Double Consciousness and W.E.B. Du Bois

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Race and diversity are key factors in what makes the United States distinct from other nations. The history of slavery and segregation and the rich melting pot of cultures today creates a diverse environment that attracts people from every corner of the world. W.E.B. Du Bois is a sociologist that focused on the race and class struggles in America. He believed that the economic disparity between blacks and whites was a large component in racial inequality and became skeptical that blacks would ever overcome racism under the authoritarian system of corporate capitalism. Du Bois was a supporter of racial integration but did not want people to assimilate or ignore their own culture to fit in. He believed in “multiculturalism”, a society where black people should not have to adhere to white culture or pass off as white, but rather create their own unique cultural contribution; this was the ultimate form of acceptance and integration (Shapiro, 2001).

W.E.B. Du Bois first coined the term “double consciousness” in 1903 in his book, The Souls of Black Folk (Kristen Does Theory: 1). This term serves to describe the disparity that African Americans feel about being black and American. The concept of “double consciousness” from Du Bois’s original dissertation has been widely discussed since its inception, yet it still operates in the same way. The concept is still reinforced today in economic, academic, and social settings. Differences between black communities and white individuals continue to exist due to the stagnation of society to recognize the massive effects of racism both big and small. Many sociologists have built off of Du Bois’s concept of “double consciousness” and researched how it causes black individuals to be vulnerable to white superiority, forcing them to compartmentalize parts of their identity thus creating mental turmoil.

“Double consciousness” characterizes the emotions that individuals feel when their identities are classified separately, making it almost impossible to have one unified identity. Du Bois’s research explored the struggle to embrace both the black identity and the American identity. The media’s ability to portray black Americans as criminals, athletes, or rappers have confined them to stereotypical societal standards (Kristin Does Theory: 2). As a result, blacks often suffer from a disfigured self image that does not truly depict their identity as an individual and as a culture. They themselves are swayed by the stereotypes that are constantly reinforced by their surroundings, driving them to start questioning their identities and lowering their self-worth to the perceptions that society pushes on them.

The significance of “double consciousness” has been prevalent in academic circles where the concept has been further researched and theorized, but in social circles “double consciousness” continues to haunt black individuals as they are hindered from expressing their full identities. While the strides made in research have been great, the remedies to the negative impact have been miniscule. “Double consciousness” is essential for those in power to better understand how to change the way negative black stereotypes are reinforced, and allow black individuals to break away from this concept that has long been used as a mode of survival.

The term “double consciousness” was first used by Du Bois to depict “a peculiar sensation… this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of [others]… One [n]ever feels his twoness,—an American, a Negro… two unreconciled strivings (pp. 16-17)” (Owens, 2005: 751). Blacks either assimilate to American culture and deny their African American background or they become immersed into African American culture and choose to alienate themselves from an American identity. “The effort required to avoid thinking about the negative stereotype uses up mental resources to perform well in the stereotyped domain” (Logel et. al, 2007: 1). The conscious effort to push away negative stereotypes makes black people more susceptible to racial inequality because it invites insecurity and disappointment, therefore perpetuating the oppressive system. Although many like to say that they are American, the moment they are faced with a racist environment, their African American background starts to conflict with their American lifestyle.

Sociologist, T. Owens Moore suggests that the “double consciousness” does not provide enough adjustment to the social environment because it can provoke mental conflict. He builds on Du Bois’s research and focuses on how the “double consciousness” can create a mental strain that builds up and eventually causes black people to lose sight of their identity. The constant brainwashing and put downs from one’s surroundings can cause individuals to fall into the stereotypes that society imposes just because it is easier to conform and please other than to defy and go through a lifelong struggle against a hegemonic system. Du Bois used the black merchant as an example of the “double consciousness”, they want to make a product that will please the market while also creating something that expresses their culture (Kristen Does Theory: 4). This example shows how black people wrestle with reconciling their ethnic identity with the culture they live in.

Race has been a prominent source of identity and community in human history; it is the largest form of stratification that continues to persist no matter what time period. Du Bois’s “essentialist” perspective on how stagnant racial identity is has been debated between many sociologists today. Most studies have found that the meaning of race is rooted in cultural beliefs and practices rather than genetic similarities, therefore black people feel cheated and degraded when others discriminate against them based on their skin color. The introduction of the “double consciousness” by Du Bois was able to garner attention to the double lives that black people have to live in order to survive in an oppressed society. His findings on the process of black assimilation to white society is consistent with the findings or more recent research by Charles Cooley and George Herbert Mead. Cooley researched the “looking glass self” and Mead used the term “generalized other”.

