double consciousness to combine both positive and negative aspects or views in order to trigger tangible change.
Another contributing factor to modern double consciousness is the increasing prevalence of “colour blindness”. Colour blindness as an idealised concept of justice is the idea that all people should be treated equally in the eyes of the law and other institutions, which includes being ‘blind’ to ethnicity, gender, faith and other such factors (Medina, 2013). In this form, the aim of institutional colour-blindness is to aid the prevention of systematic discrimination of certain groups, specifically racial minorities. Although this idea appears fair on the surface, its proponents have been faced with much criticism on the actual social implications of completely disregarding race, including allegations of colour-blindness serving the primary purpose of cleansing the white majority of the ‘guilt’ they experience as beneficiaries of the systematic and institutional racism. Additionally, it has been suggested that colour-blindness is simply a way of “distancing oneself from the social reality of racism” (Medina, 2013, pp.40) under the guise of moral and social progressiveness and superiority, and contributes to the negation or dismissal of black experiences and struggles (Johnson, 2018).
One way of viewing the concept of colour-blindness when applied to individual-level interpersonal interaction between members of racial minorities and majorities is as an extension of Du Bois’ notion of the ‘veil’, or the “one-way mirror” (Meer, 2018, pp.7). Du Bois proposed that every black person finds themselves behind a ‘veil’ in systematically racist societies; they experience and recognise injustices, and can see their position in society as well as that of their oppressors. The dominant group within the society however does not recognise or acknowledge the minority, nor the struggles they face, but see only their own, dominant image; hence the one-way mirror analogy. The minority is subsequently disregarded as not fully part of the society, and is subjected to more injustices. Applying colour-blindness to the idea of the veil lies close at hand; the idea of colour blindness does not truly perform the function which liberal views claim or hope it to perform (Medina, 2013), but rather forms part of the veil which prevents the dominant group from acknowledging the “social heritage” (Johnson, 2018, pp.1978) of the struggle experienced by black people in white spaces. It contributes to the “meta-ignorance” (Medina, 2013, pp.45), which is a feature of the ‘white’ side of the veil. This is especially critical as once ignorance has been established and injustices dismissed as insignificant when they are still very much present in society, members of the dominant group are less likely to be exposed to and thus recognise said injustices (Medina, 2013), putting blocks in the path of change and creating a shroud of a false sense of equality for those contributing to the systematic discrimination.
As is evident from the multifaceted application of the veil and its double standards, the core of double consciousness can be seen to stem from a lack of recognition, representation and understanding of minority groups. This is not only relevant in political and legal terms, but can also be observed culturally, through the contradicting expectation of cultural assimilation by minorities and, more recently in focus, the adoption and appropriation of those same minorities’ practises and cultures. One such example is that of changing female beauty standards and their relationship with the black community. Historically, black women were expected to assimilate to industrialised western standards of beauty. This included the ‘relaxing’ or straightening of hair to create a more ‘European’ texture, or the wearing of wigs or ‘weaves’ to achieve the same effect. African-American women whose skin colour and physical features more closely resembled those of white Americans or Europeans were seen as more beautiful. This was primarily because conforming to white standards of beauty provided women with more social capital, acceptance and even job opportunities (Taylor, 2016). The detrimental effect of such rigid and biased expectations on the physical appearance of a minority group will undoubtedly have had a considerably negative effect on some black women’s sense of self-esteem or self-worth regarding their natural hair, skin tone and physical features. This creates another sense of twoness; attempting to conform to the one-dimensional standard of western beauty in order to better one’s social standing, whilst simultaneously having the desire to celebrate one’s natural features.
An additionally problematic development in the debate about beauty standards and ‘race’ has developed in recent months in view of changing standards of beauty on social media. The very aesthetic features which black women were historically told as being less desirable such as braids or afros, darker skin and bigger lips (Abera, 2018) have now become the visual aspiration of many social media bloggers and models, many of which have recently been accused of “blackfishing” (Abera, 2018); making oneself appear black or mixed-race in order to gain followers and likes on social media. This points out another painful double standard; the appropriation of the very aesthetic features which were looked down upon when seen on those for which they were arguably culturally and historically significant, such as cornrows or box braids, by members of the dominant group which contributed to this very form of oppression. This is another example of a contributing factor to double consciousness; a lack of recognition for cultural contributions from which white individuals also benefit, and the simultaneous discouragement of the expression of such features by those who introduced them in the first place.
As is evident from the many current and historical examples discussed in the course of this essay, the Du Boisian double consciousness is a multifaceted phenomenon which is just as relevant in today’s society as it was in the 19th and 20th centuries. Its causes and consequences are cyclical in nature, ranging from a lack of recognition of the struggles and needs of minorities to democratic participation, systematic oppression and other forms of underlying racism, and it is expressed on both a social and individual, psychological level. Although double consciousness has countless negative implications, it has also been suggested to have a “transformative potential” (Meer, 2018, pp.13) for creating social change in those who are able to recognize injustice through the “gifted second sight” (Du Bois, 1903). Harnessing this transformative potential and involving those who, even if unconsciously, benefit from the aforementioned systematic injustices in the solution, is essential in preventing the members of racial minorities from experiencing an environment of limited opportunity and social mobility. After all, nobody should be made to feel “a stranger in [their] own house” (Du Bois, 1903).
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Johnson, M. E. (2018). The paradox of black patriotism: double consciousness. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 41(11), 1971–1989. https://doi.org/10.1080/01419870.2017.1332378
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