“Stop acting white.”
This is a typical response from African Americans if one of their peers happens to excel in education, or simply decides to read a book. This notion insinuates the betrayal and abandonment of their cultural background, and it inadvertently develops a racial consciousness that separates the perceived characteristics of Caucasians from an African collective. This perception embodies a double consciousness in society where a person is split between two cultures: a black one and a white one.
According to sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois, double consciousness is the internal conflict experienced by African Americans living in a structurally racist society. In The Souls of Black Folk, he explains it as a “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”
The societal conditions in America cause black people to see themselves through the perspective of the dominant societal force: white people. This measuring tape of white America ultimately causes black people to examine their own identity within an unequal system. This society, which favors the white majority, eventually leads to blacks to be marginalized, or at best, to fit in with a tempered voice and maintain the established social construct.
Du Bois describes this identity crisis as a “two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” This mindset was formed out of a post-Reconstruction era in America where African Americans experienced widespread social injustices in the late 19th and early 20th century. With a white majority overseeing the behavior of a black minority, the existing social divide was reminiscent of slavery, resulting in the subsequent American cultural assimilation and a black tempered voice.
Despite the passage of time, this double consciousness has taken shape in the education system of the present. To black people, education has become affiliated as a white concept that betrays their cultural heritage, and as a result, many choose to actively rebel against it. This response is an integral factor to the achievement gap in education between blacks and their white counterparts. The idea that being white is synonymous to being educated causes education to be stigmatized in black communities, and this anti-intellectualism becomes a destructive force that leads to many societal problems, like low graduation rates of black students across America.
However, on the opposite side of the educational spectrum, black students who excel, especially in schools where they are the ethnic minority, deal with the expectation that they have to live up to a white societal standard. They also have the burden of representing their race. IMSA history teacher Dr. Lee Eysturlid comments that a “tiny black population of students in a mostly or an all-white school would have to live up to a certain persona that you’re essentially a white person, but in a different format.”
While this expectation holds true for black students in an educational setting like IMSA, it applies to social contexts as well. The double consciousness ultimately limits a black person’s social freedom because they must consider the repercussions of their actions not on a moral standard, but on a racial basis.
“Double consciousness is something I must deal with as a black male at IMSA and in the professional world,” comments IMSA student Eric Hersey (’18). “One double consciousness dilemma I constantly face is wearing the hood on a hoodie. The hood is a useful article of clothing for protecting against rain, sun, or snow but when I am in public, I am very reluctant to put it on. From stereotypes I’ve seen in the media to my own parents warning me not to wear a hood in public because of my skin color, the double consciousness determines one’s actions and decisions as a person of color and is an unfortunate necessity for black people in general.”
Double consciousness dictates many facets of life for African Americans everywhere. This widespread social temperance and intellectual astigmatism afflicts all people of color and is still the reality for many of us today. A society that is still systemically and culturally racist requires a deconstruction of prejudice and stereotypes to eliminate this feeling of double consciousness that African Americans and other groups face. However, it also needs individuals of those groups to dismantle the deep-seated negative views among their peers in order to better their outlook on life.