The “looking glass self” refers to an individual’s reaction to the social expectation of others by changing and aligning their behavior to the standards and beliefs of their community (Rawls, 2000). This concept was used in 1934 by Cooley, illustrating how one community has constantly been trying to change their mannerisms and put on a facade to conform into the role that society expects from them since the first time Du Bois noticed the phenomenon in 1903. The “looking glass self” is very similar to the concept of “double consciousness” in that they both refer to the change that individuals have to make to their behaviour in order to fit into the dominant culture. On the other hand, Mead describes the “taking the role of others” as the “generalized other”, which focuses more on how the community becomes deeply ingrained in the individual’s mind and influences all their actions and decisions with the community’s vision in mind rather than their own motivation (Lyubansky & Eidelson,, 2005: 5).

Mead attempts to answer how individuals and the general society interact with each other in order to regulate and maintain one’s individuality and social order in the community (Holdsworth & Morgan, 2007: 5). This is a more positive outlook on conforming behavior in comparison to the “double consciousness” and “looking glass self” in that it attributes the responsibility of finding one’s individuality and self worth to the social interactions that one has with others. Cooley, Du Bois, and Mead all describe the intense feeling of compulsion that black people feel to uphold racial expectations, especially when angst with persecution looming over them, which creates a barrier between their true identity and the mask that they put on for others. The opposite roles that are expected of black people creates a vulnerable mentality that can lead to a long lasting identity crisis.

The “double consciousness” was studied over a hundred years ago, yet no solution has been implemented. The black community continues to be tormented and disenfranchised from their own human rights. There will be a perpetuation of new terms, like “generalized other”, by more modern social scientists that mirror Du Bois’s “double consciousness” and bring awareness to the issue every decade or so, but what we really need to do is find a solution and start applying it. Helping black students empower themselves by using language that includes their community, going to black neighborhoods to educate them on opportunities that would typically only be presented to the privileged, creating an environment that does not belittle black people for being themselves, these are all examples of what we can do to diminish the “double consciousness”. Every step taken to ease the burden from African Americans is going to help them recognize that their value is equal to every other individual as well. The fear of being killed for simply being you is not a burden that anyone should carry, it is the responsibility as member of the society to create an environment that invites everyone to participate. Once this “double consciousness” is eradicated, America can truly be free.

Works Cited

  1. Brannon, T. N., Markus, H. R., & Taylor, V. J. (2015). “Two souls, two thoughts,” two self-schemas: Double consciousness can have positive academic consequences for African Americans. Journal of personality and social psychology, 108(4), 586.
  2. Holdsworth, C., & Morgan, D. (2007). Revisiting the Generalized Other: An Exploration. Sociology, 41(3), 401–417. https://doi.org/10.1177/0038038507076614
  3. Logel, C., Iserman, E. C., Davies, P. G., Quinn, D. M., & Spencer, S. J. (2009). The perils of double consciousness: The role of thought suppression in stereotype threat. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45(2), 299-312.
  4. Lyubansky, M., & Eidelson, R. J. (2005). Revisiting Du Bois: The Relationship Between African American Double Consciousness and Beliefs About Racial and National Group Experiences. Journal of Black Psychology, 31(1), 3–26. https://doi.org/10.1177/0095798404268289
  5. Owens Moore, T. (2005). A Fanonian Perspective on Double Consciousness. Journal of Black Studies, 35(6), 751–762. https://doi.org/10.1177/0021934704263839
  6. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://kristindoestheory.umwblogs.org/understanding-w-e-b-du-bois-concept-of-double-consciousness/
  7. Rawls, A. W. (2000). “Race” as an Interaction Order Phenomenon: W.E.B. Du Bois’s “Double Consciousness” Thesis Revisited. Sociological Theory, 18(2), 241–274. https://doi.org/10.1111/0735-2751.00097

Cite this paper

Double Consciousness and W.E.B. Du Bois. (2021, Sep 29). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/double-consciousness-and-w-e-b-du-bois/

